The sun just came out. It’s shining through my window onto my fern that sits on the windowsill. That one little change in my environment made me feel better. I took a deep breath, I sat up straighter, and I thought, “Okay, maybe I can do this.”
Because that’s how my world is: I am tossed this way and that by any old scary thought or disappointing experience and I start to spiral into despair about my whole life: What am I doing here? What if I’m wasting my time? But what will I do if I give up on this? I will never accomplish anything! My life is a complete, pointless void!
This sounds funny, heard second-hand, but to be in the middle of it is truly terrifying. And yes, I am lonely. That is real. Yes, I am being asked to think and talk about things that I am unfamiliar with and in ways that I am not used to. That is real too. I am also struggling with complex post traumatic stress disorder, and symptoms that appear to be Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and an intense fear of giving up my freedom to a job once I graduate. Oh, and there’s that $110,000 of student debt that I’ll have when I’m finished, as well as some $20,000 in credit card debt that I wracked up while I wasn’t working this year. And the fact that I’m already forty years old and haven’t started a family or a career to speak of….Okay now I’m starting to panic again. Maybe I should go home and hide under a rock.
This does not look good, does it? There are a lot of things stacked against me and I’ve already made some serious mistakes. But I’ve heard of worse.
The other thing I know is that I came here to Ireland to try to understand some thing about myself. I don’t know if I will succeed in finding any clarity, but here are my questions:
- Will I feel less alone in Ireland than I do in the United States, once I give myself time to settle in?
- Will I feel like I have the right to be here in a way that I don’t in the States?
- Can I find a connection with my spiritual calling here, in the landscape of my pagan ancestors? One that eludes me back home.
- Can I figure out how to incorporate these questions into an academic thesis that has the potential to help other people as well as myself?
- Can I stop feeling so lost?
I have a strong suspicion that I am not the only one who feels lost in my society. It’s a very strong suspicion — I am basing my academic career on it. And I also suspect that this lost feeling is not purely a result of the way I was raised or what happened to me in my own lifetime.
No, I know these things have an impact, but I don’t believe they are the whole story. Why? Because it doesn’t seem like enough to heal yourself and then go merrily on your way. It’s very hard to do, for one thing. The accepted types of therapy that we practice in this part of the world called “The West” barely scratch the surface of the problem. One can spend years (and thousands) in therapy and develop a very clear understanding of what one’s problem is, and still have no idea how to fix it. It also feels an awful lot like blaming the victim. So something terrible happened to you as a child, you struggled to survive it, you survived to adulthood, and now you have to spend the rest of your adult years dealing with what you did to survive? It’s almost like being victimized a second time, to be told in effect, “Well that was part of your life. It wasn’t your fault, but it’s up to you to deal with it.”
Why was it part of my life to begin with? That is the question I want people to be asking.
Because if I was sexually abused as a child (which I was) by my father, who was sexually abused (I suspect) as a child as well, well when did it start? Do we blame him? Do we blame his parents? Do we blame the priest who (theoretically) abused his father, or the priest who abused that priest? Or do we blame the internalized rage of the man who was forced into a profession that he didn’t want to be in, in which he couldn’t have sex or marry or be himself? Do we blame that rage on his father, who was too poor to bequeath him land? Or the economy of his country, which was too stagnant to provide him a job? Or the other country that subjugated his country? Which made its economy stagnant, which forced him to become a priest, which caused him to take out his rage on a small boy, who grew up to be a priest as well and did the same to another boy, who was my father, who did the same to me? It’s like the “Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly.” A new nursery rhyme about the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next.
But it’s not just from one generation is it? It’s inter-institutional. Trauma can be transmitted from the state to the institution to the family and back up to the state. Then it can be turned into colonialism or imperialism and transmitted to a whole new state, or directly to individuals in the form of warfare or slavery.
Likewise, within a state, trauma can be transmitted through institutions such as policing, economic policies, social work, schools etc. Try telling an African-American that her problems all stem from what happened to her as a child, that if she just spent enough time in therapy and “recovery” everything would be fine for her. In these times of heightened awareness about systemic racism, such a rational doesn’t fly. But what if we extend such awareness to all Americans?
Now this is where my words could be twisted and used to shrug off the responsibilities White Americans have toward racism, so I have to speak clearly and carefully. Racism has caused and still causes unimaginable trauma to people with Black bodies. It needs to be stopped, and it is not the responsibility of Black-bodied people to stop it. It is the responsibility of the people with white bodies — the people with the power. And as part of facilitating that fixing — that change — people who don’t identify as victims of racism can and must acknowledge the systemic trauma that has affected them as well. Not as a way of shirking responsibility, but as a way of realizing that all bodies are traumatized when violence is committed, but — and this is a big but — it is easier to ignore when you are the one with the power. And, when the perpetrator ignores the damage they are doing to themself, that is how the perpetration is allowed to continue.
Now why do I need theory to understand this? Am I building my argument upon the theories of others without even realizing it?
- There is the psychological theory that people are shaped as adults by events in their childhoods.
- There is the theory of somatic healing — that trauma is held as energy in the body and must be metabolized and processed through the body in order to release or heal it.
- The understanding of the nervous system and how it becomes activated.
- There is the theory of post-traumatic stress and how trauma affects the amygdala and bypasses the cerebral cortex, leaving us unable to consciously control our response to trauma or the reminder of it.
- There is the understanding of ancestry and culture as a form of strength, of resilience.
- I need something that explains the transfer from the macro to the micro and back again. From the institution or catastrophe to the individual.
- Is there a theory that takes psychological understandings of the individual and allows for the transference of it to groups of individuals — to societies? Isn’t that sociology?
It all makes such intuitive sense, historical trauma, so why is it not recognized more widely? It is and it isn’t. Describe the phenomenon to a random person in the local pub and they’ll understand and agree with you immediately. But try to get an official acknowledgement of responsibility from any institution which has historically been involved in harm-doing, and you will start to doubt your sanity. This is a fringe idea, that one could deserve compensation for a thing that was not done directly to one’s physical body in one’s own lifetime. The lack of this acknowledgement lets institutions commit violence without regard for the judgement of future generations. It allows descendants of perpetrators to shirk responsibility for past crimes, but still reap the benefits of them. It allows them to claim a clear conscience as they leave descendants of the victims to wallow in the accumulated damage their ancestors wrought. And that is the crux — because if we as white people acknowledge that the violence of our ancestors is still affecting them, then we must also acknowledge that it is still affecting us as well.
And perhaps “clear conscience” is not the word we are looking for. It betrays the bias our society has against the unconscious. The unconscious is where ancestral memory is stored — especially when one is trying to ignore it. Perhaps the question we should be asking is, “Do you have a clear unconscious?”