IMPACT OF POLITICAL CHANGE IN EASTERN EUROPE ON THE ADVANCEMENT OF BEHAVIOURAL SCIENCES AND PSYCHIATRY
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
Political change in Eastern Europe has its catch words: democracy, pluralism, human rights. Taken at face value they seem to convey convincingly that a steady and consistent transition is set in motion with a clear purpose in mind: the destructuring of stagnated totalitarian regimes and their replacement with more viable and flexible systems. Here today I will not discuss political change at this macro level, not because it is unimportant or nonintriguing, but because the events in question so directly affect my immediate human world and me as an individual that attempting to step out of the flaw and judge impartially is quite beyond me.
Today instead, I will briefly describe the situation from my professional life as teacher and scientist in Sofia at the time when the wave of political change was unleashed. Having thus secured a framework for today's talk I will proceed with ideas about the prospects for scientific enquiry that are being opened by the events of change in Eastern Europe.
Throughout 1989 I had been planning with my teachers in group and family therapy Drs George and Vasso Vassiliou and with their associates from the Athenian Institute of Anthropos a training programme called Sensitization to Systemic Thinking. We were regarding this programme as an important first step in the systematic introduction of the new epistemology into the mental health practice in Bulgaria. Therefore, our task was to transfer the teaching technology also. We were envisaging two editions of the course in the first year with more to come in the second and a gradual replacement of the 12 Greek trainers with Bulgarian ones.
I was entrusted with recruiting the candidates and forming a balanced group of 30 trainees of varying age and professional experience with a background in mental health. Since experiential methods and self-exploration constituted an essential component of the training package the interviews that I began tentatively to hold with each applicant soon acquired a characteristic pattern: I found myself doing each time a lot of catalizing work for the interviewee to proceed with selfselection for the course. The central issue in these interviews was invariably some version of the theme of participation, phrased differntly as "spontaneous", "genuine", "active" and so on, but always connoting that whatever teaching/learning took place in the course it would be contingent on the trainee's resposibility and dare to ask for it.
The programme envisaged three intensive training weeks spaced at monthly intervals and planned to begin in early December 1989. On November 10 Todor Zhivkov, the then Communist Party General Secretary and State Council Chairman was ousted and the streets of Sofia were taken by political activists and rejoicing crowds. To this date they still are. No matter how meticulous to detail and true to the systemic thinking approach we had been in the planning of our training we had not been able to forsee these developments.
By mid February the first edition of the training programme was completed, the last one of the teaching teams had returned to Greece eager to study and analyze their notes and experience and I was left with a lot of confused thoughts as to the meaning of political change in Bulgaria and the use of what I was doing for a living under the circumstances.
Throughout the three training weeks I had been diligently searching the expressions and behaviours in the group in order to identify needs for further training. I knew that such needs would explode into awareness following the sensitization, and would be addressed to me: so I wanted to be prepared. From my observations I concluded that when faced with a problem situation the trainees would sometimes consider using what I called a "conservative approach", one that would typically spare and preserve the existing structures and boundaries. As the training progressed these attempts became few and half-hearted. Just as often, "radical" patterns for solving problems would be tried out, which, unlike the conservative approaches, would primarily involve destructuring of existing boundaries and links. With time these attempts also became few and half-hearted. Apparently, the trainees were developing the awareness that staying entangled, which is what the "conservative" approach lead to, and becoming cut-off, which is what the "radical" approach brought about, were equally undesirable. To some this was disappointing, to others - frightening, and to very, very few - challenging.
I can illustrate what I just described with one observation. It is from a discussion with four trainees coming from various units of the same health centre. They were trying to figure out how they should proceed upon return to their place of work after the training. It was, they said, a very traditional, medically oriented, no-good institution. As a first solution they suggested that everyone at the health centre should be sensitized to systemic thinking ("conservative" approach). To this I said that selection was an integral part of the training programme and that it was highly unlikely that all their colleagues would pass it. Then they proposed that arrangements be made for the four of them to "work together", which meant seeing patients jointly only the four of them with the exclusion of the rest of the staff from access to their deliberations ("radical" approach). To this I asked if they were suggesting to start a new intervention programme, implying that if this was the case, they should work out the rationale first, announce it for others to comprehend and then have the programme cleared through the hospital committee. Upon hearing this they acquired despondent looks. It became apparent that prior to holding the discussion with me their future programme had been to them not just another programme but the right way things should be from this moment on, the correct approach.
