reactions to conflict – thoughts on Gaza-Israel

Who do we believe… and how do we decide who to believe?

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 Gazashocked 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

Charlotte Joko Beck

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:

Slide3Trauma 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.


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reactions to conflict – thoughts on Gaza-Israel — 14 Comments

  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking. I don’t know enough about your field of work to reply on your terms, as it were. Some thoughts, anyway; not very joined up, just as they come to me.
    I remember reading in his published diary that the American poet Theodore Roethke asked himself why he needed people in his life with whom he could be angry. He wondered why anger energised him. He didn’t answer his own question, nor was the answer necessarily rhetorical. But I think the fact that he got energy from anger IS part of the answer.
    As to information overload, one approach is to refuse to tap into too much information. Against the argument that the more information you have, the better informed you are, you could say that there comes a saturation point of information beyond which you can no longer think properly because your head is so crammed full. I do not mean that one should turn a blind eye to critical facts. I have consciously read a lot this year about the First World War and its origins. 100 years on to the day, less two, and top historians still hold diametrically opposed views. Some factors which enter that equation : six empires (British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian and French); pre-existing war plans; the rise of European socialism; a Liberal Government in Britain; economic and financial considerations; sizes of armies; potential sizes of armies; leadership or lack of it; a feeling, to which many key players testified, of fate/destiny or whatever one calls it; the nationality of the historian; and so it could go on.
    Changing the theme – what is the ideal detached state from which I could ever make the correct assessment of such a situation? Would I have to be God? But what if God is wrong? Is there not an inherent danger, a lot of hubris, in telling myself I have reached such and such a point of detachment, integration? How would I ever know I had? How could anyone else know I had? Why should they trust me? The great German poet Friedrich Holderlin famously asked “what is the poet’s responsibility in time of war? Is it to fight for a just cause, to retreat into myself and write poems while people are blown to bits, to paint a picture and call it Guernica,to be a pacifist or what?” Owen said of that war, in one of his poems, that “This is no petty case of right and wrong.” In other words, you people back at home, don’t try to devise a neat theory about all this stuff while we, the reluctant pragmatists, shoot each other and detonate bombs underneath each other. Owen also said that “the poetry is in the pity.” By which I suppose he meant that the distilled essence of what was going on there was not in anyone’s poem but simply IN THE ACT OF FEELING PITY. Who is the true phenomenologist? Who really sees things as they are in themselves? Richard Betts 6/8/14.

    • Richard, thank you for your varied and thoughtful reply. Of course we are always vulnerable, and cannot ever be free of all of these difficulties, and nor should we be detached from them of course… there is a ground I think where one can at least think about the impact of such events, and consider what my passion is based on, and whether it is helpful or whether it is just perpetuating the cycle of aggression and retaliation. I love the poetic input you bring to this debate. Thank you.

  2. Dear Viv , what an erudite , beautifully expressed contribution to understanding this situation from your specialist perspective . I know I have been mightily triggered by the situation , and felt very uncomfortable last week when I admitted to the feelings of hatred that I was experiencing in my Buddhist sangha when witnessing the deliberate and systematic slaughter and persecution of innocent people .but I really take on board your point that we may be being fed misleading information. And that it is our own unresolved trauma that is being re stimulated .
    However if we are not affected deeply by what’s happening is that because we have less unresolved trauma in our systems or perhaps are dissociated from the pain and suffering ?
    I really value your perspective . Love Judy

    • Good question Judy… no I think we must be affected of course, otherwise one must ask the question: “why do I feel nothing in a situation that definitely does call for some emotional reaction”. Feeling something for a situation and other people is one thing, it’s the getting caught up in persecutory dynamics where one starts to function through one’s perpetrator energy I think that is the problem. Part of the dynamic that we can see is the never-ending spiral of aggression and retaliation that has been the feature of much of the 20th and 21st century so far. I noticed my own reaction starting to over-take me… that was the point at which I understood how personally I was becoming entangled with the situation. It was at that point that I started trying to understand more and think about the impact on me. It is a difficult topic, and my blog post is an attempt to try and understand these dynamics better and share my current understanding. Further understanding of course to come! xx

