‘Sir, can you please tell me where we are. Is this UK or Ireland or…?’ The cheerful man at the airport starts to explain the facts, until he understands we’re more interested in the essence, the heart, the soul of this part of the world, than the facts.
Within ten minutes after touchdown on George Best City Airport of Belfast, we are submerged in local dynamics. And that’s what we want, and that’s how our systemic explorations in Belfast start.
‘Our?’ Well, three women, three men, for over 15 years forming a systemic exploration group, meeting twice a year for a weekend.
The bus for the short ride from the George Best airport to the city centre is a good opportunity to start: to observe, to talk, to walk, to sense, to listen, to fight, to harvest, to share in the next 47 hours. The muscular country man in the bus immediately starts showing us pictures from scenery we need to visit. ‘Brexit? I don’t care, not my world. I’m from here…’
Before we can recover from the alarmingly small Airbnb apartment, we’re out on the street. Knowing, we only have short time to see with clean eyes.
Fences, fences everywhere. These orange pons, also known to indicate roadworks, try to protect the parking territories of public parking places for the owners of the tiny, but tidy houses. Many signs tell you what not to do. Starting with not drinking alcohol on the street. Roads suddenly end, blocked by a fence, with a small corridor to go through.
Also, as a group we notice that in these first hours we have a tendency to circle the city centre in smaller and smaller circles, as if to protect our own comfort zone, getting smaller and smaller this way. Are we drawn in the pattern already? Defining ourselves a neighbourhood where we feel safe, because we do not know what will meet us when we go to the next neighbourhood?
Without exception, people we approach and talk to, are extremely nice. Taking all their time for us. ‘Almost too nice to be true’, we muse with our systemic senses wide open.
The city centre is more a colony then a centre. It doesn’t have a clear essence or soul. We find soul, though, in an Irish pub. Live music, Irish line-and tap dancing. All the men are muscular. And the boys promise to become too. ‘These are the kind of men and lads who built the Titanic’, I muse. They reach out, these men. They touch, they dance, in a not sticky way. More like close comrades, but also that’s not the whole thing. The next day I realize that their closeness is like suppressed grief. Belfast can’t mourn. That’s what the lady from Sinn Féin told us literally: ‘Every other family lost someone. And people were so poor and the houses so bad. No toilets, no this no that. We, our generation do not want to mourn. We do want a better future for our kids. That’s why we need to carry on’. She cries as hidden as possible while we talk. And we listen. And cry. Also, as hidden as possible.
‘Many people come to have a look here at the memorial places, but few come in’, she adds.
And us? We ask. And listen, listen, listen… The many stories we hear are gifts. Listening is what we can give back.
‘Taxi-driver, Sir, we notice these four-meter-high fences around the primary school. Can’t they be taken away?’ His look pierces my heart: ‘Too early, it’s still too early’.
The under thirty-five generation is unbelievably non-judgemental to their parent’s generation. They are mainly striving for oneness. Not for polarities. ‘The Government is stuck in polarities. No money for welfare, none for education improvement. It will take another half of a generation to outgrow this’ a nice young lady in a shop explains us.
And again, I realize: Ending of civil war, (or a cease fire, as it sometimes feels here) is not enough. Freedom is not enough. It doesn’t make sense in Ulster to think in terms of: do we better belong to UK or to Ireland. That would be a continuation of the polarities. Better to build an identity of their own.
When I look in the faces of the women who are mayor, deputy mayor and high sheriff counsellor, I think: ‘yes, these women could do it…’
As systemic explorers we were also taken in the dynamics of Belfast. On the first day we fell apart into two groups. One had a more Protestant, goal-oriented way of structuring; the other more Catholic meandering way of moving and experiencing. The second day two of our members had a fight, basically about how much space do we take and who pays the price… well, this seems all reflecting the dynamics in Belfast.
If we would not have been aware of these dynamics influencing us, it would have been a gnarly weekend. But when we are aware and open to understand how all the dynamics in such a city are signals, then we can understand the dynamics in our little resonance-group. Signals yelling about the wish to heal and the powerlessness to outgrow the polarities. Signals whispering about the tremendous longing for being heard and acknowledged.
Systemic social witnessing, because that’s what we did, means to be prepared to be part of the problem, the situation. Both of its origin and its potential. Social witnessing means to be prepared that the dynamics of that, what you witness, jumps over on you. Social witnessing means contributing by being present, by listening. This way creating pathways and river beds for new little streams of flow of life energy.
What remains is a deep gratitude.
Gratitude being the start for something new.
On behalf of the January-group, systemic explorers
Jan Jacob Stam