While we were discussing these matters in my office the streets of Sofia were taken, this time by people who had traveled hundreds of kilometres in the snow from the southern and eastern parts of the country to display their love for the fatherland and to make their concern about the future of the nation known to the members of parliament. They held long heart-felt speeches protesting a proclamation released on the New Year's Eve which effectively restored the right to Islamic names, of which the totalitarian government had deprived about a tenth of the population of the country several years earlier.
These protesters were arguing that they were not against the restoration of human rights in the country, but that they were against the disruption of its unity. The proclamation, they said, allowed for differences between ethnic groups to loom large while they should have been underplayed and eventually quelled for good. Any country, they insisted, should take special care to consolidate the unity of its people, particularly at times of crises, even at the expense of its reputation as a democracy. Otherwise, in the face of economic hardships, unrest could easily escalate. A dividing line, they claimed, was being implanted with the potential effect of a delayed- action bomb in the very heart of the nation by such short sighted policy of proclamations, intended to please foreign powers. I had the phantasy, while listening to these claims, that had it been possible for these people to be exposed to a sensitization-to-systemic- thinking programme their patriotic fervour would have cooled down.
Having said this I think I have prepared the ground now to state what my reading of the political situation in my country and, more or less, in the rest of the Eastern European countries is. Roughly speaking I regard the whole process of change as a result of the interplay of three major political forces.
In the first place I would mention a group of influential men and women belonging to the reformist factions within what were formerly called, communist parties. Characteristic of this group of people are: open-mindedness, feeling of personal responsibility, strong position within the communist party, and high professional and social standing attained by virtue of competence, dedicated work and impeccable morale. Their names are not in the headlines and, I believe, will never be. Their contribution is in what they were quietly doing in order to precipitate an open crisis and yet prevent bloodshed long before many were even aware of the existence of dissident thinking. Now that the balance is tilted, however, these people are faced with the pressing demand to step down from the political scene and into oblivion, the stated reason being their undeniable link to the previous regime.
This pressure comes mainly from those, whom I will put second in my list of political forces and call radicals. People, who, thanks to the newly acquired freedom of expression, had come in touch with their personal identity and needed to exercise it powerwise. Constituting a younger age group than the reformists these people had come of age and had in fact practised all their living within the shadow of totalitarian leaders, had strained at the leash unsuccessfully all their lifes and had become concerned with their need for emotional growth and differentiation only to find out that their time had passed. Their awareness of this deprivation looms large at times of contact with western democracies and precipitates bitter attacks, aimed particularly poignantly at the reformists who had managed to preserve during the totalitarian years some very basic human qualities such as autonomous thinking. The more extreme and pushing the attacks of the radicals become, the less concern the reformists seem to show about the process of change itself and the more involved they become with their personal survival.
This process is currently escalating. It consumes a lot of energy and provides respite for re-forming and recharge to the third major political force on my list, the conservatives. These are people from all walks of life who are very tolerant to ideas and appeals of all kinds but very sensitive to structural changes in society. When such changes are imminent they tend to consolidate their ranks and close up to opose them. So long as the structures of their convenience are kept untouched they would go along with any creed. It is from the ranks of this category of people that most of the members of the so called "nomenclature" have been recruited. Being the locomotive of development in periods of peace and quiet these people act as a major obstacle on the way to innovation. They are practical, matter of fact, substantive in their touch. They are there to stay. They are second order change phobics.
