Interactional Matrix of Intervention and polymorphous helplessness

Societal discourses and narratives play a decisive role in forming conceptualisations concerning the phenomena and experiences of involuntary dislocation and other forms of adversity (e.g. Boltanski, 1999; Chouliaraki, 2006, 2013; Lawrence & Tavernor, 2019; Ibrahim, 2020; Pearce & Charman, 2011; Seu & Orgad,

2017; Ure & Frost, 2014). Vukasovich & Dejanovic-Vukasovich (2016; Zucconi, 2018). This subsection, supplementing the existing worthy literature, identifies a different set of factors by analysing typical human reactions to severe forms of adversity, outside the traditional structures of psychological and other theories.

To begin with, we must identify the key actors of the involuntary dislocation drama. Usually, the focus is on (a) the people who are directly affected by the adversity, e.g. the involuntarily dislocated individuals, (b) those who help them, e.g. humanitarian organisations and workers, and occasionally, (c) the underlying societal discourses and narratives that construct particular formulas to perceive and present the events and experiences of the first two groups of actors. In addition, there are two more actors: (d) the individuals and groups of people who relate closely to those in the first two groups, e.g. family members, neighbours, colleagues, etc., and (e) the wider society that is also affected in various ways by all the above. For example, exposure to media coverage of the trials and tribulations of members of the (a), (b), and (d) groups can affect profoundly unrelated individuals and groups of people.

In my various field projects, I found it useful to call this cluster the Interactional Matrix of Intervention, in order to remind myself and my colleagues not only of who the implicated parties are (so that we ensure to account for their impact and possible input on the project), but also of the fact that each group affects, directly or indirectly, all the others in a reciprocal way. This is the rationale for using the term interactional matrix. Each group is equally important, in its own right, regardless of whether its effects are of direct or indirect nature.

Writing elsewhere about the first group of actors, those who suffer by the adversities, I wrote that:

When struck by such truly awe-some and awe-ful adverse experiences, ordinary people become philosophers, but not of the armchair type. Deeply perturbed and troubled by the unpredictable and catastrophic turn of events, and facing the life-shattering consequences of the experienced adversities, they are shaken to the core of their being, and in deep anguish they struggle to make sense of what has befallen them and to reassess most aspects of their lives. Expressions such as ‘my life and whole world have turned upside down’ express the devastating impact such adversities have on people.

(Papadopoulos, 2020, p. 2)

Then, affected individuals desperately seek answers to questions about human destiny and suffering that they struggle to even coherently articulate. They are plagued by these painful questions such as, why me? why do calamities of this nature happen at all? how can people be so cruel to others? can we prevent these tragedies? why can we not learn from history? what is the meaning of my life after what happened to me and my family? These are unsettling and, in the main, unanswerable questions that essentially are of a philosophical nature and may also be characterised as ‘existential’, ‘ontological’, ‘spiritual’, etc.

The resulting effect is overwhelming, posing agonising challenges to our sense of mastery, rationality, and omnipotence. Referring specifically to disasters, Juan Jose Lopez-Ibor aptly conveyed the acuteness of these challenges:

A disaster is ... an empirical falsification of human action, the proof of the incorrectness of human beings’ conceptions on nature and culture. . . . Not only affects structures and social functioning, but also many mental schemes also break down. All of a sudden ... the loss of the sense of invulnerability becomes obvious.

(Lopez-Ibor, 2006, p. 178)

This quotation draws our attention to the enormity of impact that unexpected calamities can have on the affected persons. When adversity strikes and public tragedies develop, a lot of our basic belief systems that we hold unquestionably are challenged, and above all, our beliefs about our own self-sufficiency and control.

During our ordinary course of life, we are introduced to occasional disruptions to the predictability of our everyday expectations and patterns of living, of varying degrees of intensity and disturbance, e.g. irregular functioning of public transport, small domestic accidents, mild financial mishaps, etc. Despite these disruptions, mostly we tend to hold on to our fundamental values and beliefs, and to our basic conviction that the way we view life and our role in it is reasonably correct and unalterable. Then, when stronger forms of adversity strike abruptly, we are shocked by what is obvious: that life is full of unpredictabilities and we cannot always be in total control of all aspects of our lives. Evidently, it is difficult to live according to the Heraclitean dictum ‘expect the unexpected' (fragment 18), despite its appealingly charming wisdom.

Then, depending on the specific form of public tragedy, all members of the interactional matrix are likely to experience some or all of the following effects: human losses and injuries; material losses and damages; disruption to the predictable routine of our lives (personal, family, work, community, social); changes in interpersonal relationships (with family, friends, work, community); changes to status (social, professional, financial, etc.); various forms and degrees of distress, ranging from mild discomfort to psychological symptoms, or even psychiatric disorders; confrontation with new, urgent, unfamiliar, and unanswerable philo-sophical/existential questions, affecting our existing ‘mental schemes’, i.e. our philosophy of life, sense of our own identity, etc; and difficulty in containing all of these new changes while attempting to grasp, in some meaningful way, the totality of the situation in its complexity.

