As Christmas arrives, a time of reflection for many on a holy birth, I ponder the way we as society attune at birth today. All human experiences are culturally and historically determined, including birth. Birth as with all other human experience and understanding is contextual. As Gadamer contends we are viewing and knowing the world from an inescapable effective historical consciousness. We are in a way continually walking into our past. I argue like others that birth is not purely physiological but enmeshed in its own unique context. Therefore to explore any phenomenon at birth is at once to address all of birth, past and present which at the same time is connected to future possibilities. There are constant hints from history that gesture towards birth as significant fusing with contemporary horizons of understanding and possible futures. That is to say that how we tune into, tune in or attune at birth reveals how birth is understood.
If we are to look at bible stories birth is often depicted as suffering. According to some interpretations the imagery regarding birth is a powerful deterrent (Kalmanofsky, 2008). Kalmanofsky believes the horror and pain of birth was used by the Old Testament authors as a ploy to bring Israel back into God’s favour. Kalmanofsky interprets biblical childbirth as a metaphor for crisis symbolic of the plight of Israel as exposed, vulnerable and time of suffering. The imagery is certainly vivid. Birth as a metaphor for crisis and disclosed through fearful moods could be argued as influencing western culture through to our contemporary experience.
I am intrigued that Old Testament writings were by men, as far as we know, who at that time were probably excluded from birth. So what are these male authored biblical stories conveying about the lived experience? Bergmann (2008) examined texts taken from the Ancient Orient and the Old Testament and found women’s voices were hidden. This is unsurprising yet leaves me wondering what was experienced and meaningful at birth in those times? The experiences as lived in around birth at the time Mary was birthing her own son remain open to biblical hermeneutic exegetic interpretation. It is clear however that the Western culture has been profoundly influenced by Judaic-Christian biblical doctrines. The birth of Jesus is a celebrated nativity in Christian culture recorded in the New Testament but much remains unspoken, hidden, covered up and romanticised. It is plausible from the evidence we have that the birth of Jesus was surrounded with crisis including where to birth and the social political tensions of the era.
Historical author Anita Diamant attempts to address the silent voice of biblical women in her novel The Red Tent (1998). (A book so worth reading by the way). Diamant provides a voice to biblical women in which joy, sacredness as well as the potential for death and suffering at birth is described. In this women’s world birth is not crisis but a shared womanly experience. I am aware that care is required in comparing the birth of Jesus with other births. Jesus’ birth was a holy event for many. What is being revealed here is that the birth of avatars, saints and prophets are often depicted as both challenge and joyous hope. The symbolism provides a powerful indication of the power of birth and its possibilities. It can be imagined that the birth of Jesus was fearful and full of hope. The actual lived-experience of Mary and Joseph at the moment of birth however is not revealed.
It could be construed that there is now a global birth culture with its own distinctive dictatorial voice that speaks loudly and with authority in the name of risk reduction and scientism’s supremacy. Human civilisation has witnessed changes in the social and cultural context of birth. These changes involve continuing modification in symbolism, behaviour, organisation of care and emergence of new value systems. Caution is required as there is a danger in one dimensional ways of looking at birth; the western technocratic approach is only one of many views! The powerful convincing contemporary risk averse rhetoric and resultant fear inducing voice can attune us all in a certain way and shape behaviour and practice. Such a voice often un-reflected upon is able to exert considerable influence that “…retains and enhances its stubborn dominion” (Heidegger, 1927/1962, p. 165). We become so attuned to the feel of our times we are unable to ‘feel beyond’. Yet cross cultural and historical perspectives are essential in any attempt to reveal the mood at birth, how we attune and how we find ourselves faring at that significant moment in human life deserves reflection. The influences on birth experience and attunement or mood are dynamic and change reflecting social, religious and emotional meanings:
Birth is a unique and crucial social event as well as a singularly important one for the persons concerned. As a consequence of its social significance, practices related to birth reflect salient cultural conditions and values and articulate these further within their own domain of meaning and reference. (Crouch & Manderson, 1993, p. 56).
The experience of being attuned at birth is uniquely personal as well as societal. Birth ideologies, medical or natural, comprise significant cultural and political discourses that reveal the effective dominant beliefs and ideas of a time and place. Over time values form images of the prevailing cultural and social interpretations of birth. There has been an enormous evolution of human thought that affects birth. The human birth story reveals an evolving multi-cultural and multi-historical unfolding into each other in timeless convergence. Some cultures appear to change faster than others. Some remain connected to ancient meanings depicted in birth ritual and practices. However, each theme relates and builds upon the whole and uncovers something about how those present at birth attune. We all attune somehow according to Martin Heidegger, we are always somehow in some mood or other. Even to say we are bored is to be in a mood. The mood of Christmas present is certainly different to the mood of Christmas past. Yet I would argue each and every birth is no less significant and is always, even if not acknowledged as such, overflowing with meaning. 21st century maternity evinces change for the better and sense of hope as more of us rally to the call of childbirth as something more than a process to control and more than a human experience solely influenced by neo-liberalism and commodification. Each birth is a messenger of joy and a reminder of how life is always renewing its promise for better tomorrows. How we attune at birth reveals to us how birth is understood as significant and meaningful to us.
Mysterious holy voyage
Women’s magic –
hidden and sacred
When we industrialise –
how do we attune?
Centralised and standardised –
how do we attune?
become technocratic, electric and mechanised–
how do we attune?
Globalisation and consumerism –
how do we attune?
A baby born –
into the light
we are silenced
how do we attune?
(From reflective diary: September 2012)