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For the Cause… whatever it is


In today’s post, we deal with one of the key issues in the Warrior’s life – what to do when faced with institutionalized evil. 

Every single one of us faces this issue at some point in our lives, whether it’s pressure to cover up someone else’s wrong-doing, to act unjustly toward someone because “it’s policy” or simply pressure to say the politically correct thing when it’s a flagrant lie.

Because it’s based on the pursuit of TRUTH on all levels, the Warrior’s life can get pretty uncomfortable in daily life.  Below you’ll find some of the most extreme examples of people abdicating moral responsibility and the rationalizations they used to live with their deeds.  While most of us will never face this extreme level of institutionalized evil, this does underline how vital it is for YOU as a  Warrior to understand your own “lines in the sand” ahead of time:



If you received a progressive education, you probably had the importance of cooperation drilled into you from a young age.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the psychology of mass evil, cooperation becomes the single most devastatingly terrible mode of human existence.

During World War II, the Allies placed captured German officers and men under surveillance.  The recordings of their conversations provide immeasurably valuable insights into the psychology of institutional evil- and the ways in which human beings abdicate moral responsibility for it.  Neitzel and Welzer’s book Soldaten compiles and analyses these sometimes chilling recordings.




Shifting Blame

For a long time, the Wehrmacht, the regular army of Nazi Germany, tried to distance itself from war crimes.  The blame for everything was, they claimed, to be laid squarely at the feet of the SS, the military arm of the Nazi Party.  Even if there weren’t ample evidence of the Wehrmacht’s guilt, these recordings would suffice to condemn many of them out of their own mouths.


Partisans and Civilians

PFC Müller: In a village in Russia there were partisans, and we obviously had to raze the village to the ground, without considering the losses… The order was given that every tenth man in the village was to be shot… the women and children and everyone were shot down; only a few of them were partisans.

This sort of thing, razing villages and killing dozens or hundreds of hostages in reprisal for partisan attacks, sometimes even for the death of a single soldier, occurs many times in the recordings.  Of course, these things didn’t deter partisan attacks- they simply drove a cycle of ever more extreme violence.


Ethnic Cleansing

Many Wehrmacht officers also discuss their involvement with massacres and deportations of Jewish populations.  Many if not most of them approved in principle of some sort of ethnic cleansing of the Jews, even if they were personally repulsed by particular methods used, such as the mass shooting of women and children.

Col. Erwin Josting: No, it isn’t right.  You can do whatever you like with them, but not burn them alive or gas them or heaven knows what else!  They should be imprisoned, and after the war has been won, you can say: ‘This people must disappear.  Put them in a ship!  Sail them wherever you wish, we don’t care where you land.’


Prisoners of War

There were also large bodies of opinion that dismissed crimes against prisoners of war, especially Russians.

Lt. Gen. Maximilian Siry: In the East, I once suggested- thousands of PWs were coming back, without anyone guarding them, because there were no people there to do it… So I said, “That’s no good, we must simply cut off one of their legs, or break a leg, or the right forearm, so that they won’t be able to fight…” At the time, of course, I didn’t really condone it either, but now I think it’s quite right.


Disagreement Actually Doesn’t Help

As Neitzel and Welzer note, it is not that there was any one uniform moral standard in the Wehrmacht or the SS, that there was no critical thinking or that everyone was successfully indoctrinated into the same culture of brutality.  Far from it.  Some people were completely against these crimes.  Many more objected to some extremes of cruelty but not the principles under which they were performed- the execution of civilians to deter partisan activity, the execution of partisans upon capture, the execution of prisoners of war when it was inconvenient to take prisoners, the extermination or expulsion of the Jews.

In the Wehrmacht especially, the people who were, so to speak, ‘thought-leaders’ of cruelty and extreme measures were probably in the minority.  But there were always others willing to go along with them, others still who objected but did not actively resist, and a command structure that didn’t want to hear about it too much.  The variety of moral views didn’t matter.  No one was willing to stand up against it, and only a couple of the German prisoners actually suggested such a thing.

A few refused orders to kill civilians.  Many claim to not have personally participated in whatever activities were beyond their personal ‘red lines’.  But when an officer received an order from higher command to burn a village or execute civilian hostages or kill Jews, for the most part, they did it.  They didn’t know what else to do.


The Culture of Obedience

And that was part of the military mindset.  Obedience was the prime military virtue, and disobedience was unpardonable.  The lengths to which German officers would go in the name of obedience was shown in their reaction to the frequent demand that they fight ‘until the last man and the last bullet’ in untenable positions.