This list is formidable both in its breadth of impact as well as its multidimensionality. This list, which I call the list of multidimensional tragic effects, presents a particularly awkward and debilitating mixture because each one of these items encapsulates an enormous universe in its own right, demanding our full attention. Experiencing these diverse effects simultaneously can cause a fairly disorienting and numbing confusion. Such combination (with all its diversity and ferocity), in conjunction with the pressures and urgency produced by the adversity, invariably overwhelm us.

Needless to say, the impact of these multidimensional tragic effects on individuals, families, and communities can vary widely depending on a considerably broad spectrum of contributing factors, which will be discussed later (in Chapter 10). Not everybody is overwhelmed by helplessness in a paralysing way, and not everyone assumes the identity of a victim. Some, forced by the same adverse circumstances and facing the same unbearable burden of these effects, may find new meaning and even thrive (e.g. Fantlova, 2013; Hicks, 2011). At a societal level, it has been found that following disasters, seemingly paradoxically, resilience and community cohesion often increase (e.g. Bonanno & Diminich, 2013; Kendra & Wachtendorf, 2003; Mancini, 2019; O'Leary, 1998; Rogers, 2003). These responses will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 10. Needless to say, the negative effects are not and should not be ignored, but they should also not blind us to overlook the wider range of responses that also include positive reconstruction and transformation.

One of the main contentions of this book, which is emphasised repeatedly, is that the overall impact such tragedies have is undeniably overwhelming, leading to a combination of negative and positive responses and not exclusively to negative outcomes. This means that although the multidimensional tragic effects definitely create an overwhelmingness that invariably produces a confusing complexity, this can be transformed into a fruitful discerning complexity.

Overwhelmed by the confusing complexity, it is understandable that we look for reliable sources of guidance to provide answers and solutions, and within our current societal contexts, we turn to the various types of authorities, relevant experts, and set systems of meaning (e.g. political, spiritual, ideological, cultural). However, the media tend to dominate in offering to perform this task, although their medium and scope have severe limitations. Unable to provide the transformative function that the tragedy offered in the ancient Greek society, they cannot possibly create the conditions for ennobling and transmuting human suffering. Thus, with varying degrees of responsibility and success, they undertake their task as best as they can, while the public, entrapped within their multi-layered impotence, grapple for any morsel of consolation, for anything that appears capable of providing answers that seem satisfactory, regardless of their actual veracity or efficacy.

For example, when we are confronted by the news with accompanying images of a mass exodus from a war-stricken region, the media are likely to invite experts, political commentators, historians, humanitarian officials, psychologists etc. to present and discuss various versions of the historical background and possible causes and consequences of the catastrophe. However, such explanations do not address all the facets of the multidimensional tragic effects that trouble us deeply.

Painful incomprehensibility reaches even higher levels when confronted by situations of extreme human atrocities and savagery, such as the Rwandan genocide. The media provided an informative context concerning the contributing factors that led to the enmity between Hutus and Tutsis, e.g. the historical background, the colonial influence, and the ethnic tensions, invariably including eyewitness testimonies and shocking images of catastrophic desolation, death, and human suffering. All of this gave us the illusory sense that we somehow had some kind of understanding of the un-understandable, i.e. how it was possible that, within about one hundred days, nearly 1 million persons were slaughtered by their compatriots.

It seems that, non-consciously, we go along with the media, accepting the tapestry of historical, economic, political, geographic, psychological, and other such information that they weave for us as a concealing veil to protect ourselves from facing the unbearable agony of incomprehensibility, at least temporarily. Undeniably, the media succeed, to a degree, in engaging us with the stories they construct for us by making them attractive and by evoking what Aristotle called, a ‘hedonic thrill’ as well as by activating some types of fear and eleos in us. However, insofar as they do not deal with all the multidimensional tragic effects, they invariably exacerbate the thirst for deeper comprehension.

The point here is not to dismiss modern media, comparing them with the Greek tragedy, as their differences and dissimilar contexts are glaringly obvious. Nevertheless, by reflecting on their respective functions, we should be alerted to the umnet needs. Incidentally, one may argue that the arts, nowadays, fulfil some of the functions that the ancient Greek tragedy used to provide. This is partly true. However, nobody would disagree that the arts do not have the same appeal and coherent embeddedness in our societies as the tragedy had in the ancient Greek world.

Under these circumstances, it seems that there are three possible responses for all members of the interactional matrix in relation to these unanswerable existential questions:

  • (a) To attempt to silence them and accept patchy answers, clumsily concocted, based on the factual and other technical information provided by the media and experts.
  • (b) Or, to attempt to depotentiate their power, e.g. by over-concentrating on only a couple of aspects of these multidimensional tragic effects, usually the most graspable ones, such as material losses and their reconstruction or human rights violations and reparations.
  • (c) Or, to pathologise the anguish they generate and shove it into the medical/ psychiatric tray, enlisting mental health specialists to deal with it.

