People & Nations: Their Need to Love and Hate

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:02

The Sydney Institute - Lecture

February 26, 2001


Dorothy Rowe

Everything that exists is an ever changing, seamless whole. Everything is connected to everything else. Yet this is not the way human beings see themselves and their world. We divide this seamless whole into chunks in order to create a picture of ourselves and the world. Sometimes these divisions bear some similarity to what actually exists, and sometimes the divisions are contrary to our actual experience. This is the case when we divide ourselves into mind and body, or our experience of being alive into cognition and emotion, These divisions are false. Each of us operates as one whole unit. Our mind and body are one, and it is impossible to separate our thoughts from our emotions.

Even that unit which we call ‘myself’, ‘I’, ‘me’ is not a clear, distinct being, separate from the rest of our world. We think of our skin as encasing our body and marking its boundary, but, were we able to see more clearly, our skin would appear as permeable and our body as a clump of nuclear particles which is in constant intercourse with everything else around it.

In much the same way we see ourselves as distinct, private individuals, each of us a person distinct from other people. Yet what we experience as ‘myself’ would not exist were it not for other people. Psychologists have always divided their professional discourse into social and individual psychology, even though this division is quite false. We cannot separate ourselves from other people.

Newborn babies who are fed and kept warm but never cuddled and talked to grow grey and die, a condition known as anaclitic depression. A baby who survives a lack of personal attention but who fails to form a bond with a mothering person grows up not understanding that around him there are both objects and people. People have thoughts, feelings, needs and wishes, while objects do not. Someone who does not know this treats people as objects. Consequently such a person inflicts pain with indifference, and does not develop a conscience, that is, that way of thinking which enables us to form a law-abiding society. Babies who never form a bond with a mothering person often grow up to be criminals, or to be diagnosed as suffering from a psychopathic personality disorder, but equally such babies can grow up to entrepreneurs, or lawyers, or politicians, or simply husbands and fathers, wives and mothers who cause their families endless pain and confusion.

We need other people so that we develop as a person with a conscience and the ability to empathise with others. We also need other people to sustain us in our daily lives. If we live completely alone we become eccentric and strange. We all need friends and we all need to learn the skills of friendship. These skills are both practical and personal. We need to learn the simple skills, such as how to greet someone in a friendly manner, but we also need to develop the many virtues of friendship – affection, trust, reliability, generosity, kindness, understanding, tolerance. To have a good friend you need to be a good friend.

However, whenever we approach another person in friendship we make ourselves vulnerable to the greatest danger that can befall us, that is, the threat of being annihilated as a person. We might fear death, but we can temper our fear with the belief that when we die some important part of us will continue on, be it our soul, or spirit, or simply that our friends will remember us. When we are threatened with annihilation as a person we feel that we are shattering, crumbling, disappearing. We feel that we will vanish like a puff of smoke in the wind, or like a raindrop into the ocean. Our very existence will be wiped from history.

This terrible experience can arise in the simplest of circumstances. My friend Joy gave me an example of this. Joy is a very friendly person and has always been interested in shopping, so when she was phoned by a marketing researcher, instead of making an excuse, she readily agreed to be interviewed. The researcher, a woman, needed some background information about Joy and inquired about her age group. Was she in the 20 to 35 group? No. The 35 to 50 group? No. The 50 to 65 group? No. Over 65? Yes. The researcher said, ‘In that case we don’t need you,’ and put the phone down. Joy was not simply shocked at the woman’s rudeness. She felt physically weak and diminished to the point of disappearing. Her whole life, all her work, everything she had achieved had been scorned and rejected and she herself was at the point of shattering and disappearing.

We feel ourselves threatened with annihilation whenever we discover that we have made a serious error of judgement. Joy had thought that, with her extensive experience of family life, she could make a contribution to a discussion about shopping, and the researcher showed her that she was wrong.

Everyone has made more serious errors of judgement than that. We might have thought that we were going to spend the rest of our lives with one person, and then that person abandoned us; or that our career path was firmly mapped, and then it disappeared; or that if we were good no disaster could befall us, and then we discovered that no amount of goodness prevents disaster.

If we can bear to remember those occasions when we made a serious error of judgement we can recall the terror we felt as we found ourselves falling apart, shattering, even disappearing. We can also recall how hard we had to work to hold ourselves together.

