There’s been something to write at length about every day for at least the last fortnight, whether it’s the rise in demands to be ‘positive’ or the looming realization that, if something doesn’t change, we may be seeing Greek people starving and freezing to death come winter. Watching a fascist thug belt a woman three times on television reminded many of us that the circumstances we find ourselves in today are not dissimilar to the run up to WW2.
The death of Gitta Sereny, a journalist and historian who focused on the study of evil, was announced today. Rather than just reporting facts in a pulp biography she purposefully got to know the people she researched and found that she understood them. Her understanding led many of her subjects to contemplate their lives and, in one or two cases, admit their guilt.
There’s a dreadful, mature wisdom that comes from knowing that the Nazi Commandant, Mary Bell, the children who killed Jamie Bulger are just the same as we are which is to say that we are just the same as they are. That’s a horrific pill to swallow but if we simply point and sneer and hate people who do terrible things we paradoxically become even more like them: we become individuals who are capable of destroying people who we no longer perceive as human at all.
I heard a neighbour say it last week. She is of the opinion that all homeless people should be ‘exterminated because they have bedbugs’. She said ‘exterminated’ a number of times, she knows what the word means, and she wasn’t laughing. She’s clearly thought about it. I don’t think she’d pull the trigger herself but perhaps she’d be proud to be a Hard Working Tax Payer making the uniforms for the people who would pull the trigger, or cooking their lunch in a canteen. There are increasing numbers of people like my neighbour: angry, dismissive, cynical, casually violent, displacing their fear and anxiety onto people at the bottom of the pile who cannot fight back, people that very few of us give a passing thought to.
Please listen to this brief interview on Gitta Sereny’s life.
and know that only in seeking relationship with the whole person who commits evil do we learn how close we are to it, and therefore how to avoid joining them.
On Sunday I attended the regular professional development interview with Online Events, free and open to anyone, therapist or otherwise, to learn about a specialist area of counseling. Last nights interview was with Felicity Biggart and Martin Weaver on the theory and teaching of Trauma Resilience.
It is possible to successfully work ones way through trauma with the use of some fairly straightforward techniques and with the support of a diffusion group, that is, a number of people chosen by the traumatized person who will listen with care to whatever the traumatized person needs to say. You can read more about this work here.
The interview took place on the same day that the atrocity in Heula came to light, one amongst many atrocities in Syria and indeed all over the world. What made this news particularly awful are images of a large room filled with shrouded bodies including 46 children. The bodies were not available for forensic examination because they had to be buried within 24 hours but reports are that most of these people weren’t killed by artillery but murdered at close quarters. Some of the children are reported to have had their throats cut.
We all know that some humans can be savage and monstrous but to hear a very current report of savagery can (perhaps should) shock us anew. This is a very healthy, proper response demonstrating that we’re not shut down, blasé or uncaring; we absorb the news and then life takes over again allowing us to function – if we were to empathise with all the barbarism in the world we’d become mentally ill. And still, for a great many people the story of Heula will remain with them and be part of a small traumatisation, which is healthy and normal. If we make no connection between Heula and our own children having their throats cut, their terror and agony, then we have lost the basis for our own humanity.
The Heula massacre was mentioned in the Trauma Resilience interview and Martin suggested that a way of dealing with this trauma-at-a-distance was to find a diffusion group, perhaps even from the people in the chat room, and in sharing ones upset and sadness with a group of people prepared to hear it, reduce it.
It strikes me that we have lost this very human response not just to shock and trauma but also to sharing joy and delight. News media have taken over the storytelling and we suck up detail at-one-remove. Telling stories, hearing and seeing other people respond empathically, reminds us that we are actually alive in the world, and matter. A large number of my clients don't have this kind of support system, not because they're isolated, elderly or mad but because it's part of normal life now. Coming to counselling is almost all about telling your story and having it really heard. Perhaps for the first time.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first transport to Auschwitz. The people being treated like cattle were almost all young women aged 16 to 22, the breeding stock of their towns and villages, who spent 4 days standing up without food and only a little water, no sanitation and no hope.
The unspeakable horrors of what happened at Auschwitz and other concentration camps do, in fact, need to be spoken about. We need to remember just what we, as individuals and as groups, are capable of and understand that Germany wasn’t alone in experiencing a loss of conscience. Other nations under similar complex pressures of poverty and loss of national pride turned to hatred and scapegoating to help the Nazis process people into things.
It doesn’t take much to uncover our own desire to dehumanize each other. Listening to the rhetoric around unemployment today I’m reminded of the Nazi camp workers who were proud to be employed in driving cattle trucks full of Jewish people, taking the possessions of Romany people, herding disabled people into gas chambers, shoveling Gay peoples bodies out of the chambers. Their pride rested on the fact that they were not unemployed and that they were doing work that powerful people had told them was right and proper.
This recent event in our history is endlessly complex and revealing but on this 70th anniversary I’d like to draw your attention to Rena’s Promise.
Rena was on that first transport, her sister Danka arriving in Auschwitz a few days later. What kept them alive when others died was that they loved each other and cared for each other. People on their own had no reason to live but Rena and Danka and other individuals lived for other people. And survived.
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