2020.03.04 08:00

What is wrong with us? – opinion

Laimonas Talat-Kelpša 2020.03.04 08:00

Is Lithuania’s traumatic past and inability to come to terms with it making the society depressed, asks Laimonas Talat-Kelpša, Chancellor at the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.

Baltics in-depth. LRT English presents a forum of expert voices from the region.

A few years ago, a book by Terrence Real landed on my desk by sheer accident. The book bearing a title, I Don’t Want to Talk about It, and a subtitle, Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, explains how men carry on through life with their childhood traumas, repeatedly hurting themselves -- and those around them -- just because they don’t know how to deal with their pain.

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In a generic way, this book offers a better understanding of why, for example, men in Lithuania commit suicide six to seven times more often than women, resulting in one of the highest ratio difference between genders in the world.

But can it also explain why we, Lithuanians as a nation, so often feel. slightly depressed and misplaced? Do we owe this sentiment to a certain trauma, the existence of which we do not recognise and the pain of which we are not able to overcome?

This question deserves closer attention. The modern world way too often employs the statistical numbers of GDP growth, income per capita and trade levels to measure an individual nation’s accomplishments.

From this perspective, Lithuania must be one of the success stories, bearing in mind where we started 30 years ago and where we have reached now.

Yet, the popular feeling that prevails in Lithuania is that of unease rather than satisfaction. Despite the spectacular growth, people still feel lagging behind.

They spend like crazy – last year, for example, consumer spending reached an all-time high. But at the same time, 39 percent claim they can buy less today than they could 10 years ago, according to an opinion poll by Swedbank in 2019.

The country enjoys a physical presence of NATO and US troops, but its people still mention ‘Russia’ and ‘war’ in the first place when asked to define ‘threat’, according to a study by Lithuanian Social Research Centre in 2017.

So what is wrong with us?

In the textbooks of psychology, continuous low mood and sadness, feeling hopeless and helpless, having low self-esteem, feeling irritable and intolerant to others, are listed as the characteristic symptoms of psychological depression. Can it be that our society is ill, and the name of the disease is not coronavirus?

One of the reasons for Lithuanians to be depressed could be our difficult and complicated history. Each healthy nation has a success story, a historical narrative on which it relies during dark hours.

Building such a narrative for Lithuanians often reminds a struggle in the quicksand. Our record of victories is rather short, and those few options which the political class tries to capitalise on either turn out to be ill-chosen or come under systemic attacks from abroad.

Our twentieth-century history in particular is disputed and revisited with such an intensity that normal people start feeling like they are losing the grip on reality and on who they are.

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What is most dangerous in this condition is that people lose their ability and possibility to reflect on the traumas they had to endure. The twentieth century was extremely brutal for Lithuania. In addition to the traditional horrors of war, which by itself involves a wide array of traumatic experiences, the population of Lithuania was exposed to a routine of brutal violence, which lasted for a prolonged period.

Thus, in just one decade from 1940 to 1950:

– Roughly 200,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis and their local collaborators,

– 156,000 other citizens thrown into prison and tortured by the Soviets,

– 130,000, mostly women and children, deported to Siberia,

– 20,000 perished as freedom fighters in the anti-Soviet resistance which lasted until 1953,

– Roughly 150,000 Polish-speaking population ‘transferred’ from the Vilnius region to Poland after the war,

– 64,000 people fled from the formerly Nazi-occupied Klaipėda region, leaving the city of Klaipėda with only 28 civilians when the Soviet army entered the city in 1945,

– 56,000 or more fled the country in 1944–45, escaping the return of Soviets and repressions.

This rounds off to approximately 800,000 people, who have vanished from the surface of Lithuania in just one decade. The estimated total number of the Lithuanian population in 1940 was 2.8 million.

800,000 is a staggering number. A substantial volume of research has been produced, especially in the last 30 years, registering and analysing the sufferings of these victims, most of whom have been lost forever. It is right that we seek truth about what happened to these people, because it helps to comprehend the full scope of our shared tragedy.

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On top of that, a growing volume of research is coming up, dedicated to the perpetrators. Today we have a fairly good understanding of how the Soviet repressive regime functioned in occupied Lithuania.

Slowly, with hiccups, we come to face the role of Lithuanian collaborators and population at large during the Holocaust and our responsibility for what happened. And the role of those who chose to actively collaborate during the later years of Soviet occupation, still divides our society and awaits our attention.

Meanwhile, the fate of those nearly 2 million who stayed and survived under oppression for 50 years, who witnessed the killings and tortures, who lost property and family members but were even not permitted to grieve, who themselves were constantly and systematically abused by the authorities through terror, deprivation, injustice and other ‘smart innovations’ of totalitarianism, has been largely neglected.

We are the first- or second-generation descendants of these 2 million. It is no surprise, therefore, that our lives are not easy. Our self-esteem is severely damaged. Our relations with neighbors, both immediate and political, are complicated. Rebuilding bridges with the Jewish, Polish and other communities still comes with a difficulty, despite some progress.

To rephrase Terry Real’s book, Do we want to talk about it? And then, What are the means of overcoming the secret legacy of this social depression?

First, we need your help to understand and acknowledge our trauma. This doesn’t always come easy. Our guests from the field of psychotherapy can explain why. But one who wants to heal must diagnose and acknowledge his or her problem for starters.

Second, we must realise how trauma works on a collective psyche. The effects are not only immediate but also with long-lasting repercussions. Untreated trauma is passed on to the subsequent generations. So dealing with trauma requires a delicate and committed effort.

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Third, we have to put our collective traumas in a larger international context. It is important to understand that our pain is unique but hardly singular. There are other countries and nations, from Sri Lanka to Ireland, who have suffered in recent history and who still struggle to come to terms with their traumatic past. Can we learn from their experience?

Finally and most importantly, what are the methods and means of overcoming collective traumas? Can we lean on the academic accomplishments of psychotherapy? Or maybe art? Or literature? Can we develop a universal toolbox, a certain blueprint, for those nations and societies who are still in the denial stage of their multiple trauma? Our big neighbour [Russia – LRT English] comes as an immediate example, but probably there are many more.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.