From a military perspective, there was seldom any strategic sense in such orders- a mobile defence is more effective than a fixed one.  From the standpoint of military conduct, this was an innovation- you fought until there was no point in going on, and then you surrendered.  But although many officers disagreed with these orders, many of those who disagreed fought until their units were all but wiped out, in the name of following orders.


Cultivating Cognitive Dissonance

All of this was tied in with carefully-cultivated cognitive dissonance.  The image of the German soldier, and more importantly the German officer, as a skilled professional, was the foremost element of their self-image.  The military values of courage, obedience, discipline and so on were their touchstones.  German prisoners of war competed with stories of their exploits in battle.  But behind that there was the image of Germany as a civilised nation.  “Aren’t we the most civilised people?” one POW asked.  Another argued that Germans were generally too tolerant and incapable of hatred, and so were always being taken advantage of.

What made this sort of cognitive dissonance sustainable was that these people were trained and conditioned to limit their empathy for anyone who was not like them.  Their empathy was first for their peers, then Germans in general, and anyone else came later.  Empathy for the enemy did exist, but it was never so urgent that one had to do anything about it.  It was easy to put distance between oneself and the victims through the overarching bond of military loyalty.

And for those who pulled the trigger themselves, whether on their own initiative or in obedience to orders, the Nazi propaganda machine had a ready-made delusion: they were sacrificing for the fatherland by being willing to get their hands dirty. The same delusion of self-sacrifice has been recycled many times up to the present day.  Nazi propaganda spoke of the need to overcome ‘humane’ instincts by sheer force of will.


A Universal Dynamic

And here comes the painful part.  It may be the Wehrmacht saying these things, but every other power in World War II did the same things- not necessarily the targeted racial violence, but the war crimes, the execution of prisoners when it was inconvenient to take them in, killing of civilians and so on.  Neither the Japanese nor the Americans were noted for humane conduct in the Pacific War.  The British executed German paratroopers on Crete.  All sides bombed civilian population centres, a class of crime that was curiously removed from the level of disapproval a single infantryman killing a single civilian could draw.

And it wasn’t just the global madness of that particular war.  American soldiers in Vietnam saw nothing exceptional about burning villages or killing suspected Viet Cong sympathisers- especially if they got the South Vietnamese Army to do the deed for them.  We could go into Russian war crimes in Afghanistan, the war crimes of both sides in Korea, the war crimes of more recent conflicts, but you get the idea.  Brutality becomes the norm unless a clear line is drawn against it- and ruthlessly enforced.  The category of “War Crime” becomes a function of political and military convenience.


The Institutional Culture Trap

This is the trap of mass psychology, especially within a close-knit institutional culture.  It becomes easy to object to something, yet do nothing about it, because it is the norm, because your superiors don’t want to hear about it, because policy has been made, because it happens all the time, and above all because you don’t want to break your bond to that institution or stick your neck out.  The really sad thing about these recordings is that until defeat seemed inevitable, most of these officers still believed in the war they were fighting and the glory of German arms.

Radical Repression- Why we wouldn’t thrive without anger

Anger is heavily policed in our lives. We’re taught not to show anger, to hold it in, to shut it up (unless we happen to live in New York City). Then we’re told to be angry about this, that and everything that’s happening on the news, to project anger onto our television shows, the political scandal of the week and the lives of celebrities. We’re not supposed to be angry at  injustices inflicted upon us by people without personal integrity or the defective institutions that we experience in everyday life. We are supposed to be angry in political life. We’re supposed to be perfectly repressed and constantly angry.

How do we resolve the schizophrenia of this approach?

Radical Chill

Martha Nussbaum, author of Anger and Forgiveness, has one answer: give up anger altogether.

There’s no denying that in the context of American society in particular, several of her arguments are compelling.

America, Nussbaum argues, is a frontier culture which glorifies the ‘masculine’, ‘powerful’ emotion of anger at the expense of ‘feminine’ cool-headed reasoning. Well, as one of the billions of people subjected to long-term bombardment by America’s cultural production and political foibles, I can’t really argue with that.

The results of this cultural bias are destructive. The United States has the largest prison population per capita of any developed country, around 700 per 100,000 people, a consequence of its ‘tough on crime’ posturing. This is around seven times the European average, twice as many as South Africa, and more even than Russia. That rate consistently increased over the 1990s and 2000s, even as actual crime rates have consistently fallen since 1990.

