The deep challenge to positive psychology: war

Can and does positive psychology help us with the tragic and terrible events in life?

Positive psychologists focus on the positive and they raise two issues in mind:

  • How much use is positive psychology when life if really dreadful?
  • And aren’t we being rather patronizing to people in the midst of tragedy and despair?

I wonder what other positive psychologists would say.

Look at tragedy & despair squarely but not necessarily in the eye

I would say that we need to look at tragedy and despair squarely but not necessarily in the eye.

Be worldly

To use the analogy of wild animals, some animals become more aggressive if we stare them in the eye, but most will attack if we lose eye contact!  Worldliness is important and we need to understand the menace that faces us.

Have compassion for yourself and your journey

But there is a season for everything, and to continue the analogy, whatever drew us to the bush in the first place, has brought us to this predicament. We need to understand our predicament, and even appreciate it, within the context of our wider lives, within the journey that brought us to this place and will take us on to other places.

Poetry in dark times

It is so much more easily said than done.

In dark times, we value our poets as much if not more than we do in bright times. They mirror what we are feeling – our despair and fear – against a backdrop of our hopes and dreams.

Poetry from Zimbabwe in the dark days after the 2008 election

This poem is from Zimbabwe which you may know is in deep peril as they wait for long delayed election results to be announced. April has been a long month of waiting for them.

The poet is Comrade Fatso, a local musician, who has his own website and blog. I don’t have his permission to use his poem here. I hope he doesn’t mind. I hope, too, you visit his blog and leave a kind word. Or go to his website and listen to his music (it is for sale!)

Street fillers

The streets are empty.

The state has retreated.

So has the opposition.

All we are left with

are their torn posters,

pasted over each other

in a confusing collage of symbols and slogans.

We also have their space-fillers.

Riot police

aimlessly

walk the streets,

batons in belts

like forgotten cellphones.

Or sometimes

unconsciously

swung in the air

like a stick-picked-up-on-a-path.

They walk the streets

like the thousands

of unemployed H-town youths.

Space-fillers.

Like the pothole-filling youths

who have taken over the suburban streets.

Stopping traffic,

asking for donations,

filling potholes.

Unhindered.


The state has gone back to the drawing board.

The opposition has stayed away from its stay-away.

Its re-count and re-plan time.

And all we have are their space-fillers.

Positive psychology during war

This is the best of times and the worst of times

UPDATE:  Almost two years ago, I was close to an extraordinary story of psychology during times of extreme stress and despair.  This is what I wrote then.

The beginning . . once upon a time there was an election in a landlocked country nestled just above South Africa, to the west of Mozambique, and cuddled in the north by Zambia and by Botswana in the east.

You all know the Zimbabwe elections took place a little while ago – 24 days to be precise. I have been following them closely.

The first weekend after the poll, there was feverish excitement as votes were counted and results were announced (and signed off in triplicate) at local level, polling tent-by-polling tent.

And then silence – no official announcements. Excitement curdled to despair.  Moods yo-yo’ed as events unfolded, and as pictures of stomach-turning brutality are smuggled out of the country by brave activists.  People have become palpably depressed.

And then breaking news. . . it all changed.

Somebody blew the whistle on a container ship, the An Yue Jiang, who wanted to offload munitions for Zimbabwe at Durban, in South Africa. The dockers’ union, SATAWU, refused to offload. The Anglican church and activist lawyers sought a High Court order to prevent the weapons crossing South Africa.   A German bank joined in, hoping to seize the arms as part payment for Zimbabwe’s debts.

Before the court orders could be served, the An Yue Jiang weighed anchor and left in a hurry. The saga intensified as she reported herself to Lloyds as a casualty.  People all around the world spent the weekend trying to track the vessel and petitioned both governments. and worker unions to prevent her refueling and unloading her deadly cargo.

Heads of state and political parties have begun to offer support and the citizen action continues, determined not to allow arms of any sort reach Zimbabwe while they might be used against her own people.

Positive psychology

People are understandably upset, nervous, anxious, outraged, sickened, indignant, angry. . . negative emotion abounds. Emotion is highly contagious and I have watched myself abandon the gym, eat too much, remained glued to the internet even when little was likely to happen. I have become mildly depressed and I am well fed, I am warm and dry, I am safe. I can walk out my door into the English spring.

Action restores mood

The citizen campaign to stop the An Yue Jiang unloading her cargo is compleetely spontaneous. People find the site hosting the bulletin board and join in. When I last looked, there are more suggestions, addresses and initiatives that any one person can support.

I haven’t been able to do a formal count. I don’t know what the churn of people is. I also haven’t counted the number of active and depressed posts. There are still the angry people, but they tend to be newcomers.

Sending one email to your MP might not sound like much but this is the spirit of the age. Five minutes here and five minutes there, and it adds up. A petition to Thabo Mbeki when he arrived at the UN Security Council last Wednesday had 150 000 signatures. Opinion is turning.

More importantly the mood is turning. But emotion is contagious. Moods can turn down as well as up. I was listening to SWRadio Africa this evening. A young lady had called in to discuss her views. Amongst other matters, she discussed the perpetrators of the unspeakable brutalities in Zimbabwe. She believed that people were enticed into taking these actions for small amounts of money or food, or other promises, and they went along it because they were desperate – they had no choice.

This is the essence of positive psychology: the perception of choice.

When we feel we have no choice, we take the feeling as fact, and are unable to perceive the small alternatives that are open to us. Conversely, as we cheer up, we find choices, small as they are. And as we act, we remain cheerful, improve our objective situation, see more choices, small as they are, and act again, in a positive spiral of hope.

We move in the direction of the questions we ask

The spiral is reversed awfully quickly, as I have learned sitting safely and snugly out of harm’s way. Our discourse is important. An important principle in appreciative management, a close sibling of positive psychology, is that we move in the direction of the questions we ask. When things are very bad, it is important to ask positive questions. If we don’t, then we stare the predator in the face, and we are, as the saying goes, ‘scared witless’. And for Zimbabweans who like to ‘make a plan’, that is a magnified horror.

I think it is time to spread the viral citizen campaign to reach more people and more Zimbabweans. Let’s convert despair into hope, one click at a time. Can you help?

If you are able to help, we are open to all ideas. As I write:

  • There is an urgent need for IT help to build and sustain an offshore website on which to post petition letters and addresses.
  • There is an urgent need for people to petition governments, unions and businesses who trade with the Zimbabwean government.
  • I believe there is a move to try to provide more secure communication lines into and out of Zimbabwe.