The recent upsurge in sectarian violence in Belfast should alert all of us to the dangers of social disconnection, writes JP Corrigan
Talking point: Reaching out across the divides
Walking through Belfast last week, I watched as riot police and armoured vehicles moved toward a group of masked youths, both groups tinted orange by a car engulfed in flames. Observers looked on with sad expressions; a sense of pure disappointment was in the air.
Back in my counselling office, my clients talk about ‘the Troubles’. They talk about engaging in drug and alcohol-related behaviour to avoid being pulled into a political war, both now and back in the 70s for my older clients, and how they’re left with a sense of meaninglessness in their world. Those who experienced happy childhoods removed from the violence now see the world as an unsafe place, in the way that someone suffering from trauma might see things.1 Politicians and the media tell them that the hard times are over but, with the riots over the union flag being taken down at Belfast’s city hall a few weeks ago, I find that a little hard to believe.
I’ve returned here from Glasgow, where I trained and have spent the last year immersed in the counselling world there. In Glasgow I saw people, both counsellors and clients, who came from all over the city to engage in therapy and to be introduced to each other with few assumptions or preconceived ideas about each other. I heard people chat casually about their counselling experiences in the street, in coffee shops, on the bus. People didn’t care where their counsellor was brought up or where they went to school. They didn’t want to know each other’s religion.
Back in Northern Ireland I see a country of separation, division, isolation and, for those not involved politically, loneliness. I have an embodied sense not of a communal city but of a few small, divided, strongly opinionated communities. Even the counselling and self-help centres are located in north, east and west Belfast and see clients mostly from their own local communities. Clients feel safer knowing they don’t have to venture into what might be enemy territory just to seek help. The flags and signs signal ‘Keep out!’ and ‘Beware!’, rather than ‘Our culture welcomes you’.
The image of the bystanders watching the police fight it out with the rioting mob illustrates our plight. There’s today’s ruptured youth, who know only how to pull the past into our future. There are the police, trying to keep in place what the politicians and media have told us – that this country is a safe place. And then there are the bystanders, to which I belong, who truly did let go of the violence or who were never involved in the first place, standing dazed in the fiery glare of something of which they do not feel a part. And, although we stand only a short distance from one another, we are completely disconnected – not speaking among ourselves, not getting to know the person next to us.
These feelings of disconnection are often a major source of depression.2 What I find, as a counsellor in Northern Ireland, is that this subtle isolation runs through many of my clients’ stories, much more so than it did among my clients in Glasgow. They sound shocked and puzzled when they ask, ‘How could I possibly fit in to a world like this?’ My response is that they shouldn’t have to. People here are crying out for help but are unheard, placed instead at the bottom of long waiting lists on the NHS for treatment that will probably be time limited and serve only to mask the real issues. The charity sector tries to offer emotional and practical support, but only to the small communities where they’re based, and to the individual. One tiny step forward is better than a step backward, but the individual still has to live in a country where they feel they just don’t fit.
Maybe this is a problem that isn’t fixable. However, we can’t ignore it. My invitation is not just to people in Northern Ireland but to people in the UK and anywhere in the world where there is conflict: move towards growth. This is not an invitation for a peace rally to show what we don’t want; it’s an encouragement for human connection. We must reach out across the divides to show each other the empathy we feel for our nearest and dearest, the care and the warmth. By moving towards the darkness of violence, rather than fighting it or hiding from it, and by offering tentative acceptance for one another, my hope is that some day we can overcome the past.
As Einstein wrote: ‘Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.’3
1. Elliott R, Davis K, Slatick E. Process-experiential therapy for posttraumatic stress difficulties. In: Greenberg LS, Watson JC, Lietar G (eds). Handbook of experiential psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press; 1998 (pp249–272).
2. Cooper M, Mearns D. Working at relational depth in counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage; 2005.
3. Einstein A. Cosmic religion: with other opinions and aphorisms. New York: Covici-Friede; 1931.