It seems synchronistic that at the time when the Olympic Games are being hosted in China that Yiyun Li, the young Chinese woman author was here in Ireland to read at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. Yiyun Li won the inaugural Frank O’Connor Short Story Award as well as many other literary awards. At a time when truth is what is urgently required in international politics her survival of a Chinese regime where people were and are depersonalised and you dare not speak the truth is a testament to the unconquerability of the human spirit.
What happens in politics begins within the dynamics of the home. Individuals are not born tyrants; their early traumatic experiences determine the survival strategies they create, some of which can be absolutely terrifying in nature. When as adults these traumatised individuals are in positions of power – political, social, religious, educational and familial – their defensive behaviours are a great threat to the wellbeing of their charges. A vicious cycle now ensues, because those individuals who are now under threat have no alternative than to resort to counter-defences, which result in an ever increasing spiral of turmoil and conflict. In working with individuals and groups who live in such threatening environments I can often trace the origins of the oppression back five, six or seven generations. Unless someone across those generation lines – parent, teacher, bishop, political leader, manager – examines his or her defensive ways of being the oppression will continue. It is for this reason that those people who head familial, social, educational, religious, work and political systems have an urgent responsibility to reflect on how they are within themselves and how they are with others. When they find themselves deeply stuck in their defensive ways they need to seek help outside of themselves to break the defensive deadlock. Only the expression of truth can break this vicious cycle and it is both an individual and collective responsibility that we strive to break the silence on oppression and declare the truth of the sacredness of each human being. Christ said that ‘the truth will set you free’. How right he was, but the reality is that speaking the truth, being real and authentic are the most challenging responsibilities of all, not because we do not want to, but because the consequences can be hugely emotionally and socially threatening, even life-threatening.
In the face of oppression many of us learned the defensive strategies of ‘keeping mum’, ‘swallowing our feelings and grievances’, ‘turning a blind eye to neglect’, ‘keeping silent in the face of neglect’, ‘hiding the truth’ and ‘leaving truth that needed to be spoken unsaid’. Many of us were raised in families where the unspoken rule was ‘don’t upset your mother’ or ‘don’t upset your father. Our experiences in schools were that it is cheeky to speak the truth and that ‘the teacher knows best’. In churches you dare not question dogma and in countries you dare not ‘cry freedom’. The oppression of truth is on a continuum but there are few individuals who feel safe enough to be truthful in all situations.
Yiyun Li’s mother became paranoid during the Maoist regime and this defensive creation escalated following the massacre in Tiananmen Square where truth was brutally crushed. Paranoia is a wise madness because it knows the terrifying consequences of speaking the truth. One of the most common illusions we create is that we all came from happy families. The other illusion, probably less common now, is that ‘schooldays were the best days of our lives’! Gandhi spoke wisely about what he called ‘the seven deadly sins’: ‘pleasure without conscience’, ‘knowledge without character’, ‘wealth without work’, ‘science without humanity’, ‘politics without principle’, ‘commerce without humanity’ and ‘worship without sacrifice’. In many ways all of these ‘sins’ can be put under the one ‘sin’ – ‘relationship without truth’ – which is the greatest threat to the survival of humanity.
Unless the truth is spoken within familial, social, educational, religious and political systems no progress can be made in reducing man’s inhumanity to man. Until people are put before profits, dignity before pleasure, truth before knowledge, people before science, humanity before commerce and truth in politics, the creative ways individuals and groups have developed to hide the truth will continue and human suffering will endure.
Tony Humphreys is a practising Clinical Psychologist, Author and Director of several courses in UCC on personal development, parent mentoring and relationships.