There are two pathways that determine who we. The first road, we might call the lower neural pathway goes straight to the amygdala via the sensory thalamus and it allows information to be process at very high speed without diversion to other parts. Hence the information has very little processes and results in immediate action, sometimes described as fight or flight. The second road, takes information first to the cortex the area for rational thinking and analysis where the information is processed much more slowly, but also more accurately and creatively.
When asking the question “who am I” most people will answer, not with who they are, but what they do. For example; I am an artist, writer, environmentalist, psychotherapist. I am also a philosopher, meditation and mindfulness teacher. This is what I do. Who am I? This is a bigger question. I am a small speck in a greater universe. I am a part of nature and all other living things. I am part of a greater force who is my maker.
Consider for a moment how difficult it is to describe your being? You might feel a sense of being, but what words will you use to describe it and will they be the same words for everyone else. Ask yourself, what is being beyond a sense of presence? What holds everything together beyond the flesh and that which illusive to the mind?
What is real and what is imagined? How can we truly know ourselves when all we are conscious of is constructed by our unconscious. When we try to describe consciousness and we stumble over the many metaphors that present as real life. Who we are is not who we thing we are. Then there is the other question, does it matter who we are?
The self is said to be who we are, but it is the most troublesome of metaphors for explaining human existence. No one has been able to say with any certainty what the self is or where in the body it is located or how it occurs. There are many suppositions arising from two camps. The scientific materialist belief states that the self is constructed by the human brain and it is born and dies with us. The second belief is a metaphysical one, which states the self is constructed by consciousness, which is a universal phenomenon existing outside of the body and brain and only makes a connection with life at birth (or in some cases conception). This latter connected level of consciousness is referred to as spirit (or being spiritual). There is also the common notion that spirit and brain have an interrelationship, or a correlate, which is another way of saying that where there is life it will always attract its duplicate or appropriate spirit. The metaphysical belief is that all life exists in the form of consciousness before and after bodily death. I am going with the theory of correlates. When I look up at the stars at night in awe I am know I will be leaving the planet and travelling back in time to where I came from. This is my destiny, this is my course, my comfort, my belief.
Pain is many things. The world we know has been built upon pain. Pain can be felt as excruciating agony or it can be dormant causing a loss of balance and motivation. Pain can elude us. Yet, pain is normal. Pain is not our enemy, without pain we would never know pleasure. However, the way we treat painful experiences will profoundly influence our moods and how we cope in the everyday events of life. All pain has links to the emotions. Latent stress, anxiety, depression, unhappiness, failure and despair, these are all common states of pain generated by the emotions. Pain can be like a bad dream that has us transfixed in a pattern of thoughts and feelings with no conceivable way out. or we can wake up from the dream.
Pain can be traumatic. Pain, whether rooted in physical or psychic causes, pain is a crisis, it alters our consciousness and changes our body chemistry. Pain also makes for great art. The lessons of survival were turned into art on the walls of caves. Our ancestors treated pain as a warning of danger or possible death. Pain was an aid to victory over adversity. Today, pain is couched in purely negative terms, which causes the induction of more pain. We can overcome pain. In art we distance myself from pain. Through writing we turn pain into creativity. In life we embrace pain as a necessary experience that can be overcome by shifting attention to less invasive experiences. Meditation helps to ease pain.
In the modern world we probably have a lower threshold for pain than our ancestors as life is considerably different. We are no long hunters and gathers scratching for food or safe shelter. We like to think we are civilized so when pain strikes we try to treat it as ephemeral, we try to push it away. Hence, when pain does happen we never truly welcome or confront it. Instead, pain comes as a difficulty, not as a journey to better times.
Pain is a pathway that forces us to find a way out of a bad situation. We must sit with the pain, learn about its momentum and how to ease it. Pain should be a pathway to learning. By viewing pain as a friend, not an enemy serves to ease the pressure of pain. Our brains respond differently to a friend than to an enemy. Pain should never be our enemy.
In the art of mindfulness meditation, we can learn to experience pain as something far less troubling than one imagines. Indeed, when we use the experience of pain creatively, we can grow in strength and enhance the capacity for well-being.
