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The Way of Orphanhood


I have often written about the need to create a new life-affirming culture as the most pressing task before us. The hypermasculine story of rational hegemony and the promise of technology is toxic and urgently needs to be replaced. But with what? And how?

Recently I heard Bayo Akomolafe, a Nigerian intellectual, speak about similar topics. His personal story involves leaving academia and decolonizing himself by returning to traditional Nigerian village life. He is a cultural refugee of sorts.

It’s a lovely story and I rejoice that he has been able to do this and still have something of a platform from which to speak about his transformation. But it did leave me wondering about the rest of us. The orphans. And I use the word “orphan” in the manner of Stephen Jenkinson.

Most of us who live in places like North America and Australia have suffered a profound cultural orphaning. A disinheritance. A loss of ancestry.

This orphaning is so palpable here in the U.S. No memory. No continuity. No sense of lineage or deep belonging. Such a shallow-feeling culture. So embedded in the colonial mentality. The lack of investment, rootedness, and love of place made it so easy to take, and take, and take. And now the thing has its own inertia… we’ve forgotten how to do anything else.

Some of my ancestors were Spanish and lately I’ve been reflecting on the European exodus and what it meant for people to deliberately leave everything behind. I’ve been feeling into the loss. The psychospiritual significance of the leaving. The vacuum. What does it mean to be a culture of orphans? It is a tremendous impoverishment that I find myself grieving constantly.

As orphans we no longer have access to the abundant resources held in deep cultural traditions. Orphans do not have the great blessing of unbroken habitation, familiar stories, or a Nigerian wisdom culture to lean on as we fumble about trying to reclaim our souls. We do not have a direct, lived connection.

We are left to deal with the impact of the break our ancestors made with their lineages, people and places.

How do those of us who are orphans go about making a new life-affirming culture?

I see attempts to reclaim lost legacies. Or clumsily appropriate some other appealing tradition. I don’t judge or dismiss this. I get it. But I’m more interested in just starting from right here. From the unromantic rubble of the land of Walmart and Monsanto. There has to be a way for the orphan people to belong.


  1. This is such a powerful discussion about weaving a sense of community and connection to place, Ruth. Creating a sense of family and roots in “the unromantic land of Walmart and Monsanto” is a daunting challenge — it’s something I have also been thinking about recently:

    • Thanks Carol. I will definitely read your piece. I’m interested in your insights.

  2. Although the ‘orphaning’ in the US is more palpable, europe after the end of the war ‘looked forward’ (ie. Tried to forget) by rebuilding towns and cities and political structures. A more insidious ‘orphaning’ and emptying of the rural landscapes is growing apace, and together with it, a psychological alienation from any landscape and attitude not urban.

    • Thanks for the European perspective, Simon, and for bringing up the urban-rural polarity. It is much easier to maintain the orphaning in cities, isn’t it?

  3. As a European whose family resettled in the US, I can say that I don’t feel culturally impoverished. There are some ways of thinking best left behind for a fresh start. In the US, we could leave behind. The oppressive, overly-controlling patriarchy was left behind so that we could perhaps be less controlling and more open here.When there are a hundred generations telling us to do it as it has always been done, it is difficult to think freshly. So I guess I see things differently, or am I missing something?

  4. Hi Karel ~ I don’t know what your experience was in Europe, but I disagree with the idea that the oppressive, overly-controlling patriarchy is not part of U.S. culture. There’s a false narrative of freedom and superiority in this country that needs to be questioned and critiqued.

    My post was written from the point of view of someone who does not have direct, lived experience with ancestral legacy and place. This is a deep loss, even if one’s ancestral origins are imperfect (as they all are). It means that in a fundamental way, you don’t know where you came from or who your people are. I am glad for you that you don’t seem to have experienced this loss. I wish I could say the same.

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