Crime itself is another area where Nussbaum sees the persistent and increasing social and economic marginalisation of large parts of the American population mixing with the false catharsis of angry responses. In fact, the anger so palpable in US political life comes from that same feeling of helplessness, the sense that the country and considerable numbers of its people are not only stuck, but have far worse prospects than their parents’ generation. The result is a crowd ready for the blame game- it’s the illegal immigrants, it’s the drugs, it’s the corrupt politicians, it’s big government, and on and on.

The trouble is, none of that anger addresses the real sources of the problems. By prioritising short-term catharsis, this kind of anger virtually ensures that no deep deconstruction of the real sources of that helplessness will take place.

As with crime and criminal justice, it’s all about lashing out, getting payback.

So what can we do about it? Nussbaum suggests that anger should be discouraged by society, and in the first instance by parents raising children to repress their anger.

Appropriate and Inappropriate Anger

This is where the argument runs into two problems. First, Nussbaum embraces a definition of anger convenient to her view of it, or at least tailored to the American context. Anger, she argues, requires a desire for payback, otherwise it’s not anger. She leaves no room for any other kind of anger, let alone a legitimate and necessary role for the emotion. Second, she ignores the consequences of suppressing anger.

Dr. Gabor Maté, well-known Canadian physician, author and palliative care specialist, has intensively studied the emotional lives of people afflicted with chronic diseases from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s to irritable bowel syndrome. The link between dysfunctional emotional life, especially in relation to anger, and chronic disease, is very strong.

He identifies three behaviours regarding the expression of anger. These are internalised at a very young age, largely in response to the behaviours of parents. One behaviour is anger as Nussbaum defines it, anger that becomes the primary means of self-definition. This way lies demonstrative rage, habitual anger, desire for payback, blame for particular groups and so on. Such people have trouble not expressing anger. They begin to define themselves and their control over their own lives by their ability to inflict their anger on other people. People firmly entrenched in this kind of anger tend to suffer from heart disease.

Another behaviour is the repression of anger. For the people most affected, every interaction is an exercise in rigid self-control. It is not alright for them to defend themselves, to express their discomfort, to stand up for themselves when they’ve been wronged.

Their upbringing has taught them that their relationships cannot survive that. They become the ones who need to be perfect and hold things together and repress their feelings and needs in order to make things work. They try to become what others want them to be, and as a result, they are unable to break away from toxic and abusive situations. Addictions and certain forms of cancer are particularly associated with this emotional state.

Neither of these options represent a healthy relationship to anger. As the consequences of repression illustrate, anger does have a legitimate role. It is our defence mechanism when something is not right, when we’re being harmed or taken advantage of. Biologically speaking, people with a healthy relationship to anger tend to relax as soon as they’ve fully expressed themselves. Anger should be relaxing. What a concept!

What they want is not payback, but rectification of an injustice. They want to express their needs and be heard. Healthy anger is simply a homeostatic imbalance that motivates us to restore the balance, like many other biological processes- thirst, hunger, feeling too warm or too cold. This is anger that can motivate, but can also act intelligently. It is an empowering force that drives us to protect ourselves and change unacceptable things, but also gives us the control to do so in a measured way.

What Nussbaum ignores is the biology of our social interactions. There is a big difference between the American cowboy approach to anger which she derides- you’re weak if you don’t respond to injustice with towering, demonstrative anger- and the biological fact that even quietly standing firm requires anger, that basic biological impulse, to empower us. That’s what anger is for. Standing firm requires a relationship to anger where we understand that it is safe, permitted and even good to express that need for redress.

If anger is always repressed and discouraged by society, that will not happen. We will clamp down on that dangerous biological signal because of what it might do, rather than letting ourselves come to a healthy balance where we are able to speak up for ourselves. In assuming that anger does not exist if it is not destructive, Nussbaum also implicitly assumes the existence of a biologically impossible space where self-assertion, especially against more powerful or threatening people, can exist without the empowerment of anger.

In short, if we really followed Nussbaum’s prescription, three things would happen. First, a large part of the population would lose the emotional capability to defend itself or effect meaningful change in the world. Second, the people biologically predisposed to anger would respond by dysfunctionally overexpressing their anger, as in option one. Third, the world would not become a better place.

A World of Anger and Repression

This is a world filled with dysfunctional anger. From the stereotype of the young-and-angry single-issue activist to the radical adherents of ideologies to the militant nationalists of the world, there are lots of people reveling in unproductive anger.

But it’s also a world filled with inappropriate repression of anger. People who are told to shut up and grin and bear the unendurable, who are told there’s no way for them to change the systems that have failed them, people who are unable to satisfy the basic biological purpose of anger, the resolution of every human being’s basic need for justice. Is it any wonder that these people, deformed by that repression, look for other outlets to lash out?

