Friday, 14 March 2014

In Victory, Magnanimity.

"In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity" (Winston Churchill)
"What cheers me up? I suppose mainly gloating over the misfortunes of other people. I guess that has to be it, yeah, mainly crowing over the miseries of others. It doesn't always work, but it never completely fails." (Christopher Hitchens)
I was down at the election for Procureur du Bien Public last night to get a photo for La Baguette, the Parish Magazine. I was originally just going to take a photo of the winning candidate, Peter Norman, but my editor very wisely, I think, suggested I took a photo of Peter Norman and John Trafford (the losing candidate) shaking hands. He was quite right, of course.
That's an image of victory and magnanimity; it is a sign that whoever wins, this is not a result that should end in bitterness or acrimony. And John Trafford lost, but he was a good loser, which is I suppose what you might expect; he is a very nice man.
It's all too easy with elections or other news stories to feed into the modern trend for divisiveness, and gloating. There's a lot of gloating on the misfortunes of other people on Twitter locally.
Those doing it will probably be able to justify it to themselves, but what it often comes down to is an excuse for that kind of behaviour was that "they started it first", the kind of excuse that two children fighting give to their parents. But however the other person is behaving, do they really need to react that way? They are surely not children any more; why do they then persist in behaving with such childish patterns of behaviour. Can't they do better than that? Is that really the best that they can be as human beings?
I'm not going to name people; they know who they are. This is not about naming and shaming, it is about exploring the psychology of this behaviour, and look at why people behave in this way.
Psychiatrist John Birtchnell describes this tendency of some human beings to respond in this way to the misfortune of others. He notes that:
"some people are capable of deriving satisfaction from the abuse of their power by showing off to others, intimidating them, bullying them, making fun of them, putting them down, pointing to their deficiencies, causing them embarrassment or distress, gloating over their misfortune, or witnessing their distress or desperation" (1)
And he notes that even psychotherapists themselves "are not immune from any of these forms of behaviour, which lie at the very heart of sadism."
There is a kind of sea-saw effect at work here, where "reacting to the setbacks and misfortunes of others is gaining upperness as a consequence of others losing it. When someone drops in position, another's position in relation to her/him rises." (2)
What cuts against this is compassion, and concern for the plight of the other person. As he comments:
"Potentially this is a source of pleasure, but the pleasure can be diminished, or denied altogether, out of concern for the plight of the other person." (2)
And a lot of these kinds of behaviours are patterns learned from childhood, which still effect how people behave. They become fixed patterns for reacting, hitting out, and enjoying the misfortune of others. As he notes on "derision":
"Children more than adults laugh at the misfortune of others and, in their laughing, experience the state of upperness. In former times, adults would visit lunatic asylums to laugh at the inmates, but nowadays they do not so blatantly enjoy the misfortune of others. Ridicule and mocking are nonetheless ways of experiencing upperness at the expense of others, and many jokes and humorous stories relate accounts of other people in unfortunate circumstances."
"Humiliation. There is ample evidence that people derive pleasure from humiliating others, but, as with derision, they are inhibited from doing so by their consciences" (2)
We don't visit lunatic asylums now to mock others, but the internet lends itself to a modern equivalent of this kind of behaviour. Ignore that voice of conscience, and it will fade away.
And on cruelty, Birchnell again notes the roots in the children's behaviour:
"Children, because their socialization process is less complete, are capable of great cruelty under certain circumstances. William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies, though a work of fiction, credibly illustrates this. Bandura et al. (1975) demonstrated that two effective means of making cruelty possible were diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization. They wrote, 'By displacing responsibility elsewhere, people need not hold themselves accountable for what they do and are thus spared self-prohibiting reactions" '(2)
Buddhism has a lot to teach us about how these patterns from our past shape our lives, and what we need to do about it. The Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom notes that:
"It is conduct unbecoming to a Dharma student to pick on others and blame them in order to build a self-defence or reinforce one's position. It is the downfall of a Dharma student to become jealous of the other people's prosperity and gloat over others' misfortunes." (3)
And the Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai International notes that:
"Buddhism sheds light on the inner dynamics of human life that lead us to create such an undesirable reality. One of the most pernicious and powerful desires inherent in human life, according to Buddhist thought, is the desire for power over others, the urge to subjugate other people to our will. In this condition, the ego finds its most unrestrained and destructive expression, regarding others simply as a means to satisfy its selfish objectives."
"But if human nature is the cause of our most dire global problems, it is also the source of the fundamental solution. The countervailing force to the destructive aspect to human nature and the suffering it engenders is compassion. Compassion, a sense of solidarity with others--with all life--arising from a wish for mutual happiness and growth, is the heart and origin of Buddhism." (4)
And Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron comments on why we badly need compassion in political dialogue:
"In recent years, national dialogue in the U. S. has deteriorated, with people ranging from politicians to talk show hosts encouraging anger, disrespect, harsh speech, and exaggerated accusations that only stir people up. It seems that rudeness, blame, and demonizing others is passed off as entertainment in the effort to gather votes. ..This lack of basic human manners, petty squabbling, and in some cases outright aggression interferes with finding solutions to very real national and international problems. Compassion helps us be more respectful and considerate so that we work together for the benefit of everyone. "(5)

Compassion is a challenge because it goes against deep rooted behaviours that we learned in childhood, and challenges us to be the best people we can be, not to be stuck in a groove laid down in the past. I'll finish, then, with a quote from a Veteran Western Practitioner of Buddhism:
"Compassion does not put others down to make us feel more important. Compassion builds bridges between people instead of erecting walls. Compassion helps to solve problems instead of creating new ones. Compassion agonizes at others' efforts gone wrong instead of gloating over their misfortunes. Compassion practices positive thinking, making others see their potential and helps them to achieve their best." (6)

(1)   "Relating in Psychotherapy: The Application of a New Theory" by John Birtchnell, 1999
(2)   "How Humans Relate: A New Interpersonal Theory." by John Birtchnell, 1993

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