The past five years, I engaged with the question of what survivors need and receive in the wake of atrocity. I have learned that the impact of trauma that violence creates changes over time and manifests differently in different people. Locality, mindset, family support, success, drive, outlook and prosperity all impact whether people fight for what they believe is due.
What someone is owed by a formerly complicity government or entity (corporate or otherwise) becomes a legal question. Courts try to quantify harm. Is the loss of your mother worth $25,000 or $80,000? What about the loss of your legs? Or the more ambiguous, a childhood spent running for persecution.
What someone is owed often fits into the category of money. It could also include apologies. We say in English that someone is "owed an apology." In French you might say, instead, that the person "merits" an apology. This idea of merit hinges to an idea that has been simmering within me. Merit rings a bit of deservedness.
At the very least, a survivor of trauma deserves dignity, legitimacy, space to tell their story, care and acknowledgement. They deserve patience and what one woman told me that her mother, a Holocaust survivor, sorely needed--unconditional love.
Donna Hicks writes about the restoration of dignity and the importance of this process in healing and in the prevention of continued conflict.
The subtle difference between deserving something versus being owed it, I believe significantly shits how we handle trauma and upset inter-personally and as a culture.
The idea of being owed pits us against one another..."you owe me!" This language pushes us towards lawsuits and/or legal settlements. They may be lucrative financially but spiritually bankrupting us in the process. They may not teach the payer anything other than that violence is expensive.
The idea of deserving, on the other hand, helps restore the humanity of all parties engaged in the dialogue. You and I deserve to be treated with respect and to be restored the humanity that was taken during the said crime.
This week a former boyfriend returned. A man I had not heard from in two years. I felt that he "owed" me an apology but this feeling of being "owed" left me feeling unsettled. It caused me to stew over where I felt abused, disregarded and patronized. When I shifted to the notion of deservedness, I felt a deeper sense of strength and less aggression towards him. I deserved respect whether or not he would be able to offer it. If I focused instead on what I was owed, power would have remained in his hands.
So I wrote him to let him know that I released him from any emotional debts I believed he owed me. I declared the game of "what I was owed" over and instead began focusing on what I believed I -- and all people for that matter-- deserve.
Thinking back to my work with eighty Holocaust victims, the idea seems to hold. Feeling that one is "owed" leaves one fighting. Whereas feeling that one deserves positions one as a powerful advocate for human dignity more broadly and contributes to ending cycles of blame and violence.
This past semester, my colleagues and I taught a conflict 101 class to undergraduates. We took them from the Cold War to Yemen, talking about the different approaches to conflict each modern situation prompted.
Today, it dawned on me that each conflict might have a corresponding board game. If you want to avoid getting murdered, folks spent time figuring out which game they were in.
it's a bit like the film "Stranger Than Fiction." Have you seen it? A Will Ferrell and Dustin Hoffman movie in which Ferrell is a character in someone's novel and Hoffman, a literary expert, tries to help him figure out what genre he's in. Is Ferrell in a romantic comedy? a tragedy? They couldn't figure out what he should do or his chances for survival were until they knew his genre. Not too unlike what the world is trying to figure out regarding the Middle East.
So let's see how this works for global conflict. Colonialism was pretty much the game of Risk. Prior to the 20th Century people were pretty much running around claiming territories.
World Wars I and II were conducted mostly like Battleship..Calculated moves to sink the each others military.
Then I think the Cold War period was more like the game of Chess. Game theory, Rational Choice theory, and negotiation theories were developed to try to help us figure out what the Russians would do. We came up with Tit-for-Tat and other approaches. And while they may have been limited, we didn't blow each other-- and the world-- up. So that's positive.
After the Cold War, instead of the world peace we had hoped, there were ethnic conflicts. I think the 1990s were a bit more like the Chinese Checkers. We start to realize there are not just big "States" there are lots of little parties all interconnected. You cannot move forward without one another. Lots of different groups, previously silenced by the Cold War and now finding their voices, crashing into and and bludgeoning each other.
