The foundation of systemic phenomenological work


23 January 2018| Other, Societal

Belfast, January 12th, 2018

“Sir, can you please tell me where we are. Is this UK or Ireland or…?” The cheerful man at the airport starts to explain, until he realizes 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 at Belfast’s George Best City Airport, 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, who have formed a systemic exploration group for over 15 years, who meet up for a weekend twice a year.

The bus for the short ride from 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 on the bus immediately starts showing us pictures of sites 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 outside again, on the street. Knowing we only have a short time to see with clear and fresh eyes.

Fences, fences everywhere. Orange pylons, also used to indicate roadworks, try to protect the parking territories of public parking places for the owners of the tiny, but tidy houses. Lots of signs telling you what not to do. Starting with not drinking alcohol on the street. Roads that suddenly end, blocked by a fence, with a small gate to pass through.

Also, as a group we notice that in these first hours we have a tendency to circle the city centre in ever 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 as a neighbourhood where we feel safe, because we do not know what will confront us when we go to the next neighbourhood?

Without exception, people we approach and talk to, are extremely nice. They all take 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 strong 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 non-sticky way. More like close comrades, but also that’s not really it. 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 nothing. We, our generation do not want to mourn. We want a better future for our kids. That’s why we need to carry on.” She cries as invisibly as possible while we talk. And we listen. And cry. Also, as invisibly as possible.

“Many people come here to look at the memorials, but only few come inside,” she adds.

And what about us? We ask questions. And we 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-fives are unbelievably non-judgemental about their parents’ generation. They are mainly striving for oneness. Not for polarity. “The Government is stuck in polarity. No money for welfare, or for educational reform. It will take another half a generation to outgrow this,” a nice young lady in a shop explains.

And again, I realize: Ending a 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: Is it better for us to belong to UK or to Ireland? That would be a continuation of the polarity. It is better to build an identity of your own.

When I look in the faces of the women who are mayors, deputy mayors and high sheriff counsellors, I think: “yes, these women could do it…”

As systemic explorers, we were also taken along in the dynamics of Belfast. On our first day, we fell apart into two groups. One had a more Protestant, goal-oriented way of structuring; the other a more Catholic meandering way of moving and experiencing. On the second day, two of our members had a fight, basically about how much space we take and who pays the price… well, this all seems to reflect the dynamics in Belfast.

If we had not been aware of these dynamics influencing us, it would have been a gnarly weekend. But when we are aware of and open ourselves up to understanding how all the dynamics in such a city are signals, then we can understand the dynamics in our own little resonance group. Signals yelling about the wish to heal and the powerlessness to outgrow the polarity. Signals whispering about the tremendous longing for being heard and acknowledged.

Systemic social witnessing, because that’s what we did, means being prepared to be part of the problem, the situation. Both of its origin and its potential. Social witnessing means being prepared for the dynamics of what you witness to take hold of you. Social witnessing means contributing by being present, by listening. And in this way create pathways and river beds for new little streams of flow of life energy.

What remains is a deep gratitude.

Gratitude for being the start of something new.


On behalf of the January group, systemic explorers


Jan Jacob Stam

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