Chappell: Trauma, alienation, lack of meaning in my life…the same reason many people join violent extremist groups. Trauma is capable of causing the most severe human suffering. If you don’t have a way to successfully navigate through it, why would you even bring it up? People would rather repress or avoid or medicate it because they don’t have the tools to do anything else. Even doctors typically just medicate trauma.
The MOON: What is causing this dramatic increase in people who feel alienated, or who are suffering from trauma?
Chappell: There are many factors, but if I could point to one it’s an unfulfilled need for self-worth.
When I give lectures I often ask my audiences, what’s more important, survival or self-worth? A lot of people choose self-worth over survival, because living is very painful if you feel basically worthless.
In Jewish tradition there’s an idea that humiliating someone is equivalent to killing them. Throughout human history, many people would kill themselves or risk their lives to regain their sense of self-worth if they brought shame or humiliation on themselves or their families. Think of samurai, who would kill themselves if they’d been humiliated or shamed; or people in the past who risked death by duel if they felt they’d been humiliated; or even people with anorexia, who will prioritize self-worth over food, health, and sometimes over staying alive. Between five and 20 percent of people with anorexia will die from the disorder.
If we understand that much of human behavior is driven by people trying to feel worthy and that they will risk or choose death if they can’t, we have to recognize that worthlessness is a very painful state for a human being. However the world is a lot bigger than it used to be. A lot of people aren’t able to find their place in it.
The old institutions that people are losing faith in today, like governments, the church, and even tradition, also gave people a sense of meaning, belonging, and security. Erich Fromm wrote about this in Escape from Freedom—that people will surrender their freedom if it restores their sense of purpose, meaning, belonging, and security. The rapid pace of change in our world has made many people anxious, and the old institutions aren’t providing the answers they crave. I believe we’re in a transitional phase as we move toward a new understanding that better meets our needs, but it’s also a very dangerous time. People will submit to an authoritarian government if they think it will help them meet basic human needs.
So it’s not that spiritual poverty is new; it has always been with us. Even the Iliad, which was written nearly three-thousand years ago, expresses this kind of existential crisis. But our situation is more urgent now because nuclear war can destroy most life on Earth, and we have the technological capacity to destabilize our biosphere. The consequences of not addressing our spiritual poverty are worse.
The MOON: You grew up in a violent household and were traumatized as a child. How have you transformed your early training into becoming a peace activist; indeed, someone who trains others to be peace activists, as well?
Chappell: It involved transforming rage into radical empathy. It wasn’t easy. I’ve been working diligently at it for 20 years.
The MOON: Was there a moment when you realized that you had to make a change; that violence and anger weren’t going to get you where you wanted to go?
Chappell: It probably began when I was around 19. I was with a group of friends at West Point. It was a Saturday during fall clean-up and we’d been assigned to rake up leaves on campus. We were taking a 10-minute break and talking about how boring the work was, when I said, “Do you remember being so bored in high school that you’d fantasize about shooting all the other kids in your class?” All the other guys looked at me and said, “Noooo…”
I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Come on, really. You never fantasized about killing the other students?” They each insisted, “No.” Then they asked me, “How often would you think these things?” And I told them, “Just about every day.” They all became very concerned about me, insisting that those thoughts weren’t normal; that not everyone thinks about killing other people. Because of my state of mind at that time, I thought everyone fantasized about massacring people, perhaps because I was projecting onto everyone around me. The reaction of my classmates at West Point made me realize that something was different about me that I needed to work on, or heal, or address.
After that incident, I called my one friend from high school and asked him if he’d ever thought about killing all the other kids at school. He said no. Then he asked me, “When you had these fantasies, did you think about killing me, too?” And I said, “Yeah. Nothing personal. I just wanted to kill everyone back then.”
It was absolutely horrible to be in that psychological state. A lot of people have no idea what madness at that level of rage feels like. If you want to kill people who’ve never done you any harm; even people who’ve been nothing but nice to you, you’re in a lot of pain.
The MOON: Wow. That’s quite a transformation, Paul. And now you’re a champion for peace literacy. Let’s talk about what that entails. It’s a really tall order, isn’t it? Just the first aspect of peace literacy, “recognizing our shared humanity,” seems like a stretch goal.
Chappell: Peace literacy is a tall order, but so is learning math, or reading and writing. Our education system devotes the time needed to teach these subjects; if we decide peace literacy is important, we can devote the time and resources to teaching it, as well.
