World news always affects me. I have, over the years, developed a global conscience that allows me to empathize with people I have never met. Or, humanity. Along with this, I have tried to develop the breadth of understanding that values and respect the ways people live, even if it doesn’t align with my own particular values.
I first noticed this on September 11th 2001 as I sat in the caretaker’s flat at my former office and we both stared silently at what seemed, at first, to be a terrible accident. When the truth of the matter emerged, I rushed home and switched off the TV, trying to protect my son from the world as it had become, and called my daughter who was living in Abu Dhabi at that time. My eldest daughter called me and we assured each other that our family was fine. I then turned my thoughts to the people involved with the 9/11 incident.
As the hours passed and the ripples of what happened that day spread, my world became divided between people who were deeply shocked by the terrorism, and those who declared loudly ‘Why should I care, it’s thousands of miles away and I didn’t know anyone?’ I gently eased the latter from my life, abhorring their refusal to understand the complex tragedy that had unfolded.
I’ve never forgotten that time, and how I sat for weeks wondering how people could not realize how much the world had changed, how they could block out the pain and suffering, people jumping from tower block windows, the emergency services who witnessed it, and the families. My reasoning hovered between these people blocking the trauma and being too ignorant to understand.
Then began to learn about cognitive development. I blogged before about this, and how our thinking moves from concrete to abstract in our mid teens, with some people not achieving this. My theory is that those who do not move from concrete thinking to abstract thinking (for whatever reason, social or educational – or both) fail to develop empathy and therefore will always defer to ‘how does this affect me’ rather than ‘those poor people and their families’.
When I heard about the bombing to Oslo and the young people who were murdered in Utoya I was devastated. It would have been the same if one person would have died, each life is an individual loss, but the horror of someone bombing a city centre then shooting at teenagers is horrific and difficult to comprehend. Yet, some of the social networking sites began to ‘blame’ different sections of the community and then, when the identity of the killer emerged, defend particular sections of the community. Unbelievably, somehow, it was all about their opinions. The news channels were difficult to watch as subjective opinion was rambled over footage of people swimming away from a killer.
Later that day, it was announced that Amt Winehouse had died. A troubled woman whose life was punctuated by addiction and talent, she had been found dead at home. My thoughts went immediately to her parents who had publicly fought to help their daughter. Then to footage from only weeks ago where she had been on stage in Belgrade, obviously under the influence of a substance, and was booed off, the audience asking for refunds.
However, social networking went wild. Many people posted messages of grief and sorrow that Amy had gone, and made a connection to ‘the 27 club’ to try to find meaning. Others accused those who were sad about Amy of ignoring the Norwegian tragedy. Other still actually posted messages along the lines of ‘what do you expect, she was an addict, a bad example.’
Temped as I am to wade into the cultural mis-meanderings of those defending the affiliations of the Utoya gunman, on this occasion I’ll stick to what I know best. Addiction is not a choice. No one wakes up in the morning and chooses to be addicted to drugs/nicotine/alcohol/chocolate. It’s much more complicated than choice. At its worst it’s ugly, unbearably sad and heartbreaking, but it isn’t morally evil. Because no one chooses to become addicted.
Sometimes an addiction is organic, prompted by the physical lack of something in your body. Something like serotonin, which often leads to addiction to anti-depressants, codeine and self medicated street drugs. Sometimes it’s social. The substances, such as alcohol and mind altering drugs are taken because a person’s life situation is so unbearable for them that they resort to an, at first, temporary relief, which grows into an addiction. Or, through peer pressure, someone might be socially introduced to a substance and become addicted.
It’s much, much more, complex than this on many levels, to complex to write about here. Not as simple as ‘they chose it when they had their first cigarette/glass of wine/line of cocaine/cup of coffee. The social indicators for even these fours substances vary, with cocaine coming out much worse than caffeine, and the damage nicotine and alcohol can do hugely understated; yet in terms of addiction, the process is the same, with similar receptors at work. Once the ‘need’ is fulfilled, the constituents of the substance harm your body according to their reaction to it.
At which point in this process someone becomes addicted, only they will know. Being unable to function/relax/perform without a substance is an indication you are addicted, as is interference with work and erratic behaviour.
Poor Amy Winehouse was, by her own admission, an addict. I too have been an addict in my time, addicted to nicotine, having a near miss with alcohol many years ago, and now to sugar and work. So, by the reasoning of people who have trivialized Amy’s death as ‘just another loser’, I must also be a bad example and deserve to die. When I had my first cigarette, my first vodka, and my first chocolate bar, even thought I had watched my parents then my friends smoke, drink and eat sugar, I had no idea how difficult it would be to give them up, or the damage they would do to my health.
The point is, addiction will happen in the world. Barring keeping people incarcerated, you can’t stop it. And it’s not just substances – social networking has, ironically, also become and addiction, with many people living their lives vicariously through people they have never met, and unable to stop posting. It’s impossible because it’s caught up with both our organic make up and our pleasure receptors. Many of us keep it in check, some of us don’t. And when we don’t we need self determination and help to start a long process of well being. Help from other people. Not criticism and blame, but help.
It seems that there are many, many people still stuck in the concrete thinking of their own subjective opinions to realize that, if only they would develop a little empathy and understanding, instead of declaring addicted people ‘bad examples’ or ‘losers’ or, almost unbelievably, declaring that ‘their death was inevitable’, or impossibly trying to prevent people from becoming addicted by imagining that they have the power to change the world single handedly, they could help. Help them to become well. Help them not to die from their addiction. They didn’t choose the complex life situation that led to their addiction, and they didn’t choose to die from it.
In the meantime, I’m having another exercise in gently removing myself from those who hold themselves above us as paragons of perfectness, those looking constantly inwards to see how every situation affects their life position statement and refusing to understand, to a distance where I can have hope to help their thoughts turn to others. I’m surrounding myself with abstract thinkers who react to situations such as these with empathy, understanding and reasoning, and not immediately jump to blame or cast themselves in a good light. Empathy means that you understand someone or thing – you don’t have to like it – just to respect that someone has a different view to your own and that it is equally valid.
There are many families suffering all over the world today, mourning the loss of their relations. I can only imagine their loss, and mourn in some small way for their loved ones. For the foreseeable future, my thoughts are with them.