Mind Matters — Warsaw, Cataracts, and Otherwise

Warsaw, Switzerland, the jaundiced eyes of cataracts, bullying, and healthcare! What kind of a weave will this make? We'll see. And speaking of sight, let me start there. Recently, I underwent cataract surgery on my left eye. Immediately post procedure, I could see light and color with a new “white” intensity. It was only then I noticed how “jaundiced” a filter had covered both eyes. My right eye also has a significant cataract but because I was seeing through a yellow veil on both eyes, I had no idea how jaundicedly sepia-toned my world was. Metaphor for life – sometimes we see through a hidden veil, or filter, imposed upon us by our family of origin, or by the culture that surrounds us. Sort of like the teenager I met once while working many years ago in a mental health clinic in a steel mill and coke plant town outside of Pittsburgh. This youngster had been born and bred in that little smelly, smoky place; but when I remarked to him one day how bad the pollution was, he looked at me surprised and asked, “What pollution?”

This thick air was all he knew – despite the fact he could hardly see the sun through all the smog. Sometimes we psychologically do the same: we are so caught in a toxic environment of relationships, family of origin, work system, national culture, that we don't recognize how we are being poisoned. It’s all we know; we have no clue as to how to think or perceive otherwise.

I agree with travel writers Rick Steves and Pico Iyer that visiting other places in the world can be an expansion of consciousness (as long as you don't insist on everything being like you had it back home) – sort of cataract surgery for consciousness. So with newfound clarity of vision, I went off to visit relatives in Warsaw Poland, and to attend a psychologically intense workshop in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.

It's been almost fifty-five years since the end of World War II; yet it is only very recently that memorials and museums have been built to commemorate the grief and trauma of those times. Expand the devastation of 9/11/2001 one-million fold and you have the devastation of places like Warsaw, Dachau, Dresden, Baghdad, Beirut, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Darfur, Rwanda, Soweto, the trail of tears of Native Americans. These are the man-made horrors which indicate that no one is exempt from the ability to inflict cruelty and terror unto others.

It takes years to rebuild what takes moments to destroy. Seeing Warsaw appear as though it is finally piecing itself back together into a new normal gave me hope. And on this visit, my Polish cousin was this time actually able to speak, albeit tearfully, of her experience as a young child in a farm labor camp during the war. Another realization in Warsaw was how after the war, Poles had to contend with Stalinist Russia, with thousands dying in Siberia.

My Switzerland experience was to be of great psychological intensity, but in fact was a lightening and freeing experience after the heaviness of Warsaw. Little neutral Switzerland is a beautiful place, cows with tinkling bells graze on lush green hills, the sun shines.

Julie Andrews could be just around the corner singing a happy tune (yes, yes, that was Austria – close enough). Switzerland, though, has its shadow in its neutrality. An Israeli attendee informed our workshop group how the Swiss were happy to take Nazi money and goods, and how they refused to give sanctuary to refugees during World War II. Yes, indeed, no one's hands are clean if, when we witness violence, we collude with it by doing nothing or by benefiting from it.

And so, on to the topic of health care. It was a joy for a while not to hear the bullies in the US (who are not in the bully pulpit) spout sputum. Women from all over the world attended the meeting in Switzerland, and they all came from developed nations where healthcare was a given. They were perplexed (as I am) why healthcare wouldn't be a universal given in such a country as the US. These women represented Sweden, Ireland, England, France, Malta, Israel, Holland, and Canada, to name but a few. I didn't have an answer for them except that our American culture is one of “rugged individualism” and that behemoth insurance corporations use fear to capitalize (capitalism is what it is about after all) on that sacred cow of our culture (remember the jaundiced eye? Here is one of ours).

Okay so now on to bullying. School is starting, young bullies are back. But how can we possibly prevent bullying at the level of the child when our culture condones bullying as a national pastime? What is the role model of adults and society here when we hear talk show hosts demean and demoralize guests and destroy truth with diatribe? What is the difference between the societal norm that laps this up and the ten-year-old bully on the bus who slings verbal assaults at the cowering kid in front of him?

A government resource guide (see www.stopbullying.gov) notes the common characteristics of children who bully:

In addition to children you know, are there adults you've seen who act in the same manner? In fact, family risk factors for the development of a child bully include the modeling of that behavior at home, and, I would add, the modeling by media personalities as well. Mr. Rogers is no longer our role model for decency and communication! Other risk factors include emotional neglect by parents and over-permissiveness, as well as its shadow opposite of harsh discipline.

Bullying is not the same thing as conflict. Note again the report given by government researchers. Bullying is “aggressive behavior and it involves an imbalance of power or strength”. When two or more people have a conflict or disagreement and there is a sense of equality – no power imbalance – that is not bullying. Bullying occurs when there is an imbalance of power and someone is being victimized. The bully needs to get the message that, “Bullying is wrong and no one deserves to be bullied. We are going to do everything we can to stop it.”

Hopefully bullying can be averted in our children. Given the cultural context in which it is corporately condoned, I wonder. We as a community need to begin to own and to take responsibility for having maintained a jaundiced eye that allows bullying to continue on a societal level. Remember, it is not the underserved or the underprivileged who are the bullies in our midst. Without a collective clarity of vision soon, we may all become blind.