Learner Therapist (68) … our historical context’s generational demandsTorrey Orton
Dec. 29, 2015
Multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-national traumas…
One aspect of what’s in us is our recent human history. It is a conundrum of trauma therapy that trauma at the family level tends to repeat itself over generations. It is an easy assumption, when looking for causes of this pattern, to notice and but not embrace the all-too-human recourse to violence to overcome the residues of the past (or defend them as abidingly necessary truths). We cannot do without our pasts, nor stay anchored mindlessly in them. Pasts are there regardless of the honourable or wondrous purposes and futures which the present may be holding out before us. Here is a literary version of the generational trauma of the first fifty of the last hundred years captured from a novel:
“With 10 million dead, the four years of World War I legitimised contempt for individual life, making possible the purges, pogroms and Holocaust and tens of millions of corpses of the next war, and the pitiful civilians: an old woman with seat covers sewn into a dress, a man in a jacket made from a flag, which gave them an air of desperate grandeur, like guests at an asylum ball.”
Anne Susskind review of Sebastian Faulk’s Where my heart used to beat (2015) in The AGE Spectrum; 26 Dec. 2015
In the novel the story ploughs on for the next 50 years in the lead character’s reflections.
Three generations is a good span…roughly 100 years…which from now takes us back to the early 20th century when the massed forces of the 19th century’s scientific, political and social liberations, in the industrial world at least, undermined many deep socio-economic-political structures. It is a good span because chances are we all know three generations of real people - not just socio-political categories like Boomer or Gen X. In that 100 years we have the generations affected in various ways by the 1st World War (my grandparent’s generation). Then we have that generation re-afflicted by the Depression, as well as the rising generation which fought the 2nd World War (my parent’s generation). My generation has hosted a serial testing and upgrading of military potentials through Korea, Vietnam with Cold War sparring in the background culminating in the Iraq ventures of ’91 and 2002, Afghanistan and the Iraq overflow keeping military competences tested to this day.
There are variations on the inescapable calamities theme in tandem with the ones above. For instance the fates of being caught in the Balkans as Yugoslavia declined into its component parts and then into smaller parts around religion over the decade from 1995 to 2005; the various Palestinian/Arab/Israeli battles to this day; the various intramural and Islamic spinoffs in Africa worth millions displaced; the oppressions of Central America with the support of the CIA; the struggles in Chile and Argentina between lefts and rights in the 60’s – 70’s and beyond, many sponsored or covertly supported by American cold war enthusiasms.
These are all events which are characterised by no escape from danger for almost everyone in them, but especially non-combatants, for long periods of time ranging from the lead up to the respective wars and the wind down into non-war, but often with enduring consequential deprivations. This is a rough configuration for chronic trauma on a mass scale, similar in internal structure to the family level experiences which touch ±20% of populations across the industrial world. Developing country levels may be expected to be higher.
We know that those who fight wars are always traumatised to some extent from the reports of survivors of the undiscussability of their wartime experience. We know that undiscussability of traumatic experiences renders them more powerfully corrosive, and we know that this applies to non-combatants as well. We know that the use of legal (alcohol) and illegal drugs are highly associated with traumas, as is violent behaviour learned in the traumas. This kind of trauma – the trauma of protective services like military, firefighting, policing, emergency services, paramedical services – is endemic for those who undertake to protect us from trauma.
There is another class of traumatic conditions, emerging in their ultimate form as genocides, usually arising from long-term systematic and systemic discriminations usually on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, gender/sex and religion. Indigenous peoples everywhere, who escaped the local genocides, are caged in actual or virtual agreements that partition off their heritage lands, their original occupancy and, restrained therefrom, their souls. The history of humanity is of growth through dispossession of our predecessors and the irretrievable pollution of their cultures.
Traumatic effects are reasonably consistent across these cultures, taking forms like endemic alcohol (and other drugs) problems which in turn sustain individual and group incapacity to enter modern life, which in turn sustain the drugs and on it rolls. The psychological problems most commonly driven by trauma are conflicts between rage at dispossession (be it deprivation of life, property or affection) and guilt at being the authors in their view of the injustices they are subject to, at helping the oppressors – be they corrupt officials or bent parents, both often themselves products of social system maintenance of the discriminations going back generations. Altogether these forms roil around, re-emerging in family violences and public criminalities.
On the passage through this all too human history we come up against the challenges of responsibility and forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot meaningfully be given except for an acknowledged miscreance, or crime, though certain religious practitioners (see review of Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, NYRB Dec. 17, 2015) recommend grace, where forgiveness cannot be obtained or offered. This latter act is perhaps all that’s left for macro explanations of the self-inflicted injuries of humanity’s passage – that we are all fallen, etc. and the grace is that we give more than we can afford and get less than we deserve.
…and how to engage them in the present.
We can ‘test’ moments, patterns or themes of the past emerging in the present whenever a patient’s self-reported automatic response or initiative produces ineffective relationships. Sometimes that ineffectiveness will be clearly visible in the therapeutic relationship itself, expressed as an unnecessary or inappropriate silence, diffidence, deference or provocation (all defences). The ‘test’ can begin with noticing and pointing out the evidence of ineffectiveness in the patient’s engagement at the moment. If carefully gauged to the patient’s current sense of power, that test can be followed with wondering “Is there more?” or, “Are you familiar with this feeling??” which lead in two different directions of cognitive association: one, an unfinished feeling inhibited by the fear of exposing it, and two, an exploration of an existing track of very familiar recurrent feeling.
That’s for starters, only.