How can we recognise what needs healing in ourselves and our communities?
For my friends and community members
When I studied Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, I learned a lot about going into situations of violence. I learnt that when people are in conflict they can be traumatised, they lose trust in each other, and they require time and space to heal. I learnt that, although all violent situations are unique, there are some unifying principles we can utilise in order to help us come to terms with violence and conflict and to transcend cycles of violence in order to create something new. In today’s world of UN Mandates and far-off wars it can be easy to think that this transcending has to be imposed from outside, but this is an illusion. It always begins on a personal and community level.
‘Community’ means many different things to each of us. For our ancestors, ‘community’ was perhaps simply the beings who lived around them. In tribal or similar societies, your community is your family and neighbours, who are also the people with whom you work, spend time with, make love to, have conflicts with, and generally create a life. It has become more complicated over time, and now for many who live in modern societies, community can almost be a choice; something you could be involved in, if you had time, but really, you are just so busy.
Because it’s not necessarily a matter of life or death whether or not you speak to your neighbours this week; because if someone does something you perceive as wrong, you can trust other people to deal with it; and because you see your internal traumas and healings as separate from those around you, you have maybe not consciously considered cultivating community within and without you.
This article invites you to do just this conscious considering, as we explore what community is and how we can heal our communities. It is going to be quite a journey but I invite you to join me, if you can, with an open heart.
We begin in the forests.
We begin on the plains.
We begin in the mountains, with the sound of the swift-flowing mountain streams.
The forests, the plains and the mountains are our ancestral homes. Somewhere in the world are wild places from which you sprang; places where your roots reach down deep. Even if the trees have been taken from your root-forest, even if the plains of your ancestors are made now of concrete, even if the mountain streams from which your grandmothers refreshed themselves now run black and oily, the places remain.
At some point in our history as a species, many of us decided to engage in agriculture. Agriculture (from Latin ager, ‘field’) is the cultivation of plants and animals on a large scale, in fields, which are placed over the top of whatever ecosystem is already there.
The forest could not stay. The plains had to be dug up. The rivers were diverted for irrigation.
By destroying the existing ecosystem, those who create the fields thus become dependent on the crops they produce therein. They couldn’t live in the wilderness anymore as it had been changed from flourishing ecosystem to sterile desert, so they built houses in groups close to the fields. Most large-scale agriculture is based on monoculture – production of one crop in one place – which can rarely provide enough nutrition to feed all of the people who are needed to work the fields, so they have to also exchange some of their harvest with others in order to survive. Thus the simple invention of growing food in fields can be seen to have led to the invention of cities and trade, which in turn led to hierarchies (who decides who eats what?), police systems (how can we stop people from going agaisnt the system we all depend on?) and many more factors of what we would now recognise as modern society.
Down with agriculture?
This is not to say that agriculture is inherently a negative thing; or that it was the only factor in humans disconnecting ourselves somewhat (or at least, imagining that we are disconnected) from our environment. Farming has helped us to multiply as a species and live in more diverse areas than any other living creature on the planet. Right now, most of us do not have enough carefully tended wilderness or permaculture gardens in our immediate vicinity to sustain us without agriculture, so in a very real way, it is also keeping us alive right now.
And it is not to say that modern society is necessarily negative. But when we look at modern society from this perspective, it seems clear that the very foundations of the communities many of us were born into are rooted in the conscious destruction of the natural surroundings. This has helped us to survive. But it also means that any society with these foundations is probably going to be one of inherent violence. We may not be experiencing ‘conflict’ as it is recognised by the mainstream media: many of our houses are intact; a lot of us may never have seen a gun; our interactions in day-to-day life involve words and discussion rather than fighting or hiding.
Nevertheless, we can all to be seen to be living in a very real conflict situation, which Barash (1) would call “negative peace”; one which is so subtly set up and so deeply embedded in many people’s minds that it can sometimes be difficult even to recognise – which may ultimately make it even more dangerous than living in a situation of overt conflict.
I won’t do what you tell me…
Of course, this recognition of modern society as one of inherent violence is not a new revelation. People have been complaining and singing about it, probably for almost as long as it has existed. For example, someone may realise that the situation they are living in is inherently violent but that it does not necessarily provide any kind of safe or supportive space for the free expression of overt, actual, genuine violent emotions. A common reaction to this realisation is to express these emotions anyway. If they have been repressed for many years it could get very messy, unless the person in question manages to get a guitar in their hands, then they can just rage against the machine in a musical way.
