Interview with Tim Clancy

Tim Clancy, known affectionately as “The Bosnian Guy”, has lived and breathed the Balkan landscape and culture for the last 30 years. Public speaker, writer, eco-tourism pioneer, humanitarian, and father are a few among the many hats he wears. The Awakening Times had the opportunity to reach into the Croatian country solitude in which he is currently ensconced, and tempt him from the books he is currently hard at work on writing, to pick his brain about a few things.

Tim Clancy

The Awakening Times (TAT): I’ve heard from many people that they were embarrassed about much more you know about Yugoslavia and Bosnia and the nature and history of the area than they do.

Tim Clancy (TC): Well, you know, the story: I’m a spy, of course. So I have to know these things, right? Everybody calls me a spy. I have to be a spy because I know things and because I’m an American, what else can you do with those two in combination? I’m deep, deep, deep undercover; I’m not even paid by the CIA. In one of the books that I’m working on, one of the chapters is called “The Spy that Wasn’t”. I’m going to talk about all my encounters with being accused of being a spy.

A small anecdote I’ll tell you: I was standing near the American Embassy and someone was accusing me of being a spy, “We know who you are…” blah, blah, blah, I was quite defensive, because I’m not a big fan of American foreign policy and I’m not a spy. I consider myself one of the people. Afterward, the security guard for the American Embassy, I think he used to be in Special Forces during the war, this huge guy, walks up to me and grabs my arm in a firm but gentle way, and he’s like, “Brother if they think you’re a spy, let them.” I thought about that, and the next time someone accused me of being a spy, I just sort of looked at them and smiled. I can enjoy wearing the mystique for a bit anyway. Or just let them think that someone has my back when nobody has my back. Well, Mohanji has my back.

TAT: You said you’re writing a few books. What are you writing?

TC: One book is called “Pure Intent.” It’s the name of an old blog of mine. A lot of it is personal war stories. But the war stories I’m sort of connecting to the shortcomings of international humanitarianism and service, and what I think that should mean, and what it is. Everybody who lived through the war has amazing stories, including me. So, integrating that critique of international humanitarianism and the imperialistic approach to humanitarian assistance and service development. I’m including myself, so I’m not pointing a finger. I’m not saying, “You all suck.” I was part of this, and from my perspective, we did some good things, and I think my intent was always pure, but it doesn’t mean that we always did the right thing.

If you look at international humanitarianism, it’s become very political. It has tremendous resources at its disposal and very little accountability. You have a lot of power to decide over people who are in a war zone or a famine or don’t have access to food or infrastructure to water. We get to decide a lot about the fate of their lives, and a lot of times it’s connected to politics, it’s connected to the military; it’s not just connected to being good, being pure, you know, having pure intent. So, it’s sort of a critique from the inside. So I’m including myself and even some of the things that I wasn’t aware of at the time, that may not have generated the best results, or not been in the best interest of the people I was intending to serve.

The other book, which is controversial by its title, but not controversial, is called “Living with Muslims.”

I spent the last 30 years living with a lot of people who are Muslims. But only the title has the word Muslim in it. I’m not going to talk about that for the rest of the book, because it’s irrelevant. It’s sort of a counter-narrative to the stereotypes. We tend to put 1.5 billion people in the same basket and say, “This is what they’re like,” which is absurd. They’re extraordinary stories of ordinary people who happen to be Muslim. There are going to be Muslims who are atheists in it, and I’m going to tell those stories. Some very religious people, some people who weren’t, some people who are considered Muslim, but they’re atheists, their stories. Me knowing them personally, as a white, Christian, American male from Long Island, I think gives me more legitimacy within my group, because that’s who I want to influence. I want to influence my groups. I figured if my name was Mohammed, and I was from Syria, and I was writing the same book, that it would have less impact on you know, ‘Stefan from Paris.’

TAT:  Tim, you’re a father, writer, volunteer artist, a friend. Who knows what else? Who is Tim Clancy when he is in none of those roles?

TC: That’s the best question of all. I think I’m a seeker, seeking the spiritual path, which is a lifetime journey. It’s something that I hold dear to my heart and it’s something that I’ve been more and more dedicated to the older I get. Just seeking that inner peace, becoming conscious, and calming the mind. A lot of my day is that and what I do, whether it be conscious walking or conscious eating, just being aware and mindful of being.

It’s quite challenging, you’d think it’d be easy, right? I am, so I should be aware that I am. But how unaware actually, of how we are, what we are in this world, and why we’re here. I’m pretty content trying to live in the moment, as well as being a dad and being a writer or serving others.

