Trish Johnson, Queensland Regional Meeting and Dale Hess, Victoria Regional Meeting
Everyday, each of us faces situations that threaten to overwhelm us. The threats of war or climate change are two of the big ones. The question is how we respond to a situation that demands a response? We admire activists who step forward confidently to take up the challenges, but many of us probably struggle to respond at all. Although the problems of climate change and nuclear war threaten all of us, we feel isolated, and think we are alone and powerless. These feelings of helplessness lead to inaction. We give in to a sense of helplessness or alienation. One way to understand what is happening when we feel this way is to think of our non-response as ‘psychic numbing’. We’d like to explain a bit of what we mean.
When we are confronted with a situation where we have to make a decision, our thought processes tend to follow one of two pathways, which we may call ‘experiential’ and ‘analytical’.
The experiential path is affective; it relies on feelings and emotions. It is thought to have a primary role in motivating our behaviour. It is a more efficient way to respond to complex, uncertain and perilous situations. It works quickly by searching our memory banks for related events and the feelings and emotions associated with them. If this evokes painful or unpleasant feelings we may be motivated to take immediate action to avoid those feelings. But if we are confronted with an immense challenge, we can be overwhelmed – we become psychically numb. Our reaction is shutdown – we become emotionally paralysed.
The analytical path deals with a logical assessment of numbers and words. This is a slower process. The motivation for action will depend on the attention we pay to the assessment. Our attention is sharpest when one person is affected by the challenge, but as the number of people affected increases our attention becomes blurred, and our brain can no longer comprehend the suffering involved. Our conscious appraisal becomes paralysed.
Both pathways are important in our responses. They complement each other.
But both pathways can lead to saturation and a disconnection between the danger faced and motivation to take the necessary action in response. This is compounded when not only individuals are threatened, but whole communities and the very fabric of society are endangered. The result can be helplessness, despair, apathy, denial, depression and numbing. Often environmental and peace activists, the people we admire, are also struggling with psychic numbing. They carry a lot of unresolved trauma, which can leak out and distort their thinking, sour their relationships and sometimes cause breakdowns, leading to burnout.
To face the challenges of climate change and nuclear war, we need to raise awareness of the issues and the motivation to enable ourselves and others to reach an area of confidence where we can take action. It is also important to support one another in this effort, especially when the stress levels become too high. When we feel fatigue, exhaustion and despair setting in, our goal is to help one another find ways back to the area of confidence. To do this, we need people who can fill several roles, including a prophetic role of truth-telling and a priestly or ministering role of nurturing and reconciling to confront denial, escapism, cynicism, apathy, fatalism, hopelessness and alienation.
These challenges are really spiritual problems. The source of our ability to take action ourselves and empower others comes from trusting in the Spirit and arises out of our worship and the strength we gain from our community.
The answer lies, as early Friends knew, in deepening our worship. We need to find that deep space within and carefully listen to what the Spirit is telling us. The daily practice of prayer/quiet time is a way to strengthen our trust in God: to know that there is a force for good, that the Light will lead and sustain us if we are faithful. Spiritual disciplines are helpful, and more than that, are essential to ensure that we move beyond despair and numbing and act in right ordering.
The second part of the answer is to acknowledge that we cannot do this alone. We need to deepen our worship together as well as individually, and we need to strengthen our Meeting community. We need to transform our traditional Quaker testimonies of Peace, Equality, Simplicity and Truth to become Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Earthcare by placing community at the centre of our work, and by adding earthcare to the list. This will involve transforming our lifestyles and our community.
To deepen our worship, we can use spiritual practices of several kinds. The Gospel of Matthew gives examples of Jesus’ spiritual practices. Richard Foster in his book, Celebration of Discipline, talks about the inner disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting and study; the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission and service; and the corporate discipline of confession, worship and guidance. Elders in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions have long recognized the importance of breathing in the process of centring and of the heart as central to our spirituality. There are simple powerful techniques that help us focus on emotional responses based on love, forgiveness, caring and appreciation. These processes change the neurotransmission of impulses from the heart to the brain, increasing mental clarity and reducing stress and anxiety. These can also be used to deepen our worship and our lives.