In fact, waging peace requires even more training than waging war because it addresses the root causes of the problem, while waging war only deals with the symptoms. Fortunately, people seem to find this information very compelling. It empowers them. They can better understand and deal with human behavior—their own and others’.
People want easy answers, but peace literacy is complex. There’s no “six-minute abs” class for peace literacy. But if you want to play a sport really well, or be really good on the guitar, or violin, you’re going to have to devote time and effort to it. Proficiency at anything takes time and commitment. There’s no shortcut.
The MOON: That’s why it seems like a tall order. We’re not teaching those skills in school, for the most part. Maybe in kindergarten, where we’re taught to share, take turns, and keep our hands to ourselves, but we don’t explore the subject in much complexity. So how do people begin? With themselves?
Chappell: To teach our shared humanity I focus on what all humans have in common, regardless of race, religion, nationality, education, or gender. For example, we all need trust. There’s not a human being on the planet who doesn’t want to be around people they can trust. Hitler; Osama bin Laden; members of the mafia; members of the peace movement; members of ISIS—everyone in the world wants to be around people they can trust. The breakdown of trust, which is something we’re seeing right now among Americans, is extremely damaging to a society. People have even lost trust in our institutions—like government, science, and the media. It’s impossible to have a healthy democracy without a shared basis in trust. Another trait we have in common is that no one likes being betrayed. These are two of many factors that unite all humans and transcend surface differences.
The MOON: But some people seem loathe to embrace people of other races or religions on the basis of shared values. There’s a video, “All that we share,” making the rounds of social media. It shows people in Denmark discovering many of the things they have in common, despite surface differences. It’s a sweet video, but I was dismayed to see that many of the comments were statements like, “Yeah, but that’s Denmark, where there are only white people,” totally missing the point. How do we get past that?
Chappell: I believe we must so thoroughly understand the human condition that we aren’t surprised or bewildered by anything another human can do. We might not condone it, but we aren’t shocked or confused by it. The only way to deal with the root causes of a problem is to understand them.
When people decry “senseless violence,” they’re showing their lack of literacy in our shared humanity because violence is never senseless to the person perpetrating it. When people commit violence they’re risking imprisonment, perhaps even their very lives, so they have a reason. Throwing up one’s hands and calling violence “senseless” is like having a doctor tell you, “You’ve got a senseless illness.” Even if your doctor doesn’t understand the cause of your illness, he or she knows that there is one. If they’re a good doctor, they will seek to understand what it is. Similarly, if we want to address the root cause of violence in our culture, we have to get to the point where we can say, “I understand why you’re feeling violent, and here’s what we can do.” That’s what peace literacy is; understanding the root causes of human behavior and offering practical ways to address it. That’s why I don’t lose hope.
The MOON: How might I constructively respond to someone who says something like, “Well, of course people in Denmark can come together; they’re all white”?
Chappell: You can begin by acknowledging that they have a point. It is a lot easier to come together in a homogenous society like Denmark. It’s a lot more difficult in a society as diverse as the United States. Visitors from Europe often tell me how surprised they are at the diversity of the United States, and it does take a little more work to keep a diverse society together.
The MOON: Is that the first step to a constructive dialog—acknowledging the legitimacy of the other person’s opinion?
Chappell: It’s like Gandhi said, “Everyone has a piece of the truth.” I don’t fully agree with what they’re saying, but I can acknowledge they’re holding a piece of the truth. I’d also ask them to clarify, because it seems to me that they’re implying that people can only come together if they’re the same race. But then I could point out situations where people of all races come together. Look at sports fans: it doesn’t matter what race they are; they can all root for the same team because they’ve identified something that unites them.
Also, I’d make the point that what’s easy isn’t always what’s good. It’s easier to not exercise; it’s easier to not eat healthfully; it’s easier to procrastinate. It takes more work to promote a healthy, diverse society, but it’s better for humanity to do that. Easy and ethical are not the same thing.
The MOON: Another peace literacy skill you identify is the “art of living.” Can you give us some examples of how that can be taught?
Chappell: The art of living includes such basic abilities as how to get along with other humans, how to resolve conflict, how to challenge injustice and overcome adversity. These are basic life skills that some people learn from their parents, but again, a lot of people learn bad habits from their parents. Living is an art form; the most difficult art form; and we’re not taught how to go about it. Just as with other art forms, if you’re not taught, you typically don’t know. Worse, our culture tends to teach counter-productive behaviors. I think a lot of the hopelessness and despair people are feeling is that the worldview they hold doesn’t explain what they’re seeing, so of course they don’t know how to address it.
