Times of Healing

Lifting the pressure on human society


When times get better, the nightmares, traumas and grinding hardships of the past lighten up or evaporate.

For some this can be an utterly new experience. People come out of hiding, families reunite, social distrust subsides and hope, confidence and public spirit rise. It brings great relief.

There are tricky aspects too. Economic prosperity doesn't constitute a full and proper solution - only a burying of it. Also, humanity is more deeply damaged than we might believe: this means that, when hardships end, there is time and space for deeply buried issues and dilemmas to erupt, making life difficult and emotionally tortuous.

Behind all these lies a hidden twist of human experience: both 'bad' and 'good' times have their compensations.

Hope begins with a paycheque, said Colin Powell in late 2002, pledging aid to the Middle East. True, but not entirely so. Having enough is important, but prosperity does not guarantee happiness and relief: it can be a diversion or offer remedies with questionable side-effects.

Social happiness, if defined by community engagement, mutual support and aliveness of relationships, can sometimes be greater under difficult conditions. Cars and shopping malls increase isolation - people cover their humanity and put themselves first.

The scramble for prosperity brings up big meaning-of-life questions. Prosperity softens raw feelings, yet surreptitiously it drives people against each other, eroding the social bonding that carried people through hard times.

The cessation of gunfire is solely an appearance of peace. In the Cold War we avoided getting nuked, yet immense resources were diverted into arms, conflict-readiness, superpower politics and proxy wars in local 'theatres' - Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Angola and Afghanistan.

When the Cold War ended the world was flooded with kalashnikovs, landmines and missiles. Hawkish interests made sure the 'peace dividend' could not be reaped: there were more wars in the 1990s than the 1980s.

Social reconstruction


To heal, economic growth needs a goal. Once we have attained material sufficiency, what next?

For some people, material growth becomes a dead-end, leading them to quest for meaning-in-life. But this turn-around process can take decades.

After WW2, in the West, it took twenty years for such questing to start and, four decades after that, mainstream society still didn't catch up. Inner growth tends to happen amongst a minority rather than becoming a social-cultural phenomenon.

In recognition of this, clear collective goals need setting if social healing is to come about. Amnesia must be avoided and so too must blame, bitterness or retribution. Offenders must be held accountable and victims need a chance to speak, yet recrimination fuels new strife. A safe public emotional fermentation is needed, drawing on the skill of community workers and the momentum of public consensus.

Concerts, gatherings and festivals help greatly. Aid agencies of the future need to provide support and training in social and spiritual group-process, to help reviving societies find their own ways of moving forward.

There is no neat prescription, but one rule does apply: net forward motion must be felt by all sectors of society.

An outbreak of social forgiveness requires sound moral leadership, with impetus from constructive social movements and reference both to new and traditional values. Traditional Buddhist values have assisted the Vietnamese in forgiving America and Tibetans in forgiving China.

It is frequently asserted that Muslim traditions spawn suicide bombers, but actually they have a much greater peace-bringing effect - it's despair that fuels suicide bombing.

In the late 20th C Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and the Dalai Lama provided positive role models, encouraging moderation and releasing the past. But it is not easy for such individuals to build up such moral stature, and a society cannot rely on finding such tone-setters when big challenges come.

Unveiling truth


A big precedent was set by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa in the 1990s, not only through his Truth Commissions but also through his broadcast words of wisdom, forbearance and moral encouragement.

He felt for others' pain, encouraging people to tell their stories and to feel heard. Releasing the pain of the past involves much telling of stories. The public needs permission to cry, sing and look after each other, to accept what has happened and move on with neither amnesia nor retribution.

The Truth Commissions were not entirely successful since some former oppressors, offered amnesty in exchange for confession, offered the minimum to gain amnesty, and victims received little redress for their actual losses - so the healing magic was not fully activated.

But the commissions represented progress - and there is further to go.

One clue is to carry forward the positive developments generated in crises: deep human contacts, acts of support and solidarity need to be kept alive - they reap profit from the jaws of disaster.

This can be set in motion by community and religious leaders, pop musicians, authors, artists, teachers or anybody with any moral sway.

Alcoholics Anonymous is possibly the world's largest grass-roots transformation movement. AA engages former alcoholics to help others turn reform into a psycho-spiritual awakening, using mutual support and shared honesty as key mechanisms.

The comfortable nations of the world are themselves disaster zones with ongoing mass tragedies arising from car accidents, addiction, depression and suicide - but these are rated as private misfortunes.