I know of no living Bulgarian who belongs to a pure type: each is a mixture of varying proportions of reformism, radicalism and conservatism. But in any social situation I get involved in, it only takes me minutes before I can discern who is settling into which of the three positions. Most of the social and political talk, in which everybody has been indulging for the past six months, is centred on several related topics. "Binary logic", or thinking in terms of polarities, is one of them. We readily agree, while in social situations, that people in Eastern Europe are very prone to black-and- white logic and that this is a handicap. A second topic is "fine distinctions", particularly with respect to inner life: we discuss our inaptness in distinguishing, for example, shades of feelings, negative ones in particular, and our tendency to precariously close such issues by denial. A third topic is "differences" and our approach to them, characterised by inability to handle differences as equally legitimatevariants of the truth, and by proneness to not be at peace with oneself before deciding which is the correct and which is the deviant version.
My feelings associated with the professional, political and social life experience that I tried to describe above were of despondency and exasperation. This was a telling sign for me that I was at variance with the rest in the situation. I often got the urge to set the other person right and under the totalitarian system I would have not hesitated to act upon this urge, but not in those days any more. Instead, I turned inward and searched there and often came in touch with something personally important, some unfinished business of my own.
This is how I came to discover the diaries of my grandmother on my mother's side. She had started keeping a diary in 1948 when she was in her 60's. The first entry describes the events on December 24th, the day on which she and my grandfather embarked on their trip from the railway station in Sofia to Detroit, Michigan. That is where her eldest son, a priest, had moved and settled in 1936 as head of the Macedono-Bulgarian East Orthodox Church upon invitation from the Bulgarian community there.
This had been the second major journey in the life of my grandmother. The first she had undertaken at the age of 16 with her parents and two younger brothers in 1903, when the family fled to Sofia following the suppressionof a popular uprising centred on her native town of Kroushevo in Macedonia, which had remained a province of the Turkish empire, unlike most of Bulgaria, Greece and Yougoslavia. What the two journeys had in common was that no return had been planned in either: in 1948 my grandamother had been bidding farewell for good to her three other children and their families in Sofia. Four years had passed since the end of World War Two and the ousting of the pro-fascist government in Sofia. She had seen her two younger sonscome out of prison (they had been sentenced to life imprisonment for anti-Nazi insurgency) and had believed they had well established for life.She had felt she could afford to enjoy her old age under the loving care of her oldest son and his family in America.
In 1950, though, my grandmother traveled back to Sofia summoned by bad newsabout her second oldest son. He had once again ended up as a political prisoner, this time of the pro-stalinist regime. Back in Sofia she managed to trace his whereabouts and maintain him alive through parcels of food and warm clothes using in fact an underground channel.
My grandmother's parting with Bulgaria in December 1948 was an experience of profound change. She was not just abandoning a familiar environment for a totally unknown one; she was also abdicating the one social role which she knew how to perform and which had gained her recognition and renown - the role of traditional mother. My grandparents had drifted apart emotionally long ago, just as Balkan traditional values dictated, and outside the extended family context my grandmother was facing the stress of meaningless living. At the age of 60 my grandmother was harbouring an amazingly rich life experience, and this makes me think that she must have been aware of the risk involved in the step she and my grandfather were undertaking. Nevertheless she did not hesitate and this was, I feel, because she had some hopes that a fresh beginning between her and my grandfather would be forthcoming. Whatever illusions she might have had about the late stages of her marriage, however, she lost them on board of Queen Mary.
Judging by the diary, on the third day on board of the ship my grandmother developed sea-sickness and remained in bed for several days. My grandfather, as usually, failed to respond with concern but other people, who were total strangers, did, and effectively provided care and attention.
This experience has received special attention in my grandmother's diary. Apparently, it had impressed her a lot and had in fact triggered the idea of the diary-keeping itself. It had shattered, I believe, a basic tenet in her world view: the dictum that aliens are inimical. The survival strategies of Christians under centuries of Turkish domination on the Balkans had heavily dwelled on passing this belief down from generation to generation. I clearly remember being told myself as a child on Easter Day the story of my grand-grandfather's first son being slain on this particular day. "And you know why", my grandmother would continue, "because he was dressed in his new clothes and the Turks wanted them for their children". This would be impressed on me on the point of my leaving for the street in my new clothes after the Easter dinner. I must have been six or seven.