TAT: From humankind to kind humans? Is this transition possible? How to achieve it, how to make it happen?

TC: I would argue that it doesn’t need to be a transition. It just needs to be a return. I think inherently we’re good. I don’t believe we’re born to be destructive. I don’t think we’re born to go to war. I don’t think we’re born to see color or race. We’re programmed. How do we reprogram ourselves? I think that’s through mindfulness. I think that’s through understanding, awareness, love. We all love to feel that. Why we have gone on a largely destructive path must be a karmic thing. I don’t have the answers to that. But I think we’re all inherently kind. And it feels good to be kind. It feels good for all parties involved. So, why not live a model of life where it’s a win-win, where everybody feels good, and everybody benefits from each other and what we do and how we do it? I think it’s a matter of how we look at things.

For me, the war in Bosnia that I experienced was the best experience of my life by far: in the absolute darkest times that you can imagine, those human bonds, the willingness to give your life, literally, for others who you’ve never even met. I saw the most beautiful side of human nature.

The negative energy is still very heavy in the Balkans in the whole West. We live under a cloud of some negative energy because of our path, because of collective karma. Karmic things just sort of poison the well a little bit and it’s up to us. We have a choice, we can work on it, and it’s up to us.

TAT: Speaking of that cloud of collective karma and possibly a collective trauma, what are your thoughts on the challenges of healing, individually and collectively? What in your experience is most essential for healing, and what most hinders it?

TC: It’s a hard one, particularly here. I think there are a lot of societal stigmas, especially with the male population. I would argue that even 25 years after the war, we are very good at sweeping things under the rug. Either that or this sort of reinforcing convenient narratives: “We were right. They were wrong. We were defending, they were aggressing.” I think the real answer is looking in the mirror. It’s a hard thing to do when we’re dealing with this much trauma and this much pain. It’s a scary thing to confront. The level of trauma is palpable. Not just from this past conflict, but throughout the history of this region. We need to be able to ask for help. We need to have the help that we need. Where does that help come from? You don’t want to burden other people or you can’t be a burden. So, there are a lot of Catch-22s here – the karmic energy, the war trauma, there’s PTSD, and there is not enough help. There’s the stigma of getting help. There’s pride, particularly among the males, feeling like you need help, but seeing it is seen as a weakness. In my opinion, seeking help is a sign of strength, saying, “I can’t do everything on my own. I need some help.” I think there’s no single formula to the healing process, I think it needs to start on many fronts. It means support from the family and support from the people we love. But most of all, it’s being committed to it ourselves and understanding what healing we can do on our own, as hard and painful as it may be. It’s very easy to point the finger. You can always find someone to point the finger at. But the blame game doesn’t help anything if we’re not asking ourselves, “What role did I play to contribute to this?” I can blame everybody around me, and I’m not going to fix anything. I can’t control them, I can’t control those external factors. What I do have control over is me. We’ve seen retreats with Mohanji, you know the level of pain that people go through, and you can see the healing process. There we have a master, we have a teacher, we have a mentor, we have a healer, who’s helping us and people are going to him for help. And there’s a reason for that.

TAT: Living in harmony with nature, can also help with healing emotional and personal traumas. Is there a solution for our planet? How can we motivate people to start living more consciously and take the responsibility for the legacy we’re leaving for future gallery generations?

TC: In my personal opinion, nature is the best medicine there is. There are so many subtle, loving, gentle messages on how we could and should live in harmony with others and with ourselves. That’s my power spot. That’s where I feel closest to creation, to God, to whatever we may want to call it. I don’t know if the planet needs saving. I think we do. We’re the only species on the earth, which has destructive habits and this bizarre concept that we control it, that we are separate from it and not a part of it. This is one of the things that attracted me a lot to Mohanji, service, and dedication to service. The other thing is nature and our connectivity to it, us being a part of it. That’s where a lot of healing has happened for me. There are so many wonderful messages in the wind, in the water running down, or in the squirrel that hops across the road. There are a lot of answers if we’re willing to listen.

I think a huge part of us staying sane in this whole region is that there is a strong connection to nature. People here do have a traditional, historical, strong connection. We just need to rebuild that connection or restore it a little bit. We have an indigenous culture as well, which I think is still at least somewhat alive in the Western Balkans, which is being good stewards of the earth and learning how to plant and understand seeds, understanding seasons, and how to survive and do well. And if you go to a village anywhere in the Western Balkans, you’re going to be welcomed, like a king or queen, people are generally happy, they’re hard workers.

