If I Could Change the World (part 2)
April / May / June 2001

Empowering People

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What follows is from my reply to someone with whom I have been corresponding regarding the Rebuilding the Left movement here in Vancouver. I am sharing it here because I believe it's germane to the project at hand. As always, I welcome your comments.
 
 
You asked me how my project proposes "to advance the overall endeavour, as opposed to reiterating what has already been covered." I will try now to answer your question. To do so, I need to add some background to what I've already told you.
 
For 24 of my 31 years as a therapist I practised a primal form of therapy. From my experiences of being both a primal therapist and a "primalee" as well as from my existential-phenomenological orientation and my many years of teaching numerous "personal growth" oriented courses (including parenting skills), I've come to a number of salient conclusions. 
 
I've concluded that a "healthy" life is one constituted by dialogue ("real-talk"), by connection, and by genuine passion; that those endeavours engendered by genuine passion foster dialogue and connection; and that genuine passion and dialogue are the essential substance of healing, growing, creating and loving (that is, connecting). I've also concluded that healthy people are caring, assertive, trustworthy and non-violent.
 
By contrast, those efforts engendered by morbid passion are precisely those which are engaged in, in order to evade dialogue and connection; as such, they hinder healing, growing, creating and loving. Examples of morbid passion include aiming to harm, to steal from, to win over, to win out over, to get even with or to shun dialogue and connection with someone.) 
 
And I've concluded that a healthy life unfolds from the trust during childhood and adolescence that one's care givers genuinely care and in the consequent recognition of one's own validity, loveability, and trustworthiness, as well as of one's connection to others and to the environment. (A cartoon I once saw in the Los Angeles Free Press brought this last point home to me. It depicted a long canoe stretched all across the top few inches of the page. There was a man at each end of the canoe and one was shouting to the other: "Pardon me, sir, but your end of the boat is sinking!" This really captured for me how related we are to each other and to everything in our world.)
 
I've discovered that one of our biggest and most perverse collective myths is that parents somehow have a natural talent for being parents and that children generally have happy childhoods. It seems undeniable to me that most parents are quite limited in their skills and that few children have happy childhoods. I say this after having talked intimately with a great many people throughout the years. Almost all of them--not only clients, but also students, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and even random strangers--have described their childhoods to me as painful, and often even as nightmares; and almost all of them emerged from their childhoods very "wounded." In fact, almost everywhere I look I see mostly wounded people struggling in all sorts of disturbing ways to deal with their wounds. 
 
I'm not suggesting here that all children are in pain or that all children's pain derives from their relationships with their parents. But I'm convinced that this is true for a large majority of them. And without genuine connection with their parents, children move into the larger world ill-equipped to deal with playmates, teachers and other people who tease and mock them, call them names, cheat them, criticise them, beat them up, and otherwise attempt to assuage the pain of their own wounds--which only increases everyone's pain. (A few years ago, I was leading a discussion called "A Dialogue Between the Sexes." At one point in the discussion, when I mentioned that I had been teased, etc., as a child, I noticed some of men in the group nodding. So I asked how many of them had had this experience. It was something of an epiphany for me when every one of the 13 men in the group acknowledged that he had had similar experiences: At that moment I realised how ubiquitous and affecting these experiences actually were.) 
 
The most common strategy that parents throughout the world use in dealing with their children is threatening (for example, by "guilting," shaming and/or scaring) and punishing, combined with a prohibition of dialogue. This inevitably results in the children:
  • being and remaining wounded
  • believing that they're flawed and defective and therefore unacceptable and unlovable 
  • losing their "I-thou" connection with their parents 
  • being scared that no one will ever love and care for them and therefore,
  • struggling to flee their pain 
  • striving to gain the love and care they are missing, yet doubting its veracity when it is present
  • trying to fill the emptiness with substitutes. (In this context, it's important to note that competing and engaging in capitalism are such substitutes: We don't compete with the people we love and we don't strive for personal gain at their expense.)
I'm asserting, then, that we are regularly producing disturbed and wounded children, and have been for millennia--hurt, angry, sad and scared children, with distorted understandings of who they are and of how they fit into a world of others.
 
