If you’ve lived long enough on this planet you’ve probably experienced violence, trauma, abuse, betrayal and loneliness.
Life can be sweet, but it can also be inescapably brutal. Senseless suffering abounds, yet without suffering, poets and philosophers posit there would be no joy - no stark contrast of deep, connected meaning. To exist as a conscious being is to either resist or embrace this paradox.
There are people on this earth whose existence is marked by constant suffering, and although we all experience varying levels of senseless pain, some experience the unimaginable on a daily basis. Heroes are often born out of these environments, transforming their pain into productive and inspiring work, awing us with their transcendent bravery and fortitude.
Fr. Richard Rohr suggests, “Pain that is not transformed is transferred/transmitted.”
In other words, “Hurt people, hurt people, unless their hurt is transformed.”
It’s hard to sincerely look at social issues in the West and not see the pain. Stories upon stories of senseless abuse, violence, trauma and marginalization. The sheer volume of it on the internet is astonishing - much more than our biology has evolved to digest. Yet we consume wave after wave, living each moment just a click away from the worst of human depravity, which begs the question that plagues us all:
What do we do about it?
Well, we could play the blame game. We are good at that. We can silo people into groups of oppressors and victims, grab our pitchforks and go to work dismantling “them.” Their ideology, their race, their religion, their sexual orientation or identity, their nationality, their politics - these labels are simple tools to identify “them.” The enemy. The whites, the jews, the muslims, the men, the women, the liberals, the conservatives, the immigrants, the rich, the poor, the president, the congress, the scientists, the evangelicals, etc. ad infinitum. Whoever we think is threatening our existence - we can transfer our pain onto them. We love to find scapegoats for the suffering we experience and see in the world. We’ve been doing it since the first ancient, tribal human societies were formed - and hey, it’s sorta worked, right?
Or, we could choose not to do that. We could choose not to jam people into groups and cast sweeping judgements about “them.” We could respect the primacy of individual consciousness, and attempt to understand each person, each context, each individual fear and aim and privilege-status as complex and varied from one to the next. We could refuse to “other” people based on the categories they were born into.
But that’s hard. It seems impossible to fix the world by addressing and empowering the individual. There seem to be too many complex stories and histories and it’s impossible to coalesce them all to address our collective problems. Our increasingly diverse society only seems to add to the complexity of the task - which is why we find it helpful to simplify our problems with broad strokes, I suppose.
The other day I was listening to a radio program that was recorded in 1992 (now in podcast form) called, “The Earth is Not an Ecosystem” by David Cayley, in which he interviews experts from around the world about the failure of western “Development,” and the misnomer of “Sustainable Development.” It’s fascinating. “Development,” go figure, is an idea that has destroyed cultures and communities around the world by turning inhabitants off the land, commodifying their natural resources and forcing them into the “marketplace” to survive, essentially stealing their cultures and their souls.
After listening to experts from around the world share about how they were addressing the issues of “Development,” they all said similar things about the value of “self-determination”: Empower the individual. Let small communities speak for themselves. Let them set their own aims. Let them make their own mistakes and forge their own way. To disallow this is to erase their dignity. Development disallowed this, taking away their individual protections from missionaries, militaries, multinational companies and NGO’s who sought to “train” them in the way they felt they should function.
The theme of personal independence and flourishing through self-determination as a means to human dignity is something that I found woven through the five episodes. Communities that once had functional ancient practices of self-governance and resource production were all but wiped out by “Development,” but many were coming back and thriving due to the reinstatement of these protections. All it took was a respect for the primacy of individual consciousness - and addressing the messy, awkward, individual context of people and communities. People were earning their dignity back by being given the opportunity to transform their own suffering - not by being told how to think, behave, and function by outside groups.
Of course, you might say, sometimes there are crises which pose an existential threat to vulnerable people, and those of us who have safety and wealth retain a moral obligation to do something about it. I agree. The first step to individual dignity is safety - and if we can provide safety for oppressed and marginalized people, we absolutely should. That’s step one.
But people don’t develop a sense of personal dignity in a padded cell. At some point after safety is returned, the individual has to learn to address the suffering of the world by standing on their own two feet. This is dignifying. This is how the individual can transform their pain into meaningful work - instead of transmitting or transferring it elsewhere.
Here in the US there’s a lot of pain transference onto groups, and perhaps not enough respect for the primacy of individual consciousness. For a lot of people, you are the group you were born into, and not much more. When we group people up, we dehumanize them, and we fall into the same pitfalls of “Development” - making judgements and decisions from half-way across the world without respect for the context and complexity of the individual.
