The Emotional Journey of Reconciliation

Every single action we take is driven by emotion. As much as we would like to believe we humans are compelled by logic, what we do (or do not) is a direct result of how we feel. Moreover, some emotions create compassionate action, and some manifest through acts of oppression. So while many commentators may analyse the reconciliation process through events and efforts, it makes more sense to me to understand where we are emotionally. We can only truly understand our propensity to take meaningful action towards authentic reconciliation.

Emotions Drive Our Behaviour

Coming from a white protestant heritage, I was taught early on to fear, deny, repress or avoid my emotions. The feeling of, and more importantly, the expression of emotion was a sign of a weak, undisciplined or dramatic character. Logic and reason prevailed, and emotions were the antithesis of good decision-making. However, I have discovered through my work with the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) model that emotions drive our decisions. For example, we may believe we decide to approve a project because of the ROI figures in front of us. However, we actually make this decision because we feel confident in our assessment or the people providing it.

Not only this, but the emotions we experience hold great wisdom about where we are and how we are being called to grow. They provide insight into our thoughts and the beliefs that may hold us back. Therefore, if we ignore them, we also disregard an immense source of intelligence about what we need to do to achieve our goals.

And suppose our goal as descendants of the white colonialists is reconciliation with First Nations peoples. In that case, we need to investigate exactly how we are feeling right now and how these emotions may be helping or hindering our progress.

A Model of the Emotional Journey

There is a great model that helps us pinpoint where we are on the emotional journey. It is the Levels of Consciousness prepared by Dr David Hawkins.[i]. An adaptation of his model is shown below. Dr Hawkins used Applied Kinesiology (AK) to test the muscle responses of his patients across various emotional states. The emotions were then charted from lowest to highest energy vibrations and categorised into those that are life-destroying (Force emotions) and those that are life-affirming (Power emotions).

Emotions that we would describe as distressing, such as shame, guilt, fear and anger, are classified in this model as emotions of Force. These emotions pressure us and coerce us into behaving a certain way. The emotions of Force result in either an inability to take action to grow and change (inaction) or the expenditure of a great deal of effort (hyperactivity). Regardless, these emotions constrain us, oblige us to ‘fit in’ and impose a heavy burden upon us. With these emotions, we do not feel in control of our lives and destinies. These emotions are indeed soul-crushing. In contrast, there are a set of emotions or states of being that tap into our intrinsic strength and allow us to live true to our Spirit. These are known as the Power emotions and include love, joy and peace.

While it may appear that the Force emotions are worse than the Power emotions, Dr Hawkins explains that there is a journey through these states of consciousness and that the emotions at the bottom of the scale are necessary for us to path through to achieve the higher levels of consciousness. He suggests that we must know the pain of shame, guilt, fear, anger, and desire to help us understand ourselves and how the world works. These lower-level emotions are the pathway and the motivation to move away from these towards love and joy. Dr Hawkins’ view is that only when you have known oppression are you provided with the motivation and skills to achieve freedom.

Typical Emotions of Colonisation

From my very naïve reading of our colonial history, it certainly appears that the emotions experienced to date have been largely of Force. And yet it also appears that we are generally progressing upwards to higher emotional states. For example, our First Nations peoples were suppressed into shame. They were unworthy of basic human rights, even if they followed the white man’s ways. This was only trumped by what I could imagine was, and still may be, a huge dose of guilt from those who have established and perpetrated institutions of inequity.

I would never try to speak for our First Nations peoples, but I would understand if there was a huge burden of grief being felt for the loss of culture and through seeing their children experience discrimination and suffering in every area of life. In turn, the oppressors became fearful and needed to protect their positions of privilege. Fear makes inherently decent people do bad things, and I suggest it was the driver behind most of the harm we have caused to date.

And yet it does appear that we have largely been able to progress through fear and the emotion of desire. The polling results regarding the referendum for The Voice to Parliament show a yearning to build a better future, free of suffering for our First Nations Australians. However, the rest of the emotional ride is not a smooth one. With the reduction of retribution, the anger repressed for hundreds of years can spew forth, so it is not surprising that we see more and increasingly fierce public protests against the continued inequity. In response, you see violent verbal outbursts of pride from white politicians, such as those by Pauline Hanson, used to reinforce her position of privilege.

Of course, this analysis of the emotional journey of colonialism is an incredibly simplistic one. It is only my very guileless interpretation of our journey of racial reconciliation to date. Nevertheless, I do think it provides some insight into our progress thus far.

