Reverence and Dignity: An exploration of Southern African Traditions and Bert Hellinger’s “Orders of Love”

Reverence and Dignity: An exploration of Southern African Traditions and Bert Hellinger’s “Orders of Love”
by Tanja Meyburgh and Niall Campbell

The following is a chapter that is due to be included in Francesca Mason-Boring’s next book to be published in 2015 (title to be confirmed).

Tanja is an internationally known facilitator of Family Systems Constellation and is a highly trained and experienced professional registered with the HPCSA (Health Professionals Council of South Africa) as a counseling psychologist. Tanja is founder of African Constellations, has been facilitating constellations in South Africa since 2003, and has been involved in training facilitators since 2005.

Niall Campbell is a traditional doctor and Sangoma from Botswana, South Africa. Initially trained as a traditional doctor, Niall is a skilled herbalist, diviner, and general medical practitioner. In his Sangoma training, Niall also works as a spirit medium, allowing the spirits to work through them for the help and healing of others. The authors refer to themselves in the following summary as ‘we’:

The ultimate aim of our therapeutic partnership as family therapists (traditional healer and psychologist), is to propose relevant and valuable processes from indigenous culture and re-integrate them into psycho-spiritual interventions available to contemporary South Africans from varied racial backgrounds. We share the view of other contemporary thinkers of the African Psychology (Hodlstock, 2000; Monteiro & Wall, 2011) and Ubuntu psychology (Washington, 2010) movements that there is value in indigenous systems as essential components of our identity and healing as multicultural South Africans in a post-colonial and post-Apartheid South Africa.

Bert Hellinger does not often reference his experience during the 16 years of working as a missionary in Kwa-Zulu Natal, but does refer to the natural authority that parents have over their children and the maintenance of dignity that he observed in the Zulu people. We propose that fundamental concepts of Hellinger’s classical family constellations Method have their roots in “natural laws” as are understood by Southern African indigenous societies.

Bert Hellinger’s orders of love and Southern African traditions are congruent. In Southern African indigenous cultures, ritualized process ensures that natural law becomes a day to day way of living. It becomes culture. In family constellations, this ordering created by the orders of love is an intervention, even though it is ritualized to some extent. In contemporary western cultures this system is classified under therapy, but in indigenous society it is a lifestyle which is passed from generation to generation.

Hellinger’s basic “orders of love” reveal what can be called “the facts” of the family system, that is, the observable “natural laws”. There has been criticism and controversy around Hellinger when he names things as facts or basic truths. Could it be that Hellinger was referring in these cases to observable laws based in nature, rather than theory or philosophy that determines something as truths?

Natural Law
Southern African traditional societies systems of law are fundamentally informed by natural law. Natural laws are based on observation of nature, rather than invented by people. The Pedi, for example, consider the origin of most law to be from nature (Monnig, 1967). Natural laws are those things that are unchangeable by human intervention. By natural law the sun will rise in the morning and it will set in the evening. The seasons will follow a certain course and come at the particular time. Another example of natural law is that water always finds the easiest route downwards. Practices that are observed in similar ways over different cultures and across continents, give us an indication of what has arisen from natural law.

An example of natural law in families is that each person has two biological parents: one of whom has to be male and one female. The father will always be the father and the mother will always be the mother. Regardless of blended families, adoptions, same-sex marriages and so on, a child always has a biological mother and a biological father. Looking further at natural laws, a child cannot have a baby. Any parent, with very rare exception, will be at least 12 years older than a child. Coming into life and going into death are natural laws. These are things that cannot be changed.

Human laws are different in that they tend to be isolated interventions, and usually stop something or reduce something from occurring. Examples of human laws are the laws pertaining to systems of justice. One could say that indigenous societies are shaped and molded more directly by the physical environment in which they live. From this their system of understanding nature develops into their jurisprudence, or human law. By contrast, industrial or post-industrial society aligns progress with a degree of separation from natural law (Campbell & Robbins, 2008).

