Last year I gathered a small but eclectic group for the first Dunfanaghy Retreat. People travelled from England, Colombia, Australia, and all over the US to come together in Donegal. The location was, as one participant put it, not even the middle of nowhere but the end of nowhere.
On the first day we gathered our chairs in a circle and did some introductions. I’ve been to countless workshops and seminars that begin with short ‘tell us who you are and why you’re here’ type introductions and very often you get to the end and still don’t have the slightest clue who these people are. It’s so easy to hide behind job titles and business speak. I wanted to open things up a little beyond the standard ‘professional’ responses so I wrote a few questions on the board as guidance. One of the first questions I wanted people to answer in their introduction is “Where did you grow up?”
So we started going round the room and people told us where they grew up and most threw in some details about what their parents did or where they came from. Each person only had 5 minutes or so but it struck me at the end of it all that we now knew a lot about each other. One of the participants was a friend of mine and in sharing a little about his family and where he grew up I realised I was learning new information about him. This stuff had just never come up before.
Over the course of the retreat we dug a little deeper into everybody’s cultural context and how it has shaped their identity, work and direction in the world. But so much of what we needed to know was right there in the simple facts shared in the introductions.
There are mysteries at the heart of all our stories but we ourselves are not a mystery. It’s very predictable. We are profoundly shaped by the culture we grow up in. Who we are and the questions we hold play out in every aspect of our work and life. We’re always some version of that little kid digging around in what fascinates us most. And our fascinations are never random.
My work is underpinned by a fascination for truths that are hidden or unspoken. This fascination was seeded, at least in part, by my cultural context of growing up in the north of Ireland at the tail end of the Troubles. In the past I’ve thought and written about how the story of Irish history has shaped and influenced my work but this series is the first time I’ve explored in depth how The Troubles and the times I grew up have shaped my work. This series of writings is just the latest manifestation of my grasping to know the truth. The next layer of the infinite onion.
And the onion really is infinite because your story is an asymptote. You’re always approaching but never quite touching the truth of it. We spend our lives coming at it from every angle, just trying to catch a glimpse of ourselves. The lens of culture is one worth putting your eye to.