For some people, the angry rebellious stage is a necessary one. Marshall Rosenberg, who calls it the ‘obnoxious teenager’ phase, describes our expression of anger and rebellion against those who we previously saw as authority figures as a way of beginning to draw our own boundaries, so that we can begin expressing our genuine wants and needs rather than going with what other people tell us to do (2).
Intentional community healing
Having gone through this stage (because, in many cases, if you can release your anger you can be free of it), many people decide to become more conscious about how and where we live. One expression of this is the creation of ‘intentional communities’; groups of people who consciously choose to live together and share their lives, to a greater or lesser extent, while engaging in a new way of interaction which can transcend modern societal rules and norms.
I am one of those people. I have lived in many communities, and visited or studied many more. In a way, anyone who decides to start considering their life choices is making their community an intentional one, whether or not you actually physically move onto a piece of land with your intentional neighbours and friends.
Trauma and art
So now we have reached ths point in our journey. It was a long way from the forests of our ancestral birth-lands, through the blank concrete stares of the labyrinthine walls of our physical birth-lands, embracing the anger and rebellion at the realisation of the secret subtle violence which is present all around us, and a coming to terms with this, in whatever way is right for us, in the decision to be more conscious and intentional about our choices of how and where we live.
We are all at different stages of the journey and of course not everyone’s path leads in such a simply explainable way. But if you have read this far I am guessing that you are also somewhat considering how you are a part of an intentional community. And this is where it may start to get complicated.
Opening the portal…
By making intentional communities, whether in physical space or as a non-physical network, we can be seen as opening up spaces for people to come together and create. This may be with a physical space such as a community garden, or a network of like-minded individuals; it could be people coming together to create events, or those who have chosen to build everything they need to live, together, in one place. John Paul Lederach, one of the leading practitioners in the field of peace studies, says that creativity and the creative process is “the wellspring that feeds the building of peace” (3). If we can be creative, we can imagine ways out of situations of conflict. In this way we are building a positive collective of humans engaging with each other.
However, creativity is also an important part of dealing with the effects of violence. Those traumatised by violence (which, in this modern world, is probably everyone), require healing. Sometimes huge amounts of grief, anger or sadness have to be expressed before any other healing can take place. By making spaces for people to come together and create we are also opening up the space for this healing to begin taking place. So any intentional community also has to deal with the grief, the anger; we have to deal with community members lashing out at other community members, not because they have a particular personal problem but because they are expressing the effects of a deep and violent trauma, which in itself may also not even be personal, but part of our collective ‘primal wounding’ (4).
I say, we have to deal with it; because if we open this space, these things will come out sooner or later. Our psyches do not necessarily recognise when it’s a good time to express our wounding or to express a new creative action; and indeed there may be no separation between these things. So whether or not we are prepared, we do have to deal with it.
So then what happens if someone goes ‘crazy’?
What if the expression of collective primal wounding by one community member ends up hurting another community member – either physically or emotionally, or both?
In ‘normal’ society, the answer is simple – remove them from the community and put them in a contained space so they can get ‘better’. This way of thinking is so far removed from all of the intentional communities that I have been and continue to be a part of that it would not really occur to us to take this action. We can recognise that outbursts of so-called ‘crazy’ behaviour are not necessarily signs of illness, but parts of a process which is important to go through. But this does not take away the actual reality of community members being violent to each other. Having decided that we will not section each other, what can we do in these situations?
There is no easy answer. But in part 2, I will explore some possible techniques which could be practiced by community members together to try to achieve some kind of balance in healing.
Healing takes time…
Our collective trauma is still healing. Our ancestors’ grief at the loss of their connection to the trees and creatures with whom they shared life may not yet be fully expressed, and is awaiting expression through our own actions before we can fully heal. Our own personal expriences with violence, both overt and covert, may not be fully integrated. May we be kind to ourselves and to each other, as we try to recognise that we are all healing together.
- Barash (ed), 1999. Approaches to Peace: A Reader in Peace Studies. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
- Rosenberg, R, 2003. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddledancer Press: Encinitas, CA, USA.
- Firman, J; Gila, A, 2002. Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit. SUNY Press: New York City, USA.
- Lederach, J.P, 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.