Nigel Collingwood

Hurt Child, Hurt Planet

Published in Wessex Branch B.A.C. Newsletter, Jan 1992.

If we look within – perhaps with the aid of a counsellor – before long we find our inner child. We find, too, the scars of whatever emotional wounds that child suffered at the hands of parents or guardians, themselves also wounded.

If we look outside – perhaps with ’the help of TV or a newspaper – before long we find a wounded planet: a society of people embattled against one another in various ways, waging economic wars, class wars, military wars, and systematically destroying the environment on which that society depends.

Buried individual hurt; all too visible social hurt: are these connected? This is a question I have been exploring for more than twenty years. Since 1986 I have also had the privilege of sharing this exploration with others involved in counselling, in the BAC Sub-Committee on Counselling & Peace. What follows is an attempt to summarise (baldly and without the arguments, for brevity) some of the bits of the puzzle that have become clearer to me; they are not by any means necessarily the views of others on the Sub-Committee.

“The individual” and “society” are abstractions. What we know are actual people, all unique, linked together in various groupings. Whether we look first at individual people, or first at large groups (even the large group that is the present world population), we find a split. We find a division between a portion that is acceptable and seen as good and a portion that is unacceptable and regarded as bad. Both individuals and groups tend to identify themselves with the good, acceptable parts, recognising the bad, unacceptable parts only in other individuals or groups – the “us” and “them” syndrome. Sometimes, however, it is the other way round, and your own identity is the unacceptable one – “they don’t like me, so I must be bad”. Collusion between the two sides of the split is seldom avoided.

It is perhaps tempting, though naive, to regard all this as mere fantasy – sheer projection and nothing else. But no. There is real oppression going on out there: rich oppressing poor, adults oppressing children, whites oppressing blacks, the whole painful process being undergird-ed by a competitive, profit-oriented economic system that itself unerringly mirrors the fundamental split. Nevertheless, fantasy does come in when this oppression is repeated inside individuals. Internal bullies, critics and Top Dogs oppress internal victims and Under Dogs. Group fantasies (e.g. seeing enemies as Huns, Gooks etc.) also occur.

The deeper we delve into the origins of our internal splits,the further back into infancy – indeed, well before birth – we find we need to go. The unborn or newborn child simply cannot cope with overwhelming trauma and remain unscathed; survival depends on the successful construction and maintenance of defences such as splitting, projection and ideali-sation. Unless these defences are dismantled by the love that is at the heart of deep therapy, the inner conflict will be acted out later in life, the abused child often becoming, as we know, the abusing parent.

Counsellors are familiar with all this at the individual level. Yet the process of social acting out is equally important, not least because it reinforces the internal splitting, making it appear quite normal.

Thus internal oppression is externalised, re-internalised, only to be to externalised again, each layer of pain nourishing and feeding off the others in a self-perpetuating global tragedy.

Is there any hope? Yes, surely there is, so long as we understand the need to work at both levels: both individually and socially. We cannot hope to heal the inner child unless we also heal our society and its planet, nor can we hope to heal our society and its planet unless we also heal our inner child.

Thus we need the widest possible availability of profound counselling and therapy, and we need to work for social and political change of the most radical kind – two vast nettles, each of mind-blowing prickliness. Yet what doesn’t bear thinking about is the pain of not grasping both of them.

Nigel Collingwood.