To heal these ills, they need 'nationalising', made into a collective process of social change which removes their causes, not just their symptoms. The world needs to become a happier place, both in conflict zones and peaceful countries.

Virtuous cycles of relief


The aim is to midwife a social heart-opening and an awareness of shared interests. This helps communities surmount critical thresholds in which doubt, fear and anxiety come up, where society dithers on the edge of breakthrough or breakdown.

At this vulnerable point negativity can strike back, causing a pulling back of tenderness and openness. Trouble is, it can be better not to open up sensitivities than to open them up and then fail, since faith in the possibility of healing can collapse.

What is important is the maintenance of forward impetus. Yet moderation and patience are necessary. At the threshold there is often a lack of positive precedents and unsurety in the face of the unknown, causing outmoded, default behaviours to come out.

Crossing this threshold is a crucial factor in the 21st C. We are so familiar with hardship that we instinctively distrust harmony and happiness. We tend to believe that healing and re-humanisation are hard work, riddled with anxiety and complexity.

Yet when we cross the threshold, simple humanity and naturalness are the order of the day. It's a matter of enjoying other people's existence and viewpoints.

The alternative to social healing is healing through personal growth. Many of us have experience in this. Cultural and spiritual regeneration start from the individual and from personal growth.

But personal growth without social transformation causes us to huddle in groups of like-minded people. It can be compromised by pressures to conform. Worldwide, millions of people have undergone personal growth as a result of crises in their own lives.

In the 1960s many changes started as a social transformation movement but, by the 1980s it shifted toward helping individuals adapt their lives to the pressures of living in the existing system. World transformation was quietly set aside.

This splintered the spiritual, psychotherapeutic, healing, ecological, political and lifestyle communities, even though they all focused on aspects of the same big question. Accumulated wisdom, skills and experience percolated by degrees into mainstream Western society, but this is yet to become a sustained social phenomenon.

This movement has no stated philosophy, organisational base, bishops or coordination, yet it has a body of values and a set of methods by which many future solutions can be found. It needs now to return to being a social transformation movement.

Peacekeeping and nation-building


Peacekeepers work hard to stop strife from breaking out, and peace-builders seek to rebuild society's fabric to remove the basis for conflict. Every society has its peace-builders, but some societies are seriously weakened, and peace-builders have been eliminated or exiled.

All societies need healing, but some are acutely damaged - they have had the heart knocked out of them. Each case is unique, and aid recipients need quality help in developing their own ways of helping themselves.

The aid industry has been through vexing times. Aid saves lives and brings big benefits. But it can draw relatively self-sufficient people into dependency, changing their societies in unsatisfactory and unsustainable ways.

The West focuses on giving material aid and 'civil society' institutions of law and order. But this can wreck societies, which have their own inherent, traditional or innovative solutions.

It's not the point to wipe out indigenous healing or agricultural methods, replacing them with (as it happens, more profitable) Western techniques.

It is important to draw on indigenous traditions and facilitate social strengthening to help countries avoid falling into the aid and growth dependency trap.

Today we have a global economic monoculture shaped by the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organisation, replicated across the board worldwide, and this is dangerous longterm for the world as a whole, reducing sociodiversity.

A poor or devastated country has an ideal opportunity to start afresh on its own basis, not only for its own sake but also to promote greater global alternatives, social innovation and a widening of the range of available solutions.

So a new kind of aid and development is necessary. And it's not just a matter of the rich helping the poor: it's a matter of everyone helping everyone. The rich are poor in non-material ways, spiritually disaster-ridden and isolated from the majority.

Back to the future


In the 21st C, all countries are likely to be hit by crisis. Those who have experienced it during the 20th C will probably be the social development pioneers of the future.

Countries that have seen ridiculous devastation and bitter social experience have crossed thresholds others are yet to reach. Social therapy and healing will not be necessary only in disaster areas: the whole world is a disaster-zone. Even peaceful, secure countries are beset with headaches.

In the 21st C social, cultural and spiritual values will be in the ascendancy. This will expose a need for social redevelopment on a global scale - prompted by ecological and climatic crises.

We are likely to see a period in which the rebuilding of trust, reinforcement of community values, and social and international collaboration are the primary issue. Unconsciously, the world is building up impetus toward a lift-off point, a decision point where social changes become irreversible.

A critical synergy-point emerges when a majority chooses to subscribe to a new mindset - sometimes this is a generational shift.

