The people of Aceh and the Indian Ocean have gone through a terrible disaster, and the world has gone through a quake and tsunami of the collective soul. This disaster was vast yet localised - unless the recently-observed geophysical effect of the quake on the Earth's inclination and rotation has a noticeable global effect. But in the collective psyche it has been global - a Richter Nine soulquake in which structures turn to rubble. 9/11 was perhaps a Seven, and that was shocking enough.
What is historic and definitive about traumas like this is that, when they happen, the deeper collective psyche convulses, breaks out and vents itself. It roars through the public domain and abruptly redefines the agenda. When all that we hold good and true grates and rips, the constituent bits of our worlds are wrenched around and everything is reshuffled. Everything suddenly looks different. People start doing abnormal things, like caring for others' welfare and feeling solidarity with utter strangers.
It's a global near-death experience. The sacrifice of so many souls to the clutches of death sharpens collective awareness, overriding the secure, regularised reality that normally keeps us ticking. It renders people grateful to be alive, overwriting our assumed sense of possessing an inherent right to life.
There's another characteristic common to near-death experiences. The threat of death renders things starkly clear, rearranging priorities and perspectives. Some things become blitzingly important, as if they should always have been like that. Other things lose relevance, upstaged by the immensity of what has just struck. The future starts from that point.
The disaster has brought many things clearer into focus. It struck several centres of ongoing, dirty conflict. Aceh, before the earthquake, was already in a dismal state, suffering deprivation and repression with outbursts of independence war. This conflict has been long, brutal and kept well away from the eyes of the world. It's another oil war and self-determination war, and Indonesian and international business, oil and military interests, and we consumers too, all have a stake. This was a powderkeg waiting to go boom.
Then there was southern Thailand - a simmering self-determination conflict of southern Thai Muslims against mainstream Thai Buddhists. There was Sri Lanka - a longstanding conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese costing 64,000 lives over 20 years. There was Somalia, stricken with warlordism. These cannot be passed off as simple ethnic quarrels - behind them lurk the manoeuvrings of individuals, arms, terror and corporate interests, politics, propaganda, corruption and ideology. The tsunami's effect is to flood them out and change the political landscape. Are the earthquake gods saying something about conflict?
Then there is the big question of rich and poor, and the levelling effect of the disaster. We've seen prosperous Western tourists dying alongside simple village folk. We've seen patterns of charitable donation reflecting the values more than the wealth of donors. This tsunami has pounded at all boundaries, making us vulnerable, aware of how much we need each other.
Two notable observations came out amongst all the news-feed: that animals in affected areas and the 'primitive' peoples of the Andaman Islands sustained relatively little damage. They moved out of danger a day or two before the disaster struck. What do they know that we don't? Does this point to plain old unscientific intuition, so unpopular in our day?
Then there is 'being in the right place at the right time'. When mere minutes make a big difference, who is standing where at the moment of impact becomes a life-or-death matter. This 'karmic' element, and the intricacy of the 'chance occurrences' and crucial momentary decisions recounted in the accounts of survivors, alludes to a strangely awesome, intricate power. This is apocalyptic, especially since 'apocalypse' involves revelation, things presenting themselves as they are, irrespective of how we might believe or want them to be.
In my last book(1) I wrote about the schizoid development of the collective psyche in our time. Double standards, such as making big promises and then failing to deliver aid, arise from humanity's current predicament: we want change as long as nothing really changes. Deep down, we are more genuinely civilised and humane than we are in everyday life and official culture. This leads to crises followed by acute bursts of conscience and insight, mediated by events. Suddenly we become more generous, compassionate, forgiving and understanding.
This is the real humanity coming through, stripped of protective armour. If there is divine intent here, surely this is one of its key purposes. Disasters are horrific and also bring out the best in people. Soulquakes shake us, revealing a bigger order of things. Even in gory scenes, the angels are close. Death has a way of doing this. It punctuates the sentences and paragraphs that make up history, unveiling new futures.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, with 60,000 dead, is thought to have sparked the European Enlightenment, and the Black Death of the 1340s is regarded as the beginning of an historic shift toward the modern world. The Tangshan earthquake of 1976, killing 255,000, brought the end of the Maoist era in China. These crises shook up existing ways and beliefs. Does today's disaster mark an historic watershed - and toward what?