I teach a paradigm that lays out nine non-physical fundamental needs that drive human behavior, and how trauma becomes entangled in those cravings and distorts their expression. When these nine human needs are understood, we can understand how their lack of fulfillment leads to the situation we’ve got. We might not accept or condone the behavior we see, but we aren’t shocked or confused by it. And we know practical steps we can take to make the situation better.
Nurturing relationships, for example, encompass trust, respect, and empathy. If that need becomes entangled with trauma, however, a person might respond with a persistent inability to trust.
Humans also have a craving for explanations. When trauma gets entangled in our craving for explanations, it can lead to disillusionment or a ruthless worldview, which says that human beings are inherently untrustworthy and dangerous, so you must hurt them before they can hurt you, or at the very least control them so that they can’t hurt you.
Humans also have a need for expression. If trauma becomes entangled with it, then rage becomes our primary means of expression. If trauma becomes entangled with our need for belonging, it can lead to alienation. If trauma becomes tangled with our need for self-worth, it can lead to shame or self-loathing. If trauma becomes entangled with our need for purpose and meaning, we can feel that life is meaningless and not worth living. When trauma becomes entangled with our need for transcendence it can lead to addiction. And so on. When we understand human needs, we can identify the root cause of the destructive behaviors we’re seeing. Traumatized people can be full of rage, self-loathing, alienation, mistrust, and so on, depending on how trauma affects that person.
The MOON: What are some of the practical steps we can take to help when we encounter someone whose human needs have become entangled with trauma?
Chappell: As a society we have to recognize that these human needs are as basic as food and water. If people don’t have access to healthy ways to satisfy them, they will accept unhealthy, destructive ways.
Yet what is the primary source of self-worth, purpose, and meaning our culture teaches? Making a lot of money. If you make a lot of money, you’re worthy. It doesn’t matter whether you have integrity, kindness, empathy, or the ability to form a healthy relationship. By the same token, if you make little to no money, you’re worthless. A society that has us view our worth in terms of money, while largely ignoring all of the other needs—belonging, self-worth, purpose, meaning, expression, transcendence, and all the rest—creates a huge spiritual vacuum that extremist groups can readily fill.
As a society, we have to start valuing and encouraging healthy forms of expression, self-worth, belonging, explanation, purpose, meaning, transcendence and all the rest, through service, integrity, making the world better. Plus, we need to give people skills for untangling their trauma. Trauma affects people from all walks of life. Trauma doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, black or white, a man or a woman, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist. It can walk through walls and enter people’s homes through their parents, through alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, rape, and many other ways. So we have to give people practical tools for healing their own trauma. Then we have to give people peace skills, which are healthy ways to satisfy their needs for self-worth, belonging, expression, explanation, meaning, purpose, and all the rest.
The MOON: What are some of the practical ways to untangle trauma?
Chappell: That’s a bit like asking “What’s a practical way to do calculus, or play the violin?” It’s a process, a skill set, one has to acquire. It is very difficult; it can take years.
The framework I provide helps a lot because the word trauma is too general. It’s more helpful when people are able to identify their suffering more explicitly; for example, to say, “I’m suffering from shame, or self-loathing.” “I’m suffering from mistrust.” “I’m suffering from meaninglessness.” “I’m suffering from alienation.” Two other tangles of trauma, by the way, are helplessness and numbness.
This vocabulary gives people a more precise way to describe the entanglement they’re struggling with. In my own life, I dealt mostly with mistrust, rage, alienation, and self-loathing. Another person might suffer from addiction, numbness, or helplessness.
Knowing what specific form my trauma entanglement takes, I know what I need to work on. How can I heal my feelings of mistrust? How do I find healthier forms of communication that don’t involve rage? How do I heal my sense of shame and self-loathing, or my sense of alienation? And everyone’s trauma is different.
The repair process involves inner work and developing the capacity to maintain healthy human relationships. Traumatized people in particular need skills for being able to communicate well, deal with conflict constructively, deal with another person’s aggression, deal with their own aggression, and so on, because relationship failure is likely to re-traumatize them.
The MOON: How do you teach someone to deal with their own aggression, for example?