Such a mindset - a body of shared values and a worldview - acts as a containing field which renews behavioural standards throughout society. Drunkenness, child abuse, crime, gun-running, discrimination and corruption fade away, simply because it's no longer cool, safe or profitable to do it.

This has already happened in some areas of life. Torture, child-abuse and ethnic cleansing are no longer acceptable. Values have changed, setting in motion a change-process. This is not always easy: sometimes things can go backwards, as if to make sure the public is clear about eliminating bad practice.

Practices shift slower than values: this arises because conservative elements resist change, because of public naiveté or because of fear that change might bring loss or instability.

The problem is that eliminating gross abuses often involves a larger political and ethical change around which there can be much fear. But overcoming fear and focusing on the advantages of relief changes the ballgame, and healing can move quite fast once there is consensus for it.

Trigger action


Unless collective feeling and consensus are ready and willing, shifts are difficult to engineer without force or complexity. Often it needs a trigger.

This can take the form of a set of poignant events, a catalytic public speech, a 'wildfire' phenomenon at street level, or a crisis or collective realisation which takes people down to the bottom-line questions quickly.

A full-scale disaster doesn't necessarily help because it can stun and debilitate a population and a nation's systems. The most valuable trigger-points manifest in straightforward, less harmful ways, acting to tip a delicately-poised balance toward change.

But the buildup can be long, complex and hard. This involves 'going through it', shedding resistance to change, and dropping old resentments, complexities and ties to the past.

Such trigger moments must be finely tuned, sufficiently impactful to overcome inertia and resistance, but not too devastating. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 forced the world to face nuclear issues and catalysed a shift concerning the wisdom of high-tech. It laid down a marker for the future.

The death of Princess Diana in 1997 was a small incident, yet it hit the button. The wake-up call was tucked away again afterwards, but a second round will pop up again on another occasion.

In the British war effort of 1939-44, the country transformed its economy and society in two years flat: women took over many duties while males were abroad or at their military posts; society changed to a command-economy footing; industry and resources were mobilised, and immense innovation and improvisation took place.

In crises, things get strangely easier: life is tough at the time but, in the face of hardship, people pull together and many aspects of life are made easier and simpler. Many people who lived through that time remember it as the most significant period of their lives.

Bizarrely, it was a period of love, touching social situations, tender relationships and a certain spirituality - intensified by a shared feeling of good fortune over simply being alive another day.

Trigger points


A trigger-point stalls the mindset prevailing up to that point, forcing a leap into the unknown.

In our day, humanity is actually quite well primed for experiencing such triggering phenomena - in every country and environment, for the poor, the rich and those in between, life has been intense and painful for a long time. The soul of humanity is worn out, if truth be known.

Something has changed since the 1960s: back then, the majority knew little about our planetary situation, but today they know about it and see its signs everywhere. Large-scale denial remains, and with it a pervasive feeling of helplessness, but this is changing by critical inches each year.

People have now heard and figured out the situation, even if they carry on with their routines. Undercurrents flowing beneath the surface of daily, official normality have changed things profoundly in recent decades.

We are primed for change. Our true readiness for it is something we cannot assess until afterwards, because there is a surprise element, and we don't know what's coming.

We are well defended against disruption and disorder, so the trigger has to be unpredictable. Yet humanity is good at last-minute fixes.

Arguably, we have been ready for change for two or more decades, but one matter is crucial: the change-trigger must penetrate mass experience to an extent that it catalyses a wholehearted and widespread shift. It must be all-encompassing, overriding blocking and corrupting tendencies.

Not everyone is carried along by such shifts. People who have a vested interest in the old order can encounter difficult times. It is easier for the young and the socially-mobile.

The nub with cutting-edge situations is that, since no one knows exactly where to head, necesity becomes the mother of invention. The rules change, and this re-draws the social map, creating outcomes no one visualised before.

Nexus-points of change


The world is very polarised and, while this continues, the disadvantaged, even if walled off and isolated, will always exercise a drag-effect on the privileged and their aspirations.. Both pay a price for polarised separativeness.

Israel's policy has been to build physical walls to contain Palestinians, and current thinking tends toward separation and independence for the two peoples, yet separation costs both sides dearly. The real need is for fundamental healing of the rifts between them.

The solution requires a leap of visionary pragmatism and trust-building: a longterm strategy of integration of the whole Middle East, de-emphasising borders and allowing the region's ethnic groups to reintegrate along social rather than territorial lines.

Israel and Palestine are now very isolated countries. A dark, nihilistic cloud has settled on the land, an unconscious urge to make things so bad that something deep shifts.

