When Cultural Memory and Personal Experience Collide

When we look at political hot spots around the globe, there is almost always a religious component in the conflict- a clash between sects that illustrates the immense power of belief, and the endemic risk that belief imposes on our quality of living.

The dynamic of belief serves as a framework in which we couch our life’s experiences. It gives them context and meaning. But, since the accuracy of our perceptions are often mistaken for truth even though they may often be erroneous, we must learn to step outside the confines of mere belief if we are to become free of conflicts. Otherwise we are doomed to perpetuate them.

Witness the conflicts in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, Iran and Iraq, Africa, Greek and Turkish Cyprus- and countless others where beliefs about the meaning of ethnicity and religious preference draw lines in the sand, ignoring the possibility that anyone with two feet, no matter their faith or race, can cross that arbitrary line without having to relinquish their religion or culture.

The problem is that pain is often a greater reinforcer of experience than joy. There’s a saying that if someone does something nice to you, you might tell ten people, but of someone does something bad to you, you’ll tell the whole world. Sadly, there’s some truth to this. The fact that pain imprints so deeply on us is well know to both politicians and religious leaders, who have used fear- of taxes, poverty, foreign or domestic “enemies” – or of eternal damnation- as an highly effective tool of manipulation of others for their personal agendas. They inevitably do so, moreover, in the name of truth.

And pain has a long memory- all those hotspots I mentioned have been fighting for centuries, or even millennia- dating back usually to some major moment of cultural trauma or conquest, whose p.t.s.d. has bee passed down from generation to generation, with such regularity that the experiential reasons for the belief have long since been forgotten. The hatred and fear of those who differ from one’s chosen group, in time become virturally genetic, and generally unexamined.

Just as in the psychology of the individual, traumatic memories can be healed with the proper kind of self examination and emotional support, so too, can cultural wounds be healed. Even though we may still have a long way to go in America, we have made huge strides to heal the centuries of slavery, misogyny, and homophobia. Northern Ireland has made huge progress in healing the Protestant-Catholic rift; the Balkans have made progress in healing the scars that date back to the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western, the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Conquest by the Ottoman Turks; and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dating ultimately back to the birth of Islam, show some signs of softening, as Israel herself experiences a growing influx of non-Jewish immigrants, and younger Israelis who are “linked in” with the wider world, eschew the hard-line orthodoxy that has held sway for decades.

As a child of the Civil Rights Movement era, I know from my own experience that giving a name and face to the “other” increasingly broke down my perception of “difference” and the invisible lines that separate segments of society, so that apparent differences of color, nationality, or religion were no longer defining of the person- including of myself. That was enormously liberating.

This  reality has persuaded me more and more over the years that in the final analysis, experience trumps belief- or at least modifies it. Belief, in fact, is the underlying root that eventually morphs (and if we’re not careful, ossifies) into belief. And that is crucial for us to realize, understand and remember. For if belief denies experience, holding onto mere belief- because our parents, teachers, political or religious leaders told us to, requires denying our experience, and when we do that, an essential part of us is stifled. If allowed to be repressed for too long, it grows toxic and eventually resurfaces in the very violence and conflict our belief systems simultaneous decry and promote.

I have no doubt that when Jesus proclaimed “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”… he was not talking about belief, but about an experience that unites us all.