State of Emergency - on the need for revolution in 2016

Take a stroll through the streets of Dublin at the moment and there is a sense that you are walking in both the present and the past. Across walls and major landmarks, the murals and signs erected for the 1916 centenary serve as a reminder of the city’s not too distant revolutionary history.

But while the signs may still be shining, the buzz built up for that weekend is starting to fade. Henry Street’s doorways are filling with people sleeping rough, and tents are hidden away in the undergrowth next to the neatly cut grass of Stephen’s Green.

The focus has been on the historical path to the establishment of a free state, in many ways we are currently in a state of emergency - as citizens continue to suffer financially, physically, and emotionally while the government slowly musters responses that seem to offer little real aid.

100 years on from the Easter Rising, could a revolution in how we think about ourselves - both as individuals, and a society - be the key to change? Or are we bound to enact Einstein’s glib definition of insanity, where we keep on trying the same things, expecting a different result? 

Across the globe, there is a growing movement of people - therapists, philosophers, public figures, and scientists - who are recognising the significance of our cultural history and the role it plays in shaping us socially, psychologically, and even biologically.

To try to understand ourselves in a new light is a task that involves both walking in the past and the present, and the first step is in how we understand the concept of history.

Illustration by Paddy Lynch

Learning to learn

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And for many of us, our knowledge of history is rooted in a didactical education system. Cast your mind back to history class and you’ll recall that history was taught as a sequence of grand events. In a neat example of cause and effect, dates are lined up like dominoes, each representing a progression or transgression in human achievement. That’s how we learn to understand the technological advancements, the wars, the ideological schisms, and the declarations that led us to where we are today.

One event bumps against the next until vast patterns of great achievement or catastrophe spill out onto the pages of books. We memorise key names and dates and we are rewarded for learning prescribed answers. It sets a tone for understanding that is difficult to shake off.

As we grow older, if we are privileged enough to have the chance to, we can develop a more nuanced view of history. A view that sees does not see history as a series of facts, but rather as reports. ‘There is properly no history, only biography’ said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we can only make sense of that if we begin to look at historical narrative through this different kind of lens. One that takes into account the biases, beliefs, and backgrounds of the people who wrote the reports; and one that also takes into account the current context in which we read them. In this way, history becomes a dialogue between the past and the present: the narrative that was then, and the narrative that is now.

But as children in the classroom we are just told how things are, and we readily accept the truth of the stories we are told because, well - we don’t quite yet know how to do anything else.

The story of me

That mode of learning can spill over outside of the classroom, right into the heart of how we understand ourselves. Like the history of a country or civilisation, we each have our own little histories. That sequence of events in our immediate lives that dictate what kind of person we are, what things we stand for, and what kind of future we will have.  Sometimes, when the stories we are told about ourselves are negative, that can be deeply problematic.
As adults some of us can find ways to look at our own history in a new light. There are many ways to do that, and probably the most common way is through psychotherapy. Good psychotherapy will provide a space that encourages us to examine our own historical narrative, and sometimes to challenge the veracity of the story.

At the root of most psychotherapeutic models is the concept that the roots of who we are is deeply informed by the relationship patterns we developed early on in life with our families. A massive amount of information that is used to define core beliefs about ourselves is unconsciously absorbed through the structure of our family. A simple introductory exercise in therapy is the construction of a genogram - a basic family tree can bear a lot of fruit.

In a genogram, patterns of births, marriages, separations, and death can become clear. And each pattern can carry a judgement or belief that informs who we are. In some families divorces are unheard of, while others have had several through the generations. Growing up in a family where divorce is unheard of, a person may feel that a relationship breakdown in mid-life is a deep personal failure. 

Likewise there can be patterns of siblings staying closely connected in adult life, while in others it is not unusual if siblings drift apart and lose connection. Some people will have a rich knowledge of their family and feel a deep connection to previous generations; others feel no need to dig deeply into their ancestry. Families might have enthusiasm for certain topics, colourfully debating them around the dinner table while maintaining a thick wall of silence around others.

All these little historical trends within a family unit can inform the psychological expectations of the individual. So the core family unit (whatever arrangement that may be) can provide a kind of template that intrinsically informs emerging personalities. At a very early age, our relationship (or lack of relationship) to others in our immediate vicinity imprints ideas about what is normal and abnormal, what is acceptable and unacceptable, and what is valuable and not valuable in life.

The story of us

Take that to the next level and you can see the impact that cultural myth and history can have on us as individuals too. While may we like to think of ourselves as individual, self-governing entities, but that is only partly true. Our burgeoning personalities are formed by the relationship dynamic and stories that we encounter in our early years, and those stories and dynamics are in turn informed by the encounters of the generation before. And it goes on. The formation of a personality today is an echo of a cry uttered long in the past.

‘They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad, they may not mean to but they do’ wrote Philip Larkin - noting that that our parents too ‘were fucked up in their turn’. Whether he knew it or not, Larkin was not only describing a process that happens at a social or psychological level - we now can see that this process is taking place at a biological level too.