We as a society have created vast systems, many of which are vastly disempowering to most people. We are told to let these systems determine our fates, our worth, how we will be treated, whether or not we will be able to redress the harms that have been done to us, and very often they fail to do so equitably. It is time to realise that we have gone too far in taking agency and self-determination away from people and communities and putting it in systems over which they have no control. After all, healthy anger is about just that- agency in the building of an equitable society.

Until we restore that personal agency in the cause of integrity, until that becomes our norm and our expectation for everyone, we cannot expect that our societies will achieve a healthy relationship to anger. Until we replace the false dualism of demonstrative anger and repression with a norm of the healthy medium of constructive anger, most of us will keep sliding from one extreme to the other. Healthy anger needs space to be heard without needing to shout. It needs to be able to speak without being slapped down.

How the Economy Works… and Why It Isn’t Working For YOU

For a society that watches (or mutes) economists on the evening news, we have never been more mystified about how the economy really works.  We tend to be even more confused about how it impacts our own personal financial situations.  You could say with some justification that the economists are equally mystified, but there’s a more basic reason we just aren’t clear on what we should do in order to prosper in this economy.

The reason is simple: we’re kept busy debating hot-button issues like government spending, free trade, regulation, laissez-faire economics, stimulus economics and more so that we don’t realise that we, the people, are the chumps in this system.  Let’s start peeling back the layers of the onion with a few simple questions that can do a lot to clarify where we really stand in this economy.


Why is it so easy to get credit and so hard to get out of debt?

Believe it or not, it is now more profitable to lend money than to invest it in productive activity.  Back in the day, your bank, credit card company or loan service was on the hook for whatever they lent you.  That meant they were very careful about your credit-worthiness.  Now, they can sell your debt, or a share in your debt and the aggregate debt of everyone they serve, to shadow financial institutions.  That way, it’s off their books, and they don’t have to worry about it.

And those people who have bought your debt (we’ll get to them in a moment) aren’t looking for timely repayment.  They want you paying penalties, compounded interest and so on.  That’s what makes the credit business profitable.  And if you default, they can sell the collection rights to yet another organisation.

All of this becomes a shell game that obscures the real health of any particular loan, and even of whole markets.  It allowed the mortgage market to take off, but when it crashed, only a few people, many of them risk-management officers who had been ignored for years, saw it coming.

The value of transactions revolving around debt products exceeds the value of world GDP by a considerable amount!  (If that doesn’t shock you, it should).  Remember the 2008 financial crisis?  The derivatives market collapsed when it began to look like a large portion of the debts held by a particular organisation were unlikely ever to be paid.

So why did they all go into it?  It’s simple.  Rich people with offshore holdings want their money in funds that will make absurdly large returns.  The stock market can’t meet that expectation.  It’s much quicker to go fishing for your future earnings.  To learn more about this dynamic, Richard Westra’s work is a good place to start.


Why is it so much more profitable to invest than to be in business?

If it’s more profitable to invest in debt products than in productive activity, it is more profitable in general to invest than to be in business.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One reason is that in many places capital gains are taxed lower than revenue and earned income.  Another is that the stock market is dominated by the big money of the already-rich, whose money is managed by those who promise the biggest return.  Stock market money migrates toward the highest return.

Unfortunately, the highest return is very seldom in productive activity (we’ll get to the big exception in a minute).  The Shift Index, a longitudinal study of 20,000 US companies shows a drastic decrease in return on assets, including invested capital, among top US firms over the decades.  We’re barely producing a third of the return rate seen in 1965.  And yet, executive compensation per dollar of net earnings quadrupled between 1990 and 2000, partly absorbing increased individual productivity.  The economic value captured between the financial sector and the executive class goes a long way to explain lower returns, though there’s certainly more to it.

One major factor is the tyranny of stockholders and the groups that represent them in corporate governance.  Under the Friedmanite ethos of recent decades, the obligation of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders, with no other stakeholders – employees, community or the nation itself – even recognised.  A CEO under these circumstances is incentivised to do whatever he can to show an increase in the value of his company’s shares.  That means:

–          selling off the company’s productive assets to show a profit

–          buying up smaller companies, which have to sell because their stockholders won’t let them refuse a lucrative buyout

–          outsourcing production to the cheapest bidder

–          driving competitors out of business

–          establishing local and national monopolies

–          downsizing

–          acquiring start-ups that have developed valuable products and ideas, often in order to make up for the corporation’s sold-off or downsized research assets

In other words, the incentive is to extract money – from acquired companies, from cannibalising one’s own company, from communities whose productive businesses you’ve destroyed – because all of that falls under capital gains.

