The will to achieve

Humankind has achieved so much. We have left our own planet; delved deep into the mysteries of life itself. We have created life and lengthened it. We have made our planet smaller and more connected. Add your own items to the list of Achievements.

Achievement. We raise our children for it. We educate for it. We reward it. We regard those who achieve as cultural heroes and accord them extraordinary privileges, role models to inspire ourselves to do better, to reach our own personal Everest.

Achievement. It is like a power pack driving us on, driving us towards something both personal and social.

In order to achieve anything we suggest that people have ambition, set goals for themselves. Not to have ambition nor to strive towards a goal, well you are a selfish, lazy good-for-nothing who is letting everyone else down. How dare you!

We all accept that achieving something is good. When we win, or get that promotion we’d been working so hard for, our brain releases dopamine – the pleasure chemical. It is addictive. Drugs like cocaine amplify the feel-good effects of dopamine. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dopamine).

That says something about our cultural addiction to Achievement.

Now I don’t want to belittle what humankind has achieved up to now. I’m writing a blog on a computer which might be read by someone on the other side of the world within minutes of its posting – I couldn’t be doing this if incredible people hadn’t put their minds and energy to work to make it possible. We all enjoy the fruits of others’ achievements.

And yet, as with all things, their is another side to our cultural obsession with Achievement; a yin to the cultural yang.

Psychologist Dr Steve Peters, in his book The Chimp Paradox, uses the parable of the Fridge Door Syndrome to reveal how the cultural focus on Achievement affects our lives, and not in a good way.

As parents, do we praise our children for who they are or what they have done? If we praise our children for what they do and what they achieve then they develop a belief that they are only worthy if they achieve. If they are loved and respected for who they are without having to do anything to receive love, then their self-worth is more secure.

Peters writes: “…all too many of us are fearful of how we do and what others will think…many people suffer emotionally because they are constantly worried about what others think of them.”

The pursuit of Achievement can therefore be like living our lives as if we’re always trying to please someone else; as if someone else has written the script of our lives for us and we mindlessly throw ourselves into it as if it’s the only possible script there is for us.

So as we live our lives, I think we should just be aware of who we’re living it for. If we’re seeking Achievement to impress some significant other from our childhood we could be making ourselves very unhappy.

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We are all racists

The attacks on mosques and other Islamic symbols in the wake of the murder of drummer Lee Rigby expose some primal instincts which, if unchecked, could provoke a worrying trend in English society.

Humans are social animals. In our prehistoric past, we formed groups of about 150 individuals, hunting and gathering, creating culture and religion to bind us together and to regulate our relationships. We delineated our territory and patrolled it against the incursion of others. We competed against other groups for scarce resources. We were vigilant to the constant threats against us and our troop.

These instincts are deep within us. We are born with them whether we want them or not. We are only 5.4 million years from the joint ancestor we share with the chimpanzee.

The development of our humanity is therefore relatively recent. We can all talk, plan, calculate, reflect, be reasonable and logical and civilised, and this sometimes obscures the deeper primeval instincts we still (all of us) carry around with us.

The tensions in England between some Moslems and a section of the white English population increase with every provocation. A provocation is a stimulus to which our powerful and speedy Ape reacts first. Unless he or she has been nurtured and managed to react to such stimuli in a way which creates a different response to how a chimpanzee would react to a threat.

Elements in both communities (usually young men who, in evolutionary terms, are the warriors who would patrol and fight to protect their troop) are now hyper-vigilant to perceived or real threats from the other. Any communication will be filtered through this context of threat and suspicion to confirm each side’s view of the other as an enemy.

Vulnerability and neuroses spread like a stain through communities and infect others who may have previously made a better job of managing their primal responses to provocation.

On the English side, the increasing status of the armed forces is one response to our insecurity. Hardly a day goes by without my local news channel covering a regimental home-coming, thanksgiving, or march through a town Р20 years ago such events would have been largely ignored. There is also some evidence that the fall in attendances at Church of England services has stablised with some holy services, such as Christmas, seeing an increase. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22426144. If tensions between Moslem and English communities continue to increase I would expect to see church attendance increase.

The English – or large numbers of them – sees themselves as under threat, if not actually under attack. The primal fear of having a different group sharing their physical space and competing for resources, suppressed because authority punishes rather than rewards a physical response, continues to lurk within and is fed with a narrative which confirms the fear rather than confronts it. It is significant that one of the most active groups involved in this stand-off has the word ‘Defence’ in its name. They are claiming the territory (England) as theirs and they are defending it against others. The symbolism of Lee Rigby’s Help for Heroes tee-shirt could not have been more provocative for either side.

