A purpose in life acts as an antidote to adversity

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, Security and defence

Professor Bill Durodié is Professor and Chair of International Relations in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies.

‘Despair is suffering without meaning’ proffered the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in an interview once. In his most famous work ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, he paraphrased Nietzsche to the effect that: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’. So, in gauging how the people of Manchester and across the UK pursue their lives in the trail of the nihilistic act of destruction following a concert there last Monday, as well as in the aftermath of other recent attacks, it ought to be to the question of meaning and purpose that we all turn.

I once interviewed two Singaporean citizens subsequent to their returning home from Mumbai after the incidents there in November 2008. Ten supposed affiliates of a Pakistani Islamist group had pursued a coordinated series of bombings and murderous attacks across the City over a period of four days, killing 164 people and wounding 308.  The company the Singaporeans worked for asked me to do this to offer support – if any were needed – beyond that to be provided by their government.

I thought long and hard about how best to go about the task and determined to keep my questions simple and objective: When did you fly out? What were you there for? What did you do that day? When did you first notice something was wrong? What did you do then? What happened next? How did you get out? At the end I left an opening for them to contact me again should they want to.

Many imagine that asking: ‘Were you affected by anything you experienced?’ might have been somewhat more sensitive. But in whatever way they would have answered, the power of suggestion could then readily have elicited manifestations of psychosomatic trauma in them at a later date. Our minds work in mysterious ways. Singapore suffered its first ever fatality at the hands of terrorists during those attacks and so the media were keeping the matter salient in the popular imagination. It was to their credit that they did so in a considerably less protracted, shrill or emotional way than I have witnessed elsewhere after similar incidents.

Both of my respondents had spent many hours cooped up in their rooms at one of the hotels attacked, the Oberoi, before being freed. One had focused variously on his faith and on his family during his time there. The other had made some rather dangerous, if somewhat understandable, decisions – first trying to escape down a smoke-filled stairwell and then almost being unable to find his way back to his room before trying to smash the window open with an armchair and ultimately lacerating his leg on the fractured glass while trying to kick it out. Oddly maybe, it was the need to stop the bleeding from this wound that then allowed him to remain calm and collected over the ensuing hours.

Frankl proposed that it is down to each individual to attribute an appropriate meaning to situations of adversity and that nobody else can do it for them, however well intentioned. We may offer too much support and sympathy at such times. Calls from loved ones, concerned employers, government agents wanting to support their citizens and all manner of other professionals engaged by all of these, let alone the media, can cause additional stress and confusion during an emergency, as well as, in many instances, perpetuating suffering long after it.

‘Whatever you do, don’t give your name to any journalist’ my friend Simon Wessely would aver following the London bombings in 2005. ‘They’ll never let it drop and will call you on every anniversary thereafter’. I guess he knew what he was talking about seeing as he is now President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. People can and do forget. For many that really is the best option. Short-term anxieties rarely last.

Of course, participating in communal events like a mass vigil may seem positive to others, though I suspect that these will mostly not have been those most directly caught up in the incidents. Surveys showed inordinate numbers of people across the US claiming to have been affected by 9/11, even when their only exposure had been through the medium of television. Well-meaning as such gatherings and online statements of condolences may be, these can also be superficial and self-serving. Some turn it into an identity. We live in the age of virtue signalling, after all. And if the best response to such incidents is to go about our lives as normal, as politicians assert at such times, then this is hardly normal.

Another friend of mine, sociologist Frank Furedi, pointed out to me once that if the Israeli state held a few days of national mourning after every terror incident there, as the Spanish government did after the train bombs in Madrid of 2002, then at times it could be almost permanently closed down. Like it or not the Jewish people have had to habituate to the circumstances they are in, supported maybe by a narrative of being God’s chosen people (irrespective of truth) and of having endured suffering throughout their history. Of course, Palestinians also suffer there and their way of explaining this to themselves has also been through a narrative of resistance and future liberation.

At the beginning of 2001, before the attacks on New York and Washington, there had been a series of throw-back incidents in Northern Ireland from a time before the peace process there. For weeks, hundreds of Loyalist protestors tried to stop young Catholic schoolgirls from traversing their Protestant enclave to reach the Holy Cross Primary School in Belfast. They hurled abuse, as well as urine-filled balloons and improvised grenades, at them. Police and soldiers had had to escort the parents and terrified children through.

The school, as was already a growing norm then, offered the families counselling. There was no indication of what type of therapy this was to be or whether there would ever be any follow-up to verify if it had worked, so I later commissioned research to assess its effects. What my collaborator discovered was that the girls most affected and offered up for support had been those with younger parents. These had been less able to situate the incidents within the political framework of the long-standing ‘Troubles’. To them, the violence appeared simply mindless and random. But this also left their daughters unarmed conceptually.

Encouragingly, there appear to be plenty in Manchester and beyond who are not so afraid of articulating why what happened there did, and who are keen to show their defiance. Their framing may be rudimentary. It is certainly far less equivocal than that of the authorities who appear, as the British journalist Brendan O’Neill has noted, simply to offer vapid appeals for unity and harmony. But to not be angry at these events, argues O’Neill, is to be dead already.

Amazingly, at the height of the Mumbai attacks, one of the perpetrators used the mobile phone of someone he had just killed to conduct a live interview with newscasters at India TV. When the anchors asked him in succession for his demands, he was heard putting the phone down and asking another of the attackers what these were. Almost nine years on, no-one has yet articulated these. Not even those held to have planned and controlled those events from afar. That the so-called terrorists today have no explicit agenda or purpose is surely the element we should be exploiting the most. That is, so long as we are clear about our own.

This article originally appeared in The Weekend Australian.

You can also listen to him discuss this issue in an interview with BBC World Service's Newshour Extra here.

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, Security and defence


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