My grandmother had to work hard to come to terms with her new experience. With no one on board speaking any of her three languages (Bulgarian, Turkish and Tsintsar, which is Rumanian) or capable even remotely to empathize with the perturbations in her past and present life precipitated by political and cultural change, she started a diary, thus reinforcing her identity and anchoring it in the past which she had left behind - an indispensible first step that enabled her to respond to the challenge of the wide world by opening up. This I profess was a creative experience casted into a creative performance, probably the only kind of creative performance that her education and talents would allow under the circumstances. And yet the full meaninig of her actions evaded me: I knew there was something else, much more important than her personal emotional need that had compelled her to persist for years in a trying and demanding undertaking. She had been using a nib on a penholder and an ink-pot; she had repeatedly stumbled over problems with spelling (Bulgarian is not a phonetic language), punctuation and capital letters, which was only natural with a total of three years of schooling, and yet she had managed to fill almost a thousand pages with cramp handwriting.
I read my grandmother's diaries avidly. I invested a lot of time in this, neglecting tasks that had always been my number one priority, such as drafting the revision of an article submitted to the prestigious Psychological Medicine. There was a clear message to me in what my grandmother had written and this made me try desperately to figure out in what way my situation paralled hers. I was not emigrating or even moving house, I was not planning to take a new job, I was not considering even remotely a personal life change. My adolescent sons were hecticly crossing in and out the family boundaries just as expected at their age.
And then very gradually it began to dawn on me that the process of change set in motion in Eastern Europe had been misconceived by me altogether. I had been wrong in considering it a political affair only. It had been much more than just politics. In fact, the traditional group-centred culture, to which I belonged, was beginning slowly and painfully to consider undertaking at long last a shift in the direction of a value system that would recognize the individual freedom (rather than the survival of the group) as the ethical imperative that guided viable human societies in the present day. I had been suffering the implications of this change, and, for lack of first hand prior experience with such values, had not been able to grasp what had really been happening. Truly enough, all my friends and I had cherished individual freedom for years, had in fact taught it. And yet, only now the time had come for one to do the work on one's own person that this shift in values implied and actually demanded.
Of this work, in our part of the world, people had been negligent for decades. Eastern Europe had mimiked the industrial individual-centered communities in every aspect except for the one which pertained to the bare essentials of society and, therefore, was vital - "human material". Bulgaria, for example, had in almost no time attained the hustle of big city life and the accompanying environmental problems; had transformed its agriculture to resemble big scale farming in appearance, not in output or attitudes; had invested heavily in universal education to achieve record breaking numbers of university graduates who had never had the chance to express their personal needs and preferances regarding their training; and had institutionalized science with the help of five year planning schemes which provided for the trimming of wild outgrowths and for the ostracising of maverics, thus rendering science barren.
While doing enthusiastically this up-lift job on the facade of their part of the world by substituting one brand of socialism for another, the East European countries were effecting at the same time stagnation in human growth and development. Actually, they were changing in order to prevent change: they were indulging in change on the scale of tangibles in order to avoid change on the scale of intangibles for the very human reason that the latter, by virtue of its experiential nature, was scaring, as my grandmother's diary and my own experience over the past few months could testify.
Having grasped this, I could attend to my despondency and exasperation and account for them. The agonizing worry about running after the events, being behind schedule and having to make up for time lost in procrastination, eased down. The urge to rush into action and, driven by assumed responsibility, put things and people right, began to fade away. Istead, getting in touch with my feelings and exploring how they came to be, gradually became in every social situation by far my preferred response.