All the talk is about aid being sent to the disaster zone, but is this aid one-way? Disaster-victims have unwittingly given us a massive level-shift and wake-up call, a gift beyond measure. This aid arrived in our own disaster-zones faster than our aid reached theirs. For we live in emotional deserts where suffering is long and slow, sophisticatedly contained and denied. Perhaps the developing world, socially and culturally, is developing us.
The open question is whether the sacrifice of all those lives will be worth it in the end. Will it connect the conflicting sides of our mass psyche? To continue the geological analogy: earthquakes represent a relaxation of geophysical tensions, and soulquakes could represent a release of tectonic tensions in the world psyche. This disaster has pointed firmly at human conflict. The collective unconscious has stated something quite clear.
We'll see multiple secondary effects. The tsunami has washed much further than its physical reach. In my own area of focus, the Holy Land, people in the streets of Ramallah and Tel Aviv have also been emotionally hit, and it re-casts their situation in a different light. There will be a shift of international attention away from crisis-points like this. This might permit atrocities while the world isn't looking, or it might catalyse homegrown breakthroughs and resolution. Or simply accelerate movement and precipitate issues.
Today there are markedly fewer conflicts than in the 20th Century - the bad scenes in Iraq give a false impression. What reduces conflict is a pragmatic public desire to get on with other things. The world is awash with weaponry, yet the historic tide is ebbing slowly away from war. There are notable exceptions and xenophobia is alive and well, yet human empathy is also broadening and deepening. We have our differences, but we're increasingly aware we are stuck in this flimsy boat together.
Deep questions get worked over at times like these, jiggled and swirled by billions of people's feelings, all flapping at once. Some pending issues go critical. What gives such events this power is their unexpectedness and our helplessness before them. Sometimes this is inspiring, as when the Berlin Wall came down, and sometimes tragic, as we see today. What hits us deepest is events' symbolic poignancy - their sharpness of definition, pathos and dream or trauma qualities. The power of soulquakes lies in what they reveal: our smothered visions and hopes, and our stowed-away ghouls of fear, guilt and shame.
Scenarios such as 9/11, Rwanda, Bosnia, Tienanmen Square or Chernobyl awaken deep forces of world concern. Some horrors go unnoticed - such as those in Aceh before the earthquake, or the wars in Congo, killing 2-3 million people. More people died in Iraq during Clinton's watch than Bush's, but Bush caught the world's eye. This capturing of the hearts and minds of humanity is what decides the magnitude of soulquakes.
The disaster shines new light on so many things. The rich and the poor. The plight of ordinary people at the hands of government, armies and business. The skewed priorities of nations and ruling elites. The relative significance of other problems worldwide. The risk of a future disaster so big that everything, everywhere changes. The dashing of plans, intentions and illusions. The power of religion and belief. Mass charitability. Cooperation. The exposure of big secrets or shameful situations. Issues erupting with no direct relation to the disaster.
Around 1980, research emerged(2) suggesting a connection between earthquake activity and social wellbeing and conflict, through a reciprocal buildup of social and geological charge. It was squelched, deemed unscientific. Perhaps it's a point worth examining again. In the social realm collective feeling can quickly rewrite the rules and change far more than was first visualised. Here's a quote from a young man(3) in the crowd in Kiev in December 2004:
"The most amazing thing - which I believe will have worldwide sociological implications for a long time to come - is how incredible this crowd is. When you think of a crowd unhappy about something, being cheated by politicians, betrayed by the system, you expect a bunch of angry, agitated people. Well, think again. This is the happiest, friendliest, most incredibly loving and supportive group of people I have ever encountered.
People are smiling, singing, laughing and offering help and support to each other. You don't see any police anywhere, not a single policeman in sight - imagine that. According to the mayor's office in the city of Kyiv, there are no reports of any crime in this huge metropolitan area. Crime has stopped! Everyone is a friend, everyone is a neighbour, everyone is a brother. I do not know how long this can last, but we are in the middle of some kind of miracle.
