Thursday, 1 May 2014

Community As Cure

After eight months in Southeast Asia, I was shocked all over again to encounter the obvious prevalence of homelessness, addiction and mental health issues in Victoria and Seattle. Even in Cambodia, a very poor country that suffered appalling atrocities in the recent past, we witnessed almost no such social problems. Most people seemed happy, friendly, curious, and miraculously well-adjusted. The only beggars we saw had invariably lost limbs to mines left over from someone else’s war. You may assume it’s their religion that buoys up the citizens of these countries, but I don’t think so: Buddhism might be the official state religion, but in Vietnam, for example, only a minority of people actually believe and practise. So what are they doing right?

In his book, The Globalization of Addiction, Bruce Alexander – a professor at Simon Fraser University – argues that addiction is a way of adapting to dislocation. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been trained as a society not to question the inevitability of moving away from our friends, families and cultural roots in order to go where the work is, leaving behind everything that grounds, supports and perhaps defines us; and to do so repeatedly if necessary. He suggests that the West Coast has a particular problem with addiction because we are the end of the line, the terminus of a gradual and continual movement westwards. Almost everyone you meet comes from somewhere else: we’re all dislocated. And the most obvious addictions – to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, porn etc. – are just the tip of the iceberg. People might be equally, and just as destructively, addicted to money, work, success, Facebook, shopping, even their own ego. Addiction can be any obsessive and destructive behaviour, and almost always results from dissatisfaction with life as it is.

I believe that Professor Alexander’s Theory of Dislocation is not the whole truth but is a very large piece, and that it is powerfully connected to the Culture of Narcissism that I discussed in my last blog. Just as schools continue to operate on a model designed to churn out drones to man the production lines of the Industrial Revolution (see Ken Robinson for more on that subject), the very culture by which we and our parents were conditioned has prepared us to accept a world in which we are destined to be fundamentally alone. We will throw our employers under the bus if a better offer comes along, knowing that they could and would do the same to us at any moment; we will relocate at the drop of a hat, necessitating the acquisition of a whole new set of friends, neighbours, colleagues, and social involvements. So what’s the point of investing too much time or energy in any of the people around us now? Ultimately, we have even become prepared to accept that the statistical probability that our marriage will end in divorce, and that we will perhaps lose or alienate our kids in the process. There is nothing left to depend on but our own self: narcissism is an obvious adaptation.

Of course, this state of affairs is unsatisfying at an inexpressibly deep level. We are herd animals: we need community. In traditional societies, banishment – being forced to live outside the community – was considered the ultimate punishment. Nowadays we all accept (or quietly ignore) our aloneness on the surface, but underneath we suffer: our various addictions are destructive attempts at psychic self-medication; our various issues are symptoms of the deeper sickness. In Southeast Asia, people are far more resilient because they live in a culture that’s defined by community. They are never alone. They never have to ask themselves that most uncomfortable of questions: does anybody really care about me?

The famous Hopi Prophecy, delivered by Elders of Oraibi in Arizona, refers repeatedly to the need for community: “What are your relationships? Are you in right relation?Create your community. Be good to each other.” “The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate.” And, “The time of the lone wolf is over.” The breakdown of community has led to most of the personal issues I see in my life and practice; and it is in the re-creation of communities, individually and collectively, that we will ultimately heal ourselves. This is why I take my hat off to old organisations such as Citizens’Counselling Centre, who have been diligently building community for decades, and new ventures such as Club Kwench (my friend Tessa) who are addressing the problem with energy, optimism and creativity.

In my next blog I will discuss the reasons why I consider counselling to be the best short-term solution to the issues generated by our culture of narcissism and lack of community. But I would also like to get more involved in attacking the problem at its roots. Please help me by sharing your ideas about how we might do this.