The Ugly Duckling

25 Mar

The wastelands

I am a man who spent the last thirty years working directly with the disenfranchised, vulnerable, and desperate people who inhabit the dark underbelly avoided and ignored by mainstream Western culture.  I have worked in some of the most deprived and devastated communities. In the South Wales Valleys during the Thatcherite clearances. The desperate communities of Eastern Germany, following the fall of communism.  With the cardboard families of the Bronx, New York, burnt out by their landlords greed and avarice.

Over thirty years on the incomprehensible council estates of big cities. The forgotten wastelands of concrete, broken glass, ignorance, abuse and boarded windows.  Working with the effects of neglect – violence, criminality, addiction, depression, mental illness, loss of hope, lack of connection to grief, and the cruelty of being deprived from birth.  We witness the disasters in Africa with righteous despair, but there are similar and more invidious ones happening right here in the heartlands of the richest and most conspicuously affluent societies ever created.  We are so familiar with these disasters we don’t even recognize them as such.

In my opinion it is a disaster when the majority of people in your country are unhappy;

it is a disaster when the majority of people are addicted to destructive patterns of behaviour;

it is a disaster when we refuse to take responsibility for our lives and blame others;

it is a disaster when we willfully neglect and ignore our children.

When people believe their lives depend on money, artifacts and material goods, you are in trouble. When those people loose their connection to community, love, mutual indebtedness and reciprocity, it really is dangerous for the world.  We are breeding bullies, dealing in unhappiness, greed and selfishness- indeed we encourage and support such attitudes.  Our culture depends on our fear and frustration for its perpetuation.   We see the world in a very peculiar and skewed way, not considering the whole or bigger picture.  This way of viewing the world is, in my opinion, immature. The immature boy is selfish, spoilt, he stamps his feet when he doesn’t receive what he feels he is due.  In that sense, we are an uninitiated people – we have for many years chosen to ignoring the obvious, and only focus on our personal needs.  With the increased awareness of the interconnected nature of the world, our concerns for our African brothers and sisters, our environmental and ecological concerns, our recognition of the value of nutrition, we are starting to show some maturity.  For me, it is a sign of our seeking initiation, the seeking of longer-term solutions.  Those are the first steps towards our initiation into becoming mature human beings.

How do we become mature?

One way is through appreciating the fantastically revelatory work of Robert Bly and others.  His starting points are the ancient stories, the stories of the land. The interpretation of myths, nursery rhymes, and legends as archetypes and personal stories.   I sought to examine my own cultural background and see what lay there as resources.  I looked at ancient texts – the Mabinogion, the Norse legends – but found them too removed.  Too many long and confusing names to remember.  I looked at more modern tales, and was drawn to ‘The Ugly Duckling’ by Hans Christian Andersen. I thought it was a story about the artist, the misfit in society, and identified strongly with it.   I wanted to use it as a teaching tool with groups, but it has been mis-translated, abused, and distorted for many years.  Then I was able to gain access to a recent translation of the story- as close to the original as you can get. I gained the story through Rosie Beech, and would like to thank her for sending it to me.   When I read it I cried – at the beauty of his words, his ability to describe poetically anguish and despair.  I cried for the pain carried in the story, the depth of the emotional trauma, his stand against bullies, and his understanding of loneliness.  I realized the story is not just about the misfit artist, it is about a boy with an absent father.  It is a story so pertinent and relevant to our times, it needs to be examined, and re-read in this modern context.

I share The Ugly Duckling story with fathers, men and boys, and mixed groups as well.  We take turns telling it, we discussed the relevance it has to each of us.  Every time I read it I appreciate another aspect of the story. Every time, my perception shifts, I become more aware of myself, the relevance of the story to modern life, and it’s bearing on the work I am involved in.  I wanted to write down the interpretations and views that have arisen from it in the hope that others will find them of value.  I know this process has been very transformative, cathartic for me, and many other people. So, I pass this on with love and blessings to you all.

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