Money is accumulated and siphoned into the cash value of the company, and therefore the stocks; it’s used for acquisitions of other companies (or parts thereof), but not deployed in new R&D, new production, new sustainable business lines, because those earnings would be taxed at a higher rate.  Capital gains are better than dividends as far as the stockholders are concerned.  The result is a constant game of mergers, acquisitions, cannibalising your own company and so on, taking the company from one sector to another to another so that it looks like it’s growing.

The catch is, productive activity isn’t really growing.  And, as you might guess, companies run this way are always destroying sustainable business – their own and other people’s – in exchange for short-term quarterly gains.  It is smash-and-grab at its worst.  Since executives are both highly-paid and often have stock in the company, and since they tend to hop from one company to another very quickly, their only real focus is momentary profit.


Why did all the productive jobs go overseas?

While free trade is always sold to the public as opening up new export markets, its financial backers have quite another goal in mind.  This is to escape not only regulation, but responsibility for the workforce, the environment, production standards and so on by fleeing to the cheapest and least-regulated market.  Once the big companies go that route, it becomes impossible even for socially responsible companies to compete without doing so as well.

The cost to the host country is forced labour, unsafe labour, environmental degradation, pollution, corruption, fraud and many other social and environmental costs.  The growth of the new economies parallels the income inequality of the developed world, but with even starker disparity.  This is not a reality passively accepted by the people.  In the case of China, 2015 was a record year for strikes with 2,774 recorded incidents, many the result of non-payment of wages.  Protests in general, reported by the Chinese government as “mass incidents”, numbered over 180,000 in 2010.  These are provoked by labour and environmental abuses, land grabs by companies and local governments, corruption and other abuses of power.  And since it’s in the interests of local governments to hush these incidents up, those that are officially reported can only be a subset of the real figure.

Meanwhile, the developed world haemorrhages jobs – first blue-collar workers, then, increasingly, research and development and white-collar jobs.  R&D in particular is captured through reverse-engineering, corporate espionage and so on, often with state support.  Large areas of industry are simply destroyed with very little chance of ever being rebuilt.  The corporations which are ostensibly American or Canadian or European are increasingly uninterested in doing anything to benefit their home countries.  They are simply umbrellas for commissioning subcontractors in the developing world to make, package and ship the products they ultimately sell.  The net result is that the dollar you spend in the shops not only doesn’t go to workers in your own country, most of it doesn’t go to workers in any other country – it is captured by the stump of a company that no longer makes any of its own products, its executives and shareholders.

This capacity to produce cheap goods allows chain stores to move into an area, drive many small businesses out of business, and claim the short-term profits in their quarterly reports.  The fact that those communities then become economic wastelands unable to keep their store profitable doesn’t matter to the CEO of the moment – an unprofitable store is soon closed.

The point is not that free trade is always automatically bad, or that bringing business to the developing world is bad.  It’s just that in a system shaped by perverse incentives, we can’t do either of these things sustainably.


Bottom Line: Short-term gains trump long-term sustainability with disastrous consequences

These truths are difficult to hear.  They challenge our treasured myths about an economy that rewards hard work and contributions to the general good.  They show us a system that is leveraged against our future earnings and yet is siphoning off vast amounts of wealth into the pockets of a very small percentage of people and companies.  They show us a system that is absolutely unsustainable in the long term.

This is a system conditioned by perverse incentives, above all to short-term thinking, at every level, and we have to be aware of that as we negotiate it.

Maximum Effort, Maximum Damage: The difference between health and fitness

Yesterday, you forced your body past all of its previous limitations, pushed yourself to 150% of your normal endurance, felt the burn.  Now, as you contemplate your next workout, something strange is happening.  Your body is not just stiff- it rebels at the idea of movement, and energy drains from your limbs.

Many of us have had that experience, heard our instructor telling us to push past it.  No pain, no gain, right?

How long did you stick with that program?  If, like most of the population, your mental resistance built up until you’d accept any excuse to avoid your workout, you should know that there’s a reason that was well-known to the practitioners of Taoist martial arts like Tai Chi and Bagua.  Taoism understands the need to seek balance in everything, and it knows that if you overload your body, it will push back.  Whatever is overstretched collapses.

We’re used to a world in which professional athletes, martial artists and people in other high-fitness professions push themselves so hard on a regular basis that they routinely wreck their joints, their backs, their connective tissue and so on before they reach their mid-30s.  We’re taught to push ourselves to new heights by straining our bodies to their limits and pushing ourselves to exhaustion again and again.