  3. Thank you Vivian, for your thoughtful article.
    Even before the background of Franz Ruppert’s victim-perpeterator theory (which I think is brilliant), I have always felt that the reason people get so caught up with the external news is not to feel their own pain and trauma of victimhood and their own participation as perpetrators.
    I live in the US, and my government is in the perpetual war for decades, killing both the innocent people of other countries and also the souls of the poor soldiers who come home from the war in the countries they fought (which we don’t know enough about, nor do we have the juicy statistics or pictures on the media) – these solders don’t know how to live their lives, traumatized, ostracized in their pain, and with no help…
    This is endemic. And nobody is looking at ourselves. It is so much easier to get angry at Putin, Israel, Hamas, etc. But the pain stirred up by the news goes much deeper to touch all the unhealed places in me, and all the helplessness I feel to effect any difference. So, comes the outrage and the sadness…

  4. Hi There Viv – a very deep and well written arcticle – for me the most important and useful
    is this paragraph – ‘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.’
    As I understand the dilemma of the human being is – anger comes from the choice made to separate from spirit, become embodied and come to this planet to experience anything we choose – freedom of choice – everything we choose to experience we are totally free to do as a learning curve for evolution – outside of this there is no answer because everything we see is of our own collective making/creation – a very difficult one for most to come to grips with however for me my reality !!!! Congrats keep on trucking it is good to have this type of exposure whereby those of us who choose to be involved get a great chance to think !!!!

  5. Here’s a comment from Franz Ruppert:
    Hello Vivian,
    I fully agree with your conclusion: it is best not to take sides in such conflicts, because taking sides is an avoidance strategy from taking trauma seriously – one’s own trauma and the trauma of others. It is a perpetrator and victim attitude to pull others into such conflicts that will not be solved unless the perpetrators and victims are open to address their own trauma. They count dead bodies but they do not feel what it really means. So the public dialogue becomes a perpetrator-to-perpetrator dialogue rather than a real and meaningful one. Franz.

    • Franz: as so often happens, you write a few sentences and encapsulate such a profound reality that I spend the next few days trying to understand what you are saying! What you said in your comment is so dense and reaches to such a profound level of reality. It hit me, again, yesterday just how political, subversive and revolutionary your work is…. and how impossible it is to really understand the world and it’s activities without this understanding of perpetrator/victim… it is literally everywhere, in every dialogic transaction that goes into difference and thence into conflict, when people don’t understand the perpetrator and victim within and collapse into their perpetrator survival self.

  6. Dear Vivian,
    Thank you very much for your thoughtful and sanguine blog. I have actually been deeply distressed by coverage of the conflict over the last weeks, but for different reasons than I suspect many of your other readers have. I have been upset because I have felt the coverage to be extremely disproportionate, one-sided against Israel, not telling the whole story by any stretch of the imagination. The media coverage and online blogs have virtually left Hamas’ and other hardline Arab states roles out of it. They have not mentioned how Hamas terrorise their own people, force them to stay in their homes-deliberately wanting as many casualties as possible in order to gain world sympathy- even though Israel has texted and leafleted them in order to minimised civilian casualties, launching rockets from their homes, schools etc, starting tunnels from mosques etc etc. This stuff barely gets into the press. It is easy enough to access if you have middle east expert friends in academia studying this subject, as I do. But the thing that has upset me on top of that, is how quickly the slide into anti-semitism across Europe and the call the boycotts against Israel when no other such boycotts are called for against countries doing far worse things. The amount of news coverage has been extraordinarily disproportionate to a. the size of the country, b. the degree of terror, and c. compared to other far worse conflict like Syria, Iraq, the Isis beheadings and terrorising of the people in Iraq, the Boko Haram, etc etc…My point ( a little laboured till I get there, sorry!) is that I see Israel, the Jewish state getting singled out for extraordinary bad press and treatment over and above other countries. Or course, this triggers the vulnerable persecution stuff in me..but the question I am most interested in is..why are so many people in the world so predisposed to seeing Israel and the Jews as the persecutor, and why does it so quickly slide into anti-semitism and singling out for exceptionsl and disproportionate repsonses? I am wanting to know what Israel/the Jews represent in so many opeople’s psyches for it to be such a huge response. Religion certainly plays a big’s clear that extremist Islamist ideological rhetoric syas “Detjh to the Jews’…but that still doesn’t explin it enough on a world psche level. I am interested to hear thoughts on this. Regards, Sargam

