Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Smolensk tragedy of 10th April 2010, Part II (or "Poland is psychologically sick")

This is part II of my look at the air crash tragedy which happened close to Smolensk airport on Saturday, the 10th of April last year.  Part I can be found here.  This is a bit long, so get yourself a cup of tea and have a good sit down.

The Smolensk Tragedy of 10th April 2010, Part II

"Poland is psychologically sick"

That's quite a strong statement.

I don't mean that all Poles are psychologically sick.  I am not certainly not using the term as a form of abuse.  I am also not saying that Poland is alone in being a state which is psychologically sick.  If I lived in various other countries I may find myself writing a similar statement there.

When I say 'Poland', I am taking the whole of Poland to be a person.  Each person has different sides to them (such as, for example, the roles of child, parent, employee, friend, lover, client, shopper and/or church member) all at the same time.

I'll make it clearer:

Let me tell you a story

Let’s imagine there’s a young boy.  He's a nice, six year old boy.  His mother doesn’t feed him regulary, occasionally hits him; the father works long hours and is largely absent.  At school some girls notice him crying as he came to school with bruises on his face, so they start hitting him as well.  He becomes a sad and frightened little boy.

Finally the boy grows up, finishes school, does an apprenticeship, gets a job and moves out.  He meets a girl and she’s nice.  All is going well.  After a while though she starts with shouting at him, and this turns to punches.  She finishes with him, taking his CD collection.  His second girlfriend has an affair behind his back and says sexist comments about men, before finishing with him.

Such treatment will mess up a young man, no?  He may associate women with violence, abuse and a lack of care.  He may do things like conflating love with violence, sexual desire with an expectation of abandonment, and this can lead to mixed feelings regards women, with the result that he gets depressed, anxious around women or may suffer psychosomotic disorders due to repressed anger.

The mother may of course have had a bad childhood herself.  The father as well.  The girlfriends too.  Cycles can continue.  His parents were not taught by their parents to care, therefore he wasn't cared for, and therefore perhaps he won't care for his future children.  Trauma and the psychological sickness that arise from them can be passed on through the generations.

Societies behave like individuals 

In an excellent article by Richard Heinberg, the point is made that whole societies can suffer from a 'mass neurosis‘.  He quotes Lewis Apktekar’s piece ‚Environmental disasters in global perspective‘ (G.K. Hall, 1994) which explores what happens after disasters (long-term such as famines, short-term such as floods, and human-induced such as wars),  "The victims of such disasters who show the most psychopathology are those who lose close friends and relatives.  Post-traumatic stress disorder symptons can kick in; maybe not immediately after the event, but later, even years later, especially ‚on anniversaries of the disaster."  Heinberg also says that "adverse reactions in adults can be so severe that disaster victims pass fear and insecurity onto their children, even those yet to be born by replacing in their child-rearing a sense of a secure world with a fearful worldview."

Messages get passed on.  The young man of my story got passed on a message that he was not to be cared for.  In the case of disasters, such an individual suffering becomes something collective, something that is reinforced by the memory of other people in the shared memory; a collective suffering that will be unconsciously passed on.  Heinberg goes on to postulate that it is possible that whole civilisations are suffering from the effects of traumas of the past.  He wonders how far one can go back, perhaps to the first famine?  Or first war?

That individuals who suffer traumatic experiences may end up having post-traumatic stress or psychosomatic or less severe disorders of one sort or another is clear.  This can also happen with communities; the village that suffers from a flood which kills people may become a macro-version of the young man; collectively passing their trauma on to the next generation, a generation carrying the pain of their parents and grandparents.

Here is where I postulate something: Would it be too big a claim to say that Poland collectively suffers from trauma, a trauma which originates not just in the lives of the parents of children today, or their parents, but even before then?  Would it be too big a claim to say that Poland the nation is psychologically sick?