These are the people who as both children and adults attempt to flee their pain by engaging in the enormous variety of violences that prevail (their very number should give us pause): teasing, name-calling, deceiving, tricking and cheating, keeping secrets, vengefulness, sarcasm and satire, scamming, conning, engaging in "conflicts-of-interest" and otherwise taking advantage of others' vulnerabilities, child-, spousal- and self-abuse (such as self-criticism, overeating, addictions of all sorts, not exercising and not getting enough sleep), wars, massacres, persecution, torture, rape, adultery, road-rage, competing (in fact, all "me vs. you " or "us vs. them" or "winning and losing" ways of relating, including beauty pageants, quiz shows, sports contests, political races and corporate competitive practices), etc. In addition, responding either passively or aggressively to such destructive actions, ignoring other people's pain or playing victim are also violences.
 
Such unending and futile attempts by people to elude their pain (which, although often experienced only vaguely, is nevertheless affecting) and to gain love and care may take the form of efforts to anaesthetise themselves (e.g., caffeine, nicotine, food, narcotics), to distract themselves (e.g., keeping busy, sex, reading, attacking others, demonstrating), to will their pain away (e.g., positive affirmations) or demand that others will love for them. 
 
Because such behaviours are so common and taken-for-granted, it's usually not immediately obvious that they are all ulterior transactions: They are carried out through--and as a means of--self-concealment and are thus violent and violating, disturbed and disturbing. They are a person's efforts to get what he or she wants by coercing other (persuading, convincing, manipulating them--just as was done to him or her in childhood) and arise from the conviction that others won't otherwise minister caringly to him or her.
 
Regardless of whether this is done by criticising or putting down those others, by being spiteful or retaliating, by resisting, or seeking revenge, or by playing the unworthy object of such denigrating, those who take part in such transactions are being essentially deceitful and untrustworthy. In addition, with their perception distorted by misinformation and unexpressed pain, they tend to either unrealistically distrust or unrealistically trust others.
 
Given all this, attempts to coerce/convince the wounded people in power to make caring changes are unlikely to succeed for very long. Wounded people (on either side of the political divide) tend to blind themselves to and to rationalise the true significance of their behaviour in order to avoid being overtaken by the pain they're fleeing. Therefore, they're not likely to either understand or to care about the harm they're doing, no matter how much it's explained to them and, moreover, they want at almost all cost to keep their distracting power, wealth and magical world view. For them to give these up would necessitate their recognising and experiencing their unexpressed pain. This is very unlikely because to do so remains as frightening to them now as it was when they first choked it down.
 
Moreover, when someone gets pushed, he or she will most likely struggle to push back, either overtly or covertly. So, efforts to coerce change--for example, through demonstrations or even by achieving a majority vote--in the long run are likely to result only in counter-efforts by those being coerced to find ways to regain what was lost and to get back at those coercing them. Such is the case with the conflict between the political right and left, as well as that between England and Ireland in Northern Ireland, the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, the Israelis and Palestinians, the Indians and Pakistanis, and the Iranians and Iraqis (who have been at war in this way on and off for some 1,000 years). 
 
All such violent efforts inevitably result in vicious circles: Whatever it is that people do to flee their pain tends to bring about the very outcome that they were trying to avoid and seems to call for a still greater effort to flee. For example, they lie in relationships in order to keep from being abandoned, but their untrustworthiness ultimately destroys those relationships, as they lie still more to cover up their lies. Or more to the point here, efforts to convince wounded people to choose to stop being violent--for example, to stop raping the environment or to be concerned about the plight of poor people--will almost inevitably result in their resisting those efforts and increasing their violence (as we can see in the U.S., with Bush now aiming to drill for oil in the Arctic and abandoning the Kyoto Protocol with regard to controlling the emission of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere). This in turn will lead to greater efforts to convince them to stop destroying the environment, correspondingly greater efforts to resist these efforts, and so on. 
 
This is precisely what we see happening, for example, in the conflict between the police and criminals, between political parties and between countries: As police methods have become more and more sophisticated, so have those of the criminals; the strategies that are used successfully by one political party are improved upon and used against it in the next political race; and when one country increases its military capacity, the country with which it is in discord strives to meet and exceed this increase. Our demonstrating in the 60's and 70's did accomplish many important things: the end of the Vietnam war, changes in the laws regarding segregation and racial discrimination, significant progress in maintaining separation of church and state, the suspension of the death penalty, acknowledgement of women's rights, including acceptance of and support for abortion, improved conditions for workers, concern for the environment, etc. 
 
But many of these "victories" have been and are being eroded: for example, the elimination of "affirmative action" and welfare, the reestablishment of capital punishment, weakening of the labour unions, decreasing numbers of doctors and hospitals that perform abortions, the efforts by the new administration to inaugurate 'faith-based" programs and to pursue the "Strategic Defense Initiative." In other words, efforts to coerce change merely result in the pendulum swinging back and forth from one side to the other. 
 
