Letter From London: Trauma and Resilience

Photograph Source: Kobi Gideon / Government Press Office – CC BY-SA 3.0

‘We have all been traumatized, even if not by overt violence,’ writes Godfrey Devereux, author of numerous books on philosophy, psychology and spirituality. This was in relation to a trauma and resilience course he does. ‘To be traumatized is to carry defensive tension that restricts your perception, action and behavior.’

Last week I was able to write about the Middle East, concentrating largely though not solely on the Palestinian perspective. Reading Godfrey’s words obliges me to consider at the same time the sudden ferocity meted out by Hamas on Israeli citizens — the massacre, torture and abduction of the very old and very young, who must all be experiencing hell right now if indeed they are still alive. What took place during the Hamas invasion on Black Saturday cannot be erased. Reviewing footage from the Nova festival is harrowing. (Remember, four out of five Israelis believe Netanyahu is to blame for the Hamas war.) We are talking about young people, now confirmed dead, cowering by cars. ‘Such targeting belies Hamas’ claims to an Islamic identity,’ said Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal last week.

Godfrey explains that the defensive tension restricting our perception, action and behavior is embedded in neuromuscular tissue which acts based on habit, through neuromuscular pathways. Most fighting continues based on habit — a habit always ready to be broken. ‘This can be simple or complex, local or nonlocal, strong or weak,’ he continues. ‘How strong these neuromuscular pathways are depends upon how much they, or their subsidiary pathways, have been used before.’

Soldiers neutralize minefields and create new pathways. I say this in the spirit of the juxtapositions between the instructor and images of nature in Henry Reed’s war poem ‘Naming of the Parts’. For what it is worth, I have been in a minefield. I have been on one of those pathways. (This was with the de-mining group HALO working for the Afghan people in Afghanistan.) I found the experience unnerving, simple, yet complex.

Over the years, much of the results of Godfrey’s personal inquiry have been accompanied by regular meditation and a rich interior life. His own ‘pathway’ has been different from many of ours. To me, he is like an unsentimental man of peace today, which is probably why his words work so well in the allegorical.

‘They strengthen through use, and atrophy through disuse,’ he says of pathways. Peace movements are like pathways, too. I have seen peace movements. I have seen them strengthen through use, and atrophy through disuse. In fact, I asked Godfrey last week how a pacifist creates peace where there is war today and he told me he believed there was no political path to peace. ‘Clean clothes on a dirty body are no longer clean,’ he added.

I next asked how he reckoned people of any kind of deep faith were so readily violent. ‘Because faith is based on uncertainty and provides only hope,’ he suggested, though not disrespectfully. ‘Deep down they know they are only telling themselves a story.’

The late John le Carré tells us in the new Errol Morris film ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ that the really big dramas occurred before the Wall was built, as if distrophy was nobody’s friend. Nor, indeed, was stalemate peace. Le Carré talks about the Berlin Wall being the most obscene symbol of the insanity of the human struggle. ‘I felt that both sides, East and West, were inventing the enemy that they needed,’ he says in the film. Sound familiar to anyone?

Godfrey reiterates that in resolving trauma it is not enough to dissolve this tension, and release its neurological underpinnings. ‘Both muscular tension and neurological status,’ he says, ‘must be replaced by new neuromuscular Pathways of Wholeness.’ A new peace accord? Another one?

The late iconic Desmond Tutu would have understood this: ‘If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies,’ he said. Few people grasp such nettles today, I was thinking. Few take the initiative to search for new pathways, often because they are so bruised by the violence.

I was remembering when Ukraine kicked off again at the beginning of last year, with Russia’s blundering attempt to take Kyiv, its ground forces and military hardware choking up the highway. You just knew this image of stalled tanks and jammed firepower would be something that the Russians would one day want to correct.

I contacted another good friend about this at the time, rhetorically asking where the peace movement was. He didn’t reply but himself went on to work on the mental health of Ukrainian victims of the conflict, as well as countless other projects elsewhere. Even the best of us take sides, I was thinking. It is not easy in relation to peace movements when talking to the enemy smacks to people of appeasement, or can undermine a war effort. As a result, days, then months, then years, of more and more fighting take place, until one day, in the distant future, people eventually sit down, talk, and have that conversation, the one that could and should have taken place years earlier, before all these extra lives had been lost, and before all these innocent people were maimed, and mistrust was forever burned into the psyche for generations to come.

They say over here in London that a peace movement stopped the Vietnam War. (Harold Wilson wouldn’t let us get too involved in that one.) If you read up on this today, you encounter a lot of what is called history cleansing. Is this because the Vietnam War was ‘lost’ and some people want to blame the defeat on the peace movement? Apparently there is such a thing as negative peace and positive peace, too, though neither applies to anti-peace propaganda. Negative peace movements attempt to stop military intervention, prevent war, halt an ongoing one, and get rid of any kind of instrument of war. So-called positive peace movements hunt deep and long and hard to dig out the root causes of warfare by creating international set-ups urging human rights, banging the drum for social justice, and getting rid of any reasons for war.

I like it when people peer beyond the present into that patch of land where peace has not yet prospered. It is like acknowledging the possibility of momentum having a good face as well as bad. It reminds me of Theo Jansen’s sculptures. One gust of wind and there is no stopping their gentle, delicate progress, their essential humility. TS Eliot wrote that the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: ‘Humility is endless,’ he concluded. Continuing this theme, Godfrey writes that to define ourselves, and our capabilities, by our trauma, is to infantilize ourselves and remain in a state of external dependency: ‘You may be anxious, guarded, ill at ease, but you are no less the compression of intelligence that you were when born, albeit functioning less fluidly.’ This fluidity, he suggests, rather attractively, if I may say, can easily be recovered through a commitment to what he calls ‘somatic intimacy’ that deepens our willingness to feel: ‘It will not come from hope, nor from the compassion and wisdom of others. It can only come from your own ability to feel being released, little by little, sensation by sensation.’

Finally, I asked Godfrey why he believed we have wars in the first place. ‘Because,’ he reckoned, ‘alienated from the compassion and generosity of our spiritual nature, we are driven by the biological imperative and its need to acquire.’

Peter Bach lives in London.