Science has revealed how art can undermine pain and redirect the experience of trauma to create alternatives. Creativity touches the pleasure centres in the brain. Creative rituals, painting, drawing, movement and meditation have been used as methods of healing for tens of thousands of years and as a society we are only now rediscovering their effectiveness.
Pain has many sources, but the ongoing propagation of pain resides in the constant preoccupation with the self. We can also inherit pain.
When in pain it is easy to become totally self-absorbed. Being completely self-absorbed generates fears and longings that cause us to become trapped in a world of inner obsessions, desires and anxieties. A person in pain looks at a failing world and desires to make changes not knowing that one can only change oneself. The self may change, but the self is never satisfied, we must overcome the subjective desires. The self is always grounded in the constant struggle to get more of the good life. However, the good life is not in the external world, it comes from within. The self needs more attention, more goods, more time, more emotions, more affirmation of its existence. We must restrain the self. The self must give way to the inner spirit that is contentment and giving to others, rather than taking for ourselves. Belief in goodness will always prevail over pain.
Art is salvation. The artist is a person who is not limited by convention, but someone who is resurrected into a whole being through the willingness to explore themselves. Artists live in the shadows of their art. The artist and art are one cosmic experience that speaks to a connection with the universe and the very essence of life. Life is art and all art is the ongoing expression of life. Art can help us to examine and better understand who we are. Art can be an interlude in life or the entry into a whole new journey. Everything is made rhythmic by art because art is an abstraction from which we can read ourselves at the deepest and most intrinsic levels. We too are abstractions; a gathering of minds and bodies that change moment by moment. Art is like looking into a talking mirror, art plays back to us who we are, our hopes and desires, our abilities and achievements. Art can be both beautiful and disturbing, but it cannot be ignored. Art forces the spectator to confront the fears and emotions that reside in all of us. Art opens up conversations that might otherwise remain dormant, including what is the meaning of art? And; should art be used as a search for meaning? Does art have an inherent purpose? Art raises many questions. Some people view art as a window into the soul. In this respect, our thoughts become soul reflections and a pathway out onto the world, through art, thoughts have the power of transformation. Art is us, art is me, art is my universe, art is that vast expanse which gave rise to my earthly being and who I am, my identity, my soul, my awakening. Every morning I rise and give thanks for my art.
Daphne and her younger brother were adopted after their parents were killed in the Second World War. Neither Daphne nor her brother were told they were the children of Jewish parents or that they had been adopted by a Gentile family. The children went to a State Christian school and had no contact with the Jewish community. Daphne only discovered that she was Jewish after meeting a young Jewish man whom she eventually married. Daphne struggled through her education because she always felt she was different. She also suffered from physical pains, mainly in her muscles and joints and complained of burning sensations and an inability to breathe, a condition which no doctor could explain. Daphne was generally quite distant, she had little trust in people and was reluctant to make close friends. It was as if her outward self was lived on a periphery of existence, while her inner life was the reality she wished to embrace. Daphne saw her inner life as a protection from the harshness of school life and the world in general. After Daphne had left school she and her boyfriend went to see a Rabbi as they planned to get married, it was then that Daphne discovered that she was the child of Holocaust victims.
Daphne’s feelings are not an unusual manifestation of trauma. The events of trauma cause distinct absences in the mental framework. Distance separates us from the atrocities and painful memories that might otherwise penetrate consciousness. Today, we have come to know a little about this process. In the words of Gerard Fromm:
To know something is to process new information, to assimilate and integrate an experience into one’s own inner world of representation. It is essentially to build a new construct inside ourselves…What, specifically overwhelms the process of construction, and, therefore, the constructor himself resulting in a total loss of capacity to participate in one’s own reality?
The answer is symbolization. Freud saw the formation of the symbol as something created in the context of an internal narrative, which is replayed to ourselves as part of our inner world. We might call this our inner voice, Other or soul. Reality, or the events of the external world can only be fully grasped when the inner world and the outer world are attuned. Extreme trauma causes this process to be interrupted, both at the external and internal levels. The inner world which is generally focused on one’s needs is faced with an emptiness and a terror of the abyss. It is this state of fear or loss that causes the subject to internalize the only other object available, that of the external other, often the perpetrator/representative/object of the fear being experienced by the subject.
