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Your wellbeing: living with a broken middle

Revd Chris McDermott, Lead Chaplain for the University of Sussex

The theme of ‘wellbeing’ is susceptible to being one of those self-indulgent subjects: it sometimes becomes a mere question of ‘my wellbeing’, what makes me feel good about life and myself.

Of course, ‘my’ wellbeing is important. It does me no good – nor anyone else – for me to go around feeling bad about myself, rent with anxieties or chronic physical pain or discomfort. Yet ultimately my sense of wellbeing is embedded in a social fabric: in interconnects with you and another human being and also with those various structures that shape our lives together be they political, cultural, social or at a local institutional level.

As of this moment cities across the USA and elsewhere are being rocked with what I hope is the long overdue sea change in awareness of the degree to which black people suffer at the hands of institutional racism in the wake of the extra-judicial murder of George Floyd. George Floyd’s and other examples of fatalities and harm done to people over a long period of time (centuries, actually) are registering in the minds and hearts of communities across various ambits of race and culture.

At the same time I think the rising levels of awareness are also provoking defensiveness - see the ‘All Lives Matter’ kinds of ripostes to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Polarised reactions such as police walkouts in protest at colleagues facing legal and judicial consequences, or the angry actions of burning police stations, shops and businesses in neighbourhoods that can ill afford it. All this after changes here and in the USA that have witnessed the deepening of polarised politics over the past four years.

What does wellbeing look like in this landscape of institutional turmoil? At the moment in my own research I am quite enjoying getting to grips with the work of Gillian Rose, formerly an academic at Sussex who sadly died well before her time - an odd turn phrase since our deaths are always at our time, like it or not. She would describe herself as a political philosopher and social theorist. Forget for a moment the academics regarding her influences – Adorno, Hegel etc. – and consider simply how her thinking offers a practical shape to our engagement with the polarities we experience in our relationships at institutional and interpersonal levels.

Constructive engagement and relationship with others at its core will always involve ‘recognition’. In this instance, re-cognition always implies that my first take (or cognition) on a matter, a person, or a conflict, is always a mis-cognition and requires a re-cognition. This is not only a matter of re-cognising the other’s claim but also includes the recognition of any complicity I might have had in contributing to the conflict at hand, giving way to another re-cognition. Ideally the process is mutual with both sides offering a series of re-cognitions – mis(re)cognitions – re-cognitions but in reality may be asymmetrical, especially where one side has born a disproportionate degree of hurt. It is a listening process in which there is not haste to rush to final conclusions, characterised by a willingness to sit with conflict and an absence for the time being of reconciliation – a space Rose describes as ‘the broken middle’.

Ultimately it is our willingness to sit in ‘the broken middle’ – whether in an explicitly political context or in the context of our interpersonal relationships and conflicts – with patience and a degree of humility if we are to progress in the quality of our individual and communal wellbeing. It will not be a matter of working toward ideal solutions but living, for the time being, toward ‘good enough’ solutions that will need to be overcome as we keep channels and conversations open.

Our wellbeing is more than just navel gazing: it is also essentially social and entails a willingness to be uncomfortable, ‘own our stuff’, recognise the claims of others’ experience and live with tensions in space of ‘the broken middle’.

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By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Friday, 19 June 2020

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