I would be delighted if those people wanting to gain and preserve such freedoms could actually succeed simply by demonstrating and orating convincingly, and if the voters and/or the people being demonstrated against could see the light as a result and make caring changes. But even if such efforts did succeed and our governments were to somehow turn considerably left, thus empowering those who had previously been out of power, I fear--again, because of unhealed woundedness--that not much would change; those now "in" would simply exercise power over those who have been turned out and those now out would begin their struggle to get back in. This is exactly what has happened repeatedly in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere, as the political parties have switched power. 
 
Having said all this, I want to state clearly that I support many of the aims of the "left:" genuine social justice, universal provision of basic needs--food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care--and moving beyond capitalism, competition and hierarchical structures. But I support a radically non-violent left, not one that uses "us vs. them" and other "winners and losers" strategies (all the while--ironically--being philosophically opposed to these); in other words, not a left that uses such rhetoric as "anti-capitalism" or one that opposes the established order with demands, demonstrations, "dirty tricks," and other efforts to persuade. I've just not seen such strategies enduringly achieve non-violent goals and I don't see how they can. 
 
I'm not at all against demonstrating, if it's done transparently as a means of informing. But I see little chance of far-reaching, enduring and caring change happening in this way, simply because the vast majority of us are wounded and afraid to do what's necessary to heal and because our consequent misunderstandings about who we are--individually and collectively--continually obstruct our understanding of what constitutes a caring world and how to achieve it. In my view, any efforts to achieve such a world that ignore this are doomed to fail; the pendulum will simply continue to swing back and forth, which has been the case for millennia.
 
I'm convinced that hierarchical and competitive strategies are the sort enacted by people who have not healed their wounds. It seems clear to me that time does not heal our wounds, nor do "positive affirmations" or "insight" or anything else besides the actual completion of our unfinished dialogues, particularly from those moments when we were children and the people we trusted to care failed to face us with genuine care, such that our parts of the "dialogue," our real talk, was choked down.
 
It seems clear to me that efforts to enduringly achieve caring ends cannot ultimately succeed if our individual and collective woundedness is not recognised and taken into account; that such efforts need to be dialogical and non-oppositional; and that these cannot be truly understood or effectively enacted by people who have not significantly healed their wounds.
 
The only way that I see, then, for such goals to be enduringly achieved is for significant numbers of people to heal their wounds. As a result, instead of coercing others or competing with them for what they want, healthy/healed people will eschew hierarchy, will engage in dialogue, and will competently search together with those holding differing views to discover mutually satisfying solutions to problems and differences. The problem, of course, is determining how to get there.
 
I've been excited to discover in recent months that quite a few people have been writing insightfully about the need for radical change to achieve a caring world (e.g., Murray Bookchin and Morris Berman). But I'm disappointed that none of these writers seem to recognise the radical significance of our woundedness with regard to their endeavour--they don't mention it. I was disappointed as well, when I attended the Rebuilding the Left conference in January, to find that none of the people I heard speak seemed to be aware of this issue. They appeared to be interested only in demonstrating and making it fun (their words) in order to achieve their--unexpressed--goals.
 
Because I don't see anyone else considering the issues I've raised here, because I'm quite frightened about where we're headed if we continue down the path we're on, and because I believe I have both a unique and a significant perspective, I've set out to try "redesign" the world: to explore "who" we are and the world we've created, to describe what a healthy, caring world would be like, and to articulate a realistic plan for healing and transformation.
 
The discussion group, If I Could Change the World is a significant part of this effort. Although I do have some ideas about how to get "there," I'm well aware that this is in no way an easy task; in fact, I'm not very optimistic about succeeding. Nevertheless, when I see what's possible for us and realise the harm we're doing instead, I can't not try.


© 2001 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. Empowering People

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Rebuilding the Left Website

Canadian Dimension magazine

Worldwide Alternatives to ViolencE (WAVE)



A "healthy" life is one constituted by dialogue, connection, and genuine passion; healthy people are caring, assertive, trustworthy and nonviolent


One of our most perverse myths is that parents have a natural talent for being parents and that children generally have happy childhoods

Efforts engendered by morbid passion are precisely those which are engaged in in order to evade dialogue and connection

Hierarchical and competitive strategies are the sort enacted by people who have not healed their wounds

In the long run, efforts to coerce change are likely to result only in counterefforts by those being coerced to find ways to regain what was lost and to get back at those coercing them
Empowering People

I AM WHAT I AM!
Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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