In psychoanalysis symbolism is associated with ego formation. Sigmund Freud described ego formation in his IntroductoryLectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-1917). Freud wrote: There can be no doubt that the source [of the fantasies] lie in the instincts; but it still has to be explained why the same fantasies with the same content are created on every occasion. I am prepared with an answer that I know will seem daring to you. I believe that…primal fantasies, and no doubt a few others as well, are a phylogenetic endowment. His suggestion that primal fantasies are a residue of specific memories of prehistoric experiences follows Freud’s interest in archetypes, which he withdrew from after his split with Carl Jung. It was jung who developed the notion of archetypes as an influential component in human behaviour. Laplanehe and Pontalis point out that all the so-called primal fantasies relate to the origins and that like collective myths they claim to provide a representation of and a ‘solution’ to whatever constitutes an enigma for the child.[i]
According to Melanie Klein not only does symbolism come to be the foundation of all fantasy and sublimation, but more than that, it is the basis of the subject’s relation to the outside world and to reality in general.[ii]For Klein trauma is associated with an internal rage that serves as an antidote for the preservation of the good object. Klein argued that the introjection and identification with a stable good object is crucial to the ego’s construction. The concept of introjected objects‘, or the term ‘internal object’ means a mental and emotional image of an external object that has been taken inside the self. A complex interaction continues in the mind between the internalized world and its figures and objects and their replicates in the real world. According to Klein this happens in repeated cycles of projection and introjection. The primary internal objects are those derived from the parents, in particular from the mother. The main component is the bodily contact, which allows the infant to feel and project a loving instinct or a disparaging (death) instinct. These objects, when taken into the self, are thought to be experienced by the infant concretely as physically present within the body, causing pleasure (good internal part-object…) or pain (bad internal part-object…). The processes involved in these early experiences are believed to colour the ongoing outlook the infant has of the world as well as the fluctuations between pain and pleasure.
Kleinian theory suggests the introjection of and identification with a stable good object is crucial to the ego’s capacity to cohere and integrate experience. Damaged or dead internal objects (sometimes referred to as the dead mother) cause enormous anxiety and can lead to personality disintegration, whereas objects felt to be in a good state promote confidence and well-being. Internal objects can exist on several levels. They are generally unconscious and primitive. Infantile internal objects are experienced initially concretely within the body and mind and constitute a primitive level of the adult psyche, adding emotional influence and force to later perceptions, feelings and thoughts. Internal objects may be represented to the self in dreams, fantasies and in language. [iii]
The term ‘symbol formation’ is used in psychoanalysis to denote a mode of indirect or figurative representation of a significant idea, conflict or wish. The ability to move on from relating concretely to archaic objects to relating symbolically to substitute objects (symbols) is both a developmental achievement and a move made because of the anxieties involved in relating to primal objects. Klein extended the ideas of both Freud and Jones on symbols, showing in particular the symbolic significance of play and how sublimation depends on the capacity to symbolise. Others further developed Klein’s theory of symbols, distinguishing between the symbol proper formed in the depressive position and a more primitive version, the symbolic equation, belonging to paranoid-schizoid functioning. In the symbolic equation, the symbol is equated with the thing symbolised.[iv] Melanie Klein believed in the idea of unconscious phantasy, which is closely related to Carl Jung’s archetype. as Both involve the notion of an a priori mental construction composed of images and patterns based on real and mythological experience. For Jung these experiences form a universal collective unconsciousness that extends over time and many lifetimes. The manifestation of these archetypes are counterpart to instincts. They are autonomous inherited potentials rather than inherited types, which can be transformed and/or expressed in the ideas, behaviours and cultures of individuals. History, culture and personal context shape these manifest representations thereby giving them their specific content. These images and motifs are more precisely called archetypal images. However, it is common for the term archetype to be used interchangeably to refer to both archetypes-as-such and archetypal images.[v]
Following the Jungian view it would appear that these objects can also be inherited, whereby they present a subtle underlying current in the care-giver’s emotions to which the primitive, instinctual infant is sensitive to.
