Posted by: David M. Hazen | June 23, 2017

We’re going to Hell… and Beyond!



It’s the awareness, the full experience . . .

 of how you are stuck, that makes you recover.

— Frederick S. Perls

I remember my anthropology professor presenting the thesis, over 50 years ago, that humanity has always existed at the edge of extinction, a fragile species confronted with one crisis after another. This was at the height of the Vietnam war, and I did not want to believe him. The film Apocalypse Now was released in 1979, capturing the dark horror of men’s souls torn apart by war and giving my generation the name for that feeling of doom: apocalypse. I was deeply affected by the war, becoming depressed to the point of considering suicide. I wanted to believe that significant change was possible and that we could begin an era of permanent peace. I wanted apocalypse to mean “disclosure of something hidden,” as it does in the ancient Greek language. I wanted an explanation of, and resolution of, the senseless violence.

That was many wars ago, and now America is engaged in what is termed “perpetual war.” Thousands of nuclear missiles all over the planet are armed and ready to launch. The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that world spending related to the consequences or prevention of violence exceeds 13% of the world GDP, compared to the less than 1% spent on building the peace.

We are in a mass extinction event. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. (1) Humans are potentially one of those species.

This dismal picture of a downward spiral, this devolution of ambition and accomplishment, is very challenging for most of us. However, my professor pointed out that humanity has managed to survive somehow through all the turmoil, over thousands of years. Perhaps we need to accept that our collective mythology of this particular time as the one-and-only apocalypse is a bit overblown and in need of a reality check. There may be reason to believe that our current crisis is neither the end of the world nor the gateway into a golden age. We may simply be on a long journey through this special hell and many more crises to come. What if the entire role-function of humanity on this planet were to create and resolve crises?

Apocalyptic scenarios are certainly popular. They sell movies and the daily news. They are very dramatic, engaging and stressful. They are also very black and white. There  is no middle choice, no grey zone, in apocalypse. There is a strong belief that humanity is stuck, that we are all a victim of oppression, unworthy, unable to make progress and needing to be rescued. The uncertainty about what is going to happen next breeds hyper-vigilance, such that small events assume enormous significance, and imaginations run wild with catastrophic possibilities. The common thread through it all is trauma: sudden changes, fear of the unknown, pain, loss and rude awakenings.

We are not victims of the world we see;
we are victims of the way we see the world.
— Dennis Kucinich

Many leadership coaches and community social workers now know that a history of trauma in a person will evoke a victim identity that is continuously supported by apocalyptic scenarios. This presents as self-pity, rationalization and a pessimistic demeanor (2). The traumatized person may also become an aggressive persecutor (3) that attacks and blames anyone they perceive as weaker than themselves so they can appear to be strong. Or they may become a self-righteous rescuer (4) and propose that getting rid of the persecutors will bring less trauma and more compassion without realizing that they have switched into the role of persecutor, themselves.

All of these roles are a cover-up for a loss of self-confidence, which is understandable, yet these behaviors prevent creative responses in crisis situations. Traumatized people tend to repeat defensive and avoidant behaviors which almost insure that the crisis will remain in place and most likely become more urgent.

This phenomena is what leads us to believe that we are immersed in the Dark Night of Our Soul, or Apocalypse. This is Hell, the end of a life of expansive freedom, because the roles of victim, persecutor and rescuer have become trapped in a repeating spin-cycle. The question of when does this ever end becomes important. Idealists like myself will often speak of a “world that works for everyone” as if it were somewhere in the future as a result of some mammoth social change effort that we have to get done because nobody else will do it. Paradoxically, acceptance of ourselves and other people as we are right now is the most powerful way to bring that future into the present, and requires no social organization whatsoever.

this is world that works copy

The homo sapiens who escape the spin-cycle will be the ones who let go of their tight-fisted, grief-ridden anger, let go of their desire to appear smart, strong and tough, and instead allow themselves to be transparent, honest and vulnerable in the present moment. Giving ourselves permission to show up just as we are, to “let it all hang out,” automatically extends this permission to others, and we become more trusting of other people, no longer demanding or expecting them to be different than they are but extending to them curiosity and respect.