Both the ritualized practices of Southern African people and the orders of love based on hierarchy are derived from the observation of nature. In addition, reverence and dignity appear to be the key underlying concepts within Hellinger’s orders of love and the Southern African traditional seating practices.
Orders of Love:
Hellinger describes the “orders of love” as the “natural laws” that enable love to flow in the family system, and which are often based on time, weight and function (Hellinger, 1998, p.154). Orders based on time refer to who came first: the grandparent, then the parent, then the child. The orders referring to weight and function tend to relate to those that ensure survival of the group and disparity between who gives and who takes. The orders relate to who has the right to belong to the family system. “Love succeeds in our relationships when belonging, a balance between giving and taking, and a good order can be maintained” (Hellinger, 1998, p.152).
Similarly in Southern African traditions, healing is always preceded by ensuring that a person is correctly “seated” in his family. “Seating” refers to the correct placing in hierarchical order either physically or through daily rituals and observances, which allows for the receiving of life force, “Umoya” from the creator through the parents and ancestors.

The practice of seating, for example, is the expression of the natural hierarchy that is contained in daily ritualized activities of Southern African indigenous cultures. “Being seated” comes from the Tswana term “go bewa” which means “to be placed” and therefore correctly seated in the family. It includes where men, women and children sit in the homestead, or how children approach or speak to their parents.

Family members are seated in accordance with natural hierarchy which transcends the divide between those who are physically alive and those who have passed on. Through the progression of this hierarchy, individuals are connected to the creation and therefore the source of life. One of the first steps used in traditional Southern African healing ceremonies is that of making sure that the person is correctly seated.
Seating, as a ritualized practice based in traditional Southern African traditions, can be done literally through calling on family members and ancestors to take their correct position: the father seated behind to the right and the mother seated behind to the left beside the father. Subsequent generations are then placed similarly with left for female lineage and right for male lineage, right back to the first man and woman. Behind them is the Creation, from which “Umoya” or the breathe of life, flows forward through the shoulder blades of each generation towards the parents and then to the child. It is only when a person is seated correctly, in front of their parents, smaller than them and not facing them, that they can receive this life force of “Umoya” to its full benefit. It is essential to have access to “Umoya” for all further healing work to be carried out.

In family constellations the relationship between parent and child requires that functions be divided appropriately. This gives rise to the second systemic order between parents and children, which is that parents give and children take. According to Hellinger (1998, p.92), the most valuable thing that children receive from their parents is life. There is a natural and irreconcilable disparity between giving and taking between parents and children. Children can never repay their parents for what they have received. Furthermore, by taking one’s parents as they are and receiving all that they were able to give, “one gives them dignity and peace” (Hellinger, 1998). All unconscious attempts to give back to the parents by taking on their emotional sufferings and burdens and being similar to them are an attempt to remain bonded. The child attempts to prevent difference which ultimately leads to separation and loss rather than deeper connection (Hellinger, 1998).
According to Hellinger (1998) love succeeds best when children are children and parents are parents – that is, when the hierarchy within the family according to time (who came first) and function (who has given, who has taken) is respected. Hellinger refers to negative consequences when a younger person feels entitled to the privileges of an older person without having earned them. Hellinger (2006) uses the example of inheritance which he sees as a gift that is unearned rather than a right of the child. By recognizing their parents’ rights and responsibilities, children show respect to their parents and give them their dignity.

According to Hellinger, “Passing on wisdom earned through suffering is possible only if the other members of the system have the courage, respect and wisdom not to interfere” (Hellinger, 1998, p.102). Taking on suffering and burdens is seen as an infringement of the personal sphere of the older person and it robs them of the power for good. When younger people give to older people, it is seen as running against the “flow of the gravity of time” (Hellinger, 1998, p. 12).