One cannot of course talk about the Smolensk disaster without talking about Katyń.  You should know about Katyń by now.  You know the history of how the massacres were covered up by the Soviets and were strictly a taboo theme until the end of communist totalitarianism in 1989.  The wives of those who were killed or put into exile as well as their children and grandchildren were not able to openly talk about this.  Such a repression of memory is not happy for the psychological wellbeing of those who were directly suffered, but also for the wider society.  Like how the traumatised young man of my story may become 'toxic' to people around him, so may a trauma suffered by tens of thousands of people cause a toxification of the environment around them through their grief and anger; or their suffering may be willingly taken by people not related to the massacres, but feel that they also own the tragedy because of their identification with Poland.

You probably know a man or woman who has had similar experiences to the boy of the beginning of this article.  Someone who takes a decision to strike out against her grief, whereby she becomes 'strong‘, and finally be able to let themselves know that she was a victim of abuse.  Instead of seeing herself as being a victim for a time, however, this victimhood may be held on to, so that it is still there.  I am a victim, they unconsciously say, so you must hear my biography of suffering.  This victimhood may even be projected onto an entire group that they belong to, such as all men, or all women.

Or, indeed, of all Poles.  Again, I quote those words: "adverse reactions in adults can be so severe that disaster victims pass fear and insecurity onto their children, even those yet to be born by replacing in their child-rearing a sense of a secure world with a fearful worldview."

This can result in various behaviours, including control: "Traumatised children try to have control of their environment and the people in them because they are afraid" (Lynne Lyon).  This  is true for both children and adults, and the control can take many forms: An overt concern about bacteria, attachments to routine and concerns about the 'new'.  Perhaps this concern about the 'threat' of the 'new' may lie behind the reaction to the tragedy close to Smolensk.

The cross and the "murderers"

(People in live in Poland will probably know this story already, so you can move to the next segment.)

The tragedy of the aircrash near Smolensk last year led to a cross being erected in memory of the late president in front of the presidential palace.  This cross was illegally placed, and any talk to remove it was met with shrill shouting by a group of largely elderly people.  Accusations that Donald Tusk, the PM of Poland, had actually through neglect 'killed‘ Kaczyński were loudly proclaimed.

This story didn’t end very peacefully.

(It should be pointed out that those who wanted the cross to be there were grassroots RCs, not people from the RC hierarchy.)

Think now, a young traumatised man would benefit from a therapeutic process whereby he could openly and inwardly talk about his pain, recognising the pain and at some stage letting the pain go and trying to move on.  This can take years, even a lifetime.  How much harder would it be then for a whole group of people to move on?  Especially when they are very aware that this suffering was repressed for so long.  The repression of emotions, of the personal memory of any person is harmful for the psychological well-being of that person.  Or for a nation, especially when the healing process was controlled by the communist authorities.  Perhaps this lies behind the desire to control Poland in the post-1989 world; staving off the standard threats: Liberalism, feminism, homosexuals, secularisation, the EU and/or Russia?

World War II

As I have argued here the nation of Poland has not been able to collectively go through this talking about pain due to the different nature of the suffering that people in Poland had.  Some Poles suffered more than others.  Some Poles caused the suffering of other Poles, or of people from other countries.  The communist concentration in Poland of 'one' interpretation of history meant that events such as the post-WWII civil war or massacres of Jews by Poles were not openly discussed.

Now, coming to the Shoah, a study on the children of Shoah victim shows that their children suffer the risk of suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and other stress disorders. 

It would not stretch things to apply this not only to the Jewish Poles who survived the Shoah in Poland, but also to non-Jewish Poles who survived Nazi (and Soviet) rules.  (Bear in mind that 3m Jewish Poles died, the same figure with non-Jewish Poles.)  Every family in Poland was affected by WWII, maybe not all by deaths, but certainly by traumatic events and circumstances.  That people in Poland were not able to deal with this at an individual level weakened the ability for them to deal with the trauma and therefore the competence to not pass on their trauma to the next generations was also massively weakened.

Would it be too big a claim to say that this trauma had a certain beginning, a beginning somewhere in the past, perhaps WWI, or even before that?

Division in Poland

The key concept that all research into trauma focuses upon is the attachment relationship.  Adults may find that a relationship with trusted people, a priest or a therapist may help them to process the trauma and learn to trust again.  When a trauma has a national aspect, I would infer, the relationship between people becomes key towards the way in which the trauma becomes dealt with.  A psychologically healthy nation would enable the individuals within that nation to learn to trust other people.  The problem is, a traumatised nation doesn't really make for a psychologically healthy nation.  It's catch-22.