Jacques Lacan: Lacan went beyond the proposition that the unconscious is a structure that lies beneath the conscious world; the unconscious itself is structured, like a language. This would suggest parallels with Jung. Further Lacan’s Symbolic and Imaginary orders may be aligned with Jung’s archetypal theory and personal unconscious respectively. The Symbolic order patterns the contents of the Imaginary in the same way that archetypal structures predispose humans towards certain sorts of experience. If we take the example of parents, archetypal structures and the Symbolic order predispose our recognition of, and relation to them. Lacan’s concept of the Real approaches Jung’s elaboration of the psychoid unconscious, which may be seen as true but cannot be directly known. Lacan posited that the unconscious is organised in an intricate network governed by association, above all ‘metaphoric associations’. The existence of the network is shown by analysis of the unconscious products: dreams, symptoms, and so on.
For Lacan trauma is the real non-assimilated experience that resists symbolization and language, experience that has not become speech and thus has not been historicized within the symbolic network of signification.[vi]
What is striking about the Kleinian and Lacanian models is that they are diametrically opposed in the way they conceptualize the subject’s development of the capacity to form symbols: while for Klein the experience of concrete objects exists from the very beginning of life and the symbol is a product of “object-relating”, for Lacan, on the contrary, the experience of objects is an effect of the symbolic order. In Klein we start with the object/object-relation and work through different stages of symbolism eventually ending up with language, so that linguistic thought develops from the experience of the primal object. In Lacan, on the other hand, integration into the world of language produces lack/absence, which, in turn, is the necessary condition for conceptualizing objects: the experience of objects develops as an effect of language/symbolization. The article begins with an account of Freud’s two main theories of the symbolic – one based on images, the other on language or “word-presentations” – and traces the Klein-Lacan divergence to this theoretical duality. It then argues that a Klein-Lacan dialogue on the symbolic can open new directions for theoretical development by examining how different theories can accurately correspond to empirical observations of psychic functioning, as well as effective clinical interventions.[vii]
Wilfred Bion: According to Bion, thoughts precede a thinking capacity. Thoughts in a small infant are indistinguishable from sensory data or unorganised emotion. Bion uses the term proto-thoughts for these early phenomena. Because of their connection to sensory data, proto-thoughts are concrete and self-contained (thoughts-in-themselves), not yet capable of symbolic representations or object relations. The thoughts then function as preconceptions – predisposing psychosomatic entities similar to archetypes. Support for this connection comes from the Kleinian analyst Money-Kyrle’s observation that Bion’s notion of preconceptions is the direct descendant of Plato’s Ideas.
[ii] M Klein 1930 The importance of symbol formation in the development of the ego. In Contributions toPsycho-Analysis 1921-1945 London Hogarth, p238. Also in Gerard Fromm 2012 Lost in Transmission UK. Karnac, p52.
The knowledge of how trauma affects psychological and biological developmental has expanded exponentially over the past three decades. We now know how trauma occurs and how the damage caused can be successfully managed and in some cases repaired. Trauma is a global problem that impacts the health well-being of millions of people and it underscores a lot of negative human behaviour. The study of psychological trauma has been accompanied by an explosion of knowledge about how experience shapes the central nervous system and the formation of the self. Developments in the neurosciences, developmental psychopathology and information processing have contributed to our understanding of how brain function is shaped by experience and that life itself can continually transform the body and mind. The study of trauma has probably been the single most fertile area in helping to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship among the emotional, cognitive, social and biological forces that shape human development. Starting with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults and expanding into early attachment and overwhelming experiences in childhood, this endeavour has elucidated how certain experiences can “set” psychological expectations and biological selectivity. We have learned that most experience is automatically processed on a subcortical level in the brain; i.e., by “unconscious” interpretations that take place outside of awareness. Insight and understanding have only a limited influence on the operation of these subcortical processes. When addressing the problems of traumatized people who, continue to react to current experience as a replay of the past, there is a need for therapeutic methods that do not depend exclusively on drugs and cognition. There are other transformative and (w)holistic approaches.
What if depression wasn’t an illness, it was a response to trauma? In May of 2017 I posted this question on social media where it received unexpected attention from the public as well as from some very prominent social identities.
The question is not entirely new the Anti-Psychiatry Movement of the 1960s and in particular R.D. Liang attempted to link all mental illness to various expectations and inequities within society said to cause anxiety and trauma. All mental illness has strong components of fear and anxiety, which in turn alters the brain chemistry, whereby it can cause long term damage to the brain’s neurological structure, but the brain also has plasticity and in some cases the brain can repair itself or supplement the damage by using other neurological areas.
