“Trauma stories can reveal not only the criminal actions committed, but also the justifications given for those actions. Trying to understand the motivations of the perpetrators can be risky, because such efforts can seem like a rationalization or even an acceptance of the aggressor’s brutality. But the attempt at understanding is essential to the healing process because the bodies and minds of the traumatized people are imprinted by the belief system of their victimizers. Long after the perpetrators have vanished, their ideologies continue to prey on the minds of the survivors.”
Richard F. Mollica, Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths of Hope and Recovery in a Violent World
It can be painfully confusing to see major changes occurring in one’s society without having an explanatory framework. When the tides of history churn up the waters of everyday life, even the least informed are caught up in the momentum of the moment. There just seems to be something in the air, as we say. We avoid painful confusion whenever possible so it is not surprising to see a plethora of explanations accompany any serious disruptions to business as usual.
Everyone is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on these days. That is certainly what mindful ecology is trying to do. The disruption is affecting all of us, not just journalists and diplomats, CEOs and politicians of every stripe. For example, here is an edgy take by science fiction author Charles Stross that takes the ecological crisis seriously. The sci-fi elements in his post are colorful but the central points he makes remain all too conceivable, to my way of thinking.
Some explanations at times such as this are more helpful than others because they hone closer to the real causes and effects involved. When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans the airwaves were filled with talk about climate change, for example, but there was also no lack of preachers assuring their listeners that this hurricane was a sign from god that this city of Jazz decadence was being punished for its sinful ways. Now that hurricanes Sandy, Andrew, and Matthew have all joined in the destruction of cities, that later explanation has proved itself less than helpful. Specifically, while demonizing populations, which encourages scapegoat violence, the theological explanation has proven itself incapable of inspiring the necessary changes in lifestyles and policies that are needed to avoid even worse disasters in the future.
Chaos scares us. The mind confronted with changes that threaten to spin out of control busies itself constructing an explanatory framework. The framework becomes a psychological bulwark against fears that might otherwise incapacitate us. We see the same process in abused children who work hard to find some means of placing their abuse within the context of the rest of their lives. All of us adults do the same thing, though hopefully without the desperation of identity protection involved in child abuse. As we deal with the fears and cruelty of our day to day encounter with each other and with terrifying news events, we are organizing these events with the help of whatever background beliefs we subscribe to. The mind is a meaning maker, this is how it does what it does.
Those core beliefs direct our attention to some things, for they have become meaningful and important to us. The core beliefs also direct us to ignore, or dismiss as unimportant, those things that do not seem relevant to us.
This semi-conscious network of beliefs informs our experience by supplying us with what is true, for us, about how the world works and our place in it. This is not just an intellectual exercise, something many a teacher, preacher and rhetorician have failed to fully appreciate. These deep seated beliefs are imprinted in the body as much as in the mind. They are formed from the sum of our experiences, including those experiences we have participated in vicariously through empathy. The subjectivity of consciousness, as we encounter it moment by moment, rides the crest of the whole of our lives’ experiences. Those experiences – as we have know them – have been captured within the imprints our nervous system has carved into our body-mind. This is what the nervous system is doing as it ceaselessly processes information. It is this whole, this sum of everything the body has ever known and its reflection in the mind, that has shaped and formed the being we are today.
Children raised in fundamentalist households who break free of their early mind conditioning have managed to alter or replace beliefs at this deeper level. Children raised in physically and sexually abusive households who break free of their early body conditioning have managed to alter or replace beliefs at this deeper level as well. Though healing in the first case may involve more intellectual work and the second case more physical work, we have learned that both are best healed with a combination of cognitive therapy and body work. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma states all this quite clearly. This is yet more evidence that the Cartesian split is a faulty hypothesis.
The implications are not ones our society is ready to accept. It means that the man who punches you in the face is also messing with your belief structure. And, the man who force-feeds you cognitive double binds is also messing with your physiology. It is something you might want to consider the next time you turn on the TV.
This is very similar to the point Alice Miller has been making for years about how dictators and mass murders are formed by physical abuse in their childhoods. As she writes in Free From Lies: Discovering Your True Needs, “Blows inflicted on adults count as grievous bodily harm or torture; those inflicted on children go by the name of upbringing.” She asserts that adults who have not processed the scars left by their childhood abuse become enamored with violence. They are driven to pursue a revenge fantasy against their parents or other abusers. By her reading of history Hitler, Mao, and Stalin murdered tens of millions of individuals due to this dark need first implanted during their own nightmare childhoods. From the prevalence of violent “entertainment” in our modern times it is evident that the abuse of the young remains widespread.
What a foolish idea that abuses can be heaped on our young without end and no consequences would ever befall the perpetrators. In the twisted logic of intergenerational abuse, that is simply not the case. Wars, torture, genocide and finally nuclear weapons are the result for all to see of the secret deeds we thought were hidden from the world. Interdependence rules the universe we encounter objectively, is it so crazy to suggest it also rules our subjectivity? How can I be happy in my Porsche when I know most of my genetic brothers and sisters are deprived because I have taken more than my share? What else do you think it means that the United States has about five percent of the global population and uses about twenty-five percent of the fossil fuel resources available planet wide?
It hurts to wake up every day and face this injustice. It hurts us all. It would hurt less if we were realistically working on policies and cultural changes aimed at rebalancing the income disparities haunting our world. Many, many people do this work every day, but instead of following that path it looks like we are going to follow glitz and glamour right over the cliff into the worst possible future outcomes imaginable. Shouldn’t need come before luxury?
