“The aim of soul work…is not adjustment to the accepted norms or to an image of the statistically healthy individual. Rather, the goal is a richly elaborated life, connected to society and nature, woven into the culture of family, nation, and globe. The idea is not to be superficially adjusted, but to be profoundly connected in the heart to ancestors and to living brothers and sisters in all the many communities that claim our hearts.”
– Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul
A couple of decades ago, I would have been genuinely distressed by the stairwell pictured above. A child of the manicured suburbs, I found graffiti unsettling. The people around me felt the same – once, when the back alley of a local strip mall was tagged with giant, scrawling, illegible black letters, my parents and a handful of neighbors banded together and repainted the alleyway a crisp shade of beige. I can’t speak for the people around me, but for me, graffiti represented violence, gangs, poverty, and, most disconcertingly of all, a sense of being out of control.
It’s true that graffiti can be an angry act of dissent, often stemming from oppression, social stratification, and a sense of isolation. However, when you paint over a graffitied wall, all of the factors that fed the underlying resentment in the act of tagging are still there. And in the case of the strip mall in my suburb, the fresh coat of beige paint did little to deter more tags – in some ways, I think it invited them. Furthermore, the uncomfortable feelings that a graffitied wall can spark when viewed as an assault on one’s pristine suburban landscape carry important truths: the truth of fear of outsiders, of a desire to maintain the illusion of control, and a fear that the illusion isn’t real. Painting over triggering graffiti keeps these truths buried in the collective subconscious – the community adheres once more to prescribed appearances, but deeper healing has yet to occur.
This is where soul work comes in. Thomas Moore puts it so elegantly in the opening quote to this article, but just to paraphrase, soul work isn’t about keeping up appearances based on social norms – instead, it’s about living from the heart and connecting meaningfully to the world and to our communities. It’s about responding with love, openness, and curiosity. Especially if you’re feeling threatened by something that is challenging an appearance that you want to maintain.
Sometimes this is incredibly difficult, particularly at those moments when graffiti feels like an act of violence, carrying messages of hate that cut through anyone who happens to glance at them. Although I have grown up to be a person who loves admiring graffiti and sees it as one of the most intriguing features of any urban landscape, there are times when an awful racial slur or obscene image will stop me in my tracks. “Who would do that?” I think with disgust. But the answer to this question is always, “Another human being. Someone to whom we are each connected, who chose this as his or her vehicle for self-expression.” Graffiti that triggers us is a reminder of our collective shadow. It is a symptom.
In holistic wellness, there’s a lot of emphasis on listening to symptoms – rather than just taking a pill to dull a headache, holistic approaches dive deeper, looking for the root cause, the real imbalance that the symptom is highlighting. After the imbalance is revealed, an approach to healing that lovingly supports the body as a whole is prescribed. It’s rarely a quick fix, but it often leads to much more profound healing than controlling and fighting symptoms ever will. In Thomas Moore’s exploration of soul work, he makes a beautiful case for honouring symptoms:
“It is a beast, this thing that stirs in the core of [one’s] being, but it is also the star of [one’s] innermost nature. We have to care for this suffering with extreme reverence so that, in our fear and anger at the beast, we do not overlook the star.”
Going back to graffiti, I wonder what would happen if communities who are disturbed by graffiti listened to it, and engaged with it holistically rather than responding with fear, and the desire to control and maintain prescribed appearances. What if people responded to it with love? I’m not saying love the underlying social problems that often contribute to it by accepting (read: ignoring/living in denial about) them, nor am I saying to preserve hateful graffiti that feels like an act of violence. I’m saying, love the graffiti enough to look at it fully, to hear what it’s saying, and to hear what your response to it is telling you about yourself. Taking the middle ground and simply observing creates the space for some wonderful soul work to happen.