by David Barbour, SCSN Communications Officer
On Saturday 30th of September I was privileged to attend the ACE Aware Nation Conference where for the second time in four years, the guest of honour and keynote speaker was the world-renowned expert on trauma, addiction and childhood development – Dr Gabor Mate.
You may have attended or read about our screening earlier this year of his documentary film, ‘The Wisdom of Trauma’ at Wheatley House in Glasgow. Whilst the movie was an undeniably powerful introduction to and illustration of the multiple health and social impacts of trauma – hearing the man in person was all the more special. (You may wish to revisit or check out the recorded panel discussion from that day which is well worth a listen!)
As a recovering addict myself who has found the work of Dr Mate absolutely revelatory in understanding myself and how trauma (including intergenerational trauma) has impacted on my life – it was a dream come true to see him speak in person and sign my copy of his most recent book – ‘The Myth of Normal: Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture.’
Dr Mate began his daylong session by discussing a recent news story, the tragic felling of the Sycamore Tree at Hadrian’s Wall, posing typically challenging questions about the media narratives and public reactions that followed.
He asked us to consider what motivated the person who did it – and what that says about not just their own, but our culture’s relationship with ourselves and our environment. He further invited us to consider what the reaction – largely characterised by vindictive anger and demands for highly punitive responses – tells us about ourselves and how we view human behaviour.
He said there were three ways to understand human behaviour and that we have to choose which to adopt.
- People (and their behaviour) is genetically determined. And if so, there is nothing we can do about how they behave.
- We’re all individuals, entirely separate creatures, either good, bad or some mix of both with our own individual pathologies or dysfunctions. Or:
- Individuals cannot be understood outside of the context in which they exist or the environment and culture they grew up in.
You’ll not be wildly surprised that Dr Mate forcefully emphasised that the third way is the only scientific, evidence-based way in which to understand human behaviour.
As such, he asked us to consider how our level of disconnect from each other and from nature, from our environment, might have given rise to the tragic destruction of this much beloved tree.
Furthermore, he asked us to ponder our selective rage at one wanton act of destruction – whilst so many of us remain thoroughly detached from the local, national and global destruction of our natural environment and the global ecocide we are currently waging against the natural world, upon which our own survival depends. (Similar thought provoking discussion of this incident can be found in this article by Rob Cowen writing for the Guardian).
Dr Mate took us on a guided tour of the increasing alienation, anger, mental health & addiction crises, the cost-of-living crisis, rampant inequality & array of other social & health problems plaguing our world. Stopping to consider the UK’s response to the issue of Small Boats and refugees, he said we can choose to understand this as a threat coming from the outside – as something external to us – or we can see it as an outcome having to do with relationships. In this case our relationship and the history of our relationships with other countries – characterised by colonialism, war and now increasingly the climate crisis.
Whether to do with individual health or pathologies, public health, social problems like crime, anti-social behaviour or global problems like war or climate change – it’s all about our relationships to each other and to our wider environment.
It’s all about interactions & relationships in complex systems stupid! (And by the way, that goes for the human body and mind/body unity where our health is concerned too!). In other words, everything is connected. Nothing exists or occurs in isolation – and that includes human behaviour. ‘The individual human mind is the product of an interconnected process.’ – he said.
Speaking about his experience as a family doctor and on his expertise on child development, he expounded – “The reasons for a child’s cruelty can be found in his society, family, friends, history – and we need to understand this to help people transform and heal.”
“The human infant is an expectation for certain conditions with four irreducible needs,” he explained. Those needs being for 1) An Attachment Relationship – closeness to other human beings for the purpose of being taken care of and taking care of 2) Rest – a child should not have to work to earn the attachment they need or worry about breaking it 3) Ability to experience all of their emotions – children should be held and allowed to express their emotions, not coached into emotional repression of frustration or anger for the convenience of adults and finally 4) Free spontaneous play.
Dr Mate’s work – and especially his most recent book, looks at the health and social problems plaguing our societies, particularly in the Western world, using the analogy of growing an organism in the lab in a petri dish – often called a ‘culture’. If the organism was flourishing, he said, the scientists could be assured that the culture was a healthy one. If the organism was failing to grow and flourish, or dying, then the scientists wouldn’t ask – ‘What’s wrong with this organism?!’ – but instead recognise that the flaw lay in the ‘toxic culture’.
Clearly, these conclusions, firmly rooted in all scientific fact – and intuitively understood by ancient civilisations of the past and in some surviving cultures today (mainly those that survived the colonisations and genocides of white European explorers and settlers) – have massive implications for how we understand and respond to all manner of issues – including in community safety.
It’s about how we view the world and human behaviour. Do we take moralistic value-based views about our fellow human beings and human behaviour, following doctrines that emphasise individual primacy and responsibility? Or do we take evidence and fact-based approaches that recognise that we are collectively responsible for the outcomes we see in our society? (Including the behaviour of individuals – whether that be health behaviours like smoking, drinking too much, eating unhealthy foods or using drugs – or so called ‘anti-social’ behaviours and criminal behaviours).
These understandings can help us reorient our responses to problems such as crime and anti-social behaviour away from shaming and punishing people – which disincentive or destroy opportunities for change and growth – towards prevention and healing people – incentivising and cultivating opportunities for the change and growth that will surely make us all safer as a result.
All very well and good, but it’s a dog-eat-dog world you might say. Didn’t Darwin show that evolution is all about survival of the fittest and competition – and human beings are no different? Well, Dr Mate (adding his voice to many evolutionary biologists) says that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory. In fact, he says, our brains are primed for cooperation. Indeed, we simply could not have survived as individuals or as a species without it. It is not competition, but cooperation that is our true nature – whatever misguided (or self-interested) economists or others might tell us.
Which only goes to emphasise that working in partnership is not just wise as we seek to address the glut of problems afflicting our communities locally, nationally and globally but actually fundamental to human nature.
The SCSN doesn’t need convinced of these arguments. We know and understand the impact of trauma on our health and society – and indeed how it is leading to the destruction of the very planetary environment on which our survival depends. Many others in sectors including health, justice and politics do too. But nowhere near enough – yet!
Dr Mate mused on the theme of the ACE Aware Nation Conference, which I’m leaving it late to mention), of so called ‘Compassion Fatigue’. Denying that humans can experience compassion fatigue – again because our brains are primed for co-operation and compassion, he defined fatigue as ‘energy expended against resistance’. He asked us to consider where we are experiencing resistance to our compassion and what our own relationship is to that?
He also offered a warning to expect resistance. Challenging long held dogmatic views on the primacy of the individual in Western culture is likely to meet with very strong resistance, he said. I bet many of us working in the third sector – in health or in justice – have felt this way at times. I know I have.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Dr Gabor Mate, I strongly recommend that you read his books (all of which are included in our community safety recommended reading list) and check him out on YouTube.
The SCSN will continue to make the case for a compassionate, trauma informed society, collaborative working to solve problems, treating the causes rather than the symptoms of our social and individual problems – focussing on prevention and on healing rather than punishing or shaming. And we’ve got the utterly overwhelming evidence on our side.
We invite you to join us. And if the energy you expend against resistance is sometimes too much, know that you’ve got a lot of like-minded friends pushing in the same direction!