In our attempts to hold ourselves together we can resort to some desperate defences which lead other people to regard us as being bad or mad. We might turn against those people whom we see as the authors of our disaster and seek to destroy them in war or in an act of murder. Or we might turn against ourselves and blame ourselves for the disaster, and thus changing the sadness of our loss into the prison of depression, which is one of the most popular defences against annihilation. Indeed, all those behaviours which psychiatrists call mental illnesses can be understood as defences against annihilation.

Everything we do, whether in desperation or in the ordinary course of daily life is aimed in part at defending ourselves against annihilation.

How does this sense of being a person and the fear of annihilation arise? To understand this we need to understand how we operated as people.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictatus said, ‘It is not things in themselves that trouble us but our opinion of things.’ In other words, what determines our behaviour is not what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us. Today neuroscientists have shown that Epicatus was right. Our physiological make-up does not allow us to see things in themselves. What we see are what Epicatus called our opinions, that is, our ideas, attitudes, perceptions, all of which are constructions which we have made.

Newborn babies do not simply open their eyes and see the world. They have to learn to see, and how they do this depends on their experience of the environment into which they were born. Babies born into rectangular rooms learn to see space differently from babies born into round rooms, and people who grow up in mountain valleys see depth and distance differently from people who grow up on plains. This learning to perceive applies to every aspect of our experience. We come into the world with certain potentialities, but whether and how these potentialities become actualities depends on our experience of our environment. It is impossible to separate the effects of nature and nurture, and to think that we can do so is to delude ourselves.

Neuroscientists can now tell us something of what happens to our brain when we learn. Every act of learning is accompanied by the setting up of connections between the neurones in our brain. What the brain does has been summarised by the scientists Terence Picton and Donald Suss. They wrote, ‘The brain forms and maintains a model of the world and itself within that world. The model can be used to explain past events and predict the future.’ Since no two people ever have the same experience no two brains ever have the same pattern of connections between neurones.

The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield calls this setting up of connections in the brain ‘the personalization of the brain.’ As a psychologist I talk about meaning structure. What we call ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’ is a structure made up of all the interpretations or meanings which we have created. You are your meaning structure. Your meaning structure is you. Your meaning structure is not just a collection of ideas but a complex structure where every part is connected to every other part so as to form its own idiosyncratic logic. The pattern of neural connections in the brain seems to be the neural substrate of our meaning structure. Whether we think in terms of neurology or meaning, it is clear that no two people see themselves and their world in the same way.

This is the reason why people find it so hard to get along together. We are not born with an aggressive gene, nor do our hormones, nor our id, nor the planets millions of miles away propel us into war and conflict. We fail to get along together because we each see things in our own individual way, and we do not understand this and so make allowances for one another.

If we understood that everything we perceive and know is an approximation or a theory about what is actually going on we would understand what the experience of falling apart actually is and so not be afraid of it. To live safely in the world we need to construct theories about the world which are as close an approximation to the world as we can make them. Your theory about when it is safe to cross the road needs to be a good theory. We have developed techniques for creating good theories, that is, the techniques of scientific method, but these ways of thinking about our experience and checking our experiences by repetition and by discussion with other people are not used extensively by all people. Instead, most people prefer to construct fantasies, to regard these fantasies as absolute truths which exist outside time and place and which are known only to certain select people, to refuse to subject their fantasies to scientific method, and to react aggressively to anyone who questions their beliefs or who supports a belief which whose mere existence questions the truth of the dearly held fantasy. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is based on the Israelis’ belief that God gave the land of Palestine to them for their exclusive use.

If we understand that the experience of falling apart is simply a necessary process whenever we discover that we have made a serious error of judgement, we could abandon theories about mental illness and see disturbed behaviour as a desperate defence which could be rendered unnecessary by providing the person with the kind of support and safety which would enable him to go through the difficult period of dismantling an integral part of his meaning structure and constructing a better approximation of what was actually going on. We could also understand why in ordinary circumstances other people behave so peculiarly. In short, we could abandon that old saying, ‘All the world’s mad except me and thee, and even thee’s a little strange.’

