Breaking the Spiral of Dehumanisation

Today I woke up yet again to a story on the news that reminds me how fragile and precious life is. A residential tower block gutted by fire in the small hours of the morning, killing and injuring many.

Words from the Christian funeral service keep coming back to me — “In the midst of life we are in death.” For some this might not exactly be a cheerful thing to meditate on — it’s maudlin or even depressing. But for me I found it to be a vital (in the sense of enlivening) reminder of something we all need to acknowledge and integrate into our lives.

Extraordinary events such as terrorist attacks or fires in high rise blocks bring into consciousness in a graphic and immediate way, something most of us prefer to keep in the realm of unawareness. Life is fragile and full of uncertainty. Even without the extraordinary, the very ordinary dangers and events of life — age, sickness, accidents etc. mean that death can come upon us with little or no warning. When we die it is never tomorrow, we always die today, and whatever spiritual beliefs we may or may not hold, there is still a degree of uncertainty about what, if anything comes next. I don’t have to be a genius or a great spiritual practitioner to realise that when I do in fact die it may, in that moment, be important to me to have lived my life in such a way that I don’t feel like it was a waste or a disappointment. Not everyone has this opportunity. Too many people die either having never lived, or at the very least never having lived as the person they were born to be.

It is so easy to forget the truth of who we are. Glorious, infinite beings, filled with potential, love and wonder. Yet we are forced so often, though circumstances or our own choice to live as if we are dull, confined, conformed husks, devoid of spontaneity and creativity.

It is easy for me to forget, when I see people — politicians and others, who do things I consider stupid, incompetent, negligent or downright evil, that this is not who they truly are. It is easy for me to look at Theresa May or Donald Trump and forget that once upon a time they were children — beings filled with hope, curiosity, excitement and love.

It is too easy to fall back on a lazy, monodimensional way of seeing people. This is what allows us to vilify and dehumanise others. The politician enacting a cruel measure that hurts vulnerable people. The terrorist wantonly killing and maiming. The adult exploiting and abusing a child. The catalogue of inequalities and injustices go on and on. However, these things are only possible because those perpetrating them have forgotten, if they ever knew, the simple common identity that unites them with those they hurt and exploit. This fact, makes all of us complicit in the spiral of dehumanisation.

I can rage at politicians, feel appalled and distraught at terrorists, and be incensed at the child abuser, but when I lose sight of the fact that this is not who they were born to be, when I buy into the false self they project; I both feed and am drawn into that same vicious, dehumanising spiral.

I am not suggesting we take a naive view. All too often the behaviour of the powerful is appalling. It needs to be challenged, and sometimes action must be taken to protect the vulnerable. But if we really want to break the spiral of dehumanisation in ourselves and in others, we need to do what they seem unable or unwilling to do. We need to learn to see past the behaviour and the false identities in order to reconnect with the original, undefiled human being hidden and forgotten inside. I can’t help wondering what would happen if, despite their forgetfulness and disconnection, we were able to remember for them, and commit ourselves to relating to them from that place.

During the recent British Election campaign, the Prime Minister, Theresa May was asked what was the naughtiest thing she’d ever done. After some hesitation she confessed to having run through a cornfield as a child. Her answer makes me feel both hopeful and sad. Sad, because I would love for her to have done many other, naughtier and more exciting things than that. Sad because I have never run through a cornfield. Hopeful, because it reminds me that inside the hard, robotic politician’s shell, there is still a little girl who I imagine squealing with delight as she ran through the corn under blue skies. Hopeful that she let her hair down, and took off her shoes and socks, so she could extract the maximum enjoyment possible out of the moment. I would love to hope that when death greets Theresa May it is that moment of joy that is uppermost in her mind.

As for me … I’m off to find a cornfield.

psychotherapist, trauma specialist, survivor, writer, trainer, and spiritual explorer