What can Psychology do that others are less able to do?
I belong to an online group called Climate Psychology Alliance – facing difficult truths about climate change and ecological crisis. I wrote the essay below in response to many posts and references offered by members of that group.
Without any disregard of the capacity for compassion, connection and care shown by many articles, without disregard for the wisdom of both/and in personal cultural and structural discussions and impacts, the recognition that future is uncertain and the help given to contain and bear everything that brings, I find myself criticizing and carping and not liking myself, my ingratitudes. And so, a wee bit of What and Why to myself, and I discover I am missing the clarity of the statement: to be alive is to be in contradiction.
I am seeing it, but not easily saying it to myself. Surely this is what psychology can say to all: there is no rational or reasoned way through to a better [or any] future, if by rational you mean without experiencing contradictions. From inaccurate memory I quote:
eg Bowlby: “ambivalence is a mark of health”,
or ?Bion?: “the inherent contradiction of being born into dependence with a need to become an individual”,
or, many cultures such as Native American and Chinese that share: “I have two wolves in my soul, the fighting angry greedy destroyer and the upright warrior defender [very male this part of the story] that finishes with Which Wolf wins? The one I feed the most.” [maybe this is where the female comes in, the nurturing breast/food provider].
In short, what psychology can say is that at all times in lived experience, us humans and sentient beings are BOTH destructive AND altruistic. The many unconscious and subconscious vectors that criss-cross our behaviours and our reactive and proactive intents have been tracked by neuroscience, and can be mixed and matched to bring the varieties of conscious feeling/action whether that be aggressive / assertive or altruistic / enlightened self-interested caring. Whatever – see Panksepp’s naming of “emotions” [basic instincts, in capitals to stress basic rather than felt in our consciousness – FEAR, RAGE, PANIC, LUST, SEEKING, PLAY, CARE]. These produce the contradiction.
That is Fact 1.
I am trying to say, and wishing I could be more simple, concise, a better writer, that the neuroscience also states another fact just as our experiential observational therapeutic art does: the emotion we feel [conscious or unconscious] is not in our individual personal control, it arrives as a message to the self from the self in its surroundings: This is the state you are in. Information accepted, as therapists [and friends and mothers/fathers carers] know, often, the state changes, dynamic, the process of being a living being. I wonder often how I can share that magical joyousness felt as a person’s being shifts, even in great grief, or recognizing the truth in anger, the joy arrives at the same time, and my eyes can tear up as I write, gratitude wins when truth is fed. We do not control feelings to produce change, we witness them, and hold them or fail to hold. Feeling happens because we live, NOT because we control them. Our agency lies in our willingness to hold, for ourselves, and, as we are connected, also for others.
That is Fact 2 [but I don’t hear it said often, is it my opinion?]
I am emphasizing this because non-psychologists think we help people with their feelings [as we do, from the crude assumptions that counsellors offer advice, a step up from friends’ tea and sympathy, to the much more sophisticated and real work done by holding a space for the feelings to be shared and witnessed.] What we also do is understand the nature of mind, and one of its products, thought. Before I wander into looking at mistakes of thought, and better forms of thinking, as well as the other parts of our being, entwined, not separate, I remember I want to address thoughts on climate. Here it helps me to make an analogy to my understanding of systems thinking, or ecological thought, addressing the whole without losing my threads in a variety of other perspectives.
Do you remember physics lessons, and all those batteries, wires and crocodile clips that made little light bulbs grow bright, or dim, or as many pupils would find so frustrating, sometimes failed to light at all? From such lessons, one was taught a formula: V = IR, where “V” is volts and “I” current, in amps, and “R” is resistance, ohms. This is science, or REALITY, not a piece of mathematics. Volts, amps and ohms are different categories of stuff, and they do not go in a circle like rocks, paper, scissors.
Analogy – current, I, [or brightness] is the effect seen, resistance, R is the context, and the battery providing V is the motivating cause. The only way to change “I” is to fiddle with R, or provide more or less V. If the crocodile clips on the battery are rusty, there is no V, as rust makes a lot more R than was intended etc. The formula is very reductive, it does have severe initial and boundary conditions, necessary for the results, the effect, to be as expected. Not many physics teachers stress that the system of initial and boundary conditions is what makes the formula science, the story of reality. But, the analogy holds to help thinking about climate change, where, like current, what we see is the resultant effect of many things that happen in the context R, and are caused by the motive force V.
In talk of mitigating or reversing climate change, the effect, we have to work with R, the context or V, whatever is causative. There is a lot of fiddling with R. This may be more or less effective, from “ban fossil fuel” to “eat no beef”, but in my view only some attention to V –the growth growth growth mantra, linked to both individualism and achievement as well economy based on competitive trade. And in this case, V is man-made cultural or structural attitude. We can use the formula: V = R X I to help us think more effectively, more wisely.