Going in my memory over events from the weeks of crisis became pleasurable because I could see now logic in what had been at the time intuitive choices. For example, having brought forward the issue of partcipation and having used it as a criterion for selection of trainees was positive. Having passed no judgements in favour or against staying entangled or becoming cut-off from your in-group was positive. Having not influenced one way or another the decision of the people from the health centre as to how to proceed with the innovation of their work, was positive. Having felt bad about the demostrators who spoke in defence of the nation's unity at the expense of individual freedom was positive. Having not answered back directly, but having dreamt in stead of exposing them to new experience was positive.
I felt it was important to convey this experience of mine to you here because it epitomizes my thinking of creativity as inherent to adaptive functioning, where-in adaptation is achieved alongside individual freedom, and not at the expense of it. Having come at this point in my presentation to the topic of scientific inquiry, this enables me to enunciate the proposition that creative experience, essential as it is to scientific endeavour, is a deeply personal fact, which one cannot plan for or in some way guarantee. It just happens as life unfolds through circumstances, some conducive to it, and some not. There are moments, though, in history when cultures undergo shifts in values, and when social issues, which usually leave the majority existentially unscathed, unexpectedly acquire experiential significance for millions and precipitate creative choices for many at the same time. Selfactualization through adaptive functioning in the case of certain individuals can resonate at such times with community needs to produce political leaders and their doctrines, artists and their masterpieces and scientists and their discoveries.
Stated differently, I am suggesting that the days we are living through in Eastern Europe are opportune days for creative experience, which is the intrinsic condidtion for true scientific endeavour. Indispensable as it is to science, its role tended to be underestimated or altogether disregarded in my part of the world, and for some years to come this will still be the case. However, for a creative experience to find expression in a creative performance which has scientific relevance a host of other extrinsic conditions need to be present. These I will now discuss under the topics of paradigm, language and method.
For a creative perftifically meaningful by the international scientific community it needs be termed in whatever is the acceptable paradigm at the time it is delivered or it risks to remain unnoticed. For many decades scientific paradigms in Eastern Europe have been prevented from forming and evolving spontaneously as the natural drift of scientific quest dictated.
In the field of behaviour sciences and psychiatry the Stalinist variety of dialectic materialism translated into linear causative models which implied Newtonian reversability, repeatability and predictability. They coupled with the a-priori view of the existence of one and only objective truth, and "objective" was taken to mean "independent of the observer". The result was research for the sake of research, because with this attitude of mind all answers that research could provide were in a way known in advance. The actual results could not be predicted, of course, but their interpretation and the conclusions reached certainly could. Thus, no finding could ever be surprising because nobody asked uneasy questions. This, however, was taken as proof of the power of sound scientific approach and not for what it was - begging the question.
The scientific establishment gradually un-learnt how to ask curious questions and how to put forward risky propositions. Research became a tedious and monotonous but also prestigious, safe and well-paid way of earning one's living. As happens with paying trades, it soon began to be run like a family business, and, to avoid harmful bickering, spheres of control began to be negotiated between the clans. The most damaging aspect of this development was that it tended to reinforce the entrenchment of the thinking of the behavioural scientists into patterns that were depleted of innovative potential. Having barricaded their territory for survival reasons they ended up entrapped in it and deprived of experience with the wide world that might have fed novel ideas to their work.
It will take considerable effort, time and guidance for a paradigm shift to come about in the field of behavioural sciences in Eastern Europe. The process in Bulgaria has just started and already meets with serious obstacles, the major of them being unrealistic expectations as to the scope of the required change and its timing. Many would tend to see such change "wholesale", i.e. as either complete denunciation of previous practices and infrastructures, or, on the opposite, as their total preservation under different labels. Both patterns, the "radical" and the "conservative", are familiar to me from the way my students acted in problem solving tasks and I know that neither works, at least not with mental and family health. The chances for the wholesale approaches to work at all are diminishing rappidly as Eastern Europe moves away from traditional group-centred culture. Wholesale approaches are the hallmark of change taking place in rigid systems with impermeable boundaries. Flexible systems change by opening up, having first secured their identity.
