Grey morning cold as cracked ice. Sat up in bed reading selected writings from Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century German mystic, musician and herbalist who described herself as a ‘feather on the breath of God’. Later this year the Vatican will make her a Doctor of the Church and I hope that means more of her writings will be made available.
And thinking about what Hildegard recommended as self-forgetting as the road to true self-worth reminded me of an interview with Eva Illouz I’ve been pondering for some days now. Illouz is talking here about deconstructing notions of self-blame amongst women when it comes to modern romantic love, the idea that it is all our fault if we are are unlucky in love.
One of the things which surprised me when doing this research is how much “self-blame” seems to be an art of the female psyche. Women connect their self-worth much more closely to the realm of love and relationships and when that realm poses problems and difficulties, they view it as a direct reflection of and threat to their self-worth.
This is what the hackneyed “you’ve got to love yourself first before someone else can love you” comes to express, without really knowing it—it comes to express the idea that you must make your self-worth independent of others’ love of you, because their love cannot be counted on, whereas yours for yourself can.
The problem however, at least for a sociologist, is that you can never be the source of your own self-worth. This is an idea concocted by psychologists, which does not have any sound sociological basis. We can only build self-worth through and with others. This is why building good and nurturing environments, as families, schools, workplaces, is so crucial.
Unlearning self-punitive ways of thinking about myself was a key challenge in the fraught months of early sobriety. I was so used to presenting one kind of OK-ish facade to the world each day while inwardly hating and despising both the hidden and outward aspects of that self. And alternating this berating with bouts of grandiosity, the compensatory belief that I could do better than others, that I was misunderstood, that I deserved more, that I was I, I, I…
This unhappy self-preoccupation isn’t unique to women, although many women are unable to locate self-worth in workplace achievements as men are sometimes able to do. Many workplaces are sites of competition and unjust power plays, or places where women feel threatened by one another, by younger and prettier or more highly qualified women, where women find themselves propping up incompetent men or not daring to challenge confident and assertive men. Where older interactions characterised by flirtatiousness, ‘feminine wiles’ or tears are now seen as inappropriate and outdated.
How do we establish self-worth in workplaces and industries that are not nurturing or supportive and in which relationships are disregarded or under-valued? A friend of mine said to me last week: ‘I’m her boss. I don’t want to be her friend. I don’t need to be her friend. What matters is productivity.‘ Tougher boundaries, new norms, different expectations for all of us. So difficult.
But then there is Hildegard of Bingen, 800 years ago in a medieval world unsafe and repressive for women, A time when women could not preach, own property, travel alone, marry whom they wished, lead independent or autonomous lives. And Hildegard founded two monasteries, authored books on theology, ecology, natural science, medicine and gardening. She wrote nearly a thousand hymns and songs, still heard today in liturgical and chamber music. She corresponded with the political leaders of the day, traveling up and down the Rhine, and even threatened German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa for daring to impinge on the freedom of the church.
She wrote the first morality play in Europe. She invented her own artificial language as well as an alphabet in which to write it. In support of Church reform, Hildegard made four long preaching tours along the river valleys of south-west Germany. There she addressed large audiences of clerics, monks and laity, unprecedented for a medieval woman. She achieved all this despite chronic ill-health and while serving as a Benedictine abbess for more than 40 years
And then there were the visions she had experienced since the age of three when a blaze of electrifying, dazzling brightness overwhelmed her. A diffuse glow or radiance which she called her visio filled her field of vision for the rest of her life without interfering with ordinary sight. Hildegard came to understand this phenomenon as “the reflection of the living Light” which gave her an intuitive knowledge of the Divine.Only at the age of 42 did she begin to share her visionary and prophetic understandings. She was not alone, she was accompanied by this Light, this source of unfailing Love. She had her novices and sisters around her, she had friends who included Bernard of Clairvaux and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Who knows then what might be possible for any of us?