by Laurence Shorter
Like most people I have been swept up in the anxiety and disbelief surrounding the Ukraine situation. I never thought it would happen, and my brain is racing to recalibrate. How – my subconscious is asking – should I respond?
Even on a good day it’s hard to get into the relaxed, focused state needed to do our best work. But when the entire collective mental field is caught up in the unfolding narrative of a global conflict that will affect us all, and when someone – call him (let’s face it) the enemy – hints at the use of nuclear weapons, it becomes almost impossible to find that zone.
Half my attention keeps wanting to hook back into the mass ticker-tape newsreel of the crisis. At the same time, the entire ancestral fear structure of my body seems to be triggered into a low-grade paralysis. If you met me, I’d seem ok – friendly, perhaps a little distracted or busy – but on the inside I am to all intents and purposes managing a fight-or-flight response. I’m not breathing deeply. My thoughts are swirling, unable to focus on prioritising or thinking strategically about my day.
I grew up in the Cold War, my teen years sobered by the knowledge that other humans had arranged for missiles to be pointed at my head and the heads of my brothers. I drew my own conclusions about human nature and survival from that. These conclusions – judging the universe as essentially meaningless or hostile rather than benign – left their mark on my core OS, impeding my creativity, ease and power and hooking me into belief systems about power and competition. For years I have been working to unwind these beliefs as I transition from hyper analytical business idiot to balanced creative person and net contributor to society.
Much of the rest of the world too, brought up in the longest period of relative peace since history began and quite unaccustomed to war, has been warming slowly – albeit with many a backward step – to a new account of human life as potentially, essentially good (if collectively incompetent).
But we know how bullies work. It’s a mind game. They sense a weakness and they go for it. They needle our deepest fear, the part that still believes in the worst. So too with the enemy. We keep a cherished alcove in our hearts, a place of tender vulnerability, intimate beyond even our closest relationships, and we invite them straight on in. Enemies exist to make us go weak at the knees, to outrage us and to jellify our insides so that we want to sink to the floor and plead. Ultimately enemies exist to test our faith and to call us to our strength. By which I do not mean the barricades and AK47s (although it might also mean that) but our knowledge of our own inviolability – our knowing that none of this can affect us if it doesn’t hook our hearts.
To support me in my de-escalation process, I remind myself that there have always been enemies of profound and terrifying power – malevolent agents who appear to threaten our very existence – and history shows me that there is always only one of them at a time. In the period of their most intense manifestation, they almost seem to displace each other in sequence. A few recent examples of this mysterious process of collective manifestation (from a British perspective): The Soviet Union was succeeded briefly by the IRA as public enemy of focus before Al Qaeda stepped on the scene, followed by ISIS, COVID and now Putin.
Notice how quickly the previous threat is forgotten or fades from the limelight each time. These forces don’t disappear when we stop obsessing about them or even when they get ‘beaten’ (as events in Ukraine perfectly illustrate in relation to the former Soviet Union). Instead, for one reason or another, the narrative focus moves elsewhere. The energetic wind goes out of their sails and a space opens up for a new arch enemy. So, is this about them, or us?
Once we start tracking history, we notice that it is an apparent condition of life that there will always be an enemy whose job is to challenge the core of our being. Whether it’s radical Islam, Putin or the ex-spouse, these players take on the mantle of ultimate bogeymen, and are always tagged with the most odious and destructive of values. Typically, they are then used to justify internal forms of tyranny in the name of salvation. Our national histories are littered with examples, from Genghis Khan and the Catholic Powers to Napoleon and Hitler. Every country and every era has its own Great Enemy, often directly mirroring the other (e.g. America / Iran).
Enemies can also be found on a national level. Trump took on the role of Great Enemy for many in the USA while the Brexit / Boris connection did for some in the UK. Note the ‘fear gap’ between ISIS and COVID – it had to be filled somehow (Iran didn’t quite do it).
If you accept my observation that there is some kind of weird collective pyscho-projection endlessly playing out, then the terror starts to lose its power. We can start to unhook from the drama (stop watching combat sequences on TikTok), invest less in the oppositional dynamic that is an eternal feature of life and start investing in the spaces of inspiration and hope that give us the lungs to breathe.
For me this is not about turning away, but about recognising the universality of this experience: everyone has an antagonist – and the enemy has its own imaginary villain (in Putin’s case ‘the West’), inflated, caricatured and manipulated by fear. No power is innocent in war. Neither, unfortunately, am I.
It’s clear to me now that I’ve detested Vladimir Putin for years. I’ve been using this man who I don’t know at all as a dumping ground for the shuttered stores of contempt I still harbour for human nature. Putin is the limp rag doll my ego uses to personify the ruthless and demented bullies of my childhood. I have made him my personal enemy. You can be sure he’s done the same for us.
I’m not saying we should start pretending our enemies don’t exist in the real world, and just switch off the news (though I wish I was a bit less compulsive in my use of BBC Radio 4). I’m saying we should take ourselves seriously as contributors to the situation, by noticing our own personal investment in the field of conflict instead of being swept up in panic, outrage and horror.
Far from being narcissistic or self-obsessed, this choice has real world consequences. The war in Ukraine is not a bolt from the blue. It is the climax of a breakdown that has been deepening for years, and we have all played our part. Only by paying attention to our inner dramas and locating the psychic hooks that activate our fear and hatred can we see how we’ve been part of the problem all along. We need to start treating ourselves like humans. We need to attend to feelings, doing the forgiving we need to do – that good old fashioned Christian stuff.
Maybe then the great flywheel of fear, defence and attack will lose its momentum and we can step off the endless cycle of historical samsara. War will end or never start again, and the New Age will be born. Maybe it could happen. Maybe it’s ridiculous and impossible. Either way, it’s too late now. Isn’t it?
Well, no. The war began a long time ago. And Putin – or whichever Great Enemy suits us best right now – needs all our psychic energy to fuel his determination. Like all bullies, he needs to draw from the well of worry, outrage and protest in order to whip himself and his machine into battle.
So, it’s time to get to work – stop investing in fear and start investing in the space that birth dreams. We must tend our own gardens: these wars are lost and won in our hearts.