Dropping a familiar framework of thinking and picking up a different one implies that one regards and uses language primarily as a means of communication and not as a token of identity. This applies to natural languages as well as to technical and scientific languages. Of course language is always both of these things but for historical and cultural reasons on the Balkans and I believe in most of Eastern and Central Europe the emphasis has been laid on the role of language as agent for the reinforcement and consolidation of identity. These are sturdy patterns in our part of the world, guarded dearly and handed down the generations. Totalitarian methods can suppress them, sometimes for very long periods, but cannot uproot or modify them. Economic hardships revive nationalistic passions and language readily becomes a territory for their enactment. A typical example of miscalculated and shortsighted policy in this field was the abolishment of Turkish in the schools in Bulgaria which immediately lead to the "abolishment" of Bulgarian in the families of the children of Turkish descent. The net result was that thousands of children were deprived of access to most needed knowledge in critical periods of their lifes, as they were prevented from learning Bulgarian by their parents and knowledge was not available to them in any other language.
It is my feeling that people imbibe beliefs as to the basic function of language through the experience of acquiring the natural language of their culture, and that they tend to carry such beliefs over to the specialized languages that they come upon later, driven by professional needs and interests. It should not be surprising, therefore, if a researcher coming from the Balkans or Eastern Europe would not be persuaded to adopt a scientific language developed by others with the help of the argument that this would facilitate communication, but would acquire and master this very language when allowed to co-author it, i.e. when enabled to experience it as instrumental in his identity. Relations over the past several decades have unfortunately prevented most of the behavioural scientists in Eastern Europe from first hand "languaging" experience within the various schools of thought developed by their colleagues in the West. Most of their knowledge of the professional developments in your part of the world has come by way of books, articles and other written texts. Under such conditions one can easily mistake unfamiliar wording of universally valid ideas for genuinely esoterric ideas, i.e. one can easily fail to distinguish between wording s and essence. The few who have had the opportunity to learn from the source have had no problems to trace the notions acquired from the schools of Western thought to experience gained from life in the East. They have had problems, though, in conveying the intended meaning of these notions to their colleagues upon return. Such problems are bound to become less as the shift to individual-centred culture gains momentum.
In addition to paradigm and language, prospects for adequate scientific achievement are contingent on method and technique. I shall once again skip the obvious problems like underfunding, poor equipment and low quality technical staff because overcoming them is a matter of investment and training in technical skills. I would rather discuss methodology from the point of view of how it relates to the researcher as an individual. This I want to do in order to reiterate once again the claim that science is a very personal affair. My proposition is that in the field of behaviour sciences and psychiatric research investing in one's own emotional growth is just as important as investing in developing one's own cognitive skills and might yield unforseen returns. One reason why I would think this is so is that introspection has always provided clues to discoveries in our field and I do not see a reason why this should change in future even with the advent of biological psychiatry and its robust methods and hard data.
This proposition, though, I have never been able to make sound convincing enough so as to be heard and appreciated at home. It is a breach of propriety in academic circles there to attend to, or even announce, in public one's emotional needs. I do not know whether this has more to do with the group-centredness of our culture or with totalitarianism. What I know though, is that this norm has prevented scores of well-meaning and gifted colleagues from actualizing their potentials in meaningful, socially relevant achievements. It is this norm that had rushed them precipitously into contributing to the advancement of world science, national prestige and socialist society, while their unattended emotional needs compelling them to adopt power methods in their endeavours, i.e. methods which frame change as an accomplishment outside the researcher in the world out there. Thus the failure of their efforts had been inevitable, in fact collapse had been preprogrammed at the time of inception of the whole exercise.
Within systems governed by the norm of power methods reaching-in is risky, yet breaking out of parochialism compels you to do it. Those who can stay in touch with their roots and still change can make it. Political change in Eastern Europe very much and at an increasing rate favours them.
Lecture delivered at the 143rd Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric
Association, New York City, May 12-17, 1990
© The Author
Address for Correspondence: Medical Academy, 15 Dim. Nestrov, 1431 Sofia, Bulgaria, firstname.lastname@example.org (Mental Health Centre)
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM