For the video podcast version of this article, scroll down or click here to watch the full