Forgive me, this is too simple. I am sad and angry. My heart is broken; I see us drifting into inquisitions and holy wars. I am frightened uranium and hydrogen weapons will be used to assault living populations and damage ecosystems to the point they are made inhospitable to life for tens of thousands of years. What will it take to move from childish dependency on authority figures to full adult citizenship? First they came for the Hispanics, but I did not speak out, because I was not Hispanic. . .
Is there a realistic chance at an alternative future than the one we are cooking up? I suggest there might be if we are able to begin introducing into the public discussion the full weight of what the science of ecology is teaching us about how we must live together on a planet of limited resources.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a political framework, everything looks to be an issue of power, status and wealth. When all you have is a religious framework, everything looks to be an issue of sin and salvation. When all you have is a sociological framework, everything looks to be a question of institutions. When all you have is a psychological framework, everything looks to be an issue of mental health and sanity. When all you have is a scientific framework, everything looks to be a question of ignorance and knowledge. None of these inheritances, it should be pointed out, have proven themselves capable of providing a properly proportionate response to the ecological crisis.
A proper education will provide students with a bit of knowledge about each of these subjects, all in the context of history and literature so they appreciate the relative nature of current knowledge by understanding a little bit about what changes and what stays the same in the human saga. Education feeds subjectivity. This education is also necessary if we are to avoid bringing a knife to a gun fight, as it were. What we are facing today is complicated. Students, and we are all students, need to be given access to a full set of cognitive tools to use in their ongoing work of making sense of the world and their place in it. Reason and imagination working well together mirror the mind and body working harmoniously. Metaphor and symbol then serve the human being. The only other option is to lose ourselves, lose our souls, in maelstroms of madness; bewitched and enchanted by our own symbolic productions.
Concern about ecology has taught me to be wary of all the belief systems that exalt an unknowable state they claim awaits us after death when it is at the expense of allowing reason to rule their believer’s day to day lives. Too many true believers in bomb vests and tanks have clouded our vision with their noisy insistence that their cause is God’s. I am moved by my fellow humans who are so effected by the pain and suffering they encounter that they insist we must not live this way. I agree with them this far, I share their concern and their compassion. Where I cannot go is where they take the next step into violence, where they paint the whole universe black and seek a Gnostic deliverance from it in a future utopia. With the red gleam of angry fanaticism in their eyes, they claim to be certain about things no man can be certain about; be it the future of mankind on earth or its future in “heaven and hell.” They can kill or torture without qualm to bring about the final kingdom of peace; be it religious or secular.
These true believers torture and abuse other people in a psychological reaction formation because they must repress the awareness of their own body’s vulnerability at any cost. The helplessness and humiliation of the hurt child within is just too much for their ego to bear, it would shatter at the revelation. Living in the mental dogma castles they have inherited, or built, leaves them without a sensory feedback mechanism by which they might write some reality checks. This might seem to be ideal for a society that worships unemotional objectivity as much as ours, but in fact they have cut themselves off from the mind-body processes by which love and compassion, understanding and true friendships are recognized as real. These are the powers that can see an ego through its major transformations of death and rebirth. When they are lacking, as they are for children who did not have an empathetic witness during their years of suffering, the terrors and fears involved can seem infinite.
We laughingly acknowledge psychopaths among us rise to become CEOs and politicians. This may prove to be distinctly unfunny.
Somewhere on the spectrum between individual relationships with bullies and assholes on one side, and societal relationships with mass murdering dictators and corporation’s economic hit men on the other, lies the future we are creating for ourselves. It does not have to be this way. We could, like parents once abused as children who work to heal that abuse, find that the ability to express what is real about our pain in adult conversation heals us of our symptoms. We could, as a society, become mindful of ecology. It lacks the flash of magical thinking, yet offers the comfort of the real. We could begin to discuss the full implications of what it entails instead of being satisfied with a few headlines and sound bites. That adult conversation would include the full weight of the emotional, spiritual and political aspects of our human predicament.
Make no mistake. What we intuitively fear might be happening, is happening. There is a real world out beyond our ubiquitous 2D screens. The nightmares of history have once again turned their attention to the fortunes of the over-developed world. Though there are echoes of “Never Again” reverberating among us, they ring without resonance so far. After all, in a cold and uncaring universe, what do a few genocides and species extinctions matter, right?
I think it is time we recognize the consequences of the ideologies that paint the universe black. Democracy has an element of the utopian. It inspires reform movements and the hope that education will improve the lives of human beings and the societies in which they live. Seeing just how far we are from a just society can drive people into the arms of utopian dreams that are much less in keeping with the nature of man and his social relations. Then the temptation to try to remake the world in the image of an ideological utopia can become irresistible. A revolution led to the founding of the United States. A revolution also led to the terrors of Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin. . .
We have been unclear about who the real enemies of our species are. We have been scapegoating people, projecting the demonic Other onto the other tribe. This has blinded us to the mind-body traps to which we are prone. The things that can drive us to madness under a civilized veneer are the double binds created by traumatic abuse. The good news is that these are knots that can be undone; undone with the sword of intellect guided by the heart. Individuals learn the skill all the time. Whether it takes the human species ten years, or ten hundred thousand to finally recognize this clearly and use it to our advantage, the truth remains.
May you have good contemplations.