Regardless of the degree of success of these responses, one clear outcome emerges: all these needs, anxieties, fears, and insecurities produced by the phenomena of public tragedies cannot be suppressed completely. These give rise to a new cluster of needs.

A note of caution: whenever we consider ‘needs’, in the context of public tragedies, we tend to think of the specific material, medical, and psychosocial needs of the directly affected group of people (i.e. the first group of the interactional matrix). Yet, the needs emanating from the multidimensional tragic effects affect the entire group of all the interactional matrix actors. Moreover, experience in the field shows that when phenomena of public tragedies occur, the following, more specific categories of needs tend to arise in all implicated parties, explicitly or implicitly, and I have found that it is useful for me and others on the project to have a clearer awareness of these needs:

  • (a) For information (about the nature and sequence of events, remedial action taken and by whom, possible alternative action, etc.).
  • (b) For explanation (about the nature, causes, and effects of the events, e.g. background, technical, historical, or other specialist explanations, etc.).
  • (c) For evaluation (e.g. of the effectiveness of the remedial action taken, who is responsible).
  • (d) For prediction (e.g. of the likely repetition of the tragedy, of the longer-term or other side effects).
  • (e) For personal relevance/impact (e.g. directly or indirectly now and in the future).

Then, once some of the above are addressed (and regardless of how effective this was), another group of needs is likely to emerge:

  • (f) For addressing discrete needs identified in the affected population (e.g. security, health/medical, and other material needs, financial, legal, social, educational, psychological, psychiatric, spiritual).
  • (g) For addressing the distress that we have been exposed to directly or indirectly (e.g. suffering, disorientation, loss, anger, disbelief, fear).
  • (h) For addressing a host of various clusters of feelings and impulses directly or indirectly evoked by the public tragedy (e.g. for sharing and support, or for emotional frozenness and distance, for ventilation of feelings, for scapegoating, for démonisation and/or idealisation, for effective distraction, for dealing with guilt, shame).

Finally, the last group of needs would include:

  • (i) For addressing our shattered sense of rationality, mastery, and invulnerability as well as the inadequacy of our belief systems.
  • (j) For answers to the fundamental questions (e.g. philosophical, existential, ethical, and spiritual, about human nature, destiny and meaning of life).
  • (k) For addressing the overall sense of helplessness and/or confusion as a result of all of the above.
  • (l) And for establishing a sense of continuity, connecting our lives before with our lives after the public tragedy.

This is another formidable list that is simply impossible to meet. Yet, this does not mean that these needs are not experienced in an explicit or implicit manner. To clarify again, these needs should not be confused with the specific needs assessment exercises that are conducted with affected populations whenever there are eruptions of public tragedies.

Evidently, no service, organisation, or agency can possibly address properly the complexity of these needs. No approach can possibly encompass the wide variation of these needs. Yet, this list, which I call the list of impossible-to-meet tragic needs, poses a real and intricate web of unrelenting pressures that affect every person, family, and community in varying degrees and combinations, whenever they are faced with this type of phenomena.

The combination of the multidimensional tragic effects and the impossible-to-meet tragic needs forms a particularly powerful cluster of vulnerability that can be called toxic amalgam of polymorphous tragic helplessness.

On the one hand, these effects and needs are real, and yet they are impossible to be addressed or even identified in the way they are combined together. This can create a sense of frustration and ineptness in dealing with this toxic amalgam that is truly polymorphous, in that it manifests itself in many different forms and shapes, from personal ‘internal’ feelings and symptoms to external forms of inappropriate behaviours. People can feel defeated by the unexpected public tragedy in combination with this toxic amalgam, and they may respond in a manner that is either congruent with this helplessness or incongruent. Congruent ways include the appreciation of the complexity of this toxic amalgam and an attempt to address it (amounting to accepting a discerning complexity), whereas incongruent would include various forms of ignoring or displacing it, or over-reacting with a false sense of mastery (which can be seen as the result of a confusing complexity).

It is essential to appreciate that this dangerous cluster is not an individual construct and it does not reside exclusively ‘within’ one individual. Events of public tragedies activate in every human being (with considerable variations, of course) individualised formations of this toxic amalgam of effects and needs. Therefore, this cluster is a collective, societal entity as well as a personal and intrapsychic one, i.e. ‘within’ the psychological world of individuals. Public events always create collective as well as personal experiences that, of course, are interrelated. Individuals are affected not only by events that harm them directly but also by the widely held perceptions and views that affect the wider collective. In this way, this toxic amalgam of effects and needs forms the background framework out of which the very conceptualisations of these phenomena will emerge. And here again, we have another reciprocally circular process:

This lethal toxic amalgam contributes substantially to the formation of our conceptualisations, affecting the way we view these phenomena as overwhelmingly destructive and us as helpless. Accordingly, our experience of dealing with them confirms and strengthens our initial perception that they are, indeed, overwhelmingly destnictive, and we are helpless. This vicious cycle intensifies further the ferocity of the toxic amalgam of polymorphous tragic helplessness.

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