My Emotional Experience

I can only attest to my experience of most of these emotions over the past decades, watching succeeding governments wrestle with acknowledging and attempting to close the gap. I have worked through:

  • Shame — believing my ancestors were abhorrent and wanting to distance myself from them.
  • Guilt — in knowing that through my privilege, I am upholding institutions that perpetrate suffering.
  • Grief — for the lost opportunities of earlier reconciliation and respect for the great wisdom of our First Nations peoples.
  • Fear — yes, I have felt a sense of fear of what a loss of privilege might mean. And I have also felt fear exuding from our previous government, which continually sought to repress and restrain basic human rights.
  • Desire — like others, I yearn for a time where there is loving recognition for our First Nations peoples and a deep sense of belonging for all races.
  • Anger — I get angry daily when I hear politicians making excuses to maintain inequity hiding behind lies and selected truths to prevent progress.

One thing I cannot feel at the moment, though, is pride. This is because I don’t feel yet that we have done anything sufficiently worthy of honour or congratulations. I also know that pride is a very dangerous place to get stuck.

Getting Stuck In Pride

According to Dr David Hawkins, pride is the level most people aspire to because it is the first level that feels good. All the emotions before it hold destructive power and reflect negativity inward and outward. In comparison, pride feels warm and fuzzy because it is based on some sort of success. For example, you can be proud of your achievements or the possessions you have been able to amass. Because it is relatively comfortable, it is easy to get stuck here, but the problem is that the foundations upon which pride is based are fragile.

Pride is based on external circumstances, for example, the value of your property or others’ positive opinions of you. Pride, then is not a solid and sustainable source of positivity. Due to the inevitable law of impermanence, sooner or later, things will change, and you may be back down at fear, grief, guilt or shame all over again.

Interestingly, pride is also an emotion correlated directly with racism. It is used to puff oneself up at the expense of others who are believed to be less worthy than yourself.

If Australia is a racist country, then it is because we have allowed ourselves to rise up to and then get stuck in this superficial sense of superiority.

Finding Courage

In this model of emotions, courage is the first level of power — where we can exert our strengths to enact change and deliver on our mission and goals. We have experienced life-destroying pressure and are now ready to rise above and bring life-affirming energy to our work. We are now ready to shift the status quo and make improvements for ourselves and others.

Suppose then, as a nation, we are stuck in pride. How do we progress to courage? I would suggest that we are lucky enough to have some politicians now in power who are providing great role models. However, more generally, the path to courage is through action.

If you look the word courage up in the dictionary, you will see that the definition of courage is:

This definition holds the key to what courage is all about. Courage does not mean that you don’t feel afraid. It is the exact opposite. Fear is an inherent part. Without fear, bravery does not exist. Courage, then, is choosing to take action to move beyond fear. It is the choice to sit with the discomfort of the unknown because of something more important.

Pride dismisses other people’s experiences to remain comfortable. Courage embraces discomfort knowing that it is the pathway to healing.

“We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both.”~ Brene Brown

But more than just coming from a cognitive exercise, courage comes from action. It is about trying new things, talking with new people, and in the case of reconciliation, practising empathy.

The Power of Empathy

Empathy is the antidote to the Force emotions because it does not allow them to hide and propagate in the darkness. Empathy is about being brave enough to sit, listen and be willing to believe the truth of others. But to do empathy well, we need first to understand our feelings and then be willing to put them aside to focus on those that need our help. This is why understanding the emotional journey and our current state is so important. If we cannot bring the wisdom of where we sit emotionally into these discussions, we will also not be conscious of how our emotions may initiate unhelpful responses.

Truth-telling is an act of courage. So is listening to and believing in someone else’s truth (especially when it threatens to pull you back into anger, fear, guilt or shame).

The Emotional Journey

As we have seen, the actions we choose largely depend on the emotions that drive them. I believe that most Australians are acting from a place of courage, seeing a vision for and being willing to act for a better future for our First Nations Australians. Unfortunately, many of these voices are drowned out by the dominating diatribe coming from the dark side of white privilege. They are the voices of people still stuck in pride, fear, guilt and shame. While they cannot be dismissed, our energies must be prioritised on the movement towards positive power and a place of love. We cannot be responsible for their beliefs, thoughts or emotions — we can only be responsible for our own.

I hope this article may have helped you understand where you are on the essential yet very emotional journey of reconciliation.

[1] https://www.lexico.com/definition/courage

[i] Hawkins, D. (2002). Power vs. Force. Carlsbad, Calif.: Hay House.

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