Thought for the week: Retired psychiatrist Bob Johnson’s peace testimony

‘You may not be asked to cope with anorexia but violence is inescapable.’

'They too were battling to right a past wrong, turning their violence outwards, instead of inwards, as anorexics do.' | Photo: Olenka Kotyk / Unsplash.

Twenty years ago I worked as a doctor in The Retreat, in York. Every Monday, patients with anorexia were weighed. Later in life, in my own clinic, an anorexic who had nearly died told me how she and her fellow sufferers used to put bags of water in their shoes, so as to fool the staff that they’d gained weight.

What does Quakerism say to all this? I wondered at the time, to no avail. Now, after sixty years as a doctor, I can’t get over just how vital the Peace Testimony is.

This testimony was born in an era of ferocious violence – it was and remains prodigiously counter-cultural. Today, when violence is still everywhere, how can what Quakers declared 359 years ago apply in 2019? Not only with anorexia, but everywhere else too?

You might not think of anorexics as rebelling, fighting a type of civil war, but they do. Another anorexic told me she aimed to be four stone (twenty-five kilograms), the weight she was before being abused. My task was to offer a better escape route. Imagine my surprise when I found an identical clash of wills among murderers in prison. They too were battling to right a past wrong, turning their violence outwards, instead of inwards, as anorexics do.

You may not be asked to cope with anorexia but violence is inescapable. The conventional wisdom is to coerce – we have more legislative authority, more power, more armaments, than you, so do what we say. We don’t want you to starve, or to murder, so we’ll apply superior force. The result? Zilch.

I found this out the hard way – asking, seeking, examining, arguing at every turn with the authorities. Imagine my astonishment that those early Quakers had got there first. They ‘utterly denied’ using violence to curb violence. When all around them was disintegrating, where did they find this jewel? What had they uncovered beneath the surface, that human beings are really like? They talked of a divine spark within, but what did this mean in solid, practical, political (even medical) terms?

Is this really just an idealistic whim, cherished by a small, declining religious sect, passionately favoured by a retired maverick psychiatrist like me. Or does it carry weight beyond its birth? Well, what’s the evidence? Once, I believe, violence disappeared in a Parkhurst prison special unit – no alarm bells were rung for three years, down from twenty-a-year for the previous seven. Glasgow halved its knife crime rate by helping the disaffected resolve their inner conflicts. In neither case was force used. In both, we were looking for a switch within, a change of direction that could reach below the surface and contact the living, and suffering individual hidden inside. Moving from ‘out-there’ to ‘in-here’. Peace of mind is something we all crave, and rightly so.

If you wish me peace, that helps me, as might be expected. But if I wish you peace, that helps me at least as much, if not more. Why? This was no surprise to the Peace Testimony writers – they sussed this out in 1660.

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