However, many people show great resistance to this kind of understanding. As a psychologist my work has always been concerned with finding effective methods for eliciting another person’s meaning structure and seeing how the idiosyncratic logic within that meaning structure led inevitably to a certain behaviour. In my clinical work I was often required to provide a report on a person who had been found guilty of sexually abusing children and who failed to see that he had done anything wrong. In my report I would try to show the connections between the paedophile’s experiences in his own childhood and his abusive behaviour as an adult. Whenever I lectured on this topic I could be sure that at least one person in the audience would accuse me of providing an excuse for the paedophile’s behaviour and of failing to condemn sexual abuse. Yet, had I in another capacity been providing a description of the events which led to a person developing cancer no one in my audience would accuse me of being on the side of cancer. My reply to my accuser that an explanation is not an excuse never satisfied this person because his need to be judgemental over-rode any desire to think logically and see another person’s behaviour in terms of how that person saw himself and his world.

It is much easier to judge others than to think about our own responsibilities. There is very little which happens to us over which we have control, but we always have control over how we interpret what happens to us. A paedophile might not have had any control over the adults who abused him when he was a child, but he is responsible for deciding to interpret his sexual abuse as an action which the child he was abusing actually enjoyed.

Virtually all of human suffering is a result of what we do to one another and to ourselves. If we understood how it is that we operate as meaning-creating creatures we would be able to devise ways of living which reduced our suffering to a minimal. Yet this way of understanding ourselves is never taught in schools. There are very powerful reasons for this.

As a baby and a toddler we all knew that everyone had their own way of seeing things. This was obvious from our experience. There we would be, left to our own devices for a while in the kitchen where we found a pot of something which was extremely interesting. As a scientist we explored its interesting sticky texture, and as an artist we admired its yellow transparency, and as both artist and scientist we explored its possibilities over the kitchen floor and over our own body. Then our mother entered the room and immediately we discovered that she saw the situation differently.

A few children have the fortunate experience of being born to parents who are prepared to accept that their children have quite rightly their own point of view, but most of us had parents who made very clear to us that if we thought differently from them we were stupid, immature, even wicked. We learned to mistrust our own thoughts and feelings and to feel that there was something wrong with us if we saw thing differently from those people who were in authority over us.

Any child who enters the education system confident in his or her own view of the world is immediately seen by most of his teachers as a threat. Any teacher who appreciates a child who is an original thinker will be caught in a painful conflict between the needs of such a child and the demands of the educational system that teachers must force children to conform to this system. In society generally people who think for themselves are regarded as trouble makers by the State and the Church. Much in society is directed at stopping people from thinking. Here in Australia it is considered better that people spend their time gambling, even though extensive gambling is very deleterious to the economy of a country.

Understanding that each of us has our own individual ways of seeing things means that no one can claim to be in possession of some absolute truth. There may be absolute truths somewhere, but, constructed as we are, we can never be certain that we have encountered one. Yet the power structures of society are built on claims to absolute truths. It is not just dictators, politicians and church leaders who want to make such a claim. Psychiatrists and psychologists make similar claims which take the form of mechanical models of a human being which only the expert can understand.

There was a fine example of this on BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour recently. The presenter Jenny Murray was discussing with a psychologist and a psychiatrist a newly discovered disorder called nocturnal eating disorder. If on occasion you wake up during the night, find that you cannot go straight back to sleep and so decide to get up, go into the kitchen and make a snack or a hot drink, you are suffering from nocturnal eating disorder. The psychiatrist explained the cause of this disorder in terms of some as yet undiscovered hormonal change, while the psychologist explained the disorder in terms of the failure of the superego to restrain the impulses of the id. Not one these three intelligent, educated people talked in terms of what actually happens to us, which is that we wake up in the night filled with the nameless dread that comes when our meaning structure is under threat, something which can happen when the controls we use during the day dissolve in sleep. To ward off the threat we do something ordinary and comforting as getting something to eat. However, if you know just what this nameless dread is you can deal with it quickly and get a good night’s sleep.

Over the last thirty years there has been an increase in the number of people who understand how we each have our own way of seeing things and who have been brave enough to put this understanding into practice. Even though the easiest way to bring up children is to terrorise them into obedience, an increasing number of parents have taken on the hard work of raising children by taking seriously the child’s individual point of view. At the same time an increasing number of people are recognising that conflict is never ending if one side simply defeats the other side, and that compromise and reconciliation are essential if conflict is to be brought to an end. However, such parents and conciliators face constant criticism and little support. Such parents are surrounded by observers who make comments along the lines of, ‘If that was my child I’d give him a good hiding,’ while conciliators are scorned by the very people they are trying to help.

