To hold, as it were, a mirror up to Nature

Who am I? No, really -where do I stop and something else begins? That’s not really as silly a question as it may first appear. Consider, for example, my need to remember something -an address, say. One method is to internalize it -encode it somehow in my brain, I suppose- but another, no less effective, is to write it down. So, if I choose the latter, is my pen (or keyboard, for that matter) now in some sense a functional part of me? Is it an extension of my brain? The result is the same: the address is available whenever I need it.

Ever since my university days, when I discovered the writings of the philosopher Alan Watts, I have been intrigued by his view of boundaries, and whether to consider them as things designed to separate, or to join. Skin, was one example that I remember he discussed -does it define my limits, and enclose the me inside, or is it actually my link with the outside world? I hadn’t really thought much about it until then, but in the intervening years it has remained an idea that continues to fascinate me.

Clearly Watts was not alone in his interest about what constitutes an individual, nor in his speculations about the meaning of whatever identities individuals think they possess by virtue of their boundaries. There was an insightful article in Aeon by Derek Skillings, a biologist and philosopher of science at the University of Pennsylvania entitled ‘Life is not easily bounded’: https://aeon.co/essays/what-constitutes-an-individual-organism-in-biology

‘Most of the time the living world appears to us as manageable chunks,’ he writes, ‘We know if we have one dog or two.’ Why then, is ‘the meaning of individuality … one of the oldest and most vexing problems in biology? …  Different accounts of individuality pick out different boundaries, like an overlapping Venn diagram drawn on top of a network of biotic interactions. This isn’t because of uncertainty or a lack of information; rather, the living world just exists in such a way that we need more than one account of individuality to understand it.’ But really, ‘the problem of individuality is (ironically enough) actually composed of two problems: identity and individuation. The problem of identity asks: ‘What does it mean for a thing to remain the same thing if it changes over time?’ The problem of individuation asks: ‘How do we tell things apart?’ Identity is fundamentally about the nature of sameness and continuity; individuation is about differences and breaks.’ So, ‘To pick something out in the world you need to know both what makes it one thing, and also what makes it different than other things – identity and individuation, sameness and difference.’

What about a forest -surely it is a crowd of individual trees?  Well, one way of differentiating amongst individuals is to think about growth -a tree that is growing (in other words, continuing as more of the same)- and contrasting it with producing something new: as in reproduction. And yet even here, there is a difficulty. It’s difficult to determine the individual identities of any trees that also grew from the original roots -for example from a ‘nurse’ tree lying on the ground with shoots and saplings sprouting from it.’

But it’s not only plants that confuse the issue. If reproduction -i.e. producing something new– counts as a different entity, then what about entities like bacteria? ‘These organisms tend to reproduce [albeit] by asexual division, dividing in half to produce two clones… and, failing mutation and sub-population differentiation, an entire population of bacteria would be considered a single individual.’ -whatever ‘individual’ might therefore mean.

And what about us, then? Surely we have boundaries, surely we are individuals created as unique entities by means of sexual reproduction. Surely we have identities. And yet, what of those other entities we carry with us through our lives -entities that not only act as symbiotes, but are also integrated so thoroughly into our metabolism that they contribute to such intimate functions as our immune systems, our weight and health, and even function as precursors for our neurotransmitters and hence our moods? I refer, of course, to the micro-organisms inhabiting our bowels -our microbiome. Clearly ‘other’ and yet essential to the functioning person I regard as ‘me’.

And yet, our gut bacteria are mostly acquired from the environment -including the bacteria colonizing our mother’s vagina and probably her breast milk- and so are not evolutionarily prescribed, nor thereby hereditarily transmitted. So, am I merely a we –picking up friends along the way? Well, consider mitochondria -the powerhouse of our cells. They were once free-living bacteria that adapted so well inside our cells that they, too, are integral to cell functioning but have lost the ability to survive separately; they are transmitted from generation to generation. So they are me, right…?

Again I have to ask just who is me? Or is the question essentially meaningless put like that? Given that I am a multitude, and more like a city than a single house, shouldn’t the question be who are we? The fact that all of us, at least in Western cultures, consider ourselves to be distinct entities -separate individuals with unique identities- makes me wonder, about our evolutionary history.

Was there a time when we didn’t make the distinctions we do nowadays? A time when we thought of ourselves more as members of a group than as individuals? When, perhaps sensing that we were constantly interacting with things outside and inside us, the boundaries were less important? Is that how animals would say they see the world if they were able to tell us?

Does our very ability to communicate with each other with more sophistication, create the critical difference? Is that what created hubris? In Greek tragedy, remember, hubris -excess pride and self-confidence- led inexorably to Nemesis, retributive justice. Were poets in that faraway time, trying to tell people something they had forgotten? Is that what this is all about?