I would suggest that this goes further back than WWII; indeed, further back than the 19th century.  The partitions of Poland which culminated in, as any Pole could say, "Poland not being on the map" after 1795, are events which still shapes Polish society.  Of course, it’s easy to say that emnity against Germany and Russia strengthened because of that time and this is one of the main (many) factors which influences relations with people from those countries to this day.

I’d take it further, though.  The partitions were themselves traumatic experiences.  They were not as bad as WWI or WWII, but still one that produced a shock to the self-identity (though of course the concept of the nation state had not yet come to the Lithuanian-Polish empire and therefore we are in danger of reading modern concepts of the national identity into a different time), as well as discord.  As the excellent (and Welsh!) historian Norman Davies shows in his history of Poland, 'Heart of Europe', the partitions placed people in the former Poland to decide to either (a) collaborate with the occupying authorities, (b) passiveness, or (c) outright rebellion.  This led to divisions between people in Poland, personified in the persons of Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski; each division despising or not trusting the others due to accusations of being traitors, doing nothing or making the situation worse.

This division continued throughout the time of the partitions and showed itself strongly in the Second Republic, whereby the different political parties squabbled continually.

A squabbling which went on hold during the Nazi occupation (though not with regard to relations with Jews as well as that of fighting between the various partisan groups) and was then repressed under the national communist ideology until 1989 (though Solidarność tried to be more open with history in their pamphlets.)

A squabbling that has been seen since the Smolensk disaster.  A squabbling that results, as I said in the aforementioned article from cognitive dissonance, which means  "an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.  Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying."

The young man of my story may have cognitive dissonance due to conflicting views about women.  He may try to love them (as outer projections of the love he tried to show his mother) while at the same time hate them.  He may want sex from them, but at the same time be afraid of sex with them.  This may lead to inner tension, one that can become resolved following an inner dialogue of the different 'characters' (for example, between that of the 'frightened little boy' and that of the 'angry little boy.')

This cognitive dissonance happens at an individual level, but also, I postulate, at a much bigger level.  A Poland where there are conflicting ideas about what happened in history, one which hasn't been equipped to deal with their different traumas, such as that the events during WWII, the civil war; working as or collaboration with communists, communist repression (such as in response to the strikes in Poznań in 1956) and that of the massive changes underwent by Polish society after 1989; will be one where there will be an "uncomfortable feeling" due to different "conflicting ideas" being held by Poles.  This leads to "blaming" (as any observer of the fall-out of the Smolensk tragedy can see) or "denying" (such as of more controversial aspects of Polish history.)

That may be the case for those shown in the photo above and their supporters/sympathaisers.  What about the rest of people in Poland?  What about depressive illnesses?  According to this study depressive illnesses are higher problems in people from 'eastern' European countries (including Poland) than western countries (to be precise: Germany 26.7%/22.8%, Denmark 24.9%/12.1%, Poland 45.5%/27.3%, Bulgaria 42.9%/33.8% for female and male students respectively.)  The conclusion of the study was that depressive illnesses persist in 'eastern' European countries fifteen years after 1989 and the differences between the rates of depressive illness rates in the west and 'east' "cannot be explained by differences in perceived sufficiency of income."

That's just the results of one piece of research, of course.  Perhaps the reader is aware of other comparative statistics regarding mental health in Poland.

Another factor behind the extreme reactions to the tragedy by Smolensk may be the issue of identity.  As I wrote earlier, the individual belongs to many different groups (such as their family, sex, free-time interest groups, etc.)  The individual which elevates one part of its identity to the exclusion of all others is one which lacks self-awareness, and may be prey to hatred of the 'other', the 'other' that is in fact unconsciously part of their identity, but not recognised.  Bożena Uminska points out here (from about 28:30) that the main minority in Poland is the LGBT community.  A nation that has been divided since the 19th century or even before will find it hard to accept the 'other' (not Roman Catholic, not heterosexual, etc.) even though they exist in Poland.

