Saturday, 26 April 2008

People in an unhappy state

Are there parallel lessons on peace and happiness to be drawn from political and personal life?

Here's one that comes usefully to mind: you can't build your own happiness on another's unhappiness.

Market life conditions us into believing that we will feel better in ourselves if our competing peers, neighbours, even friends are in some way less well-off, unfulfilled and, basically, unhappier than us.

We may proclaim altruistic emotions to the contrary. But consider how happy, for example, any 'professional salaried' person would feel about the idea of pay and status parity with someone 'lower down' the 'economic ladder.' Or, how we often seek more punitive retributions for prisoners and lawbreakers. Or, why we can feel 'happy elation' when a rival football team loses. Don't we derive a range of quiet satisfactions, often darkly pleasurable ones, from other people's relative unhappiness, subordination, even suffering?

Someone recently told me how unhappy they were on learning that their long-lost ex-partner had formed a 'happy' relationship with someone else. It wasn't a bitter response, just a feeling of despondency at their own presumed 'failures', 'inadequacies' and, thus, sense of 'unhappiness' relative to their ex. Their 'decreased happiness', in effect, had been seemingly influenced by the thought of the other's 'increased happiness'.

Of course, the hurt and sadness of broken and hostile relationships can stay with and affect people for a lifetime. In all kinds of social and political situations. Emotional healing may require patient forms of mediation. Some may prefer the 'comfort' of the bitterness. But the person seeking a truly happier life will, more rationally, opt for the view that calm and benevolent thoughts towards a 'conflicting other' will benefit all parties in the long run, particularly themselves. In short, one's own emotional well-being can be greatly enhanced by genuine compassion for others, even adversarial others.

This undermines the view that power over another can ever constitute a basis for balanced, sustainable peace and harmony. The realisation of such may, of course, be a long-term and tortuous goal. But even the attempted cultivation of that mind-balance takes us a considerable way to experiencing more positive, happier feelings within.

In other words, it's within one's own head and heart that such things need to be resolved. Not through the projection of negative feelings or actions against others.

Hatred, vengeance, acquisitiveness, jealousy and other personally-indulgent traits can give us a rush of temporary 'satisfaction', a feeling of power and control over others, but it can never truly deliver inner contentment. And it will always contain the latent prospect of more animosity and troubled feelings to come.

The 'unhappy state'?

Can a country and its collective people, by a similar logic, ever be a peaceful, content or 'happy' entity while it dominates another? The answer, again, would seem to be no.

The state 'itself' is, of course, an unhappy construct by regular definition, premised on selective interest and the 'exclusive' recourse to violence. Yet, the 'unhappiness of the state' as a set of offices is only made possible by the people who occupy and politicise those agencies. The wicked policies which people enact in the name of their state is often inversely related to their own personal unhappiness and lack of compassion for others.

Thus, when we look at Israel's sixty years of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and calculated murder of the Palestinians, do we see a state, a system, a body politic, a people, content, balanced and 'happy' in itself? Or do we see the same familiar evasions of social 'contentment', ersatz 'security' and delusional 'happiness' based on power over another?

It's hard to think of a state or state system that hasn't, ultimately, come to an unhappy crisis point over its occupations and persecutions: the US in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Britain in Ireland, Indonesia in East Timor, China in Tibet, the US/UK in Iraq, Israel in Palestine. History shows that oppressive states and empires may 'enjoy' the economic and geopolitical 'fruits' of their terror. But, in the longer run, the satisfaction of power and control is still transient and illusory, fostering suffering, genocide and respondent violence in the process. The 'unhappy state' lives on a diet of false and insatiable gratification, the Zionist state of Israel being a prime example. And the unhappiest states of all are the ones mired in psychopathic dismissal of another's persecution and unhappiness.

The personification of that unhappiness is evident in the leaders of such states. How happy a man, deep-down, is Tony Blair? Or George W Bush? Or Ehud Olmert? We see the public persona, the 'at one with myself' 'self-reassurance', the 'religious and moral conviction' of their acts. But behind this veil is the disturbed reality of the unhappy psychopath.

Happiness in resistance?