I wonder if Shakespeare, as about so many things, was also aware of our ignorance: ‘pride hath no other glass to show itself but pride, for supple knees feed arrogance and are the proud man’s fees.’

Plus ça change, eh?

Is What’s Past Really Prologue?

War has so many faces and wears so many different clothes that you might be forgiven for misunderstanding its refugees. Confusing cause and effect in their behaviour, their appearance, and perhaps, most obviously, in their adaptations to the stress of upheaval and migration. There is no universal pattern that obtains, and few things to offer as a template for relief except, perhaps, a welcoming succour. And when numbers become overwhelming, even compassion is strained in the melange of personalities and temperaments that inevitably occur in those fleeing danger. Not all victims may be to our liking, and when resources become limited and privileges are necessarily constrained, the reactions can be unpredictable on both sides. Empathy can mutate into grudging tolerance. Forbearance. Endurance.

But think of the effects on the refugees, first forced to flee intolerable conditions, often leaving behind members of their families, then subject to the hardships and exploitation of the journey,  finally being forced to trust themselves to the charity of strangers. It cannot be easy for adults to have their identity subsumed by that of victim, and everything they were, everything they had, everything for which they had worked no longer possible. No longer recognized, let alone appreciated, in a strange land with often stranger customs and language.

And what must it be like for their children who haven’t yet learned the curse of humiliation, or understood what the theft of identity may mean to their parents. They’re caught in the middle ground between witness and casualty, understanding neither. Lacking the tools to navigate the waters, some, I suppose, internalize it; others lash out. But none escape entirely.

I came across an unusual manifestation of trauma that seems unique to Sweden (so far), for some reason –the newly coined Resignation Syndrome: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-41748485  ‘[…] it affects only the children of asylum-seekers, who withdraw completely, ceasing to walk or talk, or open their eyes.’

‘The health professionals who treat these children agree that trauma is what has caused them to withdraw from the world. The children who are most vulnerable are those who have witnessed extreme violence – often against their parents – or whose families have fled a deeply insecure environment.’

‘As more Swedes began to worry about the consequences of immigration, these “apathetic children”, as they were known, became a huge political issue. There were reports the children were faking it, and that parents were poisoning their offspring to secure residence. None of those stories were proven.’ A not so hidden ‘blame the victim’ scenario that tends to surface under conditions of societal stress.

‘Numerous conditions resembling Resignation Syndrome have been reported before – among Nazi concentration camp inmates, for example. In the UK, a similar condition – Pervasive Refusal Syndrome – was identified in children in the early 1990s, but there have been only a tiny handful of cases, and none of them among asylum seekers. The most plausible explanation is that there are some sort of socio-cultural factors that are necessary in order for this condition to develop. A certain way of reacting or responding to traumatic events seems to be legitimised in a certain context’ writes Dr Karl Sallin, a paediatrician at the Astrid Lindgren Children’s Hospital, part of Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm.

Theories abound, of course. There is a view ‘commonly held among doctors treating children with Resignation Syndrome, that recovery depends on them feeling secure and that it is a permanent residence permit that kick-starts that process.’ Unfortunately, with increasing numbers of refugees arriving, both the patience and the available resources are wearing thin, so stricter adherence to admission criteria do not always allow a family to stay. ‘Last year, a new temporary law came into force that limits all asylum seekers’ chances of being granted permanent residence. Applicants are granted either a three-year or 13-month visa.’

One treatment seems to be having some success, even with those not granted permanent visas, however. The thesis is that  sickness has to do with former trauma, not asylum. ‘When children witness violence or threats against a parent, their most significant connection in the world is ripped apart’ –the very connection on which the child has been dependent. ‘That family connection must be re-built, but first the child must begin to recover, so Solsidan’s [the treatment center’s] first step is to separate the children from their parents. “We keep the family informed about their progress, but we don’t let them talk because the child must depend on our staff. Once we have separated the child, it takes only a few days, until we see the first signs that, yes, she’s still there…” says Annica Carlshamre, a senior social worker for Gryning Health, a company that runs Solsidan, a home for all kinds of troubled children.

Even if effective, I would imagine that not every family would be willing to part with their child to strangers, nor would the number of treatment centers be equal to the task. Still, it may be a method worth exploring further.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Resignation Syndrome, Situational Adjustment Reactions, Panic Attacks… I am not alone in wondering what these may produce in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, affected –either in childhood when coping mechanisms may not yet have been learned, or worse perhaps, in adulthood when the mechanisms may have been discarded. What can we expect from a generation torn from its customs, and rightful expectations of a peaceful family life? A generation often deprived of education, to say nothing of safety? What is normal to those who have never experienced it? And what are the obligations of the rest of us to them?

War, it is said, will be with us always, but we must not be fooled by its seeming inevitability. I suppose it is unbecomingly naïve in this time of terrorism and bellicose patriotism, but I still remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? It’s not an answer, perhaps -just a hope…