"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

Let's between us make the world a better place.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Startling New Thinking? Epigenetics and Social Healing

Waiting for my car to be fixed and browsing last weekend's papers, a review in The Times caught my eye by David Aaronovitch of the recent book At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise by Michael Brooks. Actually it was the headline "Feeling Sick? Blame it on the Ancestors" that caught my attention with the promise of "startling new thinking" and the apparent revelation that events in our past could affect the way genes behave and our present day circumstances; our physical or mental health for example.
This field of "epigenetics" is far from simple or straightforward, and of course our understanding of such things continues to develop as I write. But this is not such a new idea as to warrant the label "startling new thinking." Whatever the exact mechanism involved, we have known for some time that who we are and how we behave as adults is not only a combination of our inherited gene and possibly also our meme makeup, but we are also affected by subsequent influences in our upbringing and our experiences as we develop through childhood and beyond. This is at least part of what is meant when we talk about ‘nature versus nurture’.
I became interested in this subject when I started research for my first book, Healing This Wounded Earth, and found the article by Judith Thompson and James O’Dea in Shift, the magazine of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, or IONS, in Issue 7, May 2005: ‘Social Healing for a Fractured World; a Summary Report to the Fetzer Institute.’ This is a very important document in the context of how we address and transform the collective wounds of the world's population and the implications for social healing, and it was a huge influence and encouragement for me in drawing together the chapters for my own book, endorsing my own thinking. As the authors pointed out, we do indeed pick up mental wounds from the collective experiences of our ancestors, as well as our inherited physical characteristics, and the unhealed wounds of mankind inflicted through millennia of evolution by strife and violence and disaster mean that hundreds of millions of people are psychologically, emotionally and physically scarred and wounded and in need of healing. It has even been suggested by some psychologists, they go on to say, that ‘human culture as a whole has been saturated by unhealed wounding, which, if unchecked, will continue on a downward spiral toward inevitable disintegration.’ Now that is a frightening thought, and we need some healing on a huge scale. And day by day as more and more horrors of war and strife unfold on our screens the wounds in that pool of humanity multiply relentlessly.
I havn't read Brooks' book yet, but Aaronovitch's review implies that epigenetics is only referred to in a fun and fascinating context, linking place of birth with health risks for example. I am far more fascinated in the implications of all of this to our behavioral patterns and how they impact the future of our world; the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit. Because it is clear that wounds manifest themselves in many different and undesirable personality and behavioral traits. We see greed and envy, craving for love and attention, consumerism, lust for power, superiority, violence, overspending, addictions to work and substances, depression, cynicism, despair. As Thompson and O'Dea conclude, "transitioning from violence and massive social wounding to building peaceful and just futures is no easy journey; the complexity lies in finding the balance between truth, justice, peace, and mercy. All of these are necessities for healing and none can be ignored." Definitely!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

What we need now is a spiritual hunger for justice

This morning we remembered in our church service the life of William Wilberforce, British politician and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade, who died on July 29th in 1833.
And that reminded me of the piece I wrote in Healing this Wounded Earth about what we could all learn from the slavery abolitionists who hungered for justice in the world and thereby became catalysts for sweeping changes. Here is an excerpt:
On 30 July 2008, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for American slavery and for the subsequent ‘Jim Crow’ discriminatory laws. In the previous year the Virginia General Assembly had acknowledged ‘with profound regret the involuntary servitude of Africans and the exploitation of Native Americans,’(Larry O'Dell Washington Post 2007) and called for reconciliation among all Virginians. Virginia became the first of the 50 United States to recognize through their governing body the state's negative involvement in slavery.
In that same year the UK celebrated the 200-year anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade. The Church of England have since offered a full apology for profiting from the slave trade, and Prime Minister Tony Blair offered deep sorrow ‘that it could ever have happened’ and said that we could ‘rejoice at the better times we live in today.’
Among the media attention in both the United States and the United Kingdom, much was made of whether we should now be apologizing at all for what our ancestors did all that time ago, and whether any compensation was due.
Rather less publicity or thought was given to the feelings of those in the original abolition movement. What motivated them?
The prominent American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said in a talk delivered in the Broadway Tabernacle, New York, 14 February 1854: I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, ‘that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable social rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Hence, I am an Abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form, and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing, with indignation and abhorrence. Not to cherish these feelings would be recreancy to principle. They who desire me to be dumb on the subject of Slavery, unless I will open my mouth in its defense, ask me to give the lie to my professions, to degrade my manhood, and to stain my soul.
In the UK, a group known as the Clapham Sect drove the abolition movement. Taking their name from the Surrey village where they mostly lived and held their meetings, this group of evangelical Christians saw the treatment of slaves as an affront to their own dignity.
It was the overwhelming spiritual hunger for justice that drove these and other abolitionists, often among controversy and even violence, to strive towards making a real and permanent difference to the lives of so many. 
Sadly there is still slavery in today’s world, alongside so many other inequalities and human suffering, even in so-called ‘civilized’ Western societies such as ours.
So how can we make a difference today to alleviate the many injustices in the world?
As it was then, so it needs to be now if there is to be any real change in the lives of so many who still suffer. We need to feel again that degradation of humanity, the affront to our dignity, that staining of our souls.

Inside the Mount of Beatitudes church
commemorating the Sermon on the Mount
overlooking the Sea of Galilee
We need to find again that hunger for justice that the abolitionists felt. In the Beatitudes that Jesus preached to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, He spoke of the happiness and joy, or blessedness, that would be felt if we ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.’(The Gospel of St Matthew chapter 5 verse 6)
The then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams in his New Year message for 2007 spoke of the need for us to feed our own spiritual hunger. For real change to be made, to put right the injustices of the world, we have to follow, he says, the example of the Clapham Sect. We must realize that such issues are indeed an affront to our own dignity. In some way they make each of us less of a person. We will be fed and nourished spiritually only when we really and honestly wake up to the needs of our fellow human beings, learning together to reach out to them, to heal, feed, and befriend those less fortunate than ourselves. Then we will discover what it really means to be truly human.

From Healing This Wounded Earth: with Compassion, Spirit and the Power of Hope 
Chapter 4 Hope For Our Destiny
A New Era of Responsibility

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