Of course, Poland is not alone in this.  Witness how the Hungarian minority is treated in Slovakia, or the Russian Orthodox minority in Rumania, Roma in the Czech Republic or, to some extent, Muslims in GB.

Additionally, and this is only anecdotal evidence, it is my impression that Poles want to be liked as Poles, and want to hear that their country is nice.  This is understandable, of course.  Now is the time when young Poles can finally have freedom to travel around the EU and be exposed to things that are new.  I would say that the desire for their 'Polishness' to be liked shows a lack of confidence in their own sense of 'Polishness'.  As a Welshman I can understand that!

It can also be the case that people unconsciously adopt the interpretation of history for themselves.  I once spoke with a Polish girl who said "Poor Poland!  We have suffered so much.  We are so unlucky.  Poor Poles.  Bad things always happen to us."  I doubt that anyone would deny that there was truth in what this girl said.  I did however get the impression that she was talking about herself.  A statement about the group that one belongs to, such as 'all women are discriminated against' may actually mean 'I am discriminated against'.  If others tell you that that is the case, you'll believe it and 'see' proof for that.

At any rate, this can result from division.  Division hinders communication; a communication that is vital for boosting psychological health.

Resolution through learning to communicate with oneself and others

The treatment of cognitive dissonance involves self-awarness and a reflection on the influences behind actions and held opinions.  Like the young man may benefit from an internal dialogue between conflicting wants and needs, so would an internal dialogue in Poland be beneficial for all.  This would involve Poland as the nation to examine their life. 

Now, Socrates extolled that "An unexamined life is not worth living."  It is difficult for Poland to undergo such an examination of its life due not only to the trauma that Poland has suffered, but also because of the lack of ability to deal with that trauma.  Furthermore, a dialogue which is needed for this process is hindered by divisions among Polish people which increased to a large degree during the time of occupation, especially during the 19th century.

It takes a psychologically healthy person time to learn to deal with trauma, abuse and inner conflict.  His mother didn't teach the young man of my story this, so he will have to learn for himself.  He will take time to work on his internal dialogue; something that can help him in the external world to release energies of understanding, and of forgiveness.

So it is with the Polish nation.  The reaction to the Smolensk tragedy shows that people in Poland have not been taught by their parents to deal with their pain, to talk with each other, to let go.  Their parents were also not taught such skills.  As a result, Poland is psychologically ill.

I spoke about this with some of my clients a few days ago.  They pointed out that the people who illegally set up a cross at the presidential palace in Warsaw and called the Prime Minster and others in the PO party "murderers' were not representative of Polish society.  They tended to be people over the age of sixty, and very conservative Roman Catholics.

My clients were right.  I know plenty Poles who don't want to know about history as they say that history produces divisions and is used for political gains.  Those who say this are young, optimistic, enjoying their life and freedoms.  They like Germans, Ukrainians and Russians and want peace with them.

It is also the case that history does tend to become 'one' view of history in Poland, such as that the Warsaw Uprising was a 'good thing'.  It is understandable if people want to avoid talking about history.

However, as with peace in a family where dark events have happened, peace can sometimes be a mask to strive for, a mask to suppress unconscious suffering and resentments.  I am not saying that these young people have psychological problems,, but that the psychological well being of the future of Poland will be dependent not just on hope but also on facing up to difficult memories.

Various organisations are trying this, Karta in Warsaw; while here in Lower Silesia we have the Edith Stein House, the UNESCO Initiatives Center, the Krzyżowa Foundation for Mutual Understanding in Europe, Uwe and Gabi von Seltmann, the House of Peace and Falanster; organisations and people who are trying not through strident assertions of a monocultural Polish identity and the putting up of flags up at any opportunity, but rather a trying through dialogue, a bringing together of different peoples and often talking about difficult themes.

Such a dialogue and a focus on difficult and/or unconscious issues brings psychological health to an individual.  Timothy Garton Ash said that Poland could be an example for Egypt.  I am not sure if that is true now, but perhaps it will be in the future.  Then Poland would be famous for more than its difficult history.

Well done for reading such a long article!  Feel free to write your comments underneath (with expressions of agreement, disagreement, accusation and so on.)


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