I don’t know about you, but I have come to be very cautious around the word ‘transformation’. It makes me nervous. It comes loaded with power and assumption and disappointment. To me one of life’s greatest cons is that something can be transformed instantly, like the adverts or slogans or mission statements say.
And yet I cannot deny transformation. Seasons demonstrate a continual, slow transformation, from one state of being to another. Nature does this without signing up to the belief that one state is better than another, merely that it happens.
There is a wonderful book called ‘Hope for the Flowers’ which describes, mainly with pictures, two caterpillars who end up climbing a tower made from lots of other climbing caterpillars. They end up treading on other caterpillars to reach the top and once there, above the clouds, all they see is lots of other caterpillar towers. On seeing this one caterpillar climbs back down and finds themselves in a chrysalis, later emerging a winged butterfly.
It is a beautiful book about transformation of body and of heart. Turns out we need transformation, to find another way, to make a small or radical change. More important still is the location of this transformation. I have been in places where the prevailing message is that one person can transform another, indeed we are made to believe it is our responsibility to do so. At best this overestimates our capabilities. At worst it is a kind of arrogance.
No one else actually transforms the caterpillar into the butterfly. The environment of the chrysalis, the succumbing to the time and place that leads to change. Only the caterpillar can do that.
My youth work training offered me this piece of advice ‘the best you can hope for is small victories’. I’m not even sure if victories is the most helpful word, resonating as it does, of one conquering another. Nevertheless I found some truth in it, because I only saw those children and young people for a tiny fraction of their life. I could only offer limited time and space to show them care and worth and value, and hope against hope that they would understand. But so many other messages were coming at them in their lived experience, in their environment. Their time and their space was full of other more destructive things. The window of influence was tiny. In my work now as a mental health chaplain it is the same. The offer of time and space seems too little, and at times nothing much seems to change. Not that I am responsible for anything more than carving out a bit of time and space where a person is safe, harm free, accepted and held so they can find their own chrysalis.
The Compassion Project in Frome is about this https://www.compassionate-communitiesuk.co.uk/projects. About making connections and drawing out the innate compassion within each of us. It harnesses this for the transformation of lives and communities, one tiny influence at a time.
I attended a mental health training day where a speaker explained the physiology of the brain from a tiny baby to a teenager. It was utterly fascinating and at the same time disturbing about how much damage can be done. In relation to this he spoke about a concept he called ‘the biology of hope’. The idea that very slowly, with each positive encounter with a fellow human, our brains can mold and shift and forge a new path. I have never forgotten this phrase ‘the biology of hope’. A chaplain friend told me a story of a baby who came in to the hospital without family to care for him. She went and held him and sang to him and played for weeks and weeks. And then he went on elsewhere. And she wondered whether there was any point to what she had done, given his age and his circumstance. From my very depths I said yes there was. Because for those weeks he experienced a world that was good and was kind and was loving. His world up to then had left him without hope, a world without tender touch or loving gaze or fed tummy and a world with raised voices and physical pain. Her arms and voice had transformed the world for him, showed the possibility of goodness.
Folk can end up feeling disappointed when they did not transform someone else’s life. As if it was even their place to do so. What awful pressure and expectation to live with. Better I think to consider that transformation can only take place within each person, it is their own biology of hope. We may aid transformation by creating an environment which is patient and safe and nurturing, but that is all. That baby has gone on to be a toddler and child and will be an adult. My friends actions will not have transformed everything for him. But she transformed that bit of his life, contributed to his biology of hope. We are the make up of many transformations, some positive, some negative, some fleeting, some long lasting and deeply significant. We live alongside as humans together, we are not unchanged by one another, standing as we do shoulder to shoulder. And so we humbly sign up to the idea of the biology of hope, for the tender, unfurling, transformation of us all.