When we talk about biological inheritance, we may immediately think of the obvious observable connection we have to our parents - eye colour, hair colour, congenital diseases. But more and more often, we are seeing studies pointing towards the biological inheritance of far subtler levels of our personality. The burgeoning field of epigenetics - the study of how environmental factors affect our DNA - blurs the line between the once distinct fields of biology and psychology. It also poses the question as to whether some aspects of our personality - such as a propensity to depression or anxiety - could be genetically linked to our parents’ lived experiences.

In a study published in 2013, neurobiologists and psychiatrists conditioned mice in a laboratory to fear the smell of acetophenone (a chemical with a sweet, cherry-like smell) by exposing the mice to the odour while administering small electric shocks. Eventually the shocks stopped but the mice would recoil and shudder from the smell alone. The science journal Nature reported on what happened when the scientists measured the next generation of mice to be born:

The reaction was passed on to their pups… despite never having encountered acetophenone in their lives, the offspring exhibited increased sensitivity when introduced to the smell… A third generation of mice - the ‘grandchildren’ - also inherited this reaction.

The idea that traumatic experiences can have a biologically inherited mark that is passed on through generations is one that opens a door to an entirely different way of looking at how we understand ourselves. It also radically changes how we understand our society - if trauma is transferable through a family, is it possible for larger communities to be measurably affected by trauma?

History repeats itself

It seems to be possible, according to studies on groups suffering from the symptoms of PTSD. Rachel Yehuda is Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and the Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Dr. Yehuda has spent much of her career studying large traumatised groups, such as Holocaust survivors, and pregnant mothers who were directly exposed to the World Trade Centre attack. In her studies with the latter group, Dr. Yehuda monitored pregnant women with symptoms of PTSD, finding a correlation of low cortisol levels in both the traumatised mothers and the infants who were born after the event.

It is a pattern that Dr. Yehuda says is ‘remarkably similar’ to that found in the adult offspring of Holocaust survivors. ‘What’s been very interesting in our research lately’ she said in an interview with Nautilus magazine last year, ‘is the possibility that there are epigenetic changes that may have been transmitted from an earlier generation or generations. For whatever reason, people start out with this different capacity to fight off the body’s tendency to form traumatic memories’.
What does that insight mean for us today? If echoes of traumatic events can be genetically found in large groups for generations, then surely that adds weight to what post-colonial authors and theorists have been writing about for many decades.

Large scale cultural traumas such as colonisation, and the subsequent forms of oppression that come with it, have a significant impact - biologically as well as psychologically - on how the people growing up in the that oppressed culture will view themselves.

The Irish problem

Biologist and author Tomás MacSiomóin posits that a loss of native language (and by extension, Irish culture and tradition) has severely impacted the Irish identity today. In his book The Broken Harp: Identity and Language in Modern Ireland MacSiomóin assesses some of the less endearing Irish characteristics such as ‘our conformity to externally concocted stereotypes… sexual prudery, emotional coldness, violence, alcoholism… [and] innate social and political submissiveness’.

Likewise Irish psychologist Geraldine Moane associates these characteristics with the aftermath of colonisation. The kind of personality that emerges in a post-colonial period is characterised by social withdrawal, mistrust, and a loss of identity.

‘The seldom considered possibility’ says MacSiomóin, is ‘that these characteristics and others can be seen as a more or less inevitable outcome of the particularities of Irish history’.  The particularities that MacSiomóin identifies –including invasions, mass starvation, persecution, religious oppression as well a more recent dilution of identity through mass consumerist culture – follow a pattern that is traceable across many colonised cultures: indigenous languages and beliefs are suppressed and eradicated. The aboriginal culture becomes vilified as ‘primitive’ supplanted with the ‘civilised’ counterparts of the coloniser.  Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o talks about the effect that the ‘cultural bomb’ of colonial oppression has had in Kenya:

The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own.

In trying to reframe our understanding of ourselves we, as individuals and as a society, need to recognise that we are - in one way or another, and whether we like it or not - carrying a heavy inheritance from our past, and that this inheritance is shaping the kind of people and society that we are today.

The loss of cultural identity has profound consequences, and we only need to look around to see that the picture of society that emerges from this is harrowing. Indeed, many of the crises that we currently face - in mental health, in substance abuse, in our inability to provide adequate care for our homeless and vulnerable, and ultimately in our rates of suicide - can be seen mirrored in communities around the globe that have suffered mass trauma.

Culture loss

The remote First Nation community of Attawapiskat in Canada made world news in April this year. With a population of just 2000 people, the community was forced to declare a state of emergency when eleven people, some of them children as young at ten years of age, attempted suicide in one day. The month before had seen thirty attempts, and over one hundred suicide attempts have been recorded in the community in the past half a year.