It is cold out there... There are mountains of warm clothes everywhere on the main street of the city, donated by Kyivites. Food, hot coffee, hot tea are abundant and free everywhere. But you do not see any alcohol - this is the most sober one million Ukrainians you will ever meet. The crowd is completely self-organising and improving its collective behaviour continuously. Every new day brings new elements of better organisation, improved conditions, improved communications and general functionality..."
This alludes to the power of social 'synergy'. It happened in UK when just one person, Princess Diana, died. Small event, big soulquake. Hospital admissions, crime rates, car accidents and pollution plummeted, and even trains ran on time. For a week, the nation shared something profound. Everything functioned well and many chronic social problems were temporarily, magically relieved. As in Kiev.
Now think of the opposite, and the symptoms arising from breakdown, distrust, panic and divisiveness - a default pattern often confused with freedom. Normally, societies subsist on a diet of organised psychic disarray and mutually-restrained offence, politely institutionalised as 'competitiveness' and 'a good thing'. Disasters have a way of exposing such dissonance. This then poses a big collective choice: do we really wish to continue like this?
So was this earthquake a randomly-firing geological event, or was there a connection with human activity? Indonesia has not recently been renowned for social wellbeing and harmony. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about divine retribution: I'm talking about the hidden relationship between human activity and 'chance' occurrences, about the interaction of social and geological stresses and the pregnant symbolism and emotional impact of events.
A crisis renders things transparent, irrevocably shifting emotional continents and forging new connections in the public mind. It will take years for the many implications of the Sumatran earthquake to emerge. There might be more large-scale disasters in years to come - we've only just got over the Caribbean tornadoes. These are times of compounding complexity, as a whole way of life and civilisation comes up against its limits to growth.
Welcome to the future. The 21st Century agenda makes itself conspicuous in two big ways. The agenda items are demonstrated in the spontaneous responses people make to the big events of our time, revealing an up-welling instinct for justice, humane and ecological solutions, peace, sanity and proportion. They are also shown by looking at the mirror image of what extreme conservatives worldwide fight to maintain - self-interest, authority, exploitation of resources and people, disparity of wealth and power, fear, distrust and polarisation. People know roughly what the new agenda is because it derives from life-experience: everyone deserves a decent life and a safe and fair world to live in.
This new agenda struggles to bust the straitjacket of 20th Century ways. It poses enormous questions concerning power, truth, security, fair deals and the purpose of life. It rises up in heart-rending events and our collective response to them. Mass death is one way messages from the heart of humanity are rammed home, shaking us to the core.
May those souls who have passed away find peace in their departing, and may those who are left behind find new life out of the devastation. This we can pray for. The value in these deaths lies in what we learn from this, what we do next.
This quake may have been accidental but, having occurred, its timing is impeccable, and it pinpoints many key issues directly. The big debate on aid, trade and debt-relief just scratches the surface. We stand now at a crucial historic watershed. The key priority for the developed world is not to provide aid, relief and reconstruction assistance, though these help. The priority is to cease being a problem for the rest of the world, and to allow the global playing field to be more level. Not by giving, though this too helps, but by reducing its extraction of wealth and resources and domination of the world agenda.
We are also witnessing a subtle shift toward increased local and regional self-sufficiency: after all, following the tsunami, local rescue got there first - neighbours, relatives and monks, not governments and NGOs. We stand now at the beginning of an historic trend moving away from large-scale aid and relief toward self- and mutual help - principally because, sometime in the future, there might well be too much to cope with, and hardly anyone left to help.
Developing nations have an advantage. Generally their people have functional family and community survival mechanisms. Meanwhile, richer, safer countries need to recognise the social and cultural crisis we're in, learning more from the 'less developed' and 'primitive' cultures we tend to look down on. The era of superpower hegemony is now over, the international community is all that remains, and democracy means will of the majority.
This soulquake has reminded us we're guests on Earth. A balance has tipped. What we've all fallen into is big, wide and deep. It's just a beginning. We know this.
1. Healing the Hurts of Nations - the human side of globalisation, Palden Jenkins, Gothic Image 2003, ISBN 0-906362-62-8. A free, online short version is at www.palden.co.uk/hhn.
2. Jeffrey Goodman, We are the Earthquake Generation, Berkley Publishing Group, USA, 1980.
3. Thank you and good luck to Michael Bleyzer, Kyiv, Ukraine, address unknown, source Internet.
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2003.
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