Two important traditional concepts, those of ‘reverence’ and ‘dignity’ are determinant in the orders of ranking or hierarchy in Traditional South African family systems, and seem to echo though out the Orders of Love. This parallel may not be exclusive to Southern African culture, but will be shown to be based in what Southern African traditions term “the laws of God” and what we refer to in family constellation as “natural laws”.

Dignity (isithunzi/shadow)
The root of the word isithunzi in the Nguni languages literally means the shadow (Doke, Vilkikazi, Malcolm & Sikakana, 1990). In Southern African traditions the aspect of a person that is associated with his shadow relates to much more than simply the shade he casts on the ground. The shadow and reflection (and these days also a photograph) are conceived as pertaining to a much bigger part that includes a person’s social and political presence, his moral weight and most importantly for this exploration, his dignity. We use the word “dignity” in this chapter to encompass this concept. There is no consensus as to at which point dignity is acquired, some argue that it is already present at conception due to being inherited from parents (Berkland, 1976); others say that it is activated when a newborn casts his first shadow on the ground (Monnig, 1967).

From the point of its acquisition, dignity is understood to be something that can grow or diminish, and is susceptible to personal and environmental factors. Due to this susceptibility a person is brought up in such a way that the preservation of their own and the dignity of others becomes a fundamental responsibility. From an early age children are taught to preserve their own dignity and further to both respect and increase the dignity of those that are considered their social and political seniors. Children afford their parents respect and contribute physically by accomplishing admirable deeds in their name. These actions increase prestige, for example, by building a lovely house for one’s parents, or giving the best cow in the herd to the clan head. Adults may recite the praise poems of their elders recounting in verse their great deeds and comparing these to admired natural phenomena such as great mountains or revered wild animals.

In the traditional Southern African context, people are rarely conceived of as simply individuals. Each person is seen in the context of their family, clan and political affiliation. An individual’s dignity therefore, is dependent on the dignity of these greater social entities, each of which is made up of the dignity of its individuals. It therefore becomes imperative that each individual increases the dignity of their elders and the group, in order to increase his own.

In Bert Hellinger’s family constellation method, parents are honored through the child’s sentences “you are big and I am small” as well as the acknowledgment of what they have received, especially the gift of life. There are certain personal aspects of the adult’s life that remain private in order to spare the child any inappropriate burden of responsibility for things that belong between adults, such as details of parents’ sexuality. By leaving parents to carry their own emotional burdens and trust that they are “big” enough to do this, one shows respect to them (Hellinger, 2006).

Furthermore, through honoring one’s place of birth and nationality, even when it has a difficult history or political situation, a person has “peace in his soul and has strength” (Hellinger, 2006, p77.). “It is a part of what contributes to human greatness that a person agrees not only to his parents, but also to his culture or nation.” (Hellinger, 2006, p.77)

Reverence (hlonipha)
The root of the word hlonipha comes from the Sotho and Nguni words hloni, the closest English words to describe this are shyness, embarrassment or avoidance. The most appropriate English word to describe it is reverence, which is the chosen meaning of the authors.

Hlonipha refers to aspects of social and moral etiquette that show and establish respect and reverence. Through daily practices of reverence, a person remains correctly “seated” within their family and ancestry. A common misconception is that traditional African people worship the dead. According to Kenyata (Hammond-Took, 1978, p.134), “the relationship between people and the ancestors was rather one of communion”. The relationship with the dead differs little from the relationship with the living. In traditional Southern African culture, seniors are afforded reverence and dignity according to generational distance from the individual. This reverence continues even where the senior is no longer living (Berglund, 1976).

Reverence often includes a large number of specific practices and avoidances. For example, one does not stand up, or walk away or talk over the shoulder when talking to an elder person. An example of reverence in some South African cultures would be the avoidance of using an adult’s first name not only when talking to them. One would rather refer to them in the terms of an older relative such as “mother”, “father”, “auntie” or “uncle”. In some groups when addressing people that are slightly older than oneself, the first person plural is used. The second person plural may be used for a very respected person or elder.