The neurological elements of mental illness have become the core focus of treatments for mental disorder, generally by matching the condition with anti-depressant or anti-psychotic drugs. However, while trauma studies became increasingly popular in the 1970s there has been a decline in the deeper understanding of trauma in favour of a quick fix for aberrations and it is only recently that the notion of inter-generational trauma has arisen as a probability rather than a possibility.
There has been a significant philosophical and medical divide between the notion of mental illness and the incidence of trauma. Mental illness is partly seen as a social problem and it carries a social stigma. Moreover, the etiology of generational trauma as a cause of mental dysfunction has received little efficacy in the realms of organic diagnostics. The word ‘trauma’ conveys an extreme condition of immediate pain and urgency, yet, while the many other names attributed to psychiatric conditions, such as depression, stress or forms of neuroses are generally implicated in the condition, they receive a softer alliteration, whereby the softer meaning can serve to undermine the importance and urgency of the circumstance or its severe experiential ramifications for a quality life, as well as for its long term consequences.
For example, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD; also known as complex trauma),[i] is a psychological disorder which is hardly spoken of in society at large, albeit its counterpart, post-traumatic disorder has become well known, but only because of its high incidence amidst soldiers currently returning from wars. The diagnosis of PTSD was originally developed for adults who had suffered from a single event trauma, such as rape, or a traumatic experience during a war.[ii] However, the situation for many traumatized children is quite different. Children can suffer chronic trauma from events such as maltreatment, family violence, and a disruption in attachment to their primary caregiver,[iii] which exceed the diagnosis of PTSD because it does not account for the child’s development. Currently there is no proper diagnosis for this condition, but the term developmental trauma disorder has been suggested.[iv]
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual VolIII (DSM-III,1980), when it was shown that American combat veterans of the Vietnam War were experiencing combat stress. In the 1980s, various researchers and clinicians suggested that PTSD might also accurately describe the long term effects of child sexual abuse and domestic violence. This prompted the suggestion that PTSD failed to account for the cluster of symptoms that were often observed in cases of prolonged abuse, particularly when perpetrated during multiple developmental stages. This gave rise to the notion of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) which was characterized by additional symptoms such as psychological fragmentation, the loss of a sense of safety, trust, and self-worth, as well as the tendency to become an ongoing victim. In addition, this condition was shown to include a loss of a coherent sense of self: it is this loss, and the ensuing symptom profile, that most pointedly differentiates C-PTSD from PTSD.[v]
C-PTSD is also characterized by attachment disorder, particularly the pervasive insecure, or disorganized-type attachment.[vi] In the DSM-IV (1994) dissociative disorders and PTSD do not include insecure attachment in their criteria. As a consequence of this aspect of C-PTSD, when some adults with C-PTSD become parents and confront their own children’s attachment needs, they may have particular difficulty in responding sensitively especially to their infant and young children’s routine distress despite constant efforts to do so.[vii] This situation is exacerbated if the parent is a single parent lacking adequate support. Although the great majority of survivors do not abuse others, difficulties in parenting may have adverse repercussions for their children’s social and emotional development. [viii]
Adults with C-PTSD have sometimes experienced prolonged interpersonal traumatization as children as well as prolonged trauma as adults. This early injury interrupts the development of a robust sense of self and of others. Because physical and emotional pain or neglect was often inflicted by attachment figures such as caregivers, older siblings or partners, these individuals may develop a sense that they are fundamentally flawed and that others cannot be relied upon.[ix]
C-PTSD also differs from continuous traumatic stress disorder (CTSD), which was introduced into the trauma literature by Gill Straker (1987). It was originally used by South African clinicians to describe the effects of exposure to frequent, high levels of violence usually associated with civil conflict and political repression. The term is also applicable to the effects of exposure to contexts in which gang violence and crime are endemic as well as to the effects of ongoing exposure to life threats in high-risk occupations such as police, fire and emergency services. [x]
C-PTSD can become a pervasive way of relating to others in adult life and six clusters of symptoms have been suggested for diagnosis of C-PTSD. These are
(1) alterations in regulation of affect and impulses;
Difficulties regulating emotions, including symptoms such as persistent dysphoria, chronic suicidal preoccupation, self-injury, explosive or extremely inhibited anger (may alternate), or compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality (may alternate).
