Alternative Editorial: What Is Integrity?

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If you were in the middle of eating a delicious sandwich and you discovered a poisonous slug, you would stop eating the sandwich immediately. And maybe try to disgorge what you had eaten so far. Maybe you would take something to lessen the effects of any poison that might have got into your system. And warn any others who bought the same sandwich.

You might even march into the kitchen of the sandwich maker, note the conditions in which the sandwiches were being made and alert the manager. If you were ignored you might alert the appropriate authorities. Such is the motivating power of a near-death experience.

You would not continue eating the sandwich, slug and all, and then simply vow not to go to that sandwich seller again. “Unless, of course, you were in a hurry”.

In moments like that, there is a clarity about personal impact and the action which ensues. You experience your own fully integrated system. The observation of your eyes, the assessment achieved by your cognitive brain. The terror your triggered amygdala makes you feel, the adrenaline that courses through your body, to help you shout and insist on being heard. We are wired for response.

However, if the whole experience is located outside our own sovereign space – our own body, our own home, our own country – it’s much more difficult to step into the experience.

We can watch the person next to us scream when they drop their sandwich, even follow them into the shop to back them up in their confrontation.

But we are much more likely to hear the shopkeeper out when he says it’s a unique misfortune, couldn’t have been avoided, won’t happen again. It’s not happening to us.

We might even feel sorry for them, and visit again to show solidarity for their difficulties. Though we might not eat another sandwich from that shop again ourselves, we’ll let others take that risk.

Not everyone can follow their instincts: we all have conditioned responses, arising from our circumstances and experience. There’s a million and one different gradations of response possible.

These depend largely upon how much the observer identifies with – or in psych-speak, finds a pattern match with - the different characters in the drama. And how much capacity we have to act.

We can file away a lot of bad news if it’s painful to hear due to some historical trauma of our own. Or if it doesn’t suit our self-styled – maybe culturally imposed - daily routines for getting our needs met. All of which is being constantly reinforced by a media that is designed to pick up and amplify our compulsions.

Having an original thought, one that comes as a realization - that makes new sense of all that you thought previously - is very hard to act on in the face of these prevailing winds.

As Anthea Lawson observes in her ongoing study on activism, people choose a wide variety of types of engagement in their efforts to express – and contain – what they feel about what they observe.

The vast majority of us put up strong defences against ‘infiltration’  - brainwashing, influencing - by externally mobilised causes. Yet we also complain that not enough is happening to right the wrongs we see: we cannot see the role that our active engagement might play.

The first time I saw Greta Thunberg speak it touched a deep nerve. Strangely, we had already blogged her one-person school strike without the same effect: she appeared on my news radar as a brave young person among many others.

But her voice and her stance when speaking truth to power (at the United Nations, Davos, European Council) reached much deeper into me, producing a visceral reaction. Something between the deepest grief and the strongest yearning for action. I recognised something deep in me.

Watching the many recordings of her speeches now being published (including this one set to the music of 1975), it’s clear I wasn’t alone. She is more than a news item: people are hearing her call in the way they can pick out the voice of their own nearest and dearest in a crowd. Or maybe the call of a wolf in the wilderness.

I could offer many explanations – as a psychotherapist, journalist, mother. But what’s more interesting is the breadth of her global response. Different ages, cultures, political starting points.

What is the combination – the pattern – of triggers she is pulling that is causing this domino effect? First her parents, then the journalists, then those first re-tweeters, now the millions of citizens taking up her cause and running with it.

In perfect synchronicity comes the rise of Extinction Rebellion, like the tsunami that follows after the earthquake. Evidence that, even if Greta looks like a stand-alone phenomenon, she is more like the harbinger of the global rising now occurring.

In a matter of months, she has transitioned from being anonymous to being a Nobel Prize nominee. And as Wired magazine suggests, from being the voice of her generation to being the voice of the planet.

One way of looking at this, which gave us enormous solace this week, was Zhiwa Woodbury’s paper Climate Catharsis (which we blogged this week). If I’m understanding Zhiwa well enough, he suggests twenty or more years ago, when we first heard that our lifestyles were destroying the planet, instead of acting, we were traumatised and withdrew into ourselves.

Ever since then, we have been moving through the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Each of these map onto waves or even eras of social behaviour we would recognise, from increased hedonism (denial) to carbon off-setting (bargaining).  

Within this frame, Greta and XR are signs that increasing numbers of people are moving into acceptance – liberating them for the first time to take action that would move us forwards from the ongoing traumatic truth. It’s hopeful.

Their bold action, however, is triggering those that are being confronted with the truth for the first time, into the first stage of denial. If we look at the many different responses to climate change in our socio-political landscape, it would suggest that all the stages are present in our society at the same time.

At times like this, it is just as important to offer safe places to process the grieve as it is to empower those that can see ahead.

However, another way to assess Greta’s impact is to acknowledge her own journey as she tells it here. Again, in brief, it is the story of a young girl with Asperger’s syndrome who fell into a deep depression because she could not process hypocrisy – the gap between what the adults in her life told her to do, and what they were doing themselves.

She stopped talking and withdrew from school, unable to occupy her place in that society, or even family. Her parents began by changing their own actions – for example, her Mother giving up international touring as an opera singer – to create a safe container for Greta’s return to a normal life.

As a family they now eat vegan, never fly and practice a circular economy by recycling and rarely buying anything new.

While for many this looks like a life of privation, for Greta – and her family - it is survival, enabled by a life of integrity. Living in alignment with what they believe to be evident. Not that much different from the person who stopped eating the sandwich because they saw the poisoned slug.

 Of course, the black and white nature of this shift is what Greta, in her own description of herself as Aspergers, needs for her mental health. She cannot live any other way. Yet, at the same time, she is modelling simple integrity in the public space. Aligned inwardly and outwardly with the survival of the planet. And in so doing she is prompting us to challenge ourselves too.

Within that commitment, they – and many other of the children now striking from school – have found increased mental strength. It turns out that moving away from the constantly shifting world of overwhelming possibility and vulnerability that social media offers, feels good.

In addition, the greater certainty that being in action brings, is helping teenagers all over the world. Their emotional need for autonomy, connection, achievement, status, belonging, meaning and purpose are being met through rising up together.

That does not suggest that other ways of being social are devalued: being open to possibility, fluid, tolerant, empathetic. But it offers an inner core of strength and maybe calm.

We often talk about the aspect of ‘waking up’ in our collective journey to recognising the need for an alternative political system. The work of Greta and her family, and of Extinction Rebellion, is playing a vital role in that. We must be sure that, whatever the systems we design to come next, they build in the tools and practices that allows us all to live with integrity at the core.

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