Is there greater emotional and moral 'happiness' to be derived from resistance to such oppression. Yes, but, again, it helps if those resisting can recognise the mental and emotional malaise of their oppressor. This is not just about showing compassion towards one's oppressor - difficult as that is as a human exercise. It's about recognising how a certain kind of resistance actually disempowers the oppressor while empowering all with a more constructive, mutual and happier view of how to resolve conflict.

But, as Mustafa Barghouthi asks: "what sort of resistance"? His answer shows that while specified forms of armed resistance can be seen as "legitimate", the more rewarding, inclusive and, ultimately, 'happier' form lies in non-violence:
"Armed resistance to occupation is legitimate and legal under international law, under the strict condition that it does not target civilians. But as someone who truly believes in the sanctity of human life, and as a doctor who always puts human life first, I have an inherent belief that non-violence is a fundamental philosophical choice.

Besides this, in a more practical way, I think that armed resistance is a narrow and elitist approach, involving only a select few and leaving the rest of the people out. And it is based on the assumption that armed force is the only force that exists in the world."
Barghouthi also makes this salient point about the selective presentation of Palestinian resistance by the media - usually labelled 'militant' and 'extremist' activity, rather than 'resistance' - and the multiple other ways in which resistance can be effectively expressed:
"This choice may seem utopian after sixty years of conflict and so much violence and bloodshed. But this is only an appearance, because the media only reports on acts of violence, creating the misleading impression that violence prevails. This is exacerbated by the dominant Israeli narrative which consistently portrays Palestinians as aggressors and not as a people under occupation struggling for freedom, justice and independence.

In truth, Palestinians are masters of non-violence. They have been resisting the all-pervasive violence of a forty-one year old military occupation every day since it began. Forty-one years of resilience, of silent and stubborn efforts to live a normal life, to work, to raise children, to love and to exist, simply to exist, despite the hundreds of checkpoints, the incursions, the arrests, the killings, the house demolitions, the land dispossession, the discriminatory laws, the arbitrary and unjust actions of the Israeli military.

In such a situation building a school, choosing to become a doctor, cultivating your ancestral olive grove are all acts of resistance."
In seeking justice and peace for the Palestinians, it's helpful, if difficult in these dark times, to see that any 'happy resolution' of their suffering will more likely come about through non-violent resistance. As the peaceful mass protests in Gaza and recent 'breakout' through Rafah show, it is, quite simply, the most powerful and attention-building form. Moreover, as Israel's dismissal of Hamas's genuine truce shows, this kind of resistance is the most alarming for the oppressor, for it completely undercuts their own false claims of peaceful intent, revealing themselves to the world as wolves in sheep's clothing.

People like Barghouthi see very acutely how that kind of hateful and unrelenting oppression is best challenged. It's the Gandhian method. It's the Buddhist way. It's the most rational means of exposing injustice and mobilising public opinion. And it's the form that will not only bring about, albeit in time, a just resolution, but a happier political and social mindset that everyone can benefit from.

This may seem like a utopian worldview. Conflict and ill-feeling are inevitable facts of life, many will say. This is true, of course, but only in the sense that we also possess all the necessary capacities for dealing with disharmony and strife. It's within ourselves and our collective consciousness. Unhappiness and suffering are constants. But there's also the countervailing constant that we have the power, will and means to overcome unhappiness and construct resolutions from the most seemingly despairing of situations, both in our internal and external lives.

In each regard, competitive self-interest is a dead end. Warmongering and profit-driven elites retain a vested interest in having us believe otherwise. But that, again, only serves to reveal their own underlying insecurities, delusions and unhappiness. Just as in personal life. Part of our quest for happier minds and polities lies in persuading unhappy people and states that nothing useful or long-lasting, emotionally or politically, is ever built on hatred, fear and power over others.

In peacetime.



marlene said... are really good at this.i enjoyed this article.i agree hole heartedly. exams over for a short time back surfing

Hope this message finds you well


marlene said...

sorry for previous spelling mistake it was not a freudian slip fogive me


John Hilley said...

Hello Marlene,

Thanks for those wholesome words. Yes, it's good to look at such issues holistically.