‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.’ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (written in 1859, depicting the French Revolution of 1780, quoted by me in 2016).
During Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. Speaking of an event that took place nearly two centuries previously, Zhou famously commented that it was ‘too early to say’. The witticism quickly became a way of emphasising the Chinese ability to take the long view in history. Brexit has yet to unfurl its full consequences and it is unlikely we will understand the impact for many years to come – maybe many generations.
In family systemic constellation therapy we look at the individual in the context of their family system and look at the generations that have gone before. I am the result of generations of folk – most of whose names are lost in the mists of time. Their struggles and triumphs are woven into my own narrative. In the last hundred years they have faced famine, poverty, world wars and migration. Maybe there was sexual abuse somewhere down the line, or alcoholism and physical abuse, or affairs, or religious zealotry, or religious persecution – all these will have a hand in how our present beliefs and behaviours are structured, how we relate as one human to another. Our ancestors narratives, their genes (passed down through their strange pairings) and even their epigenetics construct me. Epigenetics is the study of how genes are altered, or switched on or off in a lifetime by crises and massive events and are passed to the next generation. There is evidence of this amongst the children of mothers who were holocaust survivors. As Larkin sagely said, ‘Man passes misery to man’.
Added to this is my own unique story and extraordinary life events and all the choices I have made and not made. Then throw in a dash of culture, society, religion, education, friendship influences and any number of things and we get to see how complex little old me is. I’m also a temporal being, meaning that I am ever changing all the time. Furthermore, I’m born into a very particular body, in a time and place like no other. And the really scary thing is we are all like me. ‘A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret mystery to the other’ (Dickens again).
Some of you have hopefully watched the Adam Curtis film, ‘Hypernormalisation’. The film shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and ‘the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us, we accept it as normal’. He gives examples of this – he claims that Colonel Gadaffi of Libya was set up by Reagan in the 1980s to be the fall guy for his ongoing problems in the Middle East. He was a convenient story to tell rather than grappling with the appalling complexity that is the Middle East as its politics. Also our Facebook feeds only reflect back a world we can tolerate that reinforces our world view. I am not friends with UKIP members or Jihadists or Peadophiles as far as I know. I choose people like me to reflect me back at myself.
If the riddle of me is hard to figure out then how much harder the world. Personally I get very exercised when people make simple sweeping statements that sound too good to be true as they rarely take into account the complexity of the world and the choices we have to make on the micro and macro scale. I have been reading about the Iraqi Yazidi community and their appalling persecution and and their harrowing treatment at the hands of Isis. Men massacred and women sold into sexual slavery. One eight-year-old girl was so traumatized by the repeated rapes inflicted on her by ISIS, and justified by their imams under sharia law, that she set herself on fire to stop it from happening again. A German doctor, coming upon her ruined body in a refugee camp, arranged for her to be sent to a German hospital in the hope she might survive the burns over 80% of her body. Germany has taken well over a thousand Yazidi women and children all terribly traumatised and are helping rehabilitate them. They flew them from the refugee camps in the Middle East and offer them art classes, yoga and safety. In the UK we do not offer Iraqi refugees sanctuary – only Syrian…
The Isis warriors may well believe they are good men but in my book nobody that can rape a woman or child is ‘good’. That is easy to say and judge. But much of life it is not so clear. Some official somewhere considered Yazidi women not needy enough while others have allowed groups of refugees in who are likely to be lying about their status. Who decides what is good and bad? When I watch the BBC news and then Russia Today’s news it is utterly bewildering. On the BBC news the British and the US are the moral crusaders saving whole nations from Syria’s Assad and Russia’s demunitive titular leader, Putin. Yet on RT TV it is Obama and May who bomb civilian populations and are accused of grave war crimes. Whose version should I buy? Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? It is not so easy to tell sometimes. The people who raised money for charity with Jimmy Savile seem to find it impossible to reconcile his evil acts with the good person they knew. We seem to find it hard to tolerate complexity and nuance. We want good and bad all tidy and neat in boxes.
This is the macrocosm and we are little better or uncomplex at close quarters. We have an affair or go on a dangerous drug fuelled binge, or we shout at our children but present a view of ourselves that is acceptable and palatable to those around us. We threaten suicide to cow and still our agitators – usually our loved ones. We lie all the time to preserve an image of ourselves that is not true so that we can appear good. Yet privately we stare at untold stuff on the Internet or undermine our loved ones with veiled criticisms meant for their benefit with the net result we wither them just a little bit more.
I don’t want any more trite platitudes from people who are ill-informed. Didn’t Marie Antoinette kindly say that ‘they must all eat cake’, when she heard of the terrible poverty of the French peasants illustrating just how far she was from having any understanding of just how dire their circumstances were. She lost her head in the end of course. Good and bad are ever so much more complex than we like to think. The only basis for judging what is good or bad is trying to understand the truth.
From The Rock by TS Eliot
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change,
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.