As human beings, we have an inherent need to connect with one another, just as much as the world around us. We thrive when we are seen and accepted for who and what we are without discrimination or judgment. Important connections and relationships require both vulnerability and trust, in our selves and the other person, which can be a hard combination to find in today’s world. Being entrusted with another's deep Truth, means you are holding sacred ground for someone. To be trusted by another, to gently tend the whispers of their heart's longing means you are in a position of privilege and as such hold a sacred role in their life. Whether the Truth is a longing, a desire, a shame, a dream, or the struggles and questions arising from those struggles, all are precious. There is a reason we do not share our deepest selves with just anyone; we know how intense the pain will burn if we are betrayed.
Modern technology and specifically social media platforms make it easier to connect with hundreds of thousands of people across this big blue planet but rarely on a deeply personal level. Social media allows for the sharing of anything and everything but when it comes to the personal, there are rules. Happiness is paramount. Online worlds condition us that we must only share that we have gloriously full and happy lives. Although online groups can be extremely supportive, they are not the same as standing eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart with nuances of facial and body movements, smell, sound, and touch of another. The shadow side of social media and online platforms is not just the shallowness of connection to our fellow human beings but the publicity of it. Betrayal now is often coupled with public shaming-the result of which leaves a trail of broken and shattered souls.
Humanity has not always been like this.
The Irish have a rich mystical and mythological history. Culturally this imbues a deep sensibility in the human spirit and an understanding of certain roles within the community. Anam Cara is an Irish term first brought to the attention of the world by Irish mystic and poet John O’Donohue. John’s book by the same name is widely acclaimed for the way he writes as much as the content. If you haven’t already, read it as remarkable work of art, written with a deeply nuanced understanding of the world and the heart of humanity. But what does the term anam cara mean? O’Donohue says, “Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was soul friend” (1). An anam cara is an individual who is wise, caring, direct, deep, and has the ability to tend your heart's longings. Anam cara is both teacher and spiritual witness and as such is your soul's most important relationship.
The famous Irish patron saint, Patrick, witnessed the power of the Anam Cara relationship while converting some of the indigenous population of Ireland from paganism to Christianity. He saw the beauty and benefit to the human soul of being able to completely confide in another. St. Patrick thought it was such a good idea the church co-opted it as a way to promote conversion. The more the Church could offer that which already aligned with the majority of the people the easier conversion became for them. Confession is the weaker and misused version of the anam cararelationship. Some of the same components of the anam cara relationship were carried over by the church, for example confiding in another. However, judgment and shame were never part of the original dynamic. Our secrets became our sins.
Your anam cara would not tell anyone the details of your conversations, not their wives, husbands, friends, or siblings. We could say, “what was said between you and your anam cara stayed between you and your anam cara! Last week I received a hand written letter. I love hand scribed notes and cards seen by some as a lost art. The letter was doubly striking because in the third line the author called me “their anam cara.” I wept, humbled to see in print the depth of our relationship in black and white.
Social media users top 70% of the global population (2). The popularity of the various platforms has encouraged us to share every aspect of our lives under the guise of staying connected. Yet, if we do not develop our ability to hold the mundane, we can never learn to hold that which is sacred to ourselves, let alone the sacred things belonging to another. Unfortunately, too many examples of this spring to mind: from the taking delivery of a surprise gift for someone else to the taking and posting photos of weddings before the betrothed have even said “I do”, and announcing deaths or medical procedures before family members know. I am fairly sure you have had at least one of these situations or something similar happen to you in this digital age. How do the younger ones in our lives learn to develop the skills necessary to value, respect, and honor their friends Truths when the zeitgeist propensity is for oversharing?
What happens to our heart's longings if they aren’t shared? Do they wither and die like a rotting peach in the sun, eventually dissolving back into the earth? Perhaps, they nibble away at our souls like tiny mice making their way through those unpacked boxes in the basement. Or do they stand and stare at us from time to time from the darkness of our dream sphere, appearing as wild creatures which stalk and sniff in order to get our waking attention and take action to acknowledge their presence.
Do you have a relationship like this already in your life? Or are you this person for someone or many people? To hold the deep longings of another and to be trusted by others is deeply important to me personally, it is embedded in my DNA by my Irish ancestors. So much so that in 2010 I had a beautiful tattoo inked on the inside of my right arm saying anam cara as a reminder to myself to greet each person I shake hands with as if I were, or could be, the trusted soul they may need in their life today. When I reach my hand out to hold yours I am deliberately making a connection that links us back through the lineage of the anam caratradition, and through the ancestors, by bringing forth time, values, and a role that has been respected for centuries.
Citations: Also known as further reading for the curious.
Global Stats. “Social Media Stats Worldwide: May 2018- May 2019.” http://gs.statcounter.com/social-media-stats
O’Donohue, John. Anam Cara. Harper Collins. 1997. p.13. (All books by John O’Donohue recommended)