There's an old Russian joke from the days when goods were scarce. It tells of a man who finally gets to the front of a line and says, "I guess you don't have any beef?" To which the shopkeeper responds, "I'm sorry sir, I'm a fishmonger, I don't have any fish. You want the butcher next door, he doesn't have any beef!"
This little story exposes the difference between simple absence and a "present absence." Something that we can understand a little better if we consider how everyone reading this article will likely have someone they deeply miss, someone they would love to meet again and reconcile with in some way. That person may be alive or dead, living close or making a home far away, desirous of our contact or resistant to it. But regardless, their absence is present to us even when we are thinking of other things. That same person you might be thinking of is also absent from me, however there is a big difference. Their absence to me isn't felt, it doesn't impose itself upon me and mold my behavior.
Each of us are haunted by things we do not speak, indeed we are haunted by them because we cannot speak them. These are the absences that are present to us, regardless of how hard we try to ignore or avoid them.
There is nothing wrong with this, if people did not repress things society would be unable to function. As such there are any number of religious, political and cultural narratives that help us to cover over our anxiety, offer distractions and/or tell us that everything is, in fact, fine.
The problem arises for us whenever our coping mechanisms start to show cracks, or when the symptoms of our repressions become destructive. This might be the Christian whose dogma no longer protects them from anxiety and doubt, the professional whose career begins to feel meaningless, or the millionaire whose money fails to offer the wealth it seems to represent. At these points we might push even deeper into our religion, career or money making activities to ward off the anxiety, but the pressure will only increase, and with it, unhealthy symptoms.
In contrast, we might get to the point where acknowledge that we must face our ghosts, that we ought open the doors we fought so hard to keep closed.
It's at moments like these that we need places of disruption rather than distraction. Places of exorcism that call out to our demons, demand they speak their names, and, in doing so, weaken their hold.
My own work is dedicated to exploring the theory (pyrotheology) and practice (transformance art) of this exorcism. It arises from my, perhaps naïve, belief that this risky activity is also a life-giving one. Such communities of exorcism do not offer an easy path. Indeed they represent a narrow way that none will want to walk. Yet there are some of us who feel that the alternative to walking it is even worse, that our current coping mechanisms are failing, and that the repressed is returning to us in destructive ways. These will be the ones who, often in desperation, will seek out such places, hard as they might be to find.
Follow Peter Rollins on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PeterRollins