In September Hearing the Voice launched their new online resource understandingvoices.com and together with 11 other speakers I was invited to give a 5 min talk on our ideas about the future of hearing voices and research around these experiences.
A world without voices (long version)
What I will be suggesting in this talk may seem flippant and naïve. It may seem like I don’t have any idea how much suffering and confusion the experience of hearing voices can cause or how it can disrupt not just a person life but the life of their family. What I’ll be suggesting is just that – a suggestion. It is just one way of looking at things and it may make sense but it’s okay if it doesn’t.
We were asked to talk about ‘What we need to know?’
But I don’t know what we need to know…
I am not even sure what it means to know something. And I wonder if there are different kinds of knowing? Sometimes we know something in our heads. And sometimes knowing is in our hearts or in our guts – a personal intuitive knowing…
It seems to me that in Western society we are trying to create a world without voices. Turning away from voices – denying them a part in our lives – is currently not only an acceptable approach but an encouraged approach when someone hears voices or has similar experiences.
Even in current research that tries to explain where voices come from or find the best ways to help people who hear voices, there is an emphasis on understanding voices as psychological or emotional malfunctioning that can be managed – and maybe eventually will go to background or disappear. Living well despite the voices…
Hearing voices is seen as a sign that something went wrong with us, whether it was biologically or psychologically – even if we ask ‘what happened’ rather than ‘what is wrong’ we are still regarding voices as part of something problematic. When we see voices as a sign of living through difficult life events it can still encourage a narrative of the individual not being resilient enough – and we still seem to be discussing whether resilience is down to nurture or nature.
We seem a long way away from accepting voices as – not just a normal – but a natural part of human experience.
The voices I hear passionately object to a world without voices – and so do I.
They do not want to be confined in boxes with medical or psychological labels, they believe they are more than that. And that they have an important role to play for the collective human development. I agree with them.
In cultures influenced by white, western rational approaches to the human psyche, voices are not welcome. Yet they are still here. They keep coming along. After centuries of being demonised, exorcised, ridiculed and ignored voices are still trying to get our attention.
I was once told a story about children in orphanages. How someone had observed the children’s behaviour change over time as their needs for care and connection were not met. How at first some of them cried, some of them screamed, some of them lashed out, biting and scratching, some of them hurting themselves. But eventually they all went quiet. A room of infants and young children, alone in the cots and beds, lying listlessly and quietly…
There, peace and quiet was not peace and quiet. It was something beyond distress and beyond despair. Something I don’t even know how to describe.
When I feel resentful about the voices I hear and the attention they want from me, I often think of this story. And I imagine that there must be so many voices out there that are not being heard. That the ones we hear are the ones who still have some fight left in them. They still believe in us, they still believe they can get us to pay attention and connect with them so they scream and swear and threatened and entice us.
But what about all the ones that we have ignored for so long that they have given up on us? I wonder if there is a place out there where voices lie listlessly and quietly…
I struggle to believe that hearing voices is a sign that the individual is malfunctioning in some way… whether it’s biologically or psychologically… I struggle to believe that a person hearing voices is somehow separate from the rest of humanity and that if the experience is problematic, that it is their personal problem.
For me hearing voices was never ‘my’ problem. It was a problem for my surroundings and therefore it became a problem for me. The dominant belief that voices are a sign of something malfunctioning in the individual – to me this is a sign that something is malfunctioning in our society as a whole. It tells me that we have co-created – and still are – conditions and environments that disconnect us from our heritage, from the land, from the collective intelligence/consciousness, from history and our ancestors who lived that history.
The denial of voices is a denial of dimensions and areas of our human existence – human consciousness – that we find too much, too complicated, too scary and too intangible. Being aware of our history – for most western cultures – means being aware of collective human failure to care for each other and the land that we live on and from.
Voices can bring in to awareness the horror, pain, shame, vulnerability, grief and powerlessness of human life. Not just our own life but our collective human heritage. But voices can also put us in touch with the intelligence of the so-called irrational, the wisdom of our bodies, our emotions and our ancestors.
The greatest lie I ever told myself was that I am alone and isolated. That my suffering was mine alone and that I could contain it and that it would not affect other people. Suffering does not exist in separate boxes within each of us, and we are not separate from each other. Suffering spills out – it doesn’t matter what we do with it – deny it, box it up, forget about it, get angry about it, turn it on others – it will affect us, it will affect our behaviour, our ways of being and therefore it affects those around us. We may not notice and they may not know but that doesn’t mean it is not happening.
We may all be islands – unique and in our uniqueness, alone in our experience of ourselves and the world – but we are all surrounded and connected by water. For me – in this analogy – water is the space between us, the tiny threads of relationships, shared experiences, memories and emotions that connect us.
When we shy away from suffering it creates disconnect. When we hide our own suffering we are not authentic, we are disconnected and we will struggle to connect on deeper levels with others. When we ignore other peoples suffering we disconnect from them and from what their story or expression brings up for us.
There are times when we need to disconnect from suffering to attend to other things, there are times where it is unsafe to be authentic and there are times where we cannot care. We do not have the capacity, resources, energy or time to care.
But we have created a culture where we do this most of the time in order to keep up with society’s demands on us. In a disconnected culture there is going to be people who hear the voices that we are collectively suppressing. The black sheep, the mad ones, the ones ‘who crack under pressure’, the ones who can’t conform and can’t be what we are expecting each other to be.
I think that experiences such as voices that are seen as part of illness or madness has much more to offer all of us than we currently are willing to consider. I don’t think it’s a personal spiritual thing – I think it’s an essential collective health thing.
I see voices as dandelions – a force of life, a force of nature, breaking through the asphalt on the streets and cement in courtyards, growing in the cracks of the pavement and out of the stonewalls. Little bright miracles of life breaking through our attempts to control everything, civilise everything, rationalise everything. Voices find the cracks and they reach out to us to tell us about all the things we have lost touch with.
And so I am wondering whether we will be able to move beyond accepting voices?
Can we change our cultural beliefs about voices?
What if a culture where everyone was open to hearing voices was considered a particularly civilised and enlightened culture?
What if voices were seen as a sign of healthy development in an individual?
What if we celebrated the ability to hear voices as a sign that someone had courage and was willing to take on the responsibilities of being in touch with the difficult things that voices bring in to our awareness?
I don’t think all human beings need to be hearing voices but I imagine that human life on earth would look significantly different if we were all willing to hear voices. And if voices were seen as important messenger about things we all need to be aware of, be wary of, connect with and be honest with each other about.
I imagine a world where we all grow up knowing it is natural to hear voices so that if we do we are not shocked and scared by it.
I imagine that we are comfortable with the irrational and emotional themes that voices talk about and so we feel able to engage with the voices.
I imagine that when someone tells us they are hearing voices our natural response will be to be curious. We are keen to find out if there is anything we can learn from the voices and we are excited about the opportunity to discuss interpretations of what the person is hearing.
I imagine that we believe that what voices talk about is relevant for all of us. Because we see voices as dandelions breaking through the cracks of daily life trying to bring us messages from the endless archive of our collective human experience and wisdom built up over time.
I imagine that we believe that voices are messengers from the land and our heritage nudging us to stay alert and connected and think more deeply about how we live our lives and actively consider the kind of society we are co-creating with each other.
I imagine that we are not scared of voices, we are not dominated by our fear of them, we engage with them with curiosity and discernment and maybe we will no longer call them voices…