Let’s have a post about words this time. Specifically, the words we allow to direct our lives and actions, on a cultural, but especially on a personal level.
If, like me, you grew up in a Judaeo-Christian society, you probably had at least a passing acquaintance with the Ten Commandments. (If your memory needs refreshing, they’re at Exodus 20: 1-17. Or there’s a rundown of them here.)
These rules, post-Reformation, used to be posted on church walls as a reminder to the congregation as to how they should live. Some modern Christians in the US have suggested that posting them in public places would be a good way to improve the morals of our culture. That makes quite a lot of assumptions: that nobody in our culture already has any morality of their own; that morality is synonymous with religion, and in particular this religion; and that everyone understands what these rules actually mean and how to apply them.
Some American Christians insist that the meaning of the Commandments hasn’t changed since they were originally hand-carved by God on the stone tablets. (Or at least since the era of their Puritan ancestors…which, let’s not forget, was also the era of The Scarlet Letter and the Salem witch trials). That should give the rest of us pause, considering that in Moses’ time, killing and stealing appear to have been perfectly OK if the lives and property concerned belonged to pagan foreigners, as much of the rest of the Old Testament makes pretty clear. (Q: And babies? A: A: And fetuses.. Pro-lifers tend to gloss over that one.) And adultery was basically the spoiling of one man’s property by another man. (Modern abstinence education does, in fact, still take a rather similar view of female ‘purity’. Ugh.)
No surprise that over the centuries, these rules have gathered their share of commentary and critique – not least from the Jews themselves. Jesus, and his contemporary, Rabbi Hillel, both summed them up in a much simpler, yet broader rule – which wasn’t new even back then, but hey, we humans are stubborn creatures, and we need love to whack us upside the head in as many times and places as possible. And later on, as we gained a deeper collective understanding of human diversity and rights, other people have also had a go at a rewrite. You can see some of their attempts (and links to much more on the history of, and issues surrounding, the Commandments) here.
In Judaism, taking any text from the Torah and reframing it – expressing it in different ways to bring out various layers of meaning – is known as midrash. It’s a useful exercise that isn’t limited to Jews, or to the Torah, or even to religious texts – think of the creative ways feminist writers have retold some of the old fairy tales that formed the mental wallpaper of our childhood. And it’s something you can do with any supposedly established ‘truth’ in your own life.
The art therapist Merle Jordan suggested that you take a look at your own destructive Decalogue. Some of the personal rules we were raised with, or learned later, served us well, but more likely than not, some of them harmed us, and may still be doing that on a subconscious level. Nature abhors a vacuum, and you need to make positive substitutions for those rules if you’re to really overcome their influence.
So first, try making a list of some of the rules you absorbed earlier in life. These may have been from home (as mine are), your school, or perhaps even later, from your work or social circle. There’ll have been many, but ten is actually a good, manageable number to deal with. Remember that they may not even have been expressed as rules in a formal way – but you’ll know they were, from what happened when you transgressed them,
The Magpie casts her mind back, and comes up with the following:
1. Our ways of acting and thinking are the only valid ones, and anyone who acts and thinks differently is weird and wrong.
2. As a woman, you are second best to men, and must always put them and their needs first, because having men like you is the only thing that validates you as a woman.
3. Nothing matters more than appearance, and you must make improving your looks your main goal in life.
4. You must work hard in a job you hate to get anywhere, and if you don’t succeed, it means you’re just lazy.
5. You must obey authority without question.
6. Art has no real value, and artists are all lazy, dirty and drug-addicted.
7. Sex is nasty and unmentionable, and bodies are disgusting and not to be exposed – especially fat bodies.
8. Truth always hurts, and anyone who tells you anything nice is lying.
9. Books are a waste of time, and you can’t trust anything you read.
10. Never wash your dirty linen in public.
Eew. Makes me want to run off and worship the Golden Calf – or some such similar debauchery – just reading those. Your old rules may have been, like mine, more honoured in the breach than in the observance. But they may still rise up and strike you with sudden guilt. And when you’ve been smitten about the head, and heart, with stony admonitions like these, you need to do more than just turn your back on them.
So now, look at those rules and how you acted in accordance with them. How did it make you feel, and what decisions did you make from that place? Now, how would you like to feel and act in that area? Try to reshape each ‘Commandment’ from the imperative of a ‘Thou shalt not’ – because nobody’s ordering you how to act now – into an affirmation of the attitude you now choose for yourself.
Here are my new versions:
1. I choose to welcome alternative ways of thinking and being.
2. I choose to affirm women and men as equals in creating a sane world.
3. I choose to value all people for their myself and other people for the deeper qualities of our minds and spirits.
4. I choose to support everyone’s right to fulfilling work.
5. I choose to claim my own power and follow my own path.
6. I choose to celebrate art and artists as holy, healing and powerful.
7. I choose to delight in all kinds of bodies and in sacred, life-affirming pleasure.
8. I choose to honour and accept both truth and compassion.
9. I choose to learn from and enjoy the written word.
10. I choose to share feelings when I need to.
You might like to do something special with your own list – write them out on decorated cards, calligraph a poster, stitch a sampler, or just keep them written somewhere where you’ll see them often and they can become incorporated into your psyche and life. And they’re especially useful any time the old rules come creeping up on you – which they probably will.
The trick is to remember that, as the dead schoolboy Edwin Payne says (talking about Hell) in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story arc, ‘Season of Mists’: ‘You don’t have to stay anywhere forever.’ And even if it seems you’ve been given the same messages forever, you have the power to choose new ones. That’s the thing about words – while they can be used to harm, they can also be used to heal.