Living environments have an enormous influence on the way that human beings live. In more traditional living environments the influence has been even more acute. International trade was not such a determining factor in the kinds of products that were used and consumed. The foods that were eaten, the clothes that were worn, the tools that were used, the structures that provided shelter, the vehicles that provided transport were mostly derived from local materials and animals and plants. And these local entities were very effective in helping people to survive in the particular ecosystems in which they found themselves.
Nowadays, although some allowance is made for climate and culture, people in most parts of the world tend to consume much more similar products. Modern technology has lifted people above the local ecosystem which used to provide people their grounding. The grounding was not only a physical grounding, but a psychological grounding as well. And although nature could create some catastrophic situations and events for them – situations and events that could result in traumatic experiences – living in and around nature could also provide psychological healing for people. After the catastrophe, nature restores itself and, insofar as people work to restore their own damaged connections to nature, in the process, they tend to restore themselves psychologically. Because the connections are seldom totally broken for traditional people. Traditional people, in such situations, usually remain a part of the ecosystem in which they live. And this natural ecosystem remains a template for traditional human interaction. Sometimes, traditional people may hate one another, they may go to war with one another, but somehow they don’t seem to lose their organic connection to one another.
Perhaps it’s because most traditional people, being more grounded in nature, are automatically more grounded in each other. Their collective sense of self is more developed, and their individual sense of self is less so. The grounding of nature is a template that allows people to deep-bond with one another. And to form a collective sense of self that is much greater than the sum of the individual senses of self. The strength of this collective sense of self lies in the flowing blendable continual stimuli, the organic stimuli that flow through the collective and give the collective coherence. These stimuli help to cushion a person against the damaging effects of trauma.
In contrast, in modern technological society, people are structurally separated from the grounding in nature. Physically and psychologically, they live in an experiential vacuum filed with tension pockets of free floating figures. In such an environment, people become isolated from one another. In an environment filled with random defined discrete stimuli, people have to develop senses of self with strong definition in order to survive. These people are subject to two kinds of overlapping psychological danger. Assaults from free-floating figures (conflicts with people including family and friends, abrasive experiences with environmental tension pockets: noisy modern machinery, crowded modern urban areas, etc.) on the one hand, and pure numbness from the experiential vacuum on the other. Freudian psychoanalysis started the focus on the traumas experienced by free-floating human figures – disruptive events that, with a vacuum backdrop, are not allowed to be easily reabsorbed in the person’s mind. Instead, these events replay over and over again and affect the person in a lot of different pathological ways. Isolated defined discrete senses of self are more brittle and therefore open to more cracks. Now such a sense of self does have the advantage of being more free to act on the basis of individual volition. However, the problem is that that individual volition may not always be able to protect the person.
And numbness generated by the frictionless mediated technological backdrop in the field of experience can create pathological effects independent of the traumas from the tension pockets of figures. Numbness can cause people to sink inside themselves with depression and anxiety, on the one hand, or it can cause people to strike out with abrasive actions in the external world in order to feel more alive. It can be drug addiction or other addictions, suicide, mass murders or other crimes of numbness. It doesn’t matter that these abrasive actions are, in the long run, destructive to the person committing them. For these people, the intensity of the experience before and during the self-destruction is worth it.
Traditional psychotherapy has been built on the assumption that one can treat a patient, to a great extent, independent of the larger physical living environment in which he lives. But, as has been indicated, the larger living environment can play a very important role in terms of how the sense of self is shaped and in terms of how negative emotional situations and events are processed. There is no question but that negative emotional situations and events are magnified in an experiential vacuum, against a vacuum backdrop.
One last thought. The main reason the Islamic terrorists give themselves, their lives, so easily to their cause through suicide is that they have such a strong collective sense of self as a result of centuries of traditional living close to nature. If they die, their families, their communities, their cause lives on. Even the Saudi hijackers of the 911 attack may have been modern on the surface, but they came from a culture that moved into the modern technological world very quickly as a result of sudden oil wealth, which means that under that modern veneer, there was still a very strong traditional collective sense of self. And finally, according to Islam, the souls of terrorists continue to live on in a very vibrant palpable immediate paradise. Jihad suicide simply means to pass from one state of life to another. And the second one is so much better to them.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow