Why was I determined to introduce an octogenarian psychoanalyst to a group of high school students, invite them to learn his theory and methodology, and write a book exploring his work? Why do I believe that Vamik Volkan’s ideas are so important that I feel desperate to pass them on to the next generation?
I’ve been a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst for the past 40 years. During that time I witnessed the emergence of the digital revolution. As amazing as it is to be able to communicate with people on the other side of the world, our ability to understand each other from a psychological perspective has not kept up with our ability to connect with them technologically.
These days I cringe as I watch people like and dislike, friend and unfriend, argue, blame, criticize, ridicule, judge, fight, and maybe vote, while finding it so hard to imagine the world through the eyes of the other. I cringe when I hear instant pre-judgments of others, especially when we can’t seem to distinguish an honest mistake in understanding from a malignant prejudice.
When we do try to understand, we don’t know how to relate the individual to their large group. We tend to equate one with the other, or not, in ways that are often wrong and hurtful. Black Lives Matter! No, All Lives Matter! I’m not black, and my life matters! Arguments expressed in these ways usually go nowhere.
We fight our own nature, and we expect others to be able to change their nature to fit our idea of what it should be. You’re wrong to feel that way! That’s a ridiculous idea! You shouldn’t think like that! When we respond in that way, we’re basically saying, Don’t be who you are. Let go of your perspective and your identity and embrace mine, because mine is better.
Sometimes we try to ignore differences and state that we’re all alike. That’s fine, until the needs of one group impact the needs of the other. Then it’s not so fine. If your sacred space is located over my fuel source, what happens?
Wars seem like they always existed, and always will exist. Why bother trying to stop ourselves from fighting them if they’re going to happen anyway? Oh well, it’s nice that we’re on the side of the good guys. Let’s figure out the best way to get rid of the bad guys.
If you study Dr. Volkan’s work and reach beyond it, you’ll consider the possibility that we ARE capable of talking across divides. You’ll consider the possibility to war may not be inevitable, and that your generation has the power to bring about that change.
As the myth goes, Isaac Newton saw an apple fall to the ground and thought, Eureka! There’s a force that pulls objects to the ground! Let’s call it “gravity” and study it, and maybe one day we can fly to the moon.
Vamik Volkan noticed bombs dropping on his people, and thought, Eureka! There’s a force of human nature that is pushing us toward large group conflict yet again! Let’s try to understand and harness that force, and maybe one day we can slow down or abort humankind’s leap to war.
Here are some of Dr. Volkan’s ideas that I believe are important for young people to understand, challenge, and develop for their generation:
Dr. Volkan presents the fascinating paradox that human beings go to war BECAUSE we’re smart, not because we’re stupid or because we’re animals. As our brains developed, we began to fight for more than food, shelter and sex. We banded together in large group “tents,” these groups developed complex histories of their own, and we began to fight for abstract ideas like honor, prestige, glory, power, and the preservation of identity.
Our large group identity allows us to share in our people’s history, culture, symbols, chosen traumas and chosen glories, and intergenerational transmission of trauma. In times of peace we relate as unique and separate individuals, but when our group “tents” are shaken our large group identities emerge. At those moments we speak as with one voice, asking, Who are we now? Who are we now? Some individuals rise up and come to represent aspects of their large group identity, as worthy leaders or, perhaps, as violent aggressors.
If people hate each other for decades and their group identities are threatened, we can’t expect them to use intellect and conflict-resolution techniques to lay down their arms and solve the problem. They have to preserve their identities, including centuries of trauma and rage, achievement and glory, symbols and culture. They have to reach across that huge divide from their very different centers, and talk until “taming” happens and new solutions emerge. This is hard, and it takes time.
Tolerance for hatred and aggression, expressed in words, is essential. Dr. Volkan tells us something very simple and very profound. “If you talk, you don’t kill. You don’t have to like each other and be lovey-dovey; you just have to talk.” If we talk TO someone, we humanize that person. If we label them as “other” and respond with fear, ridicule and ostracism, we dehumanize them. It’s much harder to kill someone who is invested in talking to you than someone who is fighting against you from the other side of a vast divide.
These days we rarely talk TO people we don’t understand or with whom we disagree. We talk at, about and against them, and we interpret their motivations using language that’s simplistic and divisive. If new generations can work to understand the nature and origin of the forces that lead to pre-judgment and war, and find ways to harness them rather than ineffectively fight against them, you will ask new questions, look in new directions, and develop the tools to address seemingly-impossible conflicts and accomplish seemingly-impossible tasks.