There are two parts to this article that are related: the first is to do with the external reality of what we read and hear about things and how we decided what is true, and the second is how we can understand the internal effect on us of what we read and hear.
We are living in a time when we are faced with problems we have never had to face before and an avalanche of ‘information’ about these problems we have never encountered before. How are we to make up our minds what is what and how to react, what to think and where to put our allegiances, who to believe and how to decide who to believe? And what does it all evoke in us and how can we understand our reactions? Is my strong reaction to this or that from a healthy, clear-sighted impulse, or is it from my survival self – and if so, is the news I am reading actually re-stimulating my own personal trauma? and if so what do I make of it then?
Here are some examples:
We are all aware of the fact that Israel and Palestine are at war, again. The flow of information coming out of Gaza, with horrifying detail, is everywhere to see. Israel claims it is defending itself, and people rarely talk about the Palestinians right to defend themselves. It seems unfair. With the flood on social media of information, pitiful stories, photos and videos it is hard not to feel shock, revulsion, concern, compassion, rage and… also… helpless and overwhelmed. We ‘share’ news on our facebook page, or tweet on such ‘information’, usually assuming it’s true. Of course we do. But what do we really know?
It’s easy to be shocked by what is happening in Gaza… it’s there before our eyes in these news reports and pitiful messages from local Palestinians, and I’m not in any way saying it isn’t true… I am sure it is… as sure as I can be, since I live in the UK, and I’m not ‘on the ground’ in Gaza. I ‘follow’ journalists I have developed a trust in, and pretty much mostly trust what they tell me… that is all I can do really. Even if one were on the ground in Gaza, would one know really the whole story? I doubt it.
Having personally gone through feeling outrage at what Israel seems to be perpetrating on Gaza, here is a link I found today to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by a respected journalist, Paul Sheehan, under the title The Hamas Trap: Hidden Labyrinth was wired for War. It’s about the tunnels the Palestinians have been (allegedly… because unless I am there and can see with my own eyes I must go on the say of others, and so… allegedly) digging, and their proposed use as a means (according to Israel) of a planned joint invasion of Israel by Palestine and Iran. Some of the tunnels apparently are large enough to allow large vehicles through.
As I read this article I could feel my reactions and feelings changing… was this true? If so why was no one else writing about it? But if they were writing this kind of stuff, why wasn’t I seeing it? All good valid questions, and it forced me to consider what I was reading all the time about Gaza, why there was so much of it and what kind of reactions was it evoking in me.
Here’s another example: an article by George Monbiot, a British environmental and political activist, entitled “Eat Meat and Save the World?“, in which he discusses the claims made by a man called Allan Savory that if we increase livestock (ie eat more meat), this will reduce desertification and reverse climate change (TED talk by Savory). Whopping claims, and as Monbiot asks: where is the scientific evidence?
I won’t go into the arguments here… you can read it for yourself if you are so inclined. All I want to point out is the plethora or claims and counter-claims that we have to navigate through.
One last example, a big one, is the way in which, since the 1950’s our dietary lives have rocked from one ‘fact’ to another ‘fact’: low-fat, no-fat, trans-fat, poly-un fat, only eat vegetable fat, must have meat fat, margarine is good – butter bad, to now: butter and animal fat necessary for the brain and margarine toxic; vegetarian versus meat, health supplements versus eating healthily, 5-a-day must have, low carb, no carb, low calorie, no calorie, salt is bad – salt is good, fibre must have, high cholesterol, high blood-pressure, this diet and that diet. No wonder we have an epidemic of eating disorders as primary survival strategies… we are all out of our minds trying to figure out what on earth to eat!
We are constantly rocked and de-stabilised by the info-highway we have to negotiate daily on all topics that affect our lives. Our emotional and psychological lives are constantly being influenced by this barrage of news and views. Just think for a moment what it might have been like a couple of hundred years ago to live in a small community without all this information!
