Finding Health in a Sick Society - the role of therapy in addressing cultural trauma.
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti.
Much of modern therapy appears to be in thrall to the same paradigm that has gripped the rest of contemporary Western society: the cult of Individualism.
Individualism maintains that the worth of a person is measured by his or her ability to stand on their own two feet and become self-realised and self-sufficient through their own efforts. When this philosophy is allied with the consumerist mindset that is also predominant in our society, well-being becomes something that can be bought through self-help books, seminars, or visits to our therapist. Healing risks becoming another adornment for the ego, rather than something that ultimately requires us to move beyond the needs of the small self and into relationship with something larger than ourselves.
Individualism also holds that happiness is the function of the individual – that we can be happy, healthy and whole regardless of the context – cultural, societal, historical – in which we live. As long as we eat the right foods, meditate, do yoga, take supplements, find the right therapist, etc, etc, all will be fine.
Arguably, this works up to a certain point. We can carve out a measure of happiness independent of the world around us. And if we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by circumstances that are essentially benign in their aspect, then that measure of happiness may feel significant.
But to continue to dwell there indefinitely requires us to ignore a whole raft of bigger problems that exist outside the confines of our own personal bubble of well-being. We have to isolate ourselves and ‘other’ those who are still suffering or not so fortunate, and who must, therefore, by the logic we have applied to our own healing, be doing something wrong.
As someone who works in the field of therapy, I find myself increasingly dwelling on the importance of the wider cultural context in which we are each undertaking our personal therapeutic journey.
As the quote from Krishnarmurti at the start of this article implies, we might do well at times to question what we perceive to be our ultimate destination. Is our goal simply to work through our personal problems and become better adjusted to living in the world, or are we also interested in exploring some of the deeper issues endemic in our culture that have been a contributing factor to our own wounding, and which continue to be a source of widespread suffering?
In one sense, I think there are two modes, or phases, of therapy. There is much valuable work that can take place in the therapeutic space through tending to the broken places and undertaking the essential - and often skipped over - work of rebuilding a healthy ego structure that will enable us to function and find our place in the world, where previously we felt adrift or overwhelmed.
For many, to deal with the personal wounding that has arisen out of poor parenting and other issues in childhood, and find a measure of stability and happiness, is a highly significant step, particularly if they are coming from a background of severe trauma. That may be as far as some people ever want to go, and I think that's a legitimate choice.
But in addition to the damage received at the hands of our parents or immediate contemporaries, culture and society play a significant role in shaping the wounds we carry. The injuries that poverty, isolation and loneliness, racism and other forms of inequality, separation from nature, environmental destruction, and a slew of other factors bestow upon the individual can be considerable.
Much of the wounding that happens in this context comes through the deficits that are present in the culture. There is a whole other essay that could be written arguing that the absence of soul, of proper rituals for birth, adolescence and death, of connection to our ancestors and a proper sense of place, and connection to the natural world, to name but a few, do untold damage to us as individuals. If the culture is sick then we, too, by extension are sick.
Increasingly, with the likes of Covid-19, environmental catastrophe and the #blacklivesmatter movement looming larger in the frame, even those who have not traditionally thought of themselves as social or political activists are being called upon to think about their own well-being in a broader context. These problems visibly transcend borders – both personal and national – and can no longer be thought of as existing ‘out there’ somewhere.
In being asked to confront our shared vulnerability, we are also being invited to acknowledge our inter-connectedness. To think that we can be self-sufficient, that our personal success or failure is somehow not dependent on the contribution of others, is an illusion. To imagine that our happiness or suffering is not intimately connected and interwoven with the state of the world as a whole is also, ultimately, an illusion.
As our own sense of well-being and freedom grows, there is an invitation to recognise that many around us – human and other – are still suffering. Each of us has the potential to make an impact on the collective, to contribute positively to the well-being of the whole.
“We are not free until all are free.” - Martin Luther King.
Seen in this broader context, it is no longer the role of therapy to simply rid us of our sadness, anger or fear so that we can live more contented lives. Those feelings, I would argue, are to a significant extent a symptom of the culture we live in. It is appropriate to feel sorrow about the continued destruction of the world’s rainforests; to feel angry that vast wealth is being hoarded whilst many others starve or live in poverty; to feel some degree of fear about what an uncertain future will hold for us and our children.
Rather, it is the role of therapy to empower us to meet the challenges the world presents, to give us capacity to bear the sorrow and the imbalance, and to give us renewed purpose in deciding how we are each going to play our part in engaging with those challenges – whether that is through deep inner work, activism, or a combination of the two.
“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
© Gavin Conochie