Sunday, 9 August 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Besieged

This doesn’t strike me as an ordinary word.  If someone is besieged it sounds as if they are enduring a state of emergency and need rescuing - as a matter of urgency.  I’m not sure that I agree with what David Whyte says in his book, Consolations, that this is how most people feel most of the time.  If he’s right then most people must be in state of nervous exhaustion and close to breaking point. 

I do agree that when I feel like this that it’s my own deliberate fault; that I am responsible - if not for the extenuating circumstances, than for my response.  This sound like a tough call, but I do believe we bear a deal of responsibility for how we react to any given situation.  It may not be easy, but we always have choices.

I am heartened to note that Whyte recognises that being besieged doesn’t necessarily refer to living in a war zone; that the fall out from creative ‘success’ can be just as onerous. It can set up a perceived demand; to not only repeat the performance, but to do better, next time.

But perception is the operative word in this context.  If we perceive we are besieged then, doubtless, we are.

Even relatively laid back, or retired people, have responsibilities and commitments.  And even runaways have their problems: if we choose to go into the desert (literally or metaphorically) we are - at the very least - obliged to provide ourselves with food, warmth and shelter.  There is no escape: if we have something that the world wants - be it a fortune or wisdom – we are unlikely to be left to our own devices for very long.  We may consider that we are of no interest at all (that we have nothing to give), but there will always be the curious or the concerned.  Further, we live in a state of flux; the world does not stop just because we want it to!

As Whyte says, we all of us define ourselves in relation to the society in which we live; even if we consider that we have made a choice to live outside it. We all define ourselves in terms of other people. 

So, I take it as read that if you are reading this that you, too, are a member of a society (!) And I also take it as read that your life is a kind of juggling act; that your challenge is living in the midst of commitments – be they to yourself, or to others – without feeling beset. 

In this essay I confess Whyte confounds me somewhat, but if I read him correctly he suggests that we start the day with a Not to Do List and thereby to set aside a moment of undoing and silence to create a foundation of freedom, from which we can re-imagine or re-see ourselves from outside the margins of a time-bound world.  We let go, therefore before we grasp the challenges of the day. Christians would say, “Let go, and let God,” 

One of the great Christian apologists of the last century, C.S. Lewis, made the point that “The gates of Hell are locked from the inside.  This line is part of the description of C. S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce: a work of theological fantasy in which he reflects on the Christian conception of heaven and hell.  The entire text is: 
"What if anyone in Hell could take a bus trip to Heaven and stay there forever if they wanted to?  In The Great Divorce C. S. Lewis again employs his formidable talent for fable and allegory. The writer finds himself in Hell boarding a bus bound for Heaven. The amazing opportunity is that anyone who wants to stay in Heaven, can. This is the starting point for an extraordinary meditation upon good and evil, grace and judgment. Lewis’s revolutionary idea is the discovery that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. In Lewis’s own words, “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell."
Many of you are not theists, but you will get the gist.  If we are to lift the siege we must adjust our relationship with ourselves and our besiegers; and to be concerned less with what lies beyond the walls - where we fondly imagine our freedom lies.  If we want to experience true freedom we must adjust our relationship with the people and the concerns that we feel beset us.  We can do this if we are rooted in a sense of who we really are.  If we able to reflect – and not to react - we can learn to love ourselves and others, and in so doing become enabled to love the part we must play in our immediate  world.  Only then will, what we perceive as, walls or barriers fall away.


  1. I like the way you're wrestling (good-heartedly) with David Whyte's interpretations of these words. Perception is everything, what we see is what we get. I read the C.S. Lewis book years ago and it profoundly changed the way I think of heaven and hell, that they're of our own making. Maybe that time of aloneness at the beginning of each day is meant to be a reminder that we always have a choice as to whether we are beset or not. Lewis suggests as much too.

    1. Thank you Kim. I never tire of reading C.S. Lewis, who changed my life when I read this passage.

      “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

      Another take on besieged!