I was recently struck by the psychological implications of an article written by the prolific political essayist David Harris.
His topic, appearing October 18th in the Huffington Post, was the most recent vote by the UN Human Rights Council. However, what intrigued me was not so much the political inferences of his reporting but the ease with which one could tease out and compare the psychology supporting the actions of world leaders with the behavior of ordinary citizens. In considering the nature of their interaction, the “herd mentality”(to quote Harris) of the vast majority of delegates and the frequent disregard of morality and justice, I learned as much about those who voted as I learned about each of us as individuals and, yes, human nature, in general.
The more I read the more apparent it became to me that the essential nature of relationships – whether between nations or individuals – echoes and reflects the same or at least similar dynamics as those between parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, to name but a few. Why? Because human nature is as complex as it is simple. What is simple is the predictability of peoples’ actions given specific circumstances, and what remains complex is the wide range of emotions each of us is capable of experiencing given other circumstances. What is perhaps most fascinating is comparing the mind of any individual with that of the collective mind of any group.
Groups, as we all know, can be found in a variety of arenas, each having its own goal, serving its own purpose. There are groups which are benevolent, others which are relatively neutral and still others which are absolutely criminal, posing a danger to us all.
They are as variable as volunteer organizations committed to fund-raising for research to reduce the risk factors for life-threatening diseases; unions formed to secure the rights of workers; street gangs determined to prove their territorial privileges, even at the expense of murdering members of opposing gangs ... and, in the world at large, we have the Taliban, Al Quaeda, the various rebel groups and drug cartels throughout South America, the warring tribes in Africa and Jihadists of all stripes and colors.
While humanists would surely agree that there is more to be gained when respect and harmony prevail, those commodities seem to be all too rare these days. One has only to look at the number of wars and ongoing conflicts throughout the world to know that in most instances hatred, ignorance and an appetite for power is what frequently drives combatants. Theirs are the voices that are loudest, their actions the most atrocious, and yet the solutions we continue to seek to put an end to all such conflicts have surely failed to succeed.
That being said, the potential for explosive behavior has become the reality of our times, a reality between nations, within nations, and across all cultural and religious divides. That is precisely what struck me so profoundly: the similarity between the actions taken within families and those taken by governments that don’t have the desire or ability to negotiate or to accept the differences of others. When that happens, what options are there?
Clearly, my goal as a psychotherapist is to help people to navigate through life in ways that allow them to be more productive and feel at peace with themselves. That often means helping them count their blessings as well as recognizing that when what they are doing or what others are doing to them is harmful. When that is happening, they need to find ways to take appropriate actions, advocating for their rights, but never at their own expense or with the intention of harming anyone else.
When we fight for the principles in which we believe, maintaining our dignity with courage and conviction, then we and those whom we hold most dear benefit the most. On the other hand, when anyone loses sight of the big picture and focuses only on one particular family member instead of the entire family, it is no different than when a national leader has tunnel vision and sees only his nation, his people in relation to no one but himself, his people or one segment of his people. When that happens no one benefits, and history has proven that since the beginning of time.
Returning to Harris’s premise that COURAGE and PRINCIPLE ARE ALWAYS IN SHORT SUPPLY, few have so eloquently stated why “when injustice and expediency become norms of the day, we must speak out loud and clear!”
Although Harris admits that, for the most part, there were no surprises in how national leaders voted (or abstained from voting), where he is to be commended is in restating the questions asked of the Council, questions that were so roguishly dismissed by so many of its members and subsequently reflected in how they voted.
Is that not similar to what we see in families? So often when histories are taken from family members and questions are asked of them in the face of facts which have been documented – someone suffering from a physical or emotional illness or worse, still, from dysfunction within the family – they remain rigid with blinders preventing them from believing that their solution is not the only and the best one for their situation.
Concluding that “the worst offenders against human rights, quite naturally supported the resolution, happy to have attention once again deflected from their own shameful records,” that, too, is no different from what we see when we treat individuals who point fingers, blaming others, no matter how many people their actions may have hurt.
Whether the truly dangerous world leaders succeed in decimating the world as we know it or whether we who claim to be civilized do find the way to a peaceful, meaningful acceptance of one another, only then we will prove that COURAGE and PRINCIPLES do count for something as basic as ensuring the survival of the majority of the world’s people – Arabs, Israelis, Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans – who want nothing more than to be able to live lives that are meaningful and not ones of quiet or not-so-quiet desperation!