Variations in consciousness, including forgetting traumatic events (i.e., psychogenic amnesia), reliving experiences (either in the form of intrusive PTSD symptoms or in ruminative preoccupation), or having episodes of dissociation.
Changes in self-perception, such as a chronic and pervasive sense of helplessness, paralysis of initiative, shame, guilt, self-blame, a sense of defilement or stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings
Varied changes in the perception of the perpetrator, such as attributing total power to the perpetrator, becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, including a preoccupation with revenge, idealization or paradoxical gratitude, a sense of a special relationship with the perpetrator or acceptance of the perpetrator’s belief system or rationalizations.
Alterations in relations with others, including isolation and withdrawal, persistent distrust, a repeated search for a rescuer, disruption in intimate relationships and repeated failures of self-protection.
Loss of, or changes in, one’s system of meanings, which may include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair.
Loss of a sense of reality accompanied by feelings of terror and confusion (psychosis).
Complex trauma is said to results from repetitive, prolonged trauma, often unintended or inflicted discursively via the perpetrators own history of trauma, which can set up uneven power dynamics. C-PTSD is associated with intimate partner violence (unwanted and painful sexual acts) bondage, kidnap, hostages, indentured servants, slaves, sweatshop workers, prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, and defectors of cults or cult-like organizations[xii]. Situations involving captivity/entrapment (a situation lacking a viable escape route for the victim or a perception of such) can lead to C-PTSD-like symptoms, which include prolonged feelings of terror, worthlessness, helplessness, and deformation of one’s identity and sense of self.[xiii]
[i] Cook, A., et. al.,(2005) Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents,Psychiatric Annals, 35:5, pp-398
[iii] Ford, Grasso, Greene, Levine, Spinazzola & van der Kolk; Grasso; Greene; Levine; Spinazzola; Van Der Kolk (August 2013). “Clinical Significance of a Proposed Developmental Trauma Disorder Diagnosis: Results of an International Survey of Clinicians”. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 74 (8): 841–9. doi:10.4088/JCP.12m08030. PMID24021504, and Wikipedia Retrieved 8th May 2017.
[iv] Ford, Grasso, Greene, Levine, Spinazzola & van der Kolk; Grasso; Greene; Levine; Spinazzola; Van Der Kolk (August 2013). “Clinical Significance of a Proposed Developmental Trauma Disorder Diagnosis: Results of an International Survey of Clinicians”. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 74 (8): 841–9. doi:10.4088/JCP.12m08030. PMID24021504, and Wikipedia Retrieved 8th May 2017.
[x] Straker, Gillian (1987). “The Continuous Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The Single Therapeutic Interview”. Psychology in Society (8): 46–79., and Wikipedia Retrieved 8th May 2017.
[xi] Zlotnick, C.; Zakriski, A. L.; Shea, M. T.; Costello, E.; Begin, A.; Pearlstein, T.; Simpson, E. (1996). “The long-term sequelae of sexual abuse: Support for a complex posttraumatic stress disorder”. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 9 (2): 195–205 and Wikipedia. Retrieved 18th May 2017.
A little while ago someone asked me to name something I did not like about Judaism. At the time I could not think of anything. My experience of Judaism has always been joyful and uplifting. Erstwhile, I put the same question to a Jewish friend of mine who had a number of grievances against Judaism and as a consequence had turned away from Jewish practices and avoided being identified as a Jew. I have had a thirty year connection with this man and I love this friend dearly, but Judaism has always been a point of contention between us, albeit one rarely spoken of. Hitherto, when I put the question to him; “what do you not like about Judaism”? His answer was clear.
“The idea that Jews believe themselves to be God’s chosen people, is highly abhorrent”, he said. He then went on to describe how he had dumped Judaism, but found solace in another movement; metaphysics, which meant he was interested in the Kabbalah, but not Judaism (a somewhat contradiction in terms). Nonetheless, the problem for my friend was simply, a term; the “chosen people”.
Clearly, if one person puts themselves above another, this would be abhorrent. However, most Jews I know feel quite embarrassed to be referred to as God’s chosen people. For me personally, I think taking this Biblical statement literally and out of context is a mistake. Speaking in the vernacular, being special or chosen as an individual, or a group, does not preclude the possibility that others were also special or chosen. There may be no record of God choosing others, but this does not rule out the possibility or probability of it happening. In God all things are possible!
