The above title is a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher who travelled the world for over sixty years giving lectures whose main message was that only a complete transformation of individual hearts can bring peace to societies. He stressed that he did not want followers on his side. „Following someone else is always a wrong choice – whoever you want to follow”.

Last week, I co-facilitated a seminar at CEU’s EMBA (Executive MBA) programme on „Gender, Race and Social Injustice, Difficult Conversations in the Workplace”, and beforehand I thought a lot about how to tackle this difficult topic. As an external speaker, I didn’t have much information about the participants, but I suspected that they would probably be from the affected people, and perhaps some from the ‘other side’. How to talk about this in a way that does not increase further polarisation and fragmentation but, as far as the format allows, opens eyes and especially (!) hearts to plant the real seeds of inclusion and tolerance?

In recent years I have been involved in a number of organisations that have been set up with a similar aim, but I have not seen any of them with the intention of being truly inclusive. Yet, if you really look around, you could say that the only thing that is certain is polarisation: men vs women, whites vs colours, heterosexuals vs LGBTQ, atheists vs believers, climate crisis fearers vs deniers, doctors vs patients, and the list is almost endless, not to mention political sympathies. And when a ‘person from the other side’ tries to join a group, he is almost immediately confronted with the feeling that he is the guilty one, that he has done something to be ashamed of. Almost a year ago, we were discussing climate change with a group of friends, and soon young people came up to the table, one of them said to me: ‘You’re to blame! Not me… Then it’s the previous generations! I don’t think they did either.

And that was the end of it, from there it was neither forward nor backward. He saw that I was not taking the mockery personally, and as an activist, he had little other recourse. Yes, to be able to stand so firmly for one’s own right, one needs to know a great deal about social processes, about the way human beings work, and not least about the vast machinery of which we are all a part. I do not claim to be able to see through this huge, complex system, but I have spent a lot of time trying to understand what makes it work on the surface and what works underneath.

My real curiosity has always been to understand what makes us humans tick and what the consequences are for society. How is our identity constructed, how does this affect our interactions, what conditioning makes us say „this is normal” to something and this is not? I’m also fascinated by this topic because for most of my career I’ve worked in a very diverse, multinational environment and I’ve seen that despite our differences, we are very similar. We all have a sense of pride in our own roots, in being connected to our group and, like it or not, a sense of superiority over groups that are different from us. How much room we give to our reactions of superiority depends, of course, on the level of consciousness. The levels of development look like this:

  1. I have no idea that I am a prisoner of my unconscious biases – the other co-facilitator’s presentation, she presented the results of an international survey showing that most of the Hungarian society does not recognise racism as a problem in this country. We are so much run by the system that we don’t realise the extent to which we are victims of manipulation on all sides. This is the most dangerous situation, when hate speech can run rampant, often resulting in physical violence.
  2. I realise that I am a victim of the situation – usually based on my own experience, e.g. in a doctor-patient relationship, or age, or female-male discrimination. It is then that we realise that what we thought was „normal” is very far from it. It is absolutely not „normal” for a doctor to tell an assistant in Latin what the diagnosis is and we don’t understand; or being treated like an object during an examination. These are all dehumanising behaviours and signs of an abusive society.
  3. already consciously resisting discrimination, but still in the dynamic of I versus YOU, We versus THEM (othering) – since Viktor Frankl we know that humans are per definition in search of meaning, and deep inside we all want to do something meaningful because we want to feel the feeling of „I am a good person”. Even if it doesn’t always seem that way from the outside. Indeed, when we are disconnected from our inner self, we can commit terrible acts such as the George Floyd murder. The perpetrator was caught on video by a passer-by and then analysed by psychologists, and it was shown how in the 7 minutes or so it took for the compassion in the eyes of the policeman to fade and he saw in the black man nothing but an object.
  4. becoming a true integrative person – going through the needle myself, facing my own shadows and being able to stand very firmly for a universal set of values. Of course, this is the hardest part, on the one hand, embracing my own vulnerability, taking responsibility for the mistakes I have made, but not falling into the trap of „guilty” which only increases polarisation. To stand up boldly and firmly against all generalisations, stigmatisation and hate speech – since it is just simply not OK.

The moment the idea of „them and I” or „them and us” – called othering – appears in us, we must know that it will imprint itself on our thoughts, emotions and reactions. The feeling of belonging to a group of equals has always been a sense of security, inescapable in evolution, but we have reached a point, as Krishnamurti wrote, that we have been living in societies with sick minds for thousands of years. Over the past centuries this has led to events that we not only should but MUST PREVENT, and since we are all part of the system, we must start with ourselves. According to the teachings of the Indian philosopher, we need to reopen our hearts, as difficult as it may seem, as fear dominates on all sides of the conflict. We need to move from fear to curiosity and compassion for others, and that is easy to write down, but terribly difficult to do.

We are predisposed to our reactions from birth, not only by our upbringing but also by our epigenetics. An experiment was done on rats, they were made to smell lilacs and at the same time they were given a small electric shock. (I know, now many animal rights activists are snorting, yes, I am sympathetic to rats, but unfortunately there are insights that we get through live animals only. Fortunately, such experiments are done in the most humane way possible.) Because rats reproduce quite rapidly, they have been able to study the reactions of their offspring over several generations in a relatively short period of time. Even the 5th generation, if they just smelled the lilac, ran away, even though they had not personally experienced the shock. Getting electrocuted is a trauma for the body and because it is very difficult to heal, there is a modification in the DNA which is passed on through the reproductive organs. If we just think about how much unprocessed trauma is passed on daily in the world due to the events of the last century only, imposing our thought and behaviour patterns, it is not an exaggeration to say that we are sitting on a huge mountain of trauma and it is truly a mission almost impossible to stay mentally healthy in this chaos.

As a final thought, here is one of my favourite quotes from Paul Watzlawik, an Austrian psychotherapist, who said, „I am not perfect at all, nor you are perfect either, that is all perfect.” It’s high time that we turn to everyone with this attitude of acceptance, compassion and curiosity if we want to create a society that is mentally healthy and happy.

The image is used from