Young male Moslems, for their part, were mainly born in Britain yet feel alienated from it. English society, to many, is decadent, ungodly, and counter to the laws of Islam. British troops have been present in Islamic countries fighting Moslems in order to protect the home territory. Authority figures on both sides unwittingly widen the divide through their impoverished rhetoric which reduces the ‘other’ to a caricature, stripped of humanity and all the easier to attack and destroy.

What to do? How can we stop this spiral of provocation and counter-provocation? How can we break the stimulus-response mentality which will see tensions rise until the next event release that energy in violence? How can we live in peace and harmony?

We can start by acknowledging our Ape-like tendencies and admitting that everyone on earth shares them. This appeal to our universal commonality – what makes us similar rather than what makes us different – may of itself create a common language and understanding.

Civilisation is in part about how we resolve difference and dispute without violence. We create institutions to channel our Ape-like instincts into rational human form. I’m not sure our institutions are fully fit to handle the challenge of reconciling two communities growing increasingly suspicious of each other. Do we need to create a new institutional space where communities can come together to air frustrations and resolve issues?

My own solution to addressing the instincts of my inner Ape was to seek contact. I had had no previous meaningful contact with Moslems or others outside of my Troop. I am proud to be a Trustee of a small charity which serves a largely black and minority ethnic community. My fellow Trustees are all Moslem, as are some of the staff. I now have other patterns in my brain to counter the narratives that seek to divide us.

I have never had a strong Troop instinct – I’m not what politicians would call ‘clubbable’ – so I accept I may be unusual in this regard.

However, unless both communities have the will to come together to find common purpose while respecting our differences then we are in for troubled times ahead.

The write way to better health

I have always wondered about medical science’s propensity to dehumanise patients.

People are seen as a set of symptoms. The cause of symptoms are seen as either genetic or environmental. The bias is a biological one.

In our current model of medicine, surely the craziest dichotomy is between physical health and mental health. Mental health, of course, has a psychological bias.

These biases have everything to do with origins and professional jealousy, and nothing to do with life as most of us experience it.

Progress is being made towards seeing the patient as a human being. I watched a short video last year on Shared Decision Making in which a doctor (a General Practitioner) actually talked to one of his patients who was a frequent attender at surgery and at A and E. Instead of asking about symptoms, the doctor asked his patient about his life. It turned out that the patient’s wife was in a care home difficult to reach by public transport and he was missing her terribly. The practice put on a taxi service for him to visit his wife. His attendances at surgery and A & E stopped.

I have been reminded of this video over the past few days while reading Opening Up, a book by eminent psychologist James W. Pennebaker. In it, Pennebaker examines links between psychological inhibition and physical health. It’s a fascinating read. If nothing else, it shows our mind and body to be one system – which our professional science has, in its cartesian dualist way, split into two. The way medicine denigrates illness when it identifies a psychosomatic origin is evidence of its dualistic bias.

Freud was one of the first to identify trauma and its suppression as a cause of illness later in life. Pennebaker, being a scientist, has actually gathered evidence that points in the same direction. As you might expect, there is far more nuance in Pennebaker’s work than in Freud’s Grand Theory approach, but one of his discoveries is so remarkably simple I am quite at a loss why it is not being universally applied.

The discovery is this: For many people, illness in later life is linked to a trauma in earlier life – a trauma to which they have not been able to give expression. Sexual abuse inside a family, because of the associated taboos, is a good example.

Being able to talk or write about a trauma without fear of being judged, of not being believed (see previous post), or of suffering some social penalty helps bring something deep to the surface. The simple act of expressing what happened and what they feel about it acts as a purge. The individual is able to adjust and get on with their lives and be healthier.

Pennebaker has also examined the efficacy of writing/talking cures relating to recent trauma. So, for example, you have just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Patients who are able to express their feelings about it tend to recover better and quicker than those who inhibit their response.

The British NHS is obsessing now about better outcomes for patients. What that means when translated is: doctors and nurses need to work harder and smarter.

So here’s my suggestion. Why doesn’t every hospital and GP practice pay someone to either listen to patients’ life stories or facilitate their writing about a trauma, past or present. A pilot project with a control group would help to identify the cost-benefits. My bet is that it would be cheaper than employing a doctor and the outcomes would be better. Furthermore, the number of people presenting for care would be greatly reduced thus representing a saving to the health system as a whole.