God’s task for the chosen Jews was to spread His words of loving kindness among the masses and to grow the movement of Judaism. In ancient Israel the movement of Judaism did grow significantly, but as in any gathering or movement, historical or current; there are always those who want to hold onto power and keep it for themselves. Judaism’s gains and achievements became directed towards an elite. Jews became exclusive due to the desire of a few to maintain supreme power.
The perceived power that teachers and leaders held sway over others was not the way “chosen” or “special” was meant to be expressed. Indeed, it became a system of an “Othering”. To this end, those who decided to cling to the notion of being God’s only chosen people did not fulfill God’s wishes. Instead, the word chosen became synonymous with the word superior, which concomitantly caused a separation of the Jews from the rest. It is my belief that this was not God’s intention at all.
For me, one of the special things for me about (Reform) Judaism is we can all come to worship from different perspectives, or to put it euphemistically, there is more than one path to the top of the mountain. The meaning of being chosen in my life has had many avenues for exploration and like others before me, I was chosen to be many things, an artist, a writer, a mother, an environmentalist and much more. In addition, what I do has equal value to others doing the same, irrespective of their religions or conditions of birth.
Further, being caught in the semantics of a word has no real basis for the inter-subjective expression of Judaism either as an identity of as a follower of God’s Holy teachings.
What then do I find wrong with Judaism? Today, many people seeking to join a religious group would find it a lot easier to become a Christian or a Muslim than to become a Jew. I have heard it said that some Rabbinical cohorts will refuse an application to convert a Gentile to Judaism three times in the belief that those applicants will get tired of begging for admission into the faith and not return with the same request. Notably, if this practice happens (and I have never met anyone who has experienced it), I imagine it would be to make sure someone (an applicant) was making the right decision. After all, once becoming a Jew you are a Jew for life and historically for many that has been a very painful burden.
That said, there is also a lot of work involved in converting to Judaism, but there needs to be some form of demonstration towards commitment. Moreover, the task of learning how to become a Jew is not restricted to converts. Many secular Jews have missed out on such learning, as was the case for my friend. Life-long learning is one of the main tenants of being a Jew and it is a goal many non-Jews also aspire to.
Jews have maintained their connections to other Jews because they have laboured tirelessly over the voluminous traditions that include historiographies, theologies, liturgies and rituals as well as the daily practices of love and compassion. Most practicing Jews value these lessons highly and apply them to their lives as well as to their worship.
In a practical sense, beliefs and rituals can make life a lot easier and certainly more pleasurable. We all need to connect to the many aspects of the world around us, but if we connect only to the material things we lose touch with our inner being; our soul. True Judaism elevates the soul to a position of love, joy, and well being, is not about power or the labelling of groups or individuals, it is about being immersed in the glory of God, however that goodness might be translated into belief.
I have written a lot about post-war Britain because it had such a profound impact on my life. After the war Britain was a dangerous place to grow up in. Predatory behaviour was common. Rapes and sexual assaults were abundant, but no one talked about them. No one used the words, “sex” or “rape”, they were taboo. You knew something terrible had happened when a person disappeared. Rape victims kept quiet as it was generally the woman who was blamed and removed from the home. Unwanted pregnancies propped up a lucrative trade in backyard abortions and predatory behaviour was dismissed as just boys being boys. Crimes gained little attention from the authorities unless someone was severely injured or murdered, even then there was bias against women and children who were not breadwinners , thus, they had no economic value. Many young women called themselves “wombs for hire”. Rapes and assaults in marriage or relationships were deemed normal and women in these circumstances were inextricably trapped. No one would employ a divorced or separated women so life was a dead end, marriage or nothing. The upshot of this was, a man was determined “good” if he did not rape or murder his spouse, irrespective of what else he might have done. In reality, it was the lack of a wife’s physical injury that was the definition of a good husband. A good wife was one that was totally obedient and did not complain.
The only punishment for deviant behaviour was gossip and disapproving gossip could be mighty powerful, it could make a person’s life unbearable, but women were always to blame, women were known as the gossipers.
