Stories are great teachers. They help us give meaning to events, teach core values, and inform our understandings of social order and individual identity (Engel, 1993). We each carry stories, personal mythologies, that form our core values and beliefs, help us understand our place, and guide us on our path. The concept of empathy, of deep listening and heartfelt storytelling, is central to oral-based cultures, and even in cultures that privilege the written word, such practices are considered deeply sacred, like the Catholic Confessional, or an important part of daily life, like meeting a friend or family member for a chat/yarn. (Free use photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash)
In practice, empathic listening, and the safe sharing stories, is limited by the cosmologies of participants. When we share a story with someone, and that person is in a state of being in denial/judgment about what we are saying, we experience rejection/lack. When we receive this reflection, we tend to feel shamed. And especially as children, or because we feel fear of being exiled from our family/tribe/community, we carry this shame in our own hearts and minds, fuelling feelings of low self-worth. Rejection is a deep pain to process, a lack of feeling whole. And most of us have inherited much of this due to ancestral trauma. An Earth Ethos suggests that those of us who are involved in violent behaviours, in whatever role (victim, offender, or bystander), carry elements of shame in our very senses of identity (Thibodeau & Nixon, 2013; Sawatsky, 2009). This shame, often referred to as “sin” creates feelings of lack of worth and dissociates us from fully being present. We fear social exile, and rightly so, because without connection with other people, it is hard to live. (Image from here)
When I did research with sex offenders, I heard a lot about the depth of social shame they felt. I heard about some men who were disturbed by sexual thoughts of children and were too terrified to seek help until they acted on it, and others who did seek professional help and were reported for abuse they had not committed. I felt an intensely painful energy in the space of social stigmatisation where so many of these people and their family members and friends, these fellow humans, live.
I encourage you to connect with your own cosmology and question rejecting/violent statements/thoughts like “He should have known better”, or “It serves her right.” Such words indicate an internalised denial/judgment and fuel shameful, painful feelings inside you, the person you are speaking/thinking about, and our collective culture. Even when we believe/think something is wrong, we can still hold that aspect of our cosmology with compassion and respect. These words are pointers to places of yourself that could be further explored, unpacked, and transformed. Dangers and fears come in many forms, including physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Watching an interview with someone who has killed another person, for example, may trigger emotion you are carrying and show aspects of your cosmology that could be shifted from judgment or denial/lack into compassion and empathy, and gratitude that you did not need to learn such a lesson the hard way. (Free photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash)
Exercise: Reflect on how many compromises you make in the name of “social harmony”/fear of change, and when it is important to you to go against the grain. See if you can connect with an aspect of your own humanity that is unfamiliar, like your “inner prostitute,” “inner abusive parent,” or “inner murderer”, and be with the discomfort that comes up in order to hold people in that space, and yourself, in more compassion and gentleness.