If we were little green men from Mars (or Venus for that matter) looking down on planet Earth, we would rapidly conclude that humans were killing the planet. While it’s obvious to an outsider, we seem unable to acknowledge our own endemic violence. We hide, deny and run from our deepest, most global truth.
Extinction Rebellion took to the streets of London recently, resulting in 900 protesters landing in jail. When London mayor Sadiq Khan urged them on twitter to “Let London return to business as usual”, George Monbiot – journalist at The Guardian – retorted “business as usual is destroying our life support systems.”
He’s not wrong.
While we continue blindly with our unconscious killing spree, or as we call it, “business as usual”, our hidden violence is quite apparent to someone like Greta Thurnberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish girl with Aspergers disease who talks in unapologetic black and white terms about our climate crisis — against the tones of gray that politicians and world leaders seem to excel at when making a speech.
Solving our climate problem is clearly not just a matter of recycling, it’s way bigger. It’s now about our entire way of life. We live and consume like planet-harassing bullies. The structure of our global economy, the pillars of capitalism and democracy, the very way we interact and negotiate with each other need to be radically redefined in order to stop this massacre.
But if we want to change the world, as any ancient wisdom, spiritual theology or decent life coach would tell us, we must start by changing ourselves. We need to face, accept and heal the hidden bullies we have unknowingly become.
I’ve been going through a harsh exercise of self-change for a while now, resulting in articles around my personal and painful revelations, which you’ll find on Real Leaders. I have shared with some friends and colleagues my tough quest to build self-awareness around the hidden violence that I have suffered for decades, from those I loved the most. It wasn’t easy.
On one hand, confessing to everyone I cared about that I’d been bullied since childhood meant that I had to confront the hidden violence in my life on a new level. I felt stupid, worthless, weak and unworthy all over again, now that it wasn’t hidden anymore.
On the other hand, I realized how much I’d been playing along with it, before making the facts publicly known. I had a dream about this life change the night the article was published. I saw myself engaging in a superficial, happy conversation with Javier, my romantic bully, hoping to reduce the risks of a possible ambush. I woke up suddenly, startled, with a terrible heartache pulsating slowly through my body, waves of grief and anguish growing. Luckily, I have taught myself to process and relieve emotional pain effectively.
The dream taught me that the pattern of violence between the two of us, was as much mine, as it was his. Maybe I wasn’t doing the insulting, but I was playing along with it. I was reactively taking it in my stride as a means of avoiding more violence. In doing so, however, I was unknowingly negating, suppressing and ignoring the wounded victim in me.
Years ago, someone told me that attending therapy was about taking responsibility for things that are not your responsibility. Growing as a person and as a leader is no different. The only way we solve, and end a pattern of violence, is by acknowledging our part in it. It’s a tricky concept in our current culture, that is full of moral judgment and blame — both essentially acts of hidden violence themselves.
Just for fun, let’s ask the little green men once more to give us their opinion on human history: Do they see violence in it? Do they see us as taking responsibility for that violence and gradually reducing it over generations? Or, do they see us coming up with increasingly sophisticated methods and excuses to continue inflicting hidden, morally-superior, and easy-to-deny violence on past and present enemies? Even far-away, innocent bystanders.
Such are the tough questions we all need to come to terms with. Despite our ignorance – and innocence or lack of responsibility in the making of it – the fact is we are all part of this cycle of hidden violence. We play along with it to avoid unforeseen consequences down the road: We hoard money, power, Instagram likes, and all kinds of single-use stuff, just in case it all runs out, or there isn’t enough to go around. In doing so we negate, suppress and ignore the wounds such behavior inflicts on the planet, on the two-hundred species that disappear each day, on the distant, unseen villages that are most vulnerable to climate change. We suppress this in ourselves too.
I have to agree with the little green men on one thing — the fact that hidden violence is significantly more destructive and far-reaching than obvious, physical violence. There is a refinement and cold dissociation to be found in a financial venture that leaves thousands of people without jobs or homes, in contrast to the football hooligan who thumps an opponent in a drunken haze. A hooligan is a lot likelier to admit his faults and change than the slick, rich, carefully-crafted executive who plays carelessly with numbers in his excel sheet. The first crime is punishable by law, while the second is “business as usual.”
When I look at my family and romantic life, I know we didn’t choose our roles. We never intended to become helpless receivers of violence, less so the bad guys. Just as I had not fully grasped that I was a victim, Javier doesn’t even know he is a bully. He works himself to the absolute limit every day in an effort to hide it, deny it and run from his deepest truth.
In a way we were meant for each other. Both his family and mine inherited patterns of violence from earlier generations. No one ever spoke of it. It was hidden in plain sight between our jokes and our mean laughter, inside our inconsequential daily gossip, beneath the addiction we each chose to help us cope with our assigned roles.
Where there is violence there is an old wound. The only animals in nature who inflict pain on others, beyond their instinct to survive, are ones that have been previously traumatized. Recuperating violent horses, for example, is all about retraining their responses, rebuilding their trust, and letting them express anger in safe spaces until it’s gone.
Recuperating the violent, planet-killing species that the human race has become is no different. It starts with acknowledging and admitting our role in the violence. It continues through many sessions of rebuilding broken trust, and expressing our anger, fear and grief in safe spaces. Until it’s gone.
Only then can we build a new life and global economy for ourselves which inflicts no violence on anyone or anything.