Talk given at St Luke’s Hospice Volunteer Day on 4 December 2015
Everything is connected; everything is one. But never make the mistake of reducing unity to conformity. When oneness is forced into sameness it always results in violence. By that I mean, if an idea of truth or reality tries to reduce everything and everyone to one definition, or one type, or one ideal, then anything that does not conform to that idea of right oneness has to be corrected, suppressed, excluded, or at worst, destroyed.
Usually we think of this kind of totalitarianism as the obvious evils of, for example: Hitler and the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews, or Stalin’s gulags where enemies of the communist state died in their millions, or Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution that starved the peasants and murdered the intellectuals, or in the South African context the apartheid of Malan, Verwoerd and Vorster that stripped black people of their homes, their humanity and often their lives.
But even the noblest visions can become totalitarian. The historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote a brilliant essay called Hitler’s world may not be so far away in which he warns the West not to get too cosy in its moral superiority as liberators of the free world – both in the Second World War and since then – as the conditions for violent solutions for seemingly intractable world problems are never far away. And either-or thinking, and all-or-nothing thinking, can quickly lead to rash actions with unforeseen and catastrophic consequences; like the US attempt to liberate Iraq, which led to bloody civil war, a power vacuum, and now the rise of the brutal Islamic State – in many ways a worse evil than Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Snyder says this:
Opposing evil requires inspiration by what is sound rather than by what is resonant. The pluralities of nature and politics, order and freedom, past and future, are not as intoxicating as the totalitarian utopias of the last century. Every unity is beautiful as image but circular as logic and tyrannical as politics. The answer to those who seek totality is not anarchy, which is not totality’s enemy but its handmaiden. The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions: an unending labour of differentiated creation. This is a matter of imagination, maturity and survival.
What he is saying is that too many people are attracted by the resonant idea of one answer or one solution. These images of unity are beautiful because of their simplicity and immediacy. For example the image of one, united South Africa, bringing all its people together: lovely image, yes; except if you are in South Africa, but not of it – if you are from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia or Pakistan. Then you spoil the beauty of the image of unity and must be eliminated.
You see the problem with this idea of unity or oneness is that it holds no space for complexity, for plurality, for paradox. In psychological terms the Object Relations psychologist, Melanie Klein, called it the paranoid-schizoid position. This is the natural tendency of all babies to split off the bad from the good.
There are two equal and opposite dangers in this:
- The one is to see only the good and split off and deny the shadow – which means to suppress conscious awareness of anything we don’t like or that makes us uncomfortable, or embarrassed. We then pretend only the good exists. We do that to other people too – because we like them we are blind to their faults and weaknesses.
- The other danger, however, is if the awareness of the ‘badness’ of the thing or person becomes overwhelming, we suddenly swing right across to only seeing the bad. The mild version of this is, for example, the child who thinks her parents are wonderful and can do no wrong, and then she becomes a teenager, and suddenly her parents are the lamest, dumbest creatures on the planet. The more damaging version is the newly married couple who think their life is perfect now that they have found each other, and then a few years later they wake up one morning and realise they hate each other’s guts.
So Melanie Klein says the mature position we need to reach is what she called the depressive position. That doesn’t mean we get depressed, though reaching maturity usually does mean working through some sadness and grief over the loss of the world we thought we lived in. The depressive position means that we reintegrate the good and the bad, the light and the shadow, and recognize that everything and everyone is a mix of both. As Joni Mitchell sang, it means looking at life from both sides; from give and take, from win and lose, from up and down. And of course realising that even then, we still really don’t know life at all!
So to get back to the heart of our topic today, when we say that everything is connected, everything is one, we are talking about the unity on the other side of complexity and differentiation. This is the developmental – or one could say evolutionary – path of maturity to unitary consciousness. We must first take things apart, split them up, differentiate them, before we can put them back together and re-integrate them in all their glorious complexity and paradox.
This is true of all of reality, but for many of us comes closest to home when we consider our own personal identity. Take your gender, for example. You first have to split it apart into the apparent opposites of masculine and feminine, and usually over-identify with one of them (that is the paranoid-schizoid part, or in playground terms boy-fever and girl-fever). Then – if you are developing in maturity – you realise that you have some of both in you, and ultimately you transcend the need to only identify yourself in terms of one gender. Which does not necessarily mean you become androgynous – i.e. some kind of neutral third gender – rather you live with the creative tension of your femininity and masculinity playfully doing the Tango inside you.
The same is true for your race or ethnicity. You first have to become conscious of – and split off – your blackness or colourdness or whiteness – and see how it is different and ‘other’ to other races and ethnicities, before you can transcend and integrate the particularity of your cultural, and to a much lesser extent biological identity (by which I mean that race and ethnicity have far more to do with culture than nature). Once you have done this you become non-racial – which, as I keep repeating, does not mean you deny the existence of the plurality of ethnicities (which is the problem with most liberal forms of non-racialism) but you know in your marrow that humanity is one exactly because of its rainbow diversity.
In the work of palliative and hospice care, we have to differentiate death from life – in other words first split it off from life and stare at it in fear and wonder as the antithesis of everything we know as ‘life’; and then enter the depressive position and stop denying it as unnatural or evil or “not the will of God”; and finally integrate it back into our conscious awareness as the yang to the yin of life.
So when you get depressed by all the apparent conflict and hate and denial in the world around you, just remember that these are the birth pains of a global humanity moving from the paranoid-schizoid position into the depressive position. It is a necessary developmental stage as we move to what Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point, the moment we collectively realise that we are all connected and everything is one.
But one question remains: how do we do all of this; how do we get there? How do we make conscious what is unconscious? How do we face what we fear? How do we move beyond the paranoid-schizoid position, to the harder depressive position, and even beyond that to what, in the Hindu tradition, is called advaita (not-two), or ‘non-dual awareness’?
Two common answers are: 10 years of daily psychotherapy or 10 years of seclusion in a monastery or an ashram. So that accounts for 0.01% of the world population. How do the rest of us do it?
The complexly, simple answer is: love and suffering.
Which, as you know by now, are not two but one.
One of my favourite thinkers is one of the lesser-known figures in the history of psychology, the Scottish psychiatrist, Ronnie Laing. He is known for his studies of schizophrenia, but he wrote profoundly about what he called the ontology of relatedness. Which is a fancy way of saying that we are born to love. He says that the essence of being human is this: love your neighbour as you love yourself. And he was in no sense of the word a Christian. He breaks down Jesus’ injunction into six components:
Love your neighbour unconditionally.
Love is a verb, a way of relating to a Thou not an
You must love each and every other neighbour – not a vague and indifferent universal humanity.
You must recognise the otherness of the other person as different from yourself.
“Love as yourself” means you have a reflexive relation to self that will influence others. If you mistreat yourself others will also suffer.
The as in “love as yourself” expresses the correlation that exists between yourself and the other. You exist in relation, never in isolation.
Do you see how these components maintain both the connectedness and the otherness? That is the paradoxical unity of love that is the core truth of all reality. And that is our true nature.
Gans, S. 1999. ‘Awakening to love: Ronie Laings phenomenological therapy’. In The European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling & Health. Vol 2 No 2 August 1999, 169-187.
Snyder, T 2015. Hitler’s world may not be so far away. Available online at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/16/hitlers-world-may-not-be-so-far-away