Healing Through Understanding | Daily News

Healing Through Understanding

A tense situation at Galle Face on  May 9. Picture by Wasitha Patabendige
A tense situation at Galle Face on May 9. Picture by Wasitha Patabendige

We all remember what happened on May 9th. The day the riots began. That was the day fear took control of our minds. The buses in the vicinity of Galle Face Green and Gangaramaya were packed that day. The trishaw drivers (also in the surrounding area) did not help us get home. The situation on the roads was extremely disturbing. At one point a man wearing a helmet tried to enter one of the buses and told everyone not to film with their cell phones. One young lady told her fellow passengers not to let them get into the bus! At that time it was truly terrifying. It was terrifying because the demonstrators were angry, and they themselves were also scared. Today Sri Lankans are living under extreme stress. We are living in a country with no gas, no fuel, no electricity and no money. We do not know what will take place this week, but we know that there are lessons to learn from what has taken place. After all, something like this might take place sometime in the future. Daily News speaks to Professor in Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya, Prof. Shehan Williams, on how we can cope during these times, and how we can come to terms with what has already happened in our country. Healing can only come through acceptance and acceptance can only come through understanding.

How can a person COPE with such an experience? How can they get over it and properly move on with their lives? How can they deal with the terror inside of them?

“Such events can be very disturbing. However, as human beings we have dealt with trauma from time immemorial. Life has been wrought all along with threats, uncertainty and social upheavals. Our minds have battled with them and have the resources to deal with them. For most people such situations are a learning experience that will help them develop resilience,” said Prof. Williams.

Prof. Williams pointed out that post traumatic growth is an important element recognized in psychology today. Although such instances can be very disarming and alarming when it takes place, these experiences eventually contribute in most, to a different and richer understanding of life. We learn to appreciate the positive things and value life much more through these traumatic events. Almost all religions speak of suffering and pain as aspects of spirituality. Hence, we all need to step back and reflect on the events unfolding around us and find a deeper meaning in life.

“In fact, the political dramas around, teach us so many aspects of life – including the good, the bad and the ugly. Man’s inhumanity to man; thuggery, deception, corruption, exploitation, blatant misuse of power and position and a general lack of conscience, in the very people elected to serve. However, I am glad that people are standing up to reclaim what is rightfully theirs,” explained Prof. Williams.

Recently an unprecedented force of Sri Lankans took to the streets of Colombo to oust the former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. People from all corners of the country poured into Colombo. They came from Kandy, Galle and Matara. All demanding that the President step down. We saw unbelievable scenes on television – the crowd storming into the President’s office, and crowds breaching his private home. They were jubilant and exhilarated that they had chased away the President. It was on a larger scale than the riots on May 9th, where houses were destroyed. But what kind of a long term effect does all of this have on the psyche of the people?

“When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, we cope in different ways. As Sri Lankans we predominantly cope in an ‘emotion focused’ way. We basically follow our emotions. We display our anger and displeasure or exuberance and jubilation spontaneously. This can sometimes be very destructive or harmful to others around us. We need to be careful and restrained. The better way of coping would be to be ‘problem focused’. When we are under pressure, we should be calm and try to focus on how we can best resolve the problem rather than being overridden by our emotions.”

Even though the political hierarchy has changed, the economy is still in a very fragile state. We still have no fuel, we have no gas, we have no power and we have no money. The Cost of Living is going up day-by-day. Fishermen cannot go into the sea, vegetable and fruit vendors cannot sell their goods and people are frustrated.

“I admire the courage of the average Sri Lankan. It is no doubt a very tough and sad situation. We need to realize that we are all in this together. Each of us has to contribute to bring our country back on track. Sharing our exasperations and seeing the commonality of difficulties we face helps. Even joining in the protests help people sublimate their vexation. I also admire the great sense of humour we share. Despite all the difficulties, there are so many who are creative amongst us, who come up with the most hilarious jokes, cartoons, animations, memes and videos. These too help us keep our spirits up despite the challenges,” explained Prof. Williams.

These days, people are falling dead in queues. They are getting into arguments with each other that result in violence. We asked Prof. Williams, what tips he can give us to remain calm.

“As mentioned before, we need to learn to be problem focused and not give in to our emotions. We have to see the brighter side of things such as having to walk more, which will contribute to better health in the long run. Our respective beliefs and faith can also play an important role in helping us cope. It is never too late to develop our emotional health by making a conscious effort to remain calm and distract our mind. It helps to find time to relax and not focus on the negative side of things all the time,” said Prof. Williams.

One big question is, is there any system that might be put in place to bring a sense of order in these long queues? “There is no simple answer to this. People need some assurance that appropriate and credible measures are being taken by the government to resolve the shortages. There has to be transparency in the process with the public being informed of the decisions and actions. Only then can anarchy be prevented. When people feel there is no order around them, in desperation their basic survival instincts kick in. This is when people break queues,” said Prof. Williams.

Prof. Williams added that we need to be hopeful. As the saying goes ‘nothing lasts forever’!

“However, for this to happen we need a new set of politicians with integrity. Sri Lanka is a country with amazing resources including human potential. Our young people are smart and intelligent and can rise to any occasion given the right opportunities and resources. We need proper leadership to steer the country to its potential. There are so many definitions of leadership. In fact, there are books written on it, and people we can emulate. So, I will not venture into elaborating on the type of leaders we need. It would be more apt for me to say that we certainly do not want the kind of leaders who have run our country to the ground and put us in the predicament we are in today. We clearly know the qualities we do not want in our future leaders! Finding these leaders will be our challenge,” concluded Prof. Williams.


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