Back to Gaza for a moment. Here’s some information from an article entitled 7 Things to Consider before Choosing a Side in the Middle East Conflict by Ali A Rizvi published in the Huffington Post:
“Over 700 people have died in Gaza as of this writing. Muslims have woken up around the world. But is it really because of the numbers?
“Bashar al-Assad has killed over 180,000 Syrians, mostly Muslim, in two years — more than the number killed in Palestine in two decades. Thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Syria have been killed by ISIS in the last two months. Tens of thousands have been killed by the Taliban. Half a million black Muslims were killed by Arab Muslims in Sudan.”
The figures are staggering… and it isn’t to diminish what is happening in Gaza that I quote this, it’s to try and somehow find a truth, or to see how difficult finding truth in all of this information is for us.
Here’s the next quote from this same article based on a BBC report:
“Amazingly, many of the graphic images of dead children attributed to Israeli bombardment that are circulating online are from Syria… Many of the pictures you’re seeing are of children killed by Assad, who is supported by Iran, which also funds Hezbollah and Hamas. What could be more exploitative of dead children than attributing the pictures of innocents killed by your own supporters to your enemy simply because you weren’t paying enough attention when your own were killing your own?
That last sentence is so shocking. What, indeed, could be more exploitative of dead children, but also of us, the duped receivers of such information. (I’m not suggesting that all of the news we get from Gaza is bogus… just that some of it may possibly be).
Our reactions and how we can make sense of them
Well, what I really wanted to write about is our reactions to all of this, and how we can make sense of them, because I think it is only by doing so that we can move to a clear idea of how to proceed individually.
I think there are two things that subtly make the Gaza-Israel conflict unconsciously attractive to us: one is that it gives us a clear opportunity to take sides, and the other is that on the surface the situation looks obvious and simple to understand. Of course in fact it isn’t, but it seems to simplify the issue into a clear perpetrator/victim situation, an example of iconic victim (Israel) turned perpetrator, and an iconic image of perpetration of a seemingly stronger entity over a weaker one. It is also rooted in one of the greatest world dramas and examples of mass perpetrator/victim dynamics of the last 100 years, the holocaust. Just for a moment… the figures of that event are indeed staggering, 11 million killed, 6 million of which were Jews.
Charlotte Joko Beck, the Zen Buddhist teacher of San Diego who died in 2011, wrote in one of her books (I’m not sure which because I’m not at home with my library, either Everyday Zen or Nothing Special: Living Zen… I have both) something like “we are always looking for something to get angry about”. I’m not sure of the actual words, but the idea is there. The question is, and maybe she answered this, I can’t remember, why? What is this need to get angry?
In terms of trauma theory the answer it seems to me is this: it helps us avoid our own frightening victim experience of helplessness, overwhelm and terror, and it fulfils a deep feeling of wanting revenge for our traumatisation as a way, again, of not really engaging at the deepest level with that trauma… I take my revenge on this person, and that… I become a perpetrator in order not to feel the terrifying unconscious experience of my own trauma.
I recently spent 5 days on a residential with Franz Ruppert and students of the training I am co-running with my Norwegian colleague, Tore Kval in Denmark. Ruppert was teaching us about his theories on perpetrators and victims, which, briefly, goes like this:
Trauma creates victims – in other words when someone experiences an event that causes trauma in them (see my post ‘surviving after trauma‘) they split their psyche into the split-off trauma experience, the remaining healthy part and the new surviving part who’s only function is to maintain the split so that trauma remains split off and is not re-experienced. (To understand a good definition of what a trauma is click here.) Relational traumas involve a perpetrator (one who harms another) and a victim (the person harmed).
The survival of trauma brings into being many strategies in order to maintain the split, strategies of control, denial, manipulation and distraction. These strategies as lived out often fall into two forms of being, what Ruppert calls the ‘victim attitude’ and the ‘perpetrator attitude’. Most people will favour one over the other in a general way of being in their survival part, probably dependent on many influencing conditions, however everyone who has been a victim will have both attitudes available to them as survival modes.