  7. Dearest Vivian,

    Thanks for your thoughtful words. I would like to add yet another part to this complex dance of trauma and victimhood.

    In my understanding, if we were traumatized we might use one of three strategies or attitudes (and not only two):
    The ‘victim attitude’;
    The ‘perpetrator attitude’;
    The ‘rescuer attitude’.
    All three are masks that covers our victimhood, and are used as a strategy to keep the trauma split off from our reality. As you wrote, this is how we make sure we won’t get in touch with our feeling of helplessness from the actual trauma.

    However, the third attitude – The ‘RESCUER ATTITUDE’ is one we need to pay attention to… It is yet another mask that gives us the illusion that we are in control, that we are in power, that maybe we couldn’t save ourselves in the traumatic situation but we can do something to save someone else… (even if it is just to criticize or admonish…). And here too, just like the ‘perpetrator attitude’, we will find someone who is weaker than us. By helping them we will give ourselves a sense of meaning, a sense of feeling in control and avoiding dealing with our own helplessness.

    I have a strong feeling that often this is the part that leads us when we see the horrific picture of a traumatic situation. It is from this perspective that we share a post in Facebook or Tweet… we take a side to save the victim.. at times being self-righteous, saying: “this side is right!” or “that side is wrong!”. We might tend to take a clear stand in favor of one side or another (the one that we see as the victim…), although the truth is that we are missing the big picture. As you said so beautifully we are obviously not seeing the full picture because we are not there.

    By looking at these three attitudes from a wide angle, we will see what we call, in Integral Breath Work, the dynamics of “THE VICTIM TRIANGLE”. It is a vicious circle that keeps us trapped in our own victimhood, in our own trauma… moving between the different rolls by changing masks.

    We need to remember that the energy of trauma is contagious ( so… sometimes just by hearing the news we can get caught in it. It can activate our own trauma). I believe that when it happens, it important to bring our awareness of ‘The Victim Triangle’, and to all three attitudes!!! It might help us recognize if we got caught in the energy of the ‘Victim Triangle’ or the trauma. This can be very subtle… We might identify ourselves with the victim and in no time find ourselves becoming the rescuer, taking a side, or the perpetrator…
    For me, looking at things from that angle reminds me that both sides are traumatized and underneath it all there is terror, fear, shame and a sense of helplessness. It helps me to keep myself from getting sucked into the energy of the trauma and from that place I can be compassionate. Because there are places of trauma that only love can heal!!

  8. Idit, thanks for your comment. You are right in your highlighting of the rescuing impulse, however as you also touch on, this rescuing impulse is itself a perpetration. As soon as we go into rescuer mode we have taken a side, and as such we are entangled in the perpetrator/victim dynamics, and become part of it. As Franz says in his comment above, such action avoids taking trauma seriously, one’s own and the trauma of others. The only real resolution comes from people recognising and owning the perpetrator within, addressing consciously their trauma, and meeting each other from this place of clarity. As Franz rather succinctly puts it above: “They count dead bodies but they do not feel what it really means. So the public dialogue becomes a perpetrator-to-perpetrator dialogue rather than a real and meaningful one.”

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