Reflections on gifts and identity
First of all, I’d like to thank everyone who reached out with words of encouragement after last week’s somewhat “wobbly” post — I’m really grateful for your support.
It was illuminating for me to experience the way in which a little vulnerability can open up doorways of instant connection with others — perhaps something for us all to keep in mind as we navigate these topsy-turvy times.
As one friend who wrote to me put it:
To the question of what to hang onto when everything is falling apart, the answer might simply be: each other.
While processing your feedback (which is summarized at the bottom of this post if you’re interested to see), I’ve been reflecting a lot on the notion of gifts — the gifts that I received from each of you through your various messages, and the gifts that I do my best to offer each week through these written reflections.
I’ve been wondering: What makes something a gift? What is the difference between a gift and a privilege? What does it mean to be gifted? How can we help one another discover and develop our gifts? What would it mean to live in a gifted society?
To understand the essence of gift, it may be helpful to explore the shamanic notion of “medicine.” In various shamanic traditions, the word medicine is used to describe the unique combination of qualities that a particular living thing embodies. For instance, the medicine of a tree is the way it offers shade and shelter; the way it models the beauty that can arise from being rooted in a single place over time; the way it teaches flexibility: changing with the seasons, and bending without breaking in the breeze. Together, this combination of qualities constitutes what is known as tree medicine. By sharing tree medicine with non-trees, trees assume their unique identity as “trees” in the world. In the shamanic understanding, this is how everything works: rivers, eagles, roses, whales, forests, spiders, cliffs — each living thing embodying a unique combination of gifts, which are collectively known as its medicine.
In our human world, the same understanding applies. Each one of us harbors a unique combination of inner gifts, waiting to be discovered, drawn out, and developed. These gifts are the keys to unlocking our authentic identities: otherwise known as our medicine — the specific way we have a “healing” effect on the world. When we speak of someone being gifted, perhaps this is precisely what we mean: someone who’s put into practice their natural medicine, someone who’s therefore become a doctor of life.
In our current culture, we lack this ancient understanding, and so we get into trouble. We confuse the notion of gifts with the notion of privilege, and we lose ourselves in games of blame and shame, getting caught up in debates about external conditions. Privilege is essentially situational: a set of external conditions into which a person arrives, whether by birth or by experience. Gifts, on the other hand, are essentially latent potentials: inner qualities, talents, and predilections that we embody regardless of where we happen to be situated in the external world.
In the polarizing terms of our current “identity politics,” the focus is almost entirely on external conditions: socio-economic status, skin color, pronouns, gender, and sex. What if “identity politics” were re-imagined to focus less on external privilege, and more on internal gifts? Perhaps we could develop a system for supporting young people in identifying their own unique gifts, without being seduced by the shoulds of other people’s storylines. We could see these two potent questions as sacred:
What makes me feel most alive when I do it?
What makes the world respond with a “yes”?
Then, upon reaching adulthood, perhaps young people could be invited to choose a new name for themselves: a name that truly embodies their gifts. Certain common names indeed once arose in this way, with words like Baker, Sawyer, Smith, and Miller indicating their owners’ proclivities for working with bread, wood, silver, and wool.
Could a conscious naming process such as this help us to better align our gifts with our identities? Could it perhaps form the basis for a new kind of “identity politics”? Could it help us create a truly gifted society?
In this sixth ritual of In Fragments, I visit with nine beloved mentors and friends who gifted me with their unique perceptions of life, which in turn helped to shape my own.
I bring a small wooden box of linestones, and I invite each person to select the stone that speaks to them the most.
I dip my finger into the pile of gray powder that was produced in Not a Single Point and examined in Process of Elimination — and I gently draw a line of powder across each person’s face. This intimate gesture is a way of inviting each person’s spirit into the world of In Fragments, so they can benefit from whatever transformation and healing will later occur.
At the end of the film, I put a dab of white paint on my finger, and I draw a line across a sheet of glass in front of the camera, as a way of inviting the spirit of each viewer into the world of In Fragments as well.
The title of this ritual, Individuation, is inspired by Carl Jung’s notion of becoming a fully individuated self apart from the many voices of others — in other words, the process of discovering one’s own unique natural medicine.
Grateful for each of you,
Summary of feedback
I found your feedback on last week’s post to be very insightful, so I wanted to share a summary of some of the main themes I heard, in case they’re also of interest to you:
Different mirrors — That it’s not fair to compare In Fragments to data-based works such as We Feel Fine and Cowbird, which functioned as mirrors for the external culture (with the many commercial potentials that came as a result). By contrast, the intimate intensity of In Fragments functions more as a mirror for the inner world of each viewer — and this may not be a place that everyone is ready or wanting to look.
Practical realities — That many people are struggling now just to get by, grappling with practical challenges like job loss and childcare in a pandemic. Perhaps certain folks will return to In Fragments later in their lives, when their hierarchies of need are feeling more stable. One commenter offered the evocative image of each of us tending personal campfires on dark and distant mountains, looking out across the valleys and glimpsing one another’s fires out in the distance — and yet mostly needing to focus for now on tending our own.
Instantly unknowable — That by being colorful, playful, and interactive, the aesthetic forms of my earlier works were very inviting. By contrast, In Fragments is more withdrawn, hidden, and esoteric. When designing my earlier works, I always sought for them to be “instantly knowable and infinitely masterable” — like the piano and the pencil, which are tools that a child can pick up and start using, but which a person can practice for a lifetime and yet never entirely master. This quality of being “instantly knowable” wasn’t something I considered for In Fragments, which may explain its remoteness.
Engineered attention — That over the past few years, technology platforms have carried out a mass re-engineering of human attention, making the ability to focus on a 2+ hour meditative film experience quite rare. One subscriber shared a video explaining the attention design mechanisms that make TikTok so addictive (and another shared a theory that TikTok is a strategy of the Chinese government to corrode the attention of Western youth, while limiting use of TikTok to forty minutes per-person per-day for its own youth).
Future zeitgeist — That though the current zeitgeist may be consumed with NFTs and the metaverse, the zeitgeist of the future may in fact include many of the themes of In Fragments — as our culture rediscovers indigenous ways of knowing, deeper connections to body and place, the importance of healing inherited patterns, the power of ritual as a transformer of belief, and the role of perception in shaping reality. In these ways, perhaps In Fragments is actually ahead of its time, waiting for the larger culture to evolve and catch up.
Most of all, I received lots of encouragement to trust in the process and keep going, continuing to write these weekly reflections, and to know that In Fragments will eventually find its audience — like a seed planted deep in the ground, it will sprout when the conditions are right.
Thank you again for the gifts of your feedback.