The ‘victim attitude’ – this is a way of being that utilises helplessness and vulnerability as a survival strategy, ie a way of not actually experiencing the true state of victimhood – the actual trauma. So the attitude of being a victim in fact masks the reality of the actual trauma. So, anyone who has suffered a trauma was in that moment a victim, and the trauma victim experience is split off so we do not feel it, but to adopt as a survival mode a ‘victim attitude’ is quite different from the real victim issue.
The ‘perpetrator attitude’ – similarly to the ‘victim attitude’ the ‘perpetrator attitude’ is also a way of not feeling the reality of one’s actual trauma. When in the perpetrator mode one deflects away from the true unconscious split-off trauma experience by causing harm to another, usually weaker, person… and so, in a sense, making them feel the split off experience of the perpetrator that he or she avoids feeling.
Perpetrators create victims, but they are also always victims themselves. Their perpetration is just so that they do not feel the vulnerability and feelings of their real victim status. So the cycle tends to be: victims become perpetrators so that they don’t have to feel and deal with their trauma, and all perpetrators are also always victims. So in this sense no one is just plain ‘evil’, instead we can understand that all perpetrators will have as part of their make-up some trauma, probably quite an early trauma.
The hardest thing for us to do is really feel our trauma, our real victimhood, and since the earliest point at which we were traumatised is often when we were very small, even before we were born, this makes trauma a very difficult topic to read about, work with and resolve.
The Info-Highway effect:
So how does this relate to the info-highway we negotiate every day of our lives? Well one thing is that reading all of this ‘info’ material is highly likely to re-stimulate our trauma, our sense of helplessness and overwhelm, our victimhood.
To read or listen to accounts of atrocities that are taking place hundreds of miles away from us, orchestrated by powerful people, politicians and corporate entities (many of whom benefit financially from such conflict), whom we feel powerless to influence, living our own small private lives, puts us in touch with our own unresolved trauma feelings, particularly our feeling of overwhelming helplessness.
This re-stimulates that place in us that is unbearable, helpless and suffering… and we can’t bear it. So what we are likely to do next is to go into our survival strategies. We may deflect by changing tv channels, or go and eat something from the fridge, or we may get angry and passionate and furiously re-tweet or share on facebook that which has outraged us (I know this is one of mine!) … and that is us going into our victim attitude and thence into our perpetrator attitude so as not to feel our own, private, shattering, helplessness and pain. To really know the victim in us is frightening… Much easier to get angry with someone else, to latch on to an external victim/perpetrator process and take sides. But the problem with taking sides is it re-stimulates our victim experience, and as likely as not turns us into perpetrators.
So how to be with such external realities?
As with all situations in which our trauma is re-stimulated, and we are projected into our survival strategies, our best course of action is to realise the personal element of the situation, to recognise we have gone into survival mode and understand that it is our own trauma that has been stimulated. As someone said recently in a workshop I was at: “If I recognise the perpetrator within me, if I see my actions as the actions of a perpetrator, then I realise I must also be a victim, which means I have a trauma, and I can then address that trauma and integrate the splits within myself.”
In my view it is from recognising the dynamics of perpetrator and victim within me, and dealing with my own trauma, that I can then develop a clearer perspective to bring to understanding the truth in external situations such as Palestine and Israel. If I don’t do that, then all to easily I can get caught up in the external victim/perpetrator dynamic and lose my ability to make balanced, clear choices and actions.
Too often choosing sides collapses us into the perpetrator/victim dynamics involved, entangling us as much with our own trauma as with the external situation, and thereby we lose our clarity. Once chosen it is more difficult to re-choose or de-choose… once caught up in perpetrator/victim dynamics in a sense we are lost within the maelstrom of our own trauma.
This is not to say that there is no action that is right or possible in a situation such as the Israel-Gaza situation… I am saying that we are better able to decide the best action for us as individuals if we are as clear as we can be in our perception of the external situation, rather than becoming entangled with it and with everyone else’s reactions and actions.
Comments welcome… you have to register in order to make a comment, and all comments are held for mediation, so don’t expect them to appear immediately.