In an effort to hasten the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland a group of women from both sides of the sectarian divide came together to form a political party, the Women’s Alliance. It was very difficult for these women to come together because Catholics and Protestants shared no social life and, if forced by circumstances to converse, dealt with one another at best in icy politeness. Dialogue in Northern Ireland was conducted by each side shouting slogans. The Women’s Alliance drew up a set of rules to prevent polemic and create proper conversation. No one was allowed just to make a statement of position. Each person had to present her reasons for that position. If one woman made a statement and presented her reasons a woman who held opposing views would then present her views along with her reasons for that view. For instance, if a Protestant woman spoke of the necessity, as she saw it, of the Union Jack to be flown over police stations and government buildings she would then have to describe what the Union Jack meant to her. She would speak of loyalty and continuity, and of the pride she took in being British. Then a Catholic woman would be asked to describe what the Union Jack meant to her. She would talk of being alienated from her own country, of being made to feel a second class citizen, and of her fear of the British forces of law and order. This mutual exploration of meaning structures allowed all the women present to glimpse the lived experience of people who shared a country but who knew little of each other. The work of the Women’s Alliance not only expanded the experience of many people but also made a significant contribution to what is now known of effective methods of conciliation and reconciliation. But did this mean that the Women’s Alliance became a significant party in the Northern Ireland Assembly? No. The voters stuck to their political prejudices and elected the same old bigoted men who had been the leaders in the Troubles.

These bigoted old men, like a great many men and women, refuse to contemplate any kind of reconciliation because they see forgiveness as a weakness and implacable hatred as a strength. At the same time other people, notably church leaders, demand that we forgive our enemies. Both groups of people fail to understand just what forgiveness is. This failure arises out of the false division we make of cognition and emotion. Doing this we fail to recognise that forgiveness is an emotion and that emotions are a particular kind of interpretation which we create. There are some interpretations which we arrive at after some thought and some interpretations which we arrive at immediately without any thought but with a sense of absolute truth. This second kind of interpretation is what we call an emotion or feeling. Of course we can mislabel our emotions and lie to ourselves about what we feel, but these are acts of stupidity which only damage ourselves. Our emotions are interpretations which we cannot will into being because we believe that we should ought to do so. You cannot force yourself to love someone or forgive someone when in fact you do not love or forgive that person. All we can choose to do is to act in a loving or forgiving way.

The reason that people will not change their beliefs even when it would be socially and economically advantageous for them to do so is that to do so would be a threat to their meaning structure. When we have built our whole sense of identity upon a certain set of ideas it can seem to us that to change our ideas would be to annihilate us as a person. The Australia I grew up in was a society of strong prejudices. That society was divided into Catholic and Protestant and the divide was as strong as it was in Northern Ireland. Foreigners were scorned and abhorred, while the Aboriginal people were not seen as human beings. It is not surprising that current studies of racial attitudes and anti-aboriginal feeling show that these prejudices are most prevalent in my generation.

Such prejudices are based on dividing the seamless whole of all that exists into rigid and absolute divisions. Such divisions prevent us from recognising that all human beings are very much the same, not just genetically, but in our needs, desires, hopes and fears. If we could see that the divisions we create are ideas that exists in our head and not in reality, and that as we created these ideas we are free to change them, then it would be possible for us to diminish our suffering simply by coming to tolerate one another.

Terence Picton and Donald Suss ‘Neurobiology of Conscious Experience’ Current Opinion in Neurobiology 4, pp. 256-65, 1994.

Dorothy Rowe Friends and Enemies HarperCollins, London, 2000

Dorothy Rowe Wanting Everything HarperCollins, London, 1992

Dorothy Rowe Beyond Fear HarperCollins, London, 1987

Dorothy Rowe Breaking the Bonds: Ending Depression and Finding Freedom HarperCollins, London, 1989

Dorothy Rowe The Real Meaning of Money HarperCollins, London, 1997.

The Sydney Institute Papers Vol 13, No2, pp.35-42