This psycho-spiritual battle of attrition is not unique to them, but they have taken it further than most.

The darkness benighting Israel and Palestine is a strange product of its light: shadows gain sharper definition in light. But here comes the good news: in the paradoxical logic of the unconscious, the extremities of hate, fear, suffering, darkness and polarisation signify an impending rebirth and reintegration.

Israel and Palestine together form a microcosm, acting as a lightning rod for divisive problems worldwide. A global drama is being played out in a localised theatre of conflict.

This implies that the conflict could be fundamentally resolved when the world de-escalates divisiveness globally. Also, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolves itself, the world will be healed by it. It is like a localised cancer in the world body: the world must be involved, yet Israel and Palestine must heal themselves.

This would create an exchange and de-polarisation between the world and the localised theatre of conflict. The badness evident in the Middle East is a sign of the goodness that could come - if people allow it. The locked-up incapacity of Palestine and Israel to resolve their problems is a sign that things could turn around quite quickly.

This might be too far 'outside the box' for people in the area to see, yet God moves in strange ways. Expect surprises.

Treading the edge


Optimistically, the scale of world conflict today suggests that humanity is trying unconsciously to make itself sick of it, to generate commitment to conflict-resolution. We're making things so bad that the world is 'tempting fate'.

Part of us yearns for a new world - a safe, sensible and sane world - and the other part fears taking the plunge. We are trying to force ourselves to change.

Some people anticipate that the world is heading for a disaster and time of tribulation. This archetypal fear lurks in the collective unconscious.

But it is miscalculated: we have already been living through times of tribulation. Sure, things can get worse, but that is our choice, not an inevitable, predestined process. We've had enough experience to sort this one out.

Meanwhile, amidst the horrors of today, look for the golden clue: we are wearing out our resistance to a change we know to be inevitable. There's another thing too: we'll be happier once we've done it.

This is not all. When things start changing for the better, we tend to relax, enjoying the change. There is a honeymoon period before serious matters set in.

The problem is, deep issues are buried underneath shallower ones, and once the shallower ones are relieved, the deep ones have space to start coming up.

There might be willingness to tackle issues, but we cannot do everything at once. This brings us to an awkward issue: sometimes changes and improvements have to be slowed down, and social energies must be contained, to allow them out in manageable doses.

But there is no going back to old methods of control or suppression. And to some extent, all people need to be self-regulating - wise and aware.

Neither can we go back to ignoring the situation, because in doing so we are consuming the world, creating a global crisis on many fronts.

So it's not visions, morals, philosophies or religions which will bring the change: facts, realities and the absence of choice will bring it. In this way, disaster can be a gift.

Apocalypse Soon


So this brings up a difficult question: will it be possible to heal the world's ills through gradual, manageable transition, or are we heading for a humdinger? A few points need noting here.

The extent to which crisis overwhelms the agenda and threatens to tip the world into chaos depends on the length of time and the pressure with which these questions have been held down. Sometimes a long-awaited clearance or closure of old issues just cannot wait a single year longer.

The world is so interdependent that, if one thing moves, others move in response. Crisis can be triggered by what initially is a small, local event.

It all depends greatly on how humanity, at the top and the bottom, responds. It's a matter of rapid collective mobilisation - or of chaos. But if all people experience an equal sense of threat, accepting that it's no longer other people's fault, mobilisation can happen.

When things break through, deep issues take time to work out, creating new challenges and insecurities.

A change of social atmosphere is one thing, but it takes decades for new forests to grow, new technologies to develop and new generations to implement the changes they bring. It will take time to deal with toxins and waste, to counteract climate change and to reformulate world societies. This could involve an insecure transitional period and a true test of character for humanity.

When things get better, society's psychology starts changing. We will become less hardened, suppressed, complicit and passive. This will be positive, yet problems also arise when millions flex their psycho-emotional muscles, imaginations and aspirations. All sorts of things can break out.

This will test humanity's discipline, maturity and understanding, since hopes and expectations could be quite high - there's a lot of pent-up energy. The 21st Century needs to be a century of moderation amidst radical change.

New times bring new issues we have not yet met. Many difficult aspects of the life we have known will evaporate and life could actually get easier in many respects. Imagine a world where little or no energy is wasted in wars, traffic-jams, over-consumption, large-scale wastage, political charades and avoidance strategies.

Happiness is not dependent on circumstances: it depends on attitude. We are faced with an opportunity to make things easier. But it will probably still seem like a long process.


NEXT: Force Majeure

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