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Pussy Riot

I recently saw a photo of the women in the band Pussy Riot being arrested.  I was struck by the look on the face of one of the officers engaged in the arrest.  His expression seemed to say, ‘LET’S DO THIS!’


I had a few thoughts seeing this image.  I was curious about the struggle the police encounter when they are forced to make an arrest that doesn’t feel quite right.  My mind wandered back to my days in university, to an afternoon in a psych class.  The professor, visiting from Israel, examined the relationship between obedience and authority figures.  His question for the class was: ‘Do we do whatever we are told, no matter the instruction?  Or do we stand up for what we believe to be right?’  The professor wanted us to consider if there was validity to the argument the SS soldiers used when defending themselves during the Nuremberg trials, when they claimed they were ‘just following orders’.  He showed us the film of Stanley Milgram’s famous study, which investigated that exact question.  


For those not familiar, a little background…  


As often happens in psychology undergrad departments, professors run experiments, and pay students $5 or $10 to help out.  Students come in, get tested and leave.  This experiment was a little different in it’s set-up.  The students were told that they’d be the ones doing the testing.  Their task was to ask another ‘student’, unseen to them and behind a wall, a series of questions.  If the ‘student’ got an answer wrong, they, as ‘experimenters’, were to administer a mild amount of shock.  With each incorrect answer, the amount of shock was to be increased.


Unbeknownst to the ‘experimenters’, the ‘students’ answering the questions were part of the study.  It was arranged beforehand when they would give incorrect answers.   What was really being studied was how far the ‘experimenters’ would go in administering the shock. 


In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment's final massive 450-volt shock,[1] and all administered shocks of at least 300 volts. Subjects were uncomfortable doing so, and displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. These signs included sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures.[1] Every participant paused the experiment at least once to question it. Most continued after being assured by the experimenter. Some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating. (1)


One thing I clearly remember - and this was back in 1991 - was the look on the ‘experimenters’ faces when they heard the screams coming from the ‘students’.  Barely audible with the first few incorrect answers, the sounds grew to screams.  The ‘experimenters’ would often look at Milgram and say, ’I can’t do this anymore!’  Milgram always calm, would simply reply, ‘The experiment dictates that you must go on’. 


Before showing us the movie, the professor asked if we would administer the shock.  No-one raised their hands.   After the movie he again asked us, ’How many of you, now, seeing what you’ve just seen, think you would go all the way?’  One, maybe two acknowledged they would.  He looked at us and said, ’You haven’t learned a damn thing!’  As he turned to leave the stage, his face reflected something not unlike disgust.


It was a pretty powerful moment.  Here was a 60 year old Jewish man, from Israel, upset at what he saw as our inability to see the fallibility of our nature.  My mind couldn’t help but think he had been a survivor of the holocaust, or had family who had.  He was not reacting to the horrors of the Holocaust in a personal, defensive way but instead, logically.


Back to Pussy Riot.  Why was I so bothered by the look on the policeman’s face?  Because people will do what they’re told.  Often without awareness.  In this age of burgeoning autocratic and nationalistic fervour, I see strangers, acquaintances, and friends feeling safe to express themselves in ways they wouldn’t have dreamed of two years ago.  I see hate being modelled, and mimicked.  It scares, bewilders and angers me.  It’s a slippery slope.  That is what is most frightening of all.




1 Milgrim, Stanley (1963). “Behavioural Study of Obedience”.  Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67(4): 371.8; via Wikipedia.









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TDK

I remember making recordings of my LP’s back in the ’80’s.  The instructions from Maxell and TDK, the two big cassette manufacturers of the day, were to (a) place the needle onto the record and (b) depress the ‘play’ and ‘record’ buttons at the same time. 

The word ‘depress’ always seemed a little vague to me.  I’ve been thinking about the word lately and how it relates to our experience of depression.  ‘Depress’ is defined many ways, but each is more or less a variation of the idea ‘to press down’.  In external depression we press down on an outside objectFor example, we depress a lever to start a machine.  In internal depression we press down on ourselves.  

We ‘depress’ because we think there is something wrong with us, with what we are feeling.  We ‘push’ ourselves away to create a more palatable reality.  We hide parts of ourselves in the hope that we can be what the ‘other’ wants. 

Pushing comes at a cost, though.  In bearing down on ourselves we inhibit our natural response.  Two conflicting forces fight it out - our dynamic energy and the reactive force we use to tame that energy.  

If we stopped pushing down we’d be left with…well, we’d be left with just ourselves.  Nothing to change.  Nothing to tame.  Nothing to improve upon.  Just us and our experience….and that’s a scary thing.  

So what to do…

Opening up to the fear, even if just a little bit, is a good place to start.  Trusting that whatever comes from within is worthy of acknowledgement.  Sense the lightness, the ease, that results when you do trust. 

Owning that we have agency in how we feel is magical.  Revelatory.  Life altering, really.  And that’s a hopeful thing.

 

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Scabs

When I was 6 years old I had a cold sore on my chin.  Internally my body was trying to fight off the virus but the incredible itch was seducing me to scratch it.  And scratch I did.  Often.  The scab would bleed, and, well, turn into another scab.  I knew I was stopping the healing process but didn’t really care.

How we react to emotional pain and how I scratched my cold sore are similar.  No one likes how pain feels and we oftentimes try to avoid it.  But what if our uncomfortable feelings were trying to tell us that we were out of balance and that something inside of ourselves needed our attention?  Wouldn’t difficult emotions be then serving the same purpose as the scab?

Seems messed up, but don’t think it is.  In allowing our natural healing capacity to do it’s job we honour our process, we honour our health, and ultimately, we honour our being.  If we stop pushing difficult feelings away and instead welcome them, the feelings eventually pass into the ether, and the scab, in turn, falls away.  As nature intended.

 

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