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Gabor Maté: Healing Emotional Pain & Social Change (Part 1)

by Susan Krajnc

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Gabor Maté works as a staff physician at the Portland Hotel Society with the drug addicted women and men in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.  He is the author of 4 bestselling books:  In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts:  Close Encounters with Addiction, When the Body Says No:  The Cost of Hidden Stress, Hold On to Your Kids:  Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers (with Gordon Neufeld), and Scattered Minds:  A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorders.


Susan Krajnc:  Please tell us a little bit about yourself – your history – and, if you will, some insights on some strategies that have helped you cope with your internalized emotional pain from childhood.

Gabor Maté:  Well, I was a Jewish infant who spent his first year of life in the ghetto of Budapest under Nazi occupation.  My grandparents were killed in Auschwitz and my father away in forced labour and that had a real impact on my development.  Mostly what I realized is that I spent my whole life trying to deal with my mother’s pain and trying to somehow correct it.  In fact, you can trace a lot of my political activities to want to make the world okay, based on that early experience.  A lot of people that get into left-wing politics do use their politics as a way of dealing with emotional stuff that they haven’t quite looked at internally, which doesn’t invalidate their politics, it just means that their work sometimes is a bit unnecessarily heavy because the pain they’re dealing with is internal rather than the external stuff they are looking at.  So people need to take a good, close look at themselves which will not only help heal their own pain but also make their political work more effective.

SK:  Can you give us some examples of what has helped you?

GM:  Personally, the reading I’ve done on psychology, emotions, spirituality, the therapy that I’ve had, groups I have participated in, the work that I do with other people, just observing the world, and observing myself in the world.

SK:  Explain why you say in your latest book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, that Native women are the most psychologically and socially oppressed group in North America.

GM:  Well, first, there is the gender issue.  Women in society carry a lot of emotional burdens and it shows up in the form of disease.  For example, in the 1940s the gender ratio of Multiple Sclerosis was 1 to 1; now it’s 4 women to every man.  Clearly, what has happened is that women are still carrying the traditional burdens of being stressed –  absorbers or sponges for their families and their men – but they also spend more time on their social role and they have less support than they used to because of the breakdown of the community and the extended families.  Now with Native women it is both a racial/ethnic and a gender issue.  Natives, in general, are at the bottom of this society – economically and politically and in terms of their oppressive history.  Native women are, by definition, even more burdened than Native men in some ways and they are oppressed by them, abused, and so on.  I’m not saying that’s a general case.  I’m not saying it’s a trait of Native people per se but this is what history has led to.  And they’re more likely to be raped, they are more likely to be killed, they’re more likely to die early than other people.

SK:  It was interesting what you said in your talk that, if you would do other work, you would work with the Native communities full-time.  Can you elaborate on that?

GM:  For Canada to have an army in Afghanistan with the idea of bringing education and health care and equality to the Afghani women and their people in general while we have this outrage of poverty, disease, the death rate, the suicide rate, and the addiction rate in our Native communities.  I mean the hypocrisy cries to the heavens.  It’s an area that most needs healing and – I feel, I know – I have something to offer and, if I had more time, I’d spend more time doing that kind of work.

SK:  You have written some powerful books that speak compassion on every page.  In the context of violence that manifests in sexism, racism, capitalism, what we humans are doing to the planet, and other species, how do you see good change happening, what is your vision?

GM:  I’m like Noam Chomsky in that sense; he talks about being a tactical pessimist but a strategic optimist.  In other words, in the short-term it is just a very difficult and daily ongoing struggle to get the truth out to people and get people to even be interested in the truth.  On the other hand, I have profound faith in truth itself and the capacity of truth to liberate people and in mankind’s ongoing search for the truth and a way out of situations that are not humane.  I’m not saying any short-term solutions are in the corner but have no doubt the long-term process is heading in the right direction even though it looks very bad at times.

SK:  Have you seen the film, The White Ribbon, by Michael Haneke?

GM:  No, what’s it about?

SK:  It’s a German film.  It’s an excellent film.  It takes the perspective of the children living in a village one year before World War I and these children eventually will be adults during Nazi time.  It also shows the different layers of power within the village and how the children are treated.   How they stick together as peers and how they act out in response to the abuse that they face.  It won the Palme d’Or last year, it’s Oscar nominated, it won the top European award.  It’s done in black and white.

GM:  I’ll look for it, thank you.



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