So I think military strategists around the world are trying to figure out what game we are in now. If we knew the game we think we'd know how to win. I'm not sure either, but it reminds me of Hungry, Hungry Hippos -- a game that had no strategy, it made lots of noise while players just clamored to grab all the marbles.
This week, in the midst of our standard little catch-up chat my brother and I stumbled upon a topic of surprising intrigue to us both.
Talking about the state of the world, the 10 Commandments came up. Neither of us is particularly religious in the traditional sense, but since much of the world’s violence seems to be coming from the some of the Old Testament traditions it seemed like the 10 Commandments would be a good place to start.
“I think the list is too long,” I said. We pulled up the list and went through it together. Upon review, we agreed the list is too long. Furthermore, the structure suggests the top ones are most important or at the very least that all are equally important.
“Given what’s happening in the world today,” I said, “we should really just focus on “Thou Shalt Not Kill” until we've mastered it. Then we can move on to the others.” He agreed. We reviewed the list just to make sure we did not overlook anything.
Reviewing the Commandments
Honor thy mother and father—We liked this one and we like the idea of a Sabbath day. Who doesn’t want a day off? But agreed that an end to the slaughter took precedence.
Stealing—Ok, so don’t steal. Probably not a good idea…That said, if a 7-11 candy bar happens to walk out the door with you, it seems less of an offense than stoning a woman in public for alleged adultery.
See, the commandments themselves are more or less fine. The problem is everything is equally weighted. For example, not taking the lord’s name in vain is near the top, pushing "Thou Shalt Not Kill" to number 7.
Does this mean that yelling “Jesus Christ!” when you drop a cinder block on your foot is worse than murdering your neighbor?
I suspect not.
The first few commandments are all about how we think about and talk about God. No other god before this one, do not create false idols and do not take the lord’s name in vain. This suggests that it’s more important to focus on honoring this God than treating each other well. I’m not so sure.
Frankly, I’d much rather people sit at home and make false idols than bludgeon their neighbors.
I suspect if God exists, God is doing just fine. It’s the abused children that deserve our attention as well as the rapping of women and the ways in which certain groups allure young men into war and endless violent battles.
Re-weighting the Commandments
Let's re-weight these commandments until things have stabilized. Then we can have another look. I am emboldened to do so based on the findings of Bertrand Russell.
Bertrand Russell, one of the most famous mathematicians and philosophers of the 20th Century struggled with something that became known as “Russell’s Paradox.” (The paradox had to do with defining distinct sets of things.) Don't worry too much about the math of this, but just to say in order to resolve a mathematical paradox, he created a "hierarchy of types." Each thing could be built from a proceeding type—not stating everything as equal in the hierarchy prevents mathematical loops.
SImply said, we get ourselves all bound up mathematically if we don't create groups and sub-groups.
Maybe applying some of this same logic could help save us from some ongoing loops of violence.
I’m using the concept loosely here to stress the point that hierarchy of things matters. Some things matter more than others. Some types are actually subtypes – and not the primary ones.
Inspired by Nobel Prizing winning Russell, my brother and I discussed what could be collapsed into other categories.
Coveting and adultery, for example, could really be placed under one umbrella. Don't fantasize or pounce on your buddy's spouse. Makes sense. I agree I shouldn’t do it, but compared to beheading children and chopping up other people with machetes or poisoning them in gas chambers, we can probably put up with a little coveting and the occasional pounce. In any case, we can put those down on the list and clump them together. Less is more.
Then, the commandment about not giving false testimony against one’s neighbor might fit well under “honor thy mother and father.” We could just add, “honor thy neighbor, too (and everyone else for that matter)” to the list.
I’m not going to re-weight the whole list right now—I just wanted to point out that perhaps it’s worth doing.
The truth is while standing in line at Trader Joe’s I covet a bit, thinking about how your Ox is pretty stalwart and wishing my donkey had teeth like yours. But that’s not murder. So let’s ease up a bit on the coveting, worrying about false idols, taking the lord’s name in vain when we can't find parking. Instead, let's bump “thou shall not murder” to the top of the list. At least until we have that one really mastered. Then we can talk about the rest.