Dr. Gabor Maté is a specialist in the area of addiction and trauma, who for many years worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with patients challenged by extreme drug addiction, mental illness and HIV. An incessant voice calling for a more compassionate view of addiction and metal health, Dr. Maté has talked about the impact that trauma can have in oppressed communities.  ‘At the core of the suicide pandemic is unresolved trauma’ says Dr. Maté, writing on the crisis last month ‘passed almost inexorably from one generation to the next, along with social conditions that induce further hopelessness’.

‘The source of that multi-generational trauma is this country’s colonial past and its residue in the present. The march of the history and progress Canada celebrates, from which we derive much pride and national identity, meant catastrophe for natives: the loss of lands and livelihood and of freedom of movement, the mockery and invalidation of their spiritual ways, the near-extirpation of their culture, the corruption of their intrafamilial and intracommunal relationships, and finally, for nearly a hundred years, the state-sanctioned abduction, rape, physical abuse and mental torture of their children’.

Bringing it home

There is a stark comparison to the traumas suffered by many in this country in recent years. Sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, the collapse of the banks, and government corruption and ineptitude are just some of the most recent to be added to a list that goes back many, many generations. If we are inexorably tied - psychologically, socially, and biologically - to the traumas of the past, then it can seem our existence, as individuals and as a society, is somewhat fatalistic.

But let’s go back to our individual stories for a moment. In psychotherapy the potential to change comes about when we become consciously aware of the hidden dynamics that drive us. We need to start from where we are in order to get to where we want to go. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden talks about how knowledge and acceptance are keys to growth:

Self-acceptance is the precondition of change and growth. Thus, if I am confronted with a mistake I have made, in accepting that it is mine I am free to learn from it and do better in the future. I cannot learn from a mistake I cannot accept having made. If I refuse to accept that I often live unconsciously, how will I learn to live more consciously?

If this can work on an individual level, can we apply the same principle to a society too? The pattern seems to be consistent - recent studies in healing traumatised communities suggest that an awareness of the past is an important step in healing. ‘Only by fully understanding cultural colonisation in both its historical and biological dimensions’ says MacSiomóin, ‘can we Irish begin to establish a firm basis for recovering intelligently parts of our ancestral heritage’.

A 2012 paper exploring multigenerational trauma looked at connections between Irish and Oglala Lakota (Sioux) experiences. Both indigenous cultures have long histories of colonisation; both had been traditionally rural and experienced poverty and loss of land; both had encountered systematic repression of cultural practices (such as language, music, and cultural rituals); and both had extremely high rates of alcoholism and addiction.
The authors looked at how healing functioned in the Lakota and other indigenous American cultures, and found that healing in these circumstances was tied to reconnecting to tradition: ‘the efficacy of infusing traditional spirituality, language, teachings, and ceremonies are supported in various studies and are recommended remedies for increased mental health’.

If the problem is disconnection…

If we are to look for guidance from the essays and studies on inherited trauma, as well as the lessons learned in the rehabilitation of individuals from earlier trauma then then the answer they suggest is clear. If the problem is disconnection, then the path to healing involves reconnection.

For some people, like MacSiomóin, that might mean reconnection to a native language - the essential grammar that shapes the world we live in. For others, taking their cue from healing patterns in the Lakota study, it might mean reconnection to indigenous forms of religion or spirituality - in a sense reclaiming an ancestral heritage that they have drifted or been cut away from.

However, ideological reconnection to something that came before us can be problematic. Ireland today is a rich infusion of cultures, beliefs, ideals, and opinions, and not all of us necessarily identify with pre-colonial aspects of Irish culture.
But reconnection does not only have to be to a historical state that came before a traumatic event.   Reconnection can happen right now, if we tap back into our childhood passions, or embrace brand new pursuits. It happens when we open our hearts and minds and make genuine contact with those around us, when we manage to get a sense of that intrinsic, bonding, crucial force that we share through the sheer simplicity of being here now. Being aware of our historical inheritance seems to ultimately serve to develop compassion - knowing that we all carry a heavy psychological and biological burden can make us go easier on ourselves and on others in life. 

That is why a revolution in how we think about ourselves seems so vitally important. Once we become aware of how trauma and oppression will create long-lasting detrimental effects – then what more impetus do we need to avoid behaving in this way in our day to day interactions? And knowing the devastating effects of oppression and trauma, then what more incentive do we need to actively create a more just society that does not marginalise or cause oppression for others?

It is good to know our past, as individuals and as a society, but we can never go back to it. What we can do is choose to direct our lives in such a ways that will minimise suffering in the world, and perhaps lighten the load for generations that will follow us. We know where we came from, we know where we are, and where we go from here is up to us. We are in a state of emergency in every sense of the phrase – it is a time of crisis, but also a time where something new is actively emerging.

About the author: 

Dave holds a BA (Hons) in Religions and English Literature, and is currently in the clinical stages of a post-graduate diploma in counselling and psychotherapy. Dave also has extensive experience in the field of bereavement therapy through his voluntary work and training with St. Francis Hospice in Dublin. Dave also works as a freelance writer and editor and can be contacted via [email protected]