Fitness versus Health

It’s entirely possible to be fit without being healthy, and to be healthy without being fit.  We may see someone who’s ripped and can do endless push-ups or run marathons as healthy.  By Taoist standards, they may be anything but.  The Taoist definition of health requires that

–          your body is able to move painlessly through its whole natural range of motion

–          that you are free from chronic illness, injury or pain

–          that you have a healthy back, joints and connective tissue

–          that you have high vitality due to a healthy emotional life, lack of tension in the body and free circulation of life energy- chi.

–          that the resting state of your muscles and nervous system is completely relaxed

The problem with constantly pushing yourself to your limits is that you build abiding tension in your muscles, you strain your joints and connective tissue in ways that lead to a constant state of pain and inflammation, inviting disease.  You become physically and emotionally exhausted, draining your energy and vitality rather than building it up.

That is exactly why Taoist training methods build up basic health and vitality before attempting rigorous strength, speed or endurance training, and don’t jeopardise the former to get the latter.

If this seems strange to you, there’s one question you should ask yourself that will put the health versus fitness question in perspective:  when you’re forty, fifty, even eighty years old, will you have an easier time or a harder time staying fit because of the kinds of exercise you’re doing today?

This is exactly the dilemma which so many martial artists in disciplines like Karate and Tae Kwon Do – that emphasise maximum effort and raw performance – face all the time.  After a certain point, usually in the mid to late twenties, their abilities peak, and no matter how hard they practice, they just go downhill, more often than not with chronic pain from injuries and strains to slow them down even further.

One of the great advantages of the Taoist internal martial arts is that this wall doesn’t exist– you can keep practicing and improving throughout your entire life.  The timescale of training in these arts, even in the times when they were actively used in combat, ran into decades.

Build Yourself Up Without Destroying Yourself

This lifelong vitality is achieved through a method that respects the laws of natural balance.

  1. The 70% rule: This rule from Tai Chi practice asks you to train consistently at around 70% of your capacity.  This not only means 70% of your strength, speed and endurance, but even your range of motion, the length of time you practice and so on.  As you do this consistently, your body will use that last 30% reserve of energy to repair and replenish itself, building up your vitality over time.  As you practice consistently at this level, your 70% will go up naturally.  This is the direct opposite of the “train till you drop” propaganda that permeates our competition-crazed culture.
  2. Slow down to speed up, relax thoroughly to increase effort: The more pressure you or your trainer bring to bear on your body to put forth ever more exhausting effort, the more that tension is going to live in your muscles and nerves, reducing your ability to move freely, creating emotional stress and changing the neurotransmitter balance in your body.  On the other hand, if you train slowly, deliberately, and make sure to move with complete, deep relaxation on a regular basis, you will find that you can not only move faster when you need to, but also put forth more effort.  This is exactly why Tai Chi forms are done at a fraction of combat speed- that slow, relaxed and deliberate approach in practice translates into movements so fast you can’t see them with the naked eye.
  3. Injuries are bad for your health: It seems odd to have to say it, but building up your strength by injuring yourself is a contradiction.  Yet this is exactly what we do to ourselves through our obsession with endless repetitions of a single exercise, or in sports like football where injuries are virtually inevitable.  Boxing has taken some hits [] recently over the brain damage suffered by many boxers from repeated blows to the head.
  4. Treat pain with respect: If you are coping with pain or injury and you want to return to full health, follow the 70% rule to gradually improve, rather than trying to push all the way through and probably exacerbating the problem.


Pain is a Teacher

Think about this.  What is the point of fitness now that wrecks fitness in the future?  What is the point of strength now that leads to injury, disease, chronic pain and possibly early death in the future?  A certain amount of stress is necessary for us to make progress in any area of life- it’s called eustress, a term coined by Hans Selye meaning good stress.  The opposite of eustress is distress, the stress that leads to real pain and exhaustion.  When we cross over from eustress to distress in exercise, our bodies know.

Listen to psychological manipulation perpetrated in this video.  “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.”  “He had more in him.  Wuss.”

These are the hallmarks of the Western approach to strength, which always tries to overcome the body with the mind.  Over the millennia, humans have performed certain kinds of tasks for which our bodies are optimised- namely, slow, painstaking tasks that require us to sustain about 70% of effort by their nature.  Hunting, gathering, farming, carpentry.  Our burst capacity is for emergencies, not everyday use.  That’s what we’re set up for.