The aftermath of war was visibly horrible and it would visit me in my thoughts daily as well as in my nightly dreams. Most of my dreaming was immersed in war scenes and the fear of another war. Many who survived the Second World War came home without arms or legs or they were sick from the effects of gas and gun fire. Most were prone to ongoing illness and poverty so a lot of deviant behaviour was overlooked.
Many families were so poor that babies and toddlers would sleep in cardboard boxes placed on the damp floors and most decent parents were too proud to ask for help from the charities. People came constantly to our door for help as we always appeared well off, at least our personal struggles were secret. My grandmother always had food and a few coins to offer the needy, she would go without herself to help someone. Indeed, my grandmother was deemed the local angel, but sharing with the needy was a Jewish creed. Christians helped people too, but there was always a Bible in one hand and gifts in the other. Christians sought to boost their congregations because that way they could expand their churches. The Jews had no need of a church., they had survived for centuries without a Temple or they had built a sanctuary of a different kind through kinship.
My grandmother was an added blessing to the poor because the charities were never trusted as they had the power to take children away from their homes. Briton was an institutionalizing nation and anything funded by the church was suspected of being in collusion with the government.
Where there is poverty there is also added disease, polio, diphtheria and whooping cough were rife. Added to this, after the war years Britain was experiencing some of the coldest winters on record with people dying on mass from the freezing temperatures. Reduced means impacted on the rates of survival. For some death could not come quickly enough. People could be heard through the thin walls of terrace houses praying to God to take them out of their misery. Suicide was not unusual, but know would own up to it. Sympathetic doctors would find some ailment for the Death Certificate.
Where there was death the churches did well in gathering up souls for redemption. Grieving families turned to Jesus, but there religion was full of contradictions. On Sunday mornings the congregations would sit in the pews singing:
Onward Christian Soldiers, marching on to War, with the cross of Jesus going on before.
“Why would Jesus be involved in war” I asked my grandmother. ” I thought religion was about peace?” This was her answer.
“Jesus was a Zealot and the revolutionary leader of a group of men who plotted to drive the Romans from the occupation of the Holy Land. There were may attempts, but it was after Jesus died that the Jewish War really began. It was a failed coup that caused the destruction of the Jewish Temple”.
No one dared talk such heresy when I was growing up, but my grandmother was a wise old woman who cared little for peoples’ opinions. She talked often about the Temple, but I was too young to understand its significance.
My grandmother’s words endured, perhaps because my mother had chosen to become a Christian which served to divide the family. I never really understood this choice. However, in Britain after the war politics was much more powerful than religion and Britain was a Christian country that had historically fought hard for the separation of powers, so religion was often not taken seriously, it was just somewhere to find community.
Where there is hardship there is always corruption, even in the churches. Food and luxury items were also linked to religion and sold on the black market leading to fights and attacks against non-religious rivals. Pimps and prostitutes were rife on the streets and the authorities either turned a blind eye to them or extracted a part of their earnings for protection. Corruption was so visible on the streets that no one really thought there was anything wrong with it. Corruption in the churches was much worse.
War did not just end on Armistice Day it brought, guilt and disenchantment to survivors and their descendants. It brought different kinds of challenges and hardships, some got through it and many didn’t. Many were just too old, too sick or too weary to survive the turmoil.
The War resulted in much more than a loss of material comforts it was also an identity crisis that caused a rapid deterioration of hope and well-being. Britons were always strong on the need for an identity. Many took pride in being working-class and poor. There had always been a proud culture of poverty that few could escape from so they formed an exclusive identity around it for the sake of survival. Jews did the same, they gathered their identity, not through poverty, but through the teachings of the Torah. It did not matter where you were in the world, the Torah was always with you. The Torah was the rock of survival.
Poverty could become so deeply buried into the post-war psyche that it appeared as a privilege with its own mantra, “the meek shall inherit the Earth”. This in turn slowly eroded the family processes so when times were hard many of the established social structures collapsed and violence took over, which was made evident in the rise of British fascism that would ultimately vents its anger on the Jewish population.
It would be a mistake to think that the persecution of the Jews ended with the Second World War. Hatred of the Jews seemed to come in waves and it deepened with harsh conditions and a rank sense of hopelessness in the aftermath of the war. The Jews never gave up hope. My grandmother taught me to “count my blessings” and I have continued to do this every day of my life.