This challenge works to our advantage, personally and collectively. If we accept that the evolution of humankind necessarily includes threats to survival in order to force a search for better strategies for thriving, if we accept that there is no growth without difficult challenges, and that the nature of a world that works for our collective benefit is to constantly be presented with new challenges to “boldly go where no human has gone before,” then this difficult world of the present moment is precisely the never-ending apocalypse that we need. This is the world that is working for everyone. To be fully alive, we must be dynamically expanding and growing. If not, we are like the walking dead — vegetative and breathing but numb.

How does acceptance of “eternal apocalypse in the now” alter our approach to social change?

It improves our ability to collaborate, to combine and multiply our human energies, our human “capital.” The inequalities of status and privilege among us become a source of power sharing instead of conflict when we acknowledge that everyone responds to their particular history of trauma in ways that we ourselves would most likely respond. There is tremendous equality in the present moment when we assume that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have right now to fulfill their needs, which are the same needs that we have (5). That kind of empathy leads to requests for more information instead of accusations and labels. When powerful, open-ended questions are presented, they can over time draw out epiphanies of life-changing wisdom from people who have misunderstood their own trauma and been unable to provide empathy to their own story, unable to understand why or how they were oppressing others. The oppressed become empowered by the space allowed for them to design their own lives.

It improves our sense of security when we become the captains of our own life process and when our vanity as somebody especially powerful (persecutor) or especially good (rescuer) or especially bad (victim) becomes irrelevant, even laughable. If we know that an insult, loss or unexpected outcome cannot change our decision to remain committed to our own self-care of our strength and flexibility in challenging circumstance, we become tremendously resilient. It doesn’t mean that life becomes a bed of roses, nor do we become masochistic about the thorns. We simply see and accept both.

It means that we become much more grateful for every opportunity to be connected to the real juice of life itself, to expansive growth of meaning and purpose. When we impact and contribute to the lives of others in ways that allow them to experience their own resilience in the face of trauma, we ourselves experience a deep validation of serenity and joy.

We cannot eliminate all the sources of our traumas, but we can teach ourselves skills for transcending them, integrating them into our lives as normal and natural events, in spite of the discomfort they cause. We cannot escape the continuous march of new crises to resolve, but we can change our expectations of Apocalypse and significant social change into a relaxed and playful, even child-like, attentiveness to problems. This shift will generally lead to more satisfying results as we trudge ever onwards from one hell to another. Practicing self-management of our emotions, attitudes and attention will eventually lead us to a realization that our worst fears about conflict, defeat and extinction may be our best friend and teacher.

All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.

~~ Sheldon B. Kopp (6)



(1) Center for Biological Diversity

(2)(3)(4) The Empowerment Dynamic

(5) Center for Nonviolent Communication

(6) An Eschatological Laundry List

Posted by: David M. Hazen | April 27, 2017

Always doing our best

We often judge others as incompetent, stupid or even delusional. Whatever the reason, they become unlovable in our world and appear to live in a different world than the one which we inhabit. We may even say they are “bad” people.

We also judge ourselves as ignorant or incapable, usually because we failed to achieve a certain goal or meet a standard. We then become unworthy of receiving love from others. Hello? Do you see how evaluation is the machine that builds walls of non-cooperation, enmity and insecurity among us constantly?

Negative evaluation is the original sin that decorates our world with toxic shame. It’s toxic shame that leads me into a corner where I am unable to ask for help, admit my ignorance, accept myself just as I am. For all of us, it poisons our perception of who we are, why we are here, and who we are with. It robs us of vitality, serenity and joy. Evaluation is a necessary function of rational task analysis, and absolutely useless for understanding the context, the map, for all that we do. It makes no sense to use the same narrow frame of reference, of comparing specific performance to arbitrarily expected results, for generating a total sum of our identity. It is false to assume that because we make mistakes that we are a mistake.

For most of my life I’ve been haunted by the feeling that I was a mistake. I thought I didn’t belong here on this planet. I have literally been homeless in my heart to some degree, seeking for home, security and comfort outside of myself in many ways that were ultimately ineffective and very painful. My rage of rebellion against this injustice to my very being has made it possible for me to see that same rage in other people and to understand what may appear to be senseless violence.

I received emotional and physical abuse in my childhood that taught me two things: other people were untrustworthy and I had no right to exist. I experienced the covert terror of nuclear weapons and the cold war of the 1950’s and 60’s as reminders of those same lessons — distrust and annihilation — expanded into a global pattern of thinking. Today’s pandemic of refugees and homeless families is an intensified continuation of the same abuse.

