Coloured portrait

Coloured portrait

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Politics, Free Speech and Chronic Pain

There was a joke going around during my youth behind the Iron Curtain in communist Romania, one of the thousands of jokes of victim humour that the oppressed thinkers used to whisper to each other in order to cope during the tyranny of the political regime of that time and place: 

Question: “What is the difference between a Russian journalist and an American one?” 

Answer: “They are both free to write whatever they want. But the American journalist is also free afterwards.”

I grew up in a world of lies and play-pretend, making believe that all is well when it was not, applauding the politicians whom we loathed and feared, masking our pain to compose poetry and songs about how happy we all were to live under the communist regime in our beloved socialist republic. 

The day I arrived in Israel as a new immigrant, on a hot May evening in 1985, when I was 24, a Romanian-speaking clerk welcomed me on the Ben-Gurion airport, and filled out a questionnaire before sending me to my new home, an immigrant centre in Ashdod. 

“Have you arrived here with family?” The clerk asked.

“No, I’m on my own” I answered.

“Where are your parents? Mom, Dad?” He went on inquiring.

“They are staying behind in Bucharest” I replied.

The clerk chuckled and said: “Oh, they’re staying behind with Ceausescu!”

I panicked. Someone might hear us talk about Ceausescu! People have disappeared and ended up in prison for mentioning the Romanian leader’s name in disrespectful ways, and that included political jokes and all kinds of innuendoes and humour. For a few moments I forgot that I was on a new, free land. A short flight of two hours and twenty minutes from Bucharest to Tel Aviv was not enough to erase the fear of speaking truth, of speaking up. It took me a few moments to realize that I was now free. I took a breath of relief. 

At the Romanian Intelligence quarters, a Securitate officer asks Yitzik:

“Yitzik, why do you want to immigrate to Israel?”

“Because there I can go to a central square in Tel Aviv and yell out loud that the Israeli Prime Minister is an idiot!” Replies Yitzik.

The Securitate officer shrugs and asks: “So what keeps you from going to a central square in Bucharest and yell out loud that the Israeli Prime Minister is an idiot?”

***

I am recovering from PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My treatment is what is usually referred to as “alternative” therapy: classical homeopathy, mind-body methods, mindful meditation, and conscious movement. Things get worse before they get better, as bottled pain, physical and emotional, is being unleashed and bubbling up to the surface of my awareness, sometimes in quite intense ways.

In the past few weeks I dealt with a particularly intense bout of rage mixed with anxiety, so intense that I was pushed beyond my ability to self-regulate, which I am otherwise quite skilled at. The emotions were so strong that my thinking was clouded - you could call that “foggy brain” - the same kind of cloudiness one experiences when drunk or otherwise poisoned, and I was physically sick with nausea and fatigue to the point of almost fainting. There was also a sense of being contracted and self-absorbed by the intense pain, unable to focus around me, to my immediate surroundings. This entire experience leaked out in several of my relationships, and caused further pain.

As I pause my treatment to integrate what’s happening with me, and the clouds of fog dissipate, I am able to see a bigger picture of the emotions within the context of what has triggered me. As PTSD sufferers know, triggers are present events which elicit a response, and the emotional intensity of the response is intense and out of proportion with the trigger, which indicates a memory response from something painful that happened in the past.

One of the incidents took place at my Comedy Improv training. During an exercise exploring status, one partner having a low status and the other high status, my high-status character partner corrected my language: “It’s called lemon zest, not peel!” When we switched roles, and I played a high-status character, I playfully paraphrased my own English language limitations and said to my partner: “And by the way, this is called lemon zest, and not peel”. To make my line humorous, I added drama, rolled my eyes and said: “Some people don’t even speak good English!” And scoffed: “Those immigrants!” (I am an immigrant with a strong Romanian accent and after seventeen years of living in Canada and speaking English, I still make mistakes)

Every one of my colleagues laughed, except the instructor, who said: “You don’t say that, which you said in the end”. She refrained to even utter the word “Immigrants” but referred to the Improv school’s rule of “Punch UP!”, meaning, don’t laugh at the -quote- “disenfranchised groups” and do laugh at those in power. 

The instructor’s intervention left me shocked, and I was overwhelmed with emotion. It took me a while to understand that what has happened was censorship on my language which unconsciously threw me back mentally to the memory of my childhood and youth under the communist regime. As I have been listening at quite a few talks on YouTube on the topic of free speech, mostly talks with Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Haidt, and Gad Saad, I became aware of the ideology of language censorship prevailing in today’s academia, which is what I was dealing with at my Improv class. The instructor herself lives in fear of uttering taboo words, including “immigrants”, and extends that fear to the students. Even as an immigrant I am not allowed to utter the word “immigrant” in a humour context, not even to laugh at my own immigrant self. And as I am writing this, I am well aware that publishing this article comes with a risk, and might cost me participation in the theatre’s Improv classes and jams. 