I’ve always been inspired by the traditional Highlands lifestyles here. I think there’s a lot to learn from indigenous cultures, including our own, that have long died out. There are scriptures from 3000 years ago or more. These are indigenous ideas. These are indigenous cultures, these are indigenous concepts. It’s because they were connected. They were connected to the One, to the core. I think this disconnect in the West is what’s killing us. Not just in the West, everywhere, but particularly in the West. I guess I speak on behalf of the West because that’s where I’m from.

TAT:  What are the best and worst parts of the Balkans and the Balkan cultures? 

TC: I’ll start with the best. People here are extremely welcoming. I’ve never experienced that type of hospitality. We were exceptionally welcoming and kind, but to each other, I think there’s room for improvement. 

The worst thing here, the thing that locks us energetically, is our lack of trust in each other. I don’t mean between nations or ethnic groups. I mean generally speaking. If I meet someone, wherever, in Spain or in New York, I generally tend to give them the benefit of the doubt as a human being and I’m not going to them with suspicion and doubt. Here the starting point is that you have to earn my trust. I’m not going to give it to you because you might cheat me. It’s hard to open your heart when you don’t trust. Trust has many levels, it can be just in ordinary interactions between people. But it could also be on healing levels – “I’m not going to hurt you, and you can share your pain or your burden with me too.” Particularly among the males, I’ll speak to any men who are listening: being a man is not being macho or not talking down about women. It’s not about expensive or fast cars. It’s the exact opposite. I think that somewhere, probably just the collective trauma of a long and tumultuous history in this region, the male energy is very aggressive. I think it’s in deep, deep pain and needs a lot of healing.

The very strong patriarchal mentality and aggressiveness towards each other, towards women, is just violence. Circles of aggression and violence keep reoccurring for a reason. We have not adequately addressed that. I think that without the female energy in this region, it just seems to be in a constant state of war. There’s a lot of frustration and a lot of aggression. I think we seriously need to address that and deal with that, individually and collectively.

TAT:  If a man were to come to you asking for advice, what would you say?

TC: First, in the mirror, as an individual man, to be aware that there is a problem. A man could be the kindest, most gentle, aware person. And as soon as there’s three or four or five of us, the tone changes, or attitude changes, or energy changes. We start talking about material things, we start talking down about women. I find it sometimes shocking, the tone that we take on, particularly in groups. Everything starts in the mirror, everything starts on a personal level, but also calling each other out. We need to be brave and have the courage to say, “Hey, man, this is not okay. Don’t speak about her like that. It’s not kind, it’s completely unnecessary.” Particularly with violence, calling people out, or trying to prevent that. It’s hard. It’s hard in a place where that is widely accepted as, “That’s just the way things are.” It’s incredibly upsetting, not just to our children or to the women, but it’s damaging to us, on an individual and collective level. I think that’s why we see repeated cycles.

This may seem silly, but if I walk into a yoga class, which is always 99% women, if there are two or three guys in there, I’m so happy. Not just because I’m not going to be the only dude in the yoga class, but because it gives me hope that there are those of us that understand that there’s a serious imbalance of body, mind and spirit. And it has to come from us. It has to come from within. I think the female energy in the Balkans has saved us time and time again. It’s strong, it’s healing, it’s loving. The male energy is severely distorted and out of whack. So, yeah, I mean, I agree. It’s not just the Balkans, it’s all over the world for sure. But the patriarch is on his last legs, I don’t believe that this model will last forever. I think that we will understand that the matriarch and the power of women are a way forward to being more peaceful, more harmonious, and more connected.

TAT: What are the feminine qualities that you would advise a man to embody? 

TC: I think it’s more about recognizing the female energy that we have, that we have skewed and suppressed. It’s okay to recognize and embrace our feminine side, being softer and being kind is not weak. Crying doesn’t mean that you’re a wimp or that you’re weak. The affection that we show towards our children and the attention and time that we give to our children – we have very important roles, we can never replace the role of the other.

I think the illusion of the weaker sex is absurd. I can’t imagine what childbirth would be like. The level of pain, let alone all the other sacrifices that women and mothers make for their partners, their children, and their families, needs to be honored. Being a full-time mom at home, for example, is much harder than me going to work nine to five, five days a week. But the men come home and bitch about having a hard day at work. There’s a tremendous amount to learn. First and foremost, I think, is respect. Because it’s a hard job – being a mom, being a woman, being a sister, being a wife.

