A number of years ago, I was the reluctant nominee to be the director of a small non-profit membership organization. It was a time of transition and of considerable distress with declining membership, declining public interest and declining revenues. I had no expectations that taking the helm would be a walk in the park, but I knew and respected all of the people on the board, and they knew and respected me. All except for one person … the board president, Ivan. From day one, Ivan was antagonistic, dismissive, undermining and caustic. His face would immediately take on a profoundly pained expression whenever he encountered me. Since Ivan didn’t know me at all before my appointment, I suspected some sort of shadow transference and projection driving his antagonism – something about me triggering memories of a significant person in Ivan’s painful past, most likely … dad. But I expected that he would be self-aware enough to at least be civil and courteous. He was anything but. After a year of going head to head with him, very little creative change was accomplished and the organization continued to founder. Ivan was able to use that fact and others to turn me into an enemy and convince the board that I should be fired. And I was. So what was initially a profoundly inner, distracting discomfort in him (and then, by turn in me), got turned into an outer solution to fix the problem – essentially, get rid of the messenger. Six years later the nonprofit continues to founder.
This is a small-scale, much simplified account of the same process that drove Hitler to organize insanity and eliminate the people who made him and thousands of other Germans uncomfortable: Jews, homosexuals, the handicapped, blacks, Poles, gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m sure if Hitler were around today, neuroscientists would be added to his list, because neuroscientists tend to frequently tell people uncomfortable truths. Both Ivan and Hitler could have benefited from doing some inner work like that prescribed by Michael Brown in his Presence Process – employing some ongoing, effective training for growing ourselves up emotionally.
Fascism Begins at Home
Fascism begins at home, usually an unhappy one. But more than unhappy, often one in which a wide variety of abuse is a regular occurrence. The Crimes Against Children Research Center claims one in four children report exposure to family violence and abuse. How much goes unreported? If you look at the childhood history of the world’s cruelest dictators, you almost invariably find significant conflicts with early authority figures that most likely involved some form of traumatic abuse. Poverty is often such a trauma. It’s difficult to document though, since there is rarely anyone recording or reporting such episodes in the childhood years, but we can extrapolate from the evidence showing up in the resulting behaviors. As correlations from the ACE study clearly suggest, without healing interventions, early childhood abuse disorganizes the brain and significantly compromises its capacity for processing energy and information. Abuse makes people brain sick.
Embracing my Inner Fascist
Because of psychological defense mechanisms like denial and displacement, few fascists ever recognize themselves as such. But ever since learning of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments at Yale, I have been intimately and uncomfortably familiar with my own Inner Nazi’s potential to wreak havoc in the world. How this occasionally unfolds is: 1. Someone does or says something that highjacks my limbic system; I get emotionally upset – hurt, angry, afraid, sad, withdrawn or vengeful; 2. I start spending significant time processing internally, attempting to find some sort of outlet to release a “flood of inchoate emotionalism” in mostly futile attempts to restore peace of mind; 3. I either remove myself from the presence of the triggering person or I arrange to have them removed. If I had absolute dictatorial power, and an army or police force to back me up, there would be little to keep me from having the offending person jailed and tortured, or simply “rendered” to Guantanamo or a hostile environment on another continent. By simply getting rid of the external source of the upset, I can then begin to feel much better in my narrow, rigid, righteous, insular world. Along the way I might also work to enlist others to help me in my attempts to feel better: we can all feel better together if we get rid of all the others in the world who upset us and do or say things that make us feel fearful. It’s a good thing I have so little absolute power in the world.
Calming the Neurological Waters
Neurologically, what appears to be missing in my network are sufficient connections between the limbic/fear structures in my brain, and my prefrontal cortex (not to mention, a left hemisphere that continually tells me lies and convinces me they’re true, a la Jill Bolte Taylor!). Increasing numbers of nerve fibers connecting these structures are essential in order for the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) to be able to calm and soothe me by binding to and shutting off the neurons firing in my limbic structures (amygdala, thalamus, hippocampus, and specifically the hypothalamus). Healthy, securely attached childhoods grow these connections as a matter of course. But for those of us without such connections, it takes an exhausting amount of work for the hypothalamus to restore us to some sense of peace and quietude, and usually, not for very long.
People who have well-developed prefrontal – limbic connections are very different from me (and possibly you). That difference was once described quite eloquently by the master martial artist and founder of Aikido, Morehei Ueshiba who said something like, “To the untrained eye it appears as if I am never knocked off center. In truth I am perpetually knocked off center, but I recover before you ever notice.” That’s essentially what a well-developed prefrontal cortex allows us: the ability to quickly restore peace of mind and purity of heart almost effortlessly. Especially under very trying circumstances, like when my left hemisphere is busy creating enemy images, or external or internal authorities are demanding I perpetrate unskillful actions rooted in or springing from fear.
Given this widespread neurological reality, it’s a wonder that we haven’t consigned more people to the charnal grounds in our lives, and don’t have more wars and divorces than we do. Or more corporate business divisions, political parties, schools and households in America headed up by Nazis. I count my blessings.