Psychic Environments Housing Souls
I doubt that even the crustiest scientist would argue that environment is irrelevant to human development but judging by the status quo around the world, optimum housing for every human is not high on national agendas. Enormous “shack cities” cling to the edges of the world’s great metropolitan areas like parasitic fungi spreading over the terrain. Poverty is not new, of course, but slum cities on the scale we see today are new. They are the product of the “baby boom” following World War II. The availability of anti-biotics, vaccination, and immunization ensured that the 10 to 25% of children who would have died in the first two to five years of life in previous generations would survive to have children of their own. The spread of these medical “advances” to what came to be called the “third world” further increased the percentage of children who would survive the illnesses that once would have killed them. The problem was that no provision was made for the consequences of this massive and sudden increase in population all over the world. Today, the situation is critical verging on the catastrophic. The vast majority of humanity is unhoused or under-housed and living in unacceptable conditions. The price we are paying in threats to public health, rampant spread of crime, and proliferation of mental illness are almost incalculable. This is not a practical problem or a political problem; it is not a social problem or an economic problem. It is a global humanitarian problem. It affects all of us whether we acknowledge it or not. The hideous reality of slum cities lives in our consciousness. We all know it is there but we seem willing to ignore it as long as it doesn’t encroach on where we live. The unrecognised problem is that it does encroach on our lives and we are in denial about it! ”Out of sight, out of mind” just doesn’t cut it. We put our own lives at risk every day that this situation is permitted to continue because of the sheer environmental degradation resulting from the slum cities. Far worse, however, is the mental and spiritual damage being done to the inhabitants of the shacks, the cardboard and tin side-walk shelters of Mumbai and Kolkatta and other urban areas of India, Rio and Sao Paolo, Santiago and Mexico City, every city in Africa, the floating cities of Asia, and increasingly the homelessness in the former “Soviet Block”. Homelessness has become so ubiquitous that it seems “normal” in almost every country! But it is NOT normal. Nor is it acceptable for sentient beings to live in such conditions. Our bodies are providing a temporary home for our psyches but our bodies also need shelter and we are all just one natural disaster or war zone away from becoming slum dwellers. It is in our interests to address this problem and to do it in a sensitive, creative, and environmentally friendly manner. Sounds like a tall order doesn’t it? It is a tall order but one that we are perfectly capable of handling right now. Soon it will be too late and we will have cause ot regret our inaction.
Psychic Environments Housing Souls
I use the term “psychic” to refer to more than precognition or communication with the dead. Psychic comes from the Greek word for the soul, psyche. The human psyche – despite all that has been written about it – is terra incognita for most people. Or at least it is for people brought up and educated in a scientific/technological society. We are embarassed to use words like “soul” or “spirit” in public discourse unless it’s in a context that our societies deem acceptable such as Flight 12xz has 320 “souls aboard”; we need to cultivate “team spirit” , “school spirit”, “winning spirit”, etc. This is partly a good thing; it arises from the modern practice of keeping “Church” (soul, spirit) and “State” (equal treatment under the law) separate in order to preserve the democratic right to freedom of religion without interference from government. But the human “psyche” is more than the religious notion of a soul as a kind of record book of our good or bad deeds. The psyche is the expression of consciousness in the human species. It contains all of our abilities but also our potential abilities; our grasp of the past but also our capacity to dream about and plan the future; our ability to relate to our loved ones but also our capacity to identify with the suffering of total strangers. It is this last ability that is the one that is most valuable: humans can imagine themselves in another’s circumstances and, out of compassion for the other, offer help.
When problems are systemic like the problem of homelessness and slum cities, individual help is not sufficient. These are mass problems on an unprecedented scale and require unprecedented solutions. The greatest threat to settled communities is “informal dwellings”, complete homelessness, and mass unemployment. The problem is that solutions aimed only at getting people “off the streets” are not enough as Britain learned after WWII when it re-housed 60% of its population in “council flats and houses”. The massive blocks of flats were soul-less and over time people came to realise that just having a roof and walls – although it was an improvement for many – ignored the occupants’ essential need for connection, for community. I don’t pretend to know what we humans actually are or why we exist but my own experience convinces me that we are more than physical bodies. When we “house” only bodies, we create impersonal, ugly, cold monoliths or cramped cookie-cutter houses that leave the inhabitants isolated in boxes next to other boxes and on top of or below still other boxes. Such buildings send a message. They tell the inhabitants that “beggars can’t be choosers” and to “shut up and be grateful for a roof over your head”. The meta-message is that “we” can’t be bothered to design a more welcoming, interesting, friendly space for others of our species. We’d better hope that one day soon “we” will not become “them”.
My next post will examine ways to engage the homeless and under-housed in building homes and communities like the self-built Papercrete House above made from waste paper that meet peoples’ needs, improve the natural environment, and inspire the inhabitants to create better lives for themselves by attending to the needs of the psyche.
© Delia O’ Riordan 2012
Images in this post courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.