Reverence can be taken further by revering the symbols of elders. For example, in traditional society, the father’s bedroom is not entered by the child nor is his seat sat upon by juniors. Words that are associated with one’s parent’s name are not used lightly. A further avoidance that is made as a sign of reverence is that of looking directly in the eyes or shaking a hand very hard when greeting, both of which are considered to be aggressive.

Many of these practices may seem pointless or even servile to outside observers, however, through the practice of reverence, it is believed that the dignity of the senior is preserved and even enhanced. This enhances a person’s own dignity and the level of resource and support they receive from seniors.
Similarly, in Hellinger’s “orders of love”, love and life flows when children acknowledge the “bigness” of their parents and take their place as children.
The authors propose that both the ritualized practices of Southern African people and the orders of love based on hierarchy are derived from the observation of nature. Secondly, reverence and dignity appear to be the key underlying concepts within Hellinger’s orders of love and the Southern African traditional seating practices.
By participating in the classical family constellation interventions, based on the orders of love, clients can come in contact with the healing and identity strengthening concepts of reverence and dignity, even with little or no access to traditional lifestyles. This may play an important role for both western people living in western paradigms, and African people who have left traditional lifestyles behind them and become increasingly westernized, often at the expense of belonging, identity and family cohesion. Further, reintegration of some of these systems helps to bring the formerly marginalized voice of indigenous systems into the search for a strongly South African identity rather than our present reliance on imported and foreign systems and modules.

Campbell and Robins (2008) suggest western culture has resulted in disconnection from natural laws. Traditional Southern African culture on the other hand still tends to call on nature as a primary reference. Mayer (1961) refers to the challenges of the urbanization of traditional people. Firstly, there is dispersal of families, secondly, a rift is created between uneducated parents and educated children, and thirdly, there is a huge disparity between rural and urban dwelling people and their daily practices. The authors propose that family constellations may offer key aspects of what traditional culture offered to people in the past, such as a sense of belonging and directions towards living in “harmony” or “beauty” (in tune with natural laws), which is considered in some Southern African traditions as a path towards optimal health and development. In this way, family constellations could offer a bridge between traditional and contemporary culture.

By participating in the classical family constellation interventions, based on the orders of love, clients can come in contact with the healing and identity strengthening concepts of reverence and dignity, even with little or no access to traditional lifestyles. This may play an important role for both western people living in western paradigms, and African people who have left traditional lifestyles behind them and become increasingly westernized, often at the expense of belonging, identity and family cohesion. Further, reintegration of some of these systems helps to bring the formerly marginalized voice of indigenous systems into the search for a strongly South African identity rather than our present reliance on imported and foreign systems and modules.

In conclusion, it is important to say that in looking at these parallels between The Orders of Love and South African traditions, we relied heavily upon our personal experiences, oral traditions and teachings from traditional elders for their knowledge and understanding of Southern African traditions. In referring to what has been written about these traditions. We purposefully selected older texts where there is less evidence of outside influence; we are not attempting to idealize traditional cultures, but rather seek value in them in the hope of bringing this value forward.
This is only part of a greater investigation to which we are both committed, and an expanded paper, or perhaps a book, will eventually include the large amount of information we are gathering on this topic.

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3 Responses to Reverence and Dignity: An exploration of Southern African Traditions and Bert Hellinger’s “Orders of Love”

  1. Sheila Saunders March 23, 2016 at 5:19 pm #

    Really fantastic article! I look forward to reading more from you on this crucial topic. The influence on Hellinger from the values seen in the Zulu culture cannot be minimized. This article is an important contribution. Thank you!

  2. Chuck Cogliandro August 1, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

    Thank you for this clearly written essay showing the links between the Zulu culture and the orders of love. I have also wanted to know more about how his time in South African influenced Bert Hellinger and the healing work that became Family Constellations. This knowledge fills quite a bit of that space for me.

  3. admin November 24, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

    Thank you Sheila, I appreciate your feedback and recognition of the value of the traditional roots of Family Constellations.

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