31 October 2009

Political and Psychological

It is generally accepted that children raised in a loving, caring environment have a better chance of growing up to be happy, loving adults than children who are subjected to cruelty and abuse throughout their early years.  It is also pretty much taken for granted that it is good to treat all children in a family fairly and to encourage equality of esteem for kids in schools and sports clubs.  To discriminate against a child on the basis of colour or physical disability would be considered not only reprehensible but potentially damaging to the psychological wellbeing of the child.

All this changes once we reach adulthood.  True, it is still forbidden to discriminate against a person on certain specified grounds, and yet, inequality abounds.  The usual argument put forward to explain inequality in modern, capitalist society has to do with possessing rare skills.  Thus, the brain surgeon gets paid more than the garbage collector.  The brain surgeon will say that s/he has invested lots of time and money acquiring his / her relatively rare skill and therefore deserves to earn more than the garbage collector who can function with perhaps as little as a few hours training – unless, of course, our brain surgeon is a socialist.

In the particular western democracy where I live, politicians often spout this line to justify the large salaries they pay themselves.  They get their PR people to suggest to the press that the politician in question is possessed of such skill that, were they not so public-minded, they could be out there captaining industry or ‘lawyering ‘ their way to mega riches.  In fact, most of our lot are of limited talent even in terms of conventional measures of intelligence.  The only skills they seem to possess are the capacity to believe totally in their own ability, a viciousness with which to fight off other candidates from within their own party and capacity for blandness with which to hypnotize the public.  They frequently talk about the fact that they are doing this public a service.  How much more believable that would be were they not cosseted in luxury, swanning around from ‘meeting’ to ‘meeting’ and never putting their hand in their pocket for lunch.  How much more meaningful their claim to public service would be if they had actually sacrificed something to be where they are rather than fattening on it.

So why is a psychotherapist writing about politics?  Because I believe that politics affects our mental health.  Living in Ireland (for example) today, for many people, is like living in a family where Mommy and Daddy are clearly not up to the job and are in constant denial about that fact.  You might say that this is an unfair metaphor as we are all adults here and should not look to our politicians to parent us.  This is true at a technical level but not at a psychological level.  At the psychological level, we must take account of the fundamental truth that all abuse is abuse of power … and we have invested power in these people.  Therefore, while I can technically take care of myself as an adult, I also know when I am being abused.  And, for those adults who did come from actual abusive and neglectful families, deep chords are being struck by those who are clinging to power and spouting meaningless platitudes.

Politics should be about the truth – it should not be the handmaiden of a particular model of economics.  In fact, the truth is that our particular model of economics has failed us.  It takes psychological robustness to face up to difficult truths – and avoiding them is a recipe for psychological illness.

How refreshing would it be if, in the midst of the worldwide crisis, some politician (one would have thought it might have been Barack Obama) had actually stood up and acknowledged this - acknowledged that the way we have been running things is fundamentally flawed.  If such a thing had happened, that politician would have become a leader.  It is true that many opposition politicians will say they have done precisely this, but have they really?   How come, when they get into power, there is always some excuse to postpone the really radical change, change that might affect the inequalities built into our social structure?

There is a skill within psychotherapy called ‘dis-identification’ where we try to get a person to realize that a human being has a depth within them that can never be measured.  Some therapists get people to say things like ‘I have a body, but I am not a body” or ‘I have emotions, but I am not emotions’.  It can be very useful for reminding yourself that you are a mystery that will never be totally solved, a soulful human being.  But suppose we started to say things like ‘I can do brain surgery, but I am not a brain surgeon’ or ‘I collect the garbage, but I am not a garbage collector’.  Suppose as a society we began to value each other for the ineffable mysteries that we all are, instead of narrowly defining each other in terms of skills?  Would we then think it fair for one child to grow up in a trailer park and another to grow up in a mansion?

Some readers are possibly thinking that this is all just a little bit too bolshy right now.  But that kind of polarization between socialism and capitalism has gotten all of us nowhere.  Could we all just ‘not know’ what the answer is for a little while?  Could we finally have a leader who might articulate this on our behalf, who might lead us into a truly fertile ignorance?