TAT: This reminds me of something that Mohanji wrote years ago, where he said that womanhood is motherhood. Interestingly, you mentioned being a father, I’d like to get your perspective on this: do you think manhood is fatherhood?

TC: It doesn’t have to be. It depends on who you ask. Being a father changed me dramatically as a man, as a human being. I don’t want to call it a labor of love, because I don’t consider it labor, but there’s a huge responsibility that comes with it. How to navigate those waters where, yes, there are children, so they need our guidance. They need us there, they need their pillars and their support. They need us to be their role models, but also to allow them to be who and what they need to be. They’re here for a reason as well and they chose me as their father as well, and I need to accept that it’s very much a two-way street. We have just as much to learn from them as they have to learn from us.

It’s hard for a parent to see their kid potentially going in the wrong direction or not doing ‘the right thing,’ but those are paths and decisions that they also have to learn from. Sometimes we make bad decisions, or sometimes we’re on the wrong part of our path. That’s part of the journey, too. Being able to accept that is sometimes hard for a parent. There’s a tremendous emotional attachment. But, like with anything, I think loving someone is letting them go. Loving someone on the level that we’re aiming to achieve, is letting them go and letting them be the people that they’ve come to be. I find fatherhood to be a wonderful school for me.

Sometimes it’s, “Oh, Dad, we’re getting another philosophical speech,” and I say, “This is a good one, just Just hear me out.” Maybe I started too early, but I know that they hear it. I know that they process it.

TAT:  Can you speak about selfless service and your experiences in the war and an anecdote or two?

TC: A little bit of background is important. I come from an Irish American family. They were a fairly strict, traditional, Catholic family. Community service is a big part of who and what we are. My uncle was a fireman and policeman, my aunt was a nurse, my mom was a teacher, my sister is a teacher, and my brother is in medicine. My second cousins are nurses, firemen and policemen. There’s always been a really strong sense of public service, of community service. I think that stems from coming from Ireland, which was very poor. We understood that we were in this together, and we can’t do it alone. If we’re all in the same boat, then why not step up and play an important role to support ourselves and each other? Growing up, I was always involved in things like that. My aunt worked for the World Hunger Project, and I can remember being a 12-year-old kid going door to door, raising money for my aunt’s organization, raising money for children in South America, Africa, or whatever. I’ve always enjoyed it. It was a natural thing for me. When I left the States I came across a group of people who were protesting the war in former Yugoslavia. They told me about several organizations that they had come across that were placing volunteers in refugee camps to do social work with women and children.

I went for three weeks to work in a refugee camp where there were only women and children, the men had all been processed through concentration camps, and most of them were either in prison or dead. Three weeks turned into three months and three months into three years and three years into three decades.

Service comes in all different forms, you don’t have to go to a war zone to serve other people. You don’t have to leave your village to serve other people. It doesn’t mean you have to be a hero. Service is not about being a hero. It’s not about our ego. It’s really about humility and understanding that any of us at any given time can be in the other’s position. How would we want to be treated if we were the underdog at any given point in time, if we didn’t have food on the table or if we were stuck in a warzone? It can be any of us, you know? Who knows?

It’s hard to even focus on any one particular incident, but I will say that the most beautiful acts of human solidarity and kindness and service to others that I’ve witnessed were during the war, during our darkest times. I don’t believe there’s a singular answer to the problems of the world, but I do believe that service is certainly a part of it. I was an angry 22-year-old activist, thinking I was fighting for the right thing. I’m not angry anymore. What I do, I do with love and out of love and it’s greatly rewarding.

I think it cleans the karmic slate for future generations as well. When we’re serving others they benefit from it, you benefit from it, we’re cleaning our past, we’re carving a path to the future. There’s a lot of goodness in service on so many levels. It can simply be helping your old grandma’s neighbor, who can’t work in the garden much anymore, plant seeds or go to the supermarket for her. Or, as Mohanji says, plant a tree so a bird can eat some fruit. Service comes in all different forms. I believe that what I’m trying to put down on paper now and through my books is another kind of service. I’m not writing a book to be a best seller or to be famous. I’m doing it because I think the experience that I’ve had has taught me a lot of things that I think other people could benefit from hearing or reading. Service doesn’t have to be a 24/7 job, but there’s something, there’s always something. There’s a great quote from a great African American musician, Gil Scott Heron, who said, “No one can do everything, but everybody can do something.”

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