If our approach to training ignores the balance of human nature, something will give.  For every action, there is a reaction.  For every overextension, there is a collapse.  That is the most fundamental difference between the Taoist approach and the others.  One respects the way the human organism is set up.  The other works against it.  But nature always wins.

Tiptoeing Through Hell: Resilience through impossible times


How can we as human beings endure the unendurable?  And what if, in addition to physical hardship, the challenge comes from an unbearable social or political evil?  Among the many ways humanity has devised to torment itself, physical danger is often paradoxically the least stressful.  What really gets us is social inequity, whether personal injustice or the struggles of poverty or mistreatment by powerful institutions in our societies.


Nicholas Poppe, a renowned scholar of Mongolic languages, lived through arguably the worst times the human race has ever experienced – the complete insanity of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, followed immediately by Hitler’s invasion of Russia during the Second World War. His memoirs are a remarkable testament to the achievements of a purposeful man with a strong sense of his own values and a lot of prudence in the midst of impossible situations.


Born in Shandong Province in China, son of a Russian diplomat, Poppe lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War in his youth.  Nevertheless, he managed to complete his linguistic studies and was by the early 1930s head of the Department of Mongolian Studies in the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.



Things Get Worse


Soviet academia in the 1920s had carried on almost as normal, despite the universal shortage of the necessities of life.  Books were still written and scholars still spoke their minds and interacted with their counterparts in other countries.  The 1930s brought an end to that, as denunciations and political tribunals became the norm and unqualified Party members were brought in to fill the places of scholars exiled to Siberia or shot.  Poppe witnessed friend after friend falling afoul of the Party and the secret police, and was himself interviewed by the latter several times.


If you’re asking how political a book on the Mongolic languages could possibly be, well, Poppe could tell you.  He had to rework his treatment of the history of Mongol languages because of a political fear that an obscure academic text written in Russian might spark a pan-Mongol political movement – Mongolia at the time was an abject client state of the Soviets.  If that seems ridiculous, one of his son’s schoolbooks was destroyed because someone thought that he could see the face of Trotsky in the tree on the cover.


But what really put him danger were his associations with foreign scholars and academic institutions – several of Poppe’s colleagues were condemned for their associations with “Nazi” or “Capitalist” institutions.


Through all of this, Poppe kept doing his job the way it was supposed to be done as far as he could, but careful observation and prudence allowed him to do this.  He was keenly aware of how the system worked, and so he covered himself wherever possible.  Though he was of German ancestry, he got identity papers which stated he was Russian, telling the authorities that his grandfather had been Czech.


He refused to serve as a translator for Soviet forces attacking Finland, saying that he was a scholar of Mongolian languages and knew nothing about Finnish.  He concealed his total fluency in Finnish from the authorities for several years.  Poppe liked the Finns, and managed to get an accurate picture of Stalin’s embarrassing attempt to subdue Finland by reading Iranian newspapers – the only foreign papers not heavily censored by the Party.


It was a situation in which carrying on with normal life seemed almost impossible.  One incident shows the absurdity of the times.  Poppe had been helping the Red Army find accurate maps of the frontier between Mongolia and Japanese -held Manchuria during the negotiation of a border dispute.  Afterward, he asked a Russian general if he would mind getting his troops to survey some of the scattered monuments on the Mongolian steppe.  The general was happy to oblige, but it never happened – he was killed in Stalin’s purge of the officer corps shortly afterward, along with the majority of generals.



Much Worse


When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Poppe, who had no interest in either the Soviet or Nazi causes, made it his priority to protect his family, and to find a way to get them to the West if possible.  His family had been on holiday in the Caucasus, and so he went there, escaping Leningrad barely in time to avoid the brutal siege that killed over six hundred thousand of the city’s inhabitants.  In the Caucasus, he tried to keep his head down until the Soviets were forced to withdraw.  They traded one evil for another.  Before their withdrawal, the Soviet secret police exterminated all of their political prisoners.  When the SS arrived, they began gassing Jews.


Poppe, fluent in German, often interpreted for German army officers.  Life for most people was far easier and safer under the Germans, because unless you were a Jew or a member of some other group Hitler wanted to exterminate, they didn’t tend to care about you.  This was a very different situation from, for instance, the Ukraine, where the Slavic population also became subject to racial policies.  Poppe, who had become an interpreter by pointing out that the Germans’ interpreter was mistranslating, although he himself deliberately mistranslated when it could help people in danger.  Once when Poppe was accompanying German officers to a sanatorium for sick children, the administrator said that they had a number of Jewish children there.  Poppe translated this as ‘There are children of various nationalities here.’