I think we need “safe-spaces,” and I don’t mean just physically safe, I mean there should actually be places where trauma victims can go, free of language and topics that are triggering. PTSD is real. I believe in this. This is a great first step on the path to integration. But, if the overall aim is to build dignity, self-confidence and self-respect, to “safe-space” the world (as in “to remove all potentially triggering-but-legally-protected speech”) is to remove it’s transformative power. The world is full of controversial speech and ideas we don’t agree with, but it’s exposure to it, not isolation from it, that is instrumental in healing wounds (and clarifying our own personal identities).
Studies have widely shown that PTSD and phobias are cured by voluntary incremental self-exposure of the phobic person to their fears. To remove the concept of exposure to triggers is to remove the cure, keeping people perpetually suffering from their trauma rather than overcoming it.
Our aim should be to empower victims to become self-determining survivors, people who can face the suffering of life and transform it into something beautiful and inspiring, first for themselves, and then if they are willing, for the group. To do so, we need protections from ideologies that tell us how to think and behave in order to belong in “the marketplace of 'sanctioned' ideas.” We need to stop grouping and "other-ing" people, including ourselves.
So many of us have been co-opted by politics and ideologies that group people as victims (despite their individual stories), while projecting (transferring) the blame for that victimization on groups of external “oppressors” (despite their individual stores). Are there external threats? Yes. Should we address them? Yes. But an individual can’t begin to address external threats successfully without first doing their own inner work - and to do this starts with the process of self-determination. Who am I? What is my story? What are my goals? What are my weaknesses? What should I aim at? (If interested in self-discovery, check out our episodes on the Enneagram).
When developing an identity these days, many of us are in a state of arrested development. The first question we are often forced to ask ourselves is, “What group do I belong to?” When we get an answer, we promptly join that group and adopt it's identity wholesale. We let people tell us what to think, who we are, and how we should speak and behave in order to belong. While this mimetic practice is important for social development in childhood and adolescence, as adults, this is putting the cart before the horse. The goal of the adult is to differentiate. To individuate. To become independent. To transform.
Who are you? What great journey are you on? How are you differentiating from the emotionally-fused political rhetoric of your group?
The daily outrage, chaos and hysteria on social media is, I think, a result of the fact that we as individuals don’t know who we are. We are so emotionally tied to the ideologies we identify with that we no longer have an independent voice. We can no longer self-determine. We’ve exchanged our personal dignity for group identity. We virtue-signal with every retweet, saying “See me, group! Validate my identity, I aim where you aim. I’m helping!”
I’ve heard it said that you can either child-proof your house or you can house-proof your child. The former removes danger, the latter teaches discipline & self-confidence in the face of danger. And while I still keep hot panhandles out of our baby’s reach, I strive to equip my kids with the the self-confidence required to meet the dangers and challenges that life, suffering, and hardship inevitably bring. The path to dignity is not to decrease fear, but to increase courage, and that can’t be done without facing fear itself. Growth can’t come without the lessons of danger, and danger isn’t "safe."
This is a challenge to myself. I hope I can reject the primacy of group identity, and as much as I understand that I need groups, I will not let them supersede or define me. I hope I can empower individuals to self-determine. I hope I can refuse the outrage of the hive mind, the pitchforks and the “other-ing” that I’ve often participated in (allowing myself the occasional sarcastic jab at a Trump-tweet). I hope I can build bridges over group boundaries. I hope I can resist the narrative of group victim/oppressor - because I believe if that narrative remains unquestioned, we risk perpetuating that binary as a society in the future, only with different faces next time.
We have so many problems facing our society. I see the suffering, I hear the stories, and I too am outraged. I’ve spoken out on behalf of the victims of inequality, violence, abuse and police brutality for years (virtue signaling, “I’m super progressive!”) - but I’ve started to have major doubts about the popular methods for addressing these issues. Maybe it’s just a because I’m a cishet male WASP, but I’m starting to think there is no “them,” there is only us - and to deal with our problems, I need to start with me.
It is by facing my fears that I find out who I am, and it is by knowing myself that I can get better.
We can attempt pain-proof our lives by transferring it externally (hint: doesn't work), or we can life-proof our pain by transforming it internally. Even if “they” are to blame, blaming “them” is proven toxic for our brains. Resentment never leads to transcendence. Aren’t you tired of “them” stressing you out? I am.
Suffering is guaranteed, and if we truly want to limit it’s spread, we have to start with transforming our own.