For what the ancients called “the sins of the fathers” we today call ‘intergenerational trauma’.
For what the ancients called “sin” we today call ‘epigenetics’.
History matters because it’s not about the past, it’s about us. — Pongadisorn Jamerbsin
Trauma is real. Ask someone with a PTSD diagnosis what it feels like when they are triggered and they will describe the sudden and involuntary onset of a raft of symptoms that are emblematic of a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response: physical pain, nausea, disassociation, running away, hypervigilance, shutting down, and flashbacks. It’s been likened to living in a house that’s on fire. For me it was like being haunted by a neurotic ghost who would slam my windows and scream through my walls whenever it was reminded of its own death. Until I started reading about trauma and growing a basic understanding of the way our central nervous system works, however, I was not compassionate with myself for reactions that I could not control. I think this is true for a lot of people struggling with CPTSD and PTSD. How can a person describe their experience if they don’t have the right vocabulary or biological knowledge?
Thanks to advances in neuroscience and trauma research over the last 20 years, people are starting to finally educate themselves about trauma. We are waking up to the truth of what we already knew in our bodies: that violence, poverty, racism, and sexual assault can have severe effects on our physical and mental health long after a particular traumatizing event (or extended period of inescapable events in the case of child abuse and human trafficking) has ended. Once we become conscious of these processes in our own lives, an awareness that all humans will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime follow. Even focusing on a category as narrow as child sexual abuse in the US reveals a startling statistic: 9 in 53 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. We open our eyes and our hearts to realize that many people are suffering silently from severe physical and emotional symptoms of trauma just like we are.
This is the essence of “trauma-informed” care — clinicians are trained to assume that most people will have a history of trauma, that the trauma may have significant impact on that person’s life experience and behaviors, and that awareness of trauma should lead to action. If you were abused or experienced a traumatic event you couldn’t just shake off, you know this intuitively — your abusive parent’s parent was an alcoholic prone to fits of rage that started when he came back from a war that ended long before you were born. It may have been called the family curse (or intergenerational trauma). If you have done some work trying to exorcise these demons and heal your trauma, you may have become horrified by your own capacity to project and pass your trauma on to others when you were not aware. Cause and effect, over and over.
Trauma is also a metaphor. It describes the way late capitalist modern culture is just beginning to grapple with reality — that events of the past affect the present, that the choices we make today will impact the future. More than twenty years ago, the groundbreaking ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study showed the undeniable link between childhood abuse and neglect and mental illness, addiction, violence, and chronic illness later on in life. The scientific field of epigenetics is generating more and more evidence that trauma can be inherited, as we now know that the environment we live in shapes whether particular genes are turned on or off. We finally have proof that child abuse and poverty and war are really bad for us and the people who come after us!
By the opening of the second decade of the 21st century, this scientifically-grounded justification for compassion and understanding still wasn’t meshing very well with a culture obsessed with individualism, competition, and a disconnected mind/body. After all, if panic attacks are preventing you from pulling yourself up by your bootstraps you probably just aren’t trying hard enough.
This is starting to change though, thanks to the pandemic isolation and lockdown within which we have all been suffering. The demons are coming out and people are starting to face them with courage. I am sure many of us have been held in our moments of deep darkness by dear friends, as we have held them ourselves. We had to grow and stretch the parts of our hearts that we had to turn off just to wake up and go back to work the next morning.
There is no past, so much as there are stories about the past and the cascading effects of what actually happened, which we tell stories about in the present that are either rooted in truth or rooted in fear. Fear is easy. It’s the default. But truth requires work. It requires a relentless pursuit of facts, an appreciation for complexity, and a desire to repair. Fear is your nervous system’s autopilot that had been evolving for millennia, adapting and growing like branches on a tree, before the industrial revolution, before the transatlantic slave trade, before imperialism, before The Holy Roman Empire. Truth says no to grasping at what feels easy and avoiding what is uncomfortable. Truth understands impermanence as the only immutable feature of our material existence. Truth demands the humility necessary to admit when we are wrong.
As we move forward into the unknown, working to heal our own trauma will give us the courage and compassion we need to keep planting seeds for future generations. We can break through our addictions to convenience, competition, and individualism that keep us grasping at the bones late capitalism throws at us. We can release our fear. A better future is already haunting us.