I believe the R, the context, is necessarily local, and indeed individual. Each of us has our own mass of contradictions and differences in circumstance. As a creative and productive culture, Extinction Rebellion is an example of being good about acknowledging this, e.g. not everyone can face arrest, but all agree to non-violence. I see it as a mistake to “tell” the Chinese or any other culture, us, not to eat beef. The way forward for context is not “tell”, but as always – education, accurate information, communication, and respect for individual need. [The classic example of this is on a related topic, that of population growth, where dictat in China has indeed reduced population but brought a slew of unwelcome side-effects, while in the west, population growth drops without dictat, as women – and men – are more free to make different work/life choices.]
V, like its many effects, inequalities, exploitation and damage, as well as climate, is global, its effects are local. For example, the growth of trade war, and its ally, the growth of military war, and its industry, are global. Hope for a better future, enabling the probability of creating a better future, lies in seeing that these global attitudes, the motive force that causes the effects, are NOT science or results, they are man-made. The economy, the monetary system, the military belief in nation and nation states, are all thought systems. I never thought that I might quote that to-me-awful organization, the NRA: “its not the guns, it’s the people behind the guns”. [Help, there is a good reason to adjust context, the number of guns, as well as attend to cause.]
Hence I return to “what can psychology do?”. Keep exploring, looking, educating about thought systems. Of course psychology in action also helps all in distress, supports those who despair or seek peace, and can also support those who try to change the monetary system, and those who bring technology to context change. I have been missing that psychology can also say loudly and clearly that we are contradictory beings who by being born, then living, then dying, have both “growth” and “stasis” built in. We go through spring, summer, autumn and winter. Our thought in every department needs this knowledge.
In the last few years, pre-Trump election, pre-Brexit vote, I was struck by the number of rational beings making arguments on the basis of “greed is part of our nature” or “we survive by paying attention to self, so of course the system is like this”, as if these were the only human attributes that mattered. They are of course part-right, and my quite murderous judgmental wish that they would shut up, tells me I have a good bit of that in me too. But, my reasons for living, the things that have me smiling, are hardly ever about achievements, unless it be seeing the toddlers’ face as she reaches the top of the slide in the local playground. Our other truths are contradictory, our ‘seeking’ curiosity, our humour and ‘play’, our defending and protecting ‘care’, for people we don’t even know as well as many we do, can be given a lot more space than our present culture honours.
Working against culture and structure is hard. De-growth will be hard, one has to stand up looking silly, or naïve, bear the disagreements from others, and live with pieces of guilt, whatever they are, when we go along with the present setting. [I could choose not to fly to see my family, but do it anyway, I cannot choose how the pension I need for my daily living is invested, can only choose to ask that question.]
Psychology can say this. Hold the contradictions. The Brexit mess on the UK news at this very time, demonstrates the contradictions, and shows how some are willing to bear and contain, stay in collaboration, while others bluster and bully, driven by survival mode. [There was a great paper about the Eton boys survival on here recently.] Media jump from reporting with some skill, to demanding a lead that would satisfy, etc. Psychology can say “Hold the Contradictions does not mean Do Nothing. It allows more clarity and less pre-judgment about what needs to be done, and what needs to be valued. Be aware of thought process as well as its content.”
My personal view – heeding the V and the R of my equation – has become three passions:
- Attend to the reform of the world monetary system, wherever I can;
- Belong to initiatives for peace, not war, eg at World Beyond War;
- Be de-growth in my own local system and family, get political, explore technology
And – I tell the two wolves story in whatever form the context will take. I try to own my contradictions.
I write poetry for self- therapy: If you have read this far,
No-one told the bees to make honey
but they do.
No-one needs to know how the grass grows
but it does.
When the tree falls in the forest we do not hear
but fungi flourish
We have not asked the sun to rise and shine every time
In a darkened night we lift our eyes to the stars, or sleep
Did you hear the rain pitter patter your window, or the wind’s rattle?
Planning permission not required.
Did you hear about the bananas? Dole’d to consumers faffing and Fyffing
Wanting golden skinned
Nations unfed while consumers led to love the bananas
not too soft or black
tons crated from plantations and tonnage tossing over seas,
Hands harvest the hands.
Fair trade or agribusiness. How do you know there are bananas
in your fridge?
Are you bananas? You forget the world will touch you with its gifts
Let your skin take it in
While the bees buzz on busy honey making.
No-one told you: you will get something for nothing every day
No-one told you: you will be born and grow
No-one told you love, or hate or fear or pride or joy
Let them come, as they will, as surely as the sun shines.
See what honey comes.
Thanks for reading. Elspeth