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Social Healing: Sri Lanka at a Tipping Point

by James O'Dea

Social—or societal—healing is an emerging field. It seeks to bring learning in a variety of adjacent fields such as peacemaking, peace building, conflict resolution, trauma recovery, and restorative justice together with insights from the new sciences including consciousness studies, neuroscience, and an integral approach to mind-body medicine.

Clearly a big package.

Yet it is becoming evident that exploring how societies heal from the wounds of the past or the ordeals of the present that have left people alienated, fragmented, and prey to systemic violence or ecological trauma requires a whole-systems and inter-disciplinary perspective. It also requires an understanding of how particular societies view reality, construct meaning, and dialogue about fundamental differences, as well as how they adapt systems of governance and incorporate new knowledge to create healthier societies. To get a feel for how social healing might make an evolutionary impact in a specific context, I offer the following as embattled Sri Lanka confronts an uncertain future.

Which Story to Choose?

Last year a protracted war between the government and the Tamil Tigers was brought to an end in Sri Lanka. The war had brought years of massive and sustained casualties and the scourge of terrorism.

When a society that has experienced the deep trauma of violent conflict reaches a point when hostilities have ended and real peace is possible, it faces a pivotal choice-point: Will it clamp down on its citizens to prevent a slide back into chaos or seize the opportunities that peace provides to forge a new story of healing, collaboration, and community renewal.

Clamping down is the old story. It consists of strategies that restrict freedom, stifle dissent, apportion blame, and deny the reality of widespread wounding. Denial is part of this very old story because we see in historical process how it drives wounds underground and encourages the transmission of our deepest hurts from generation to generation. It is a reflection of an old story because it refuses to accept that we now have technologies and methodologies for both individual and communal recovery from trauma. And it is a dreary old story because all it does is delay to a future date the re-opening of wounded memories which become more toxic over time. History is full of examples of old wounds bursting open with aggravated toxicity.

And so when a society finds itself in such circumstances, it must choose between the old and the new story. Sri Lanka, unfortunately, is tipping toward the old story and shows little sign of implementing a comprehensive agenda of societal healing and renewal.

What would such a program of healing look like?

It would require an integrated government strategy putting skilled consultants and those with responsibilities for policy and planning in health, education, and community development into on-the-ground collaboration with the leading-edge cross-section of academia and civil society. It would require a commitment to learn best practice from the innovative social healing work being conducted in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and South Africa. It would convene the best thinking on promoting reconciliation and facilitating a healthy orientation to the future. It would necessitate a strategy to utilize insights from the field of mind-body medicine.

It would invest in its future generations. We live during a time when teaching appreciation for cultural and religious diversity is understood as an important aspect of building tolerance in a society. We also know that when young people are given opportunities to develop their social and emotional intelligence, there are multiple academic, behavioral, and psychological benefits. Supported by the best science, such practices as breath work and basic meditative composure are being taught to help young people increase their capacities for heart-centered awareness and empathy for others.

A government-academia-NGO collaboration can go even further in addressing the wounds of the past. We now understand how critical it is for both combatants and victims of violence to work through the trauma of past events. There are considerable domestic and international resources for Sri Lanka to draw upon to address the scars and wounds of prolonged exposure to violence and intimidation. Contemporary science has advanced enough to help us appreciate not only the centrality of mind-body health but also the negative impact when individuals or groups carry unresolved trauma and post-traumatic stress. Other tools available to facilitate this healing work include

* political, interfaith and intercommunal dialogue;

* the use of multiple forms of media to give voice to the full story of people’s suffering and to bear witness to the full diversity of people’s experience during times of violent conflict; and

* public commissions that provide opportunities for historical documentation and truth-telling, apology, atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Desmond Tutu reminds us that wounds are dangerous when they are covered over; they must be opened and washed and then, and only then, can the balm be applied to close them.

One thing is clear: There can be no healing in a society unless its government lays out a policy framework to build a future around. New knowledge abounds on how this healing can happen. For a government to ignore such knowledge is to turn its back on real progress. I hope Sri Lanka can embrace this evolutionary path…because we are all very weary of the old story.

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