We are now beginning to see not only how traumatic it is to be without a physical shelter that one can call home, but also how multiple types of trauma from domestic violence to war, from loss of income to loss of health, contribute to a sense of not belonging anywhere or to anyone, not having a home. Social services are unprepared to cope with these cascading global environmental and economic crises.

There are rapidly growing numbers of men, women and children who are lonely, shunned and ostracized, who have been systematically tortured and abused by cultural norms, institutions, and laws. Those norms are the external manifestation of a war between our heads and our hearts. Our hearts are longing to belong, our heads have put ourselves and everyone else on the bottom of the waiting list. This conflict is literally a ticking time bomb that threatens to destroy us all if we refuse to walk through this pain together.

When I look back, it was people like myself, people who also felt homeless, people who didn’t have the answers to fix me, who simply offered me their companionship and partnership, who said “let’s walk through this pain together to get to the other side.” They offered me community, a tribe, a place to belong, to fit in. They listened to my story without comment. They encouraged me to keep talking, crying and allowing feelings to surface that were buried deep inside my hurt, clenched fists. They demonstrated unconditional love and allowed me the time and space to relax enough to accept it. I can be healed, not by other people fulfilling my need for connection, but by them showing me how to open up to the connections that are all around me like stars in the sky, just waiting for me to open my eyes to see them.

What I really need, and what everyone really needs, is to be heard, to be understood, and to be accepted just as we are. We don’t need to be judged or punished by ourselves or anyone else to look, sound, or act better or worse than anyone. That kind of competition is based on a false perception of scarcity, that only a small, limited number of people are deserving of praise — are “perfect” or “great” — and that the rest of us are deeply flawed. No. We are all doing the best we can with what we have in each moment, moments that are most likely deeply constrained by a history of pain and loss.

Our history may be unchangeable, but the effects it has had upon us is definitely not permanent. I now know that “adverse childhood experiences” encouraged me to build the defense mechanisms that block my ability to connect with others. It is normal and natural to have self-defense instincts. However, a “fortress mentality” of paranoia and unbreachable force poised for attack becomes a prison from which we cannot escape and which makes it impossible to participate in a meaningful life of energy exchange. There is no joy. The illusion of life remains, but we are numb to experience and prone to despair. There were times in my life when I no longer wanted to go on living, and my desperation drove me to behaviors that were crazy and unhealthy. Life became a meaningless crashing through the jungle, harming myself and other people.

My history of toxic shame has belatedly taught me to look beyond my daily experience of ups and downs to the horizon of my entire life. My life story is not random. It has a thread of repeated mistakes and eventual learning that ties it together, and even ties it to the life stories of my parents, their parents, my children and their children. Knowing and understanding my own story has led me to self-forgiveness. I make mistakes, many mistakes, but I am not a mistake, and neither is anybody else.

“We can be forgiven if we change,” say many people who represent our culture of judgment and punishment, people who would force us to be different than we are. I say if we set the context within which we can we forgive ourselves — something that nobody else can do for us —  we enable ourselves to change, we loosen the bonds of our past. When we relax our critical, blaming mindset to allow for the possibility that we and everyone else are always doing the best we can with what we have in the moment, we also relax into the patience and willingness to work with others to solve problems, because they are so much like ourselves. Freed from the bog of comparative analysis, we discover everyone — including ourselves — has a truth and beauty of their own that defies logic.

This may sound huge, but it is not difficult, really. Interview somebody. Pretend you are an investigative reporter for the Daily Sun. When you shine the light of your full, non-critical attention upon someone else, you will see it reflected right back at you. “Oh, this person that I am interviewing is just like me!” The healing for us happens when we freely give the empathy — the welcome home — which we want to receive. If you are lonely, your best friend is another lonely person.

Just assume — just for a moment — that you have always done the best that you could, regardless of the results. When we act as if that forgiveness is already there, we have already received it. If we want a sense of belonging, then the question becomes “How can I experiment with — literally, create the experience of — a sense of belonging, inclusion and connection for others and myself simultaneously?”

I am very excited to see that more and more people are now volunteering to walk together in a truly beautiful way through the pain of both specific and generalized homelessness. Hope is arising from simple acts of conversation that connect us with curiosity and respect, conversations without judgment or evaluation. Your history of victimization, slavery and imprisonment is the same as my history with different details. We are family, we belong to each other, this is home.

“Even after all this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,

‘You owe me.’

Look what happens
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.”

~~~ Hafiz

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