Another incident involved an ethnic group known as the Tat.  No, you’ve probably never heard of them and you’re not alone!  In any case, they practiced Judaism, but Poppe put together historical and linguistic evidence that they were ethnically Persian, and had always been classified as such in Tsarist times.  Just to make sure, he suggested that the Tat community throw a big party for the German officers.  The Germans enjoyed themselves and pronounced that they didn’t care what religion the Tat practiced as long as they weren’t racially Jewish.  So Poppe very probably saved the entire Tat ethnic group from extinction.


When the Germans withdrew, Poppe knew from experience that anyone with any links to them would be imprisoned or shot by the Soviets.  He therefore took the opportunity to move his family geographically closer to his goal of living in a democratic country and went to Germany.  Working for the Germans as an analyst on Soviet and Central Asian political and cultural issues, he was already convinced that the Nazis were doomed.  He attempted to keep his son from getting conscripted into the German army – fortunately, his son’s unit, largely conscripted from occupied Alsace, surrendered at the first opportunity.


He nevertheless met many other people who had escaped Soviet oppression into the arms of the Germans, something that had been easy to do at the beginning of the war.  Poppe, like many others, believed that if not for Nazi ideology, the Germans could have had the wholehearted support of the Soviet population simply to abolish their own regime.



Are You Kidding Me?


Unfortunately, the victorious Allies did not at first distinguish between these refugees from Soviet oppression and supporters of Nazism.  Countless people were given back to the Soviets and faced certain death.  As a result, Poppe spent several years hiding from the Soviets while trying to care for his dying wife before he was able to find Allied officers who would clear the way for him to emigrate, first to Britain and then to the United States.


If he had spent several years waiting for the Allies to get over the idea that Stalin’s regime was a trustworthy partner just because they had been against the Nazis, Poppe arrived in America just in time for it to swing too far in the other direction with the advent of McCarthyism.  Once again, in front of a Congressional committee, he was asked to denounce one of his academic colleagues, this time as a Communist sympathiser, which he refused to do.



I’m just trying to live quietly over here…


In the end, Poppe and his sons did escape the insane situations they had been born into, and Poppe continued his prolific academic career at the University of Washington.  Through a lot of patience, principled persistence and prudence, he managed to navigate through some of the worst events in human history with his sanity intact.


What saved Nicholas Poppe and his family in the end were a few simple RESILIENCE principles that all Warriors should keep in mind:


1. Know the Signs of the Times:


“When it is evening, you say, `It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’
And in the morning, `It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” ~ Jesus Christ (Mt.16:2-3)


The fundamental principle here is to know and understand in depth the trends in thought going on around you.  All human cultures have their own blind spots and delusions, which evolve over time.  Do you see those of your own culture objectively?  Where are things heading on a societal level?



2. Know Your Enemy:


Because he could read the signs of the times, Poppe understood the psychosis behind both the Soviets and the Nazis.  And, because he had a keen analytical mind, he understood that the Soviets and the Nazis were completely different.  He did not make the critical mistake (which the West would continue to make for decades) of thinking they were the same.  By understanding the differences in their worldviews and motivations, Poppe was able to navigate his way through and play one off against the other.



3. Take Care of Yourself First:


You’re no good to anyone if you yourself are seriously ill or imprisoned.  Poppe understood his responsibilities as the head of his family and was very careful to ensure his own safety so that he could look after everyone else.



4. Know When to Be Defiant:


During the first purge of the Academy of Sciences, when all the other academics were cowering in fear before the Soviet Secret Police, Poppe’s wife, Nataliya, took the opposite tack.  Accused by them during a public meeting of being the daughter of a Tsarist general, she stood up, looked them right in the eye and said, “Yes, what of it?!”  Her accusers were so shocked that they backed down and never bothered her again!



5. Protect as Many as You Can:


Poppe didn’t just focus narrowly on protecting his own family – he helped everyone in danger he possibly could, no matter what side they belonged to.  And, as we’ve noted, he almost certainly saved the entire Tat ethnic group from extermination.



6. Get Out of Dodge at the First Opportunity:


There’s always somewhere on the planet where insanity is minimized and where you can live a normal life.  In the words of a Pakistani woman now working to improve the status of women in her native land, “Living in Canada taught me how right things could be.”  Once you’re “out of dodge” you can then decide whether you want to get back into the fray or not.



Most of us have had the incredible good fortune of growing up and living our lives in peaceful circumstances, but as Warriors we always have to keep in mind that there is nothing permanent in this world…



~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

~ Anthony S. Rodger, M.A.

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