But I have learned that keeping silent comes at a risk too, and one major risk is body pain. When my holistic reflexology therapist performed the intake foot analysis (based on the Avi Grinberg method) back in January 1999 in Israel, she looked at the signs of imbalance in my feet and told me my life story from what she saw: the Water element is over-represented, and this is the world of your emotions. You have water retention, and this body fat is not from food, but from all the insults you swallowed throughout the years. She was painfully accurate.

Every time something, a truth, needs to be spoken and isn’t, failure to say what must be said causes tension in the body. In time, tension becomes pain, and a life of chronic lies leads to a life of chronic pain, and often extraneous body fat and water. I know this from my own life, experience, and body. As I write this, I am aware of sharp shooting pain through my muscles, in my neck, arms, legs, and back. Emotions are emerging, as a part of me is still scared of telling the truth, and arguing against publishing this article, while another part of me would rather speak truthfully and live with the consequences.

In New Age jargon, chronic pain is sometimes explained as the result of living in misalignment with one’s soul purpose. I have thought about this a lot, wondering what I should do to align my life with my soul’s purpose. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me that alignment with one’s purpose must begin by telling the truth, first to oneself (truth about what matters most to one’s self) and then to others. I value kindness, and believe that the truth should be spoken kindly, but also fiercely, if any positive changes are to be made, even with, and in spite of any discomfort caused. Growth is not comfortable - have you seen children growing teeth? Imagine how uncomfortable it is to be growing a spine (metaphorically, how you stand up in the world).

***

The Biodanza weekly classes I participate in always begin with an hour of “circle sharing”, where participants talk about their experience with last week’s dances. Most of the talks are expressions of gratitude to the teacher and the other dancers, and to the beauty and benefits of the exercises. Most of my speech has been outlining my own appreciation of this practice, which is a truly joyful, uplifting and enlivening practice that I have been looking forward to every week. There has been one aspect that at times I have difficulty with, and that’s the bad odours emanating from some of the dancers’ body and breath, particularly during dances of intimate embrace where we literally breathe into each other’s face. I have always had a sensitivity to smells, or, as Jordan Peterson calls it - a sensitivity to disgust. Reaction to disgust is embodied and involuntary, ranging from nausea, to stomach spasms and breath-holding.

The Tuesday night Biodanza group is a closed group, the participants are the same people each week, and we dance with each other as a tribe, a friendly tribe. I get ready for the dance like I’d go on a date,  I shower, put on beautiful clothes and jewellery, brush my teeth and put on perfume. Some of my fellow dancers do the same, and I see this as a way to consider each other, and make each other’s dance a pleasurable experience. Other dancers care less about their appearance’s effect on others, and last week a tall dancer had raw garlic for dinner before our dance, and as this dancer and I ended a dance exercise in an embrace, I felt a wave of the raw garlic breath down on my face as it nested at his chest, and I became sick and distressed. But I said nothing, and did nothing about it, which is my usual conditioned response to distress: “freeze”. Determined to change in ways that are good for others as well, I decided to talk about my experience in the sharing circle, and request the said dancer, and all dancers in our group, to not eat raw garlic before our dance. 

As we sat in the circle, I spoke as kindly as I could, feeling clumsy and awkward about my request, trying to be playful about it, but causing discomfort nonetheless. There were two responses to my request: one, beginning with the teacher, was to invalidate my disgust and proclaim the benefits of natural smells (she said something about how our sense of smell changes, indicating that I should change my sense of smell, while she encouraged the dancer to keep eating garlic if he wanted to). The other response was whispered from the sides, from fellow dancers who congratulated and thanked me for the courage to speak up on a topic that was as relevant to them as it was to me, but they hadn’t been willing to risk by saying anything about it.

Again, speaking the truth might risk my membership into this tribe; but I dare to think it will also cause change, and at least some of the dancers might be mindful of the way they get ready to move with, breathe with, and touch other people. 

Is there a better way I could have spoken and addressed the bad smell topic? I am sure. Speaking the difficult truth is new to me and I am clumsy at it, and I have so much to practice. 

Also, speaking the difficult truth is neither encouraged, nor promoted by the culture that I am part of, so I go not only against my own fears, but against the so-to-speak cultural grain.


But it’s the best alternative that I have to living with chronic pain, in a web of lies and play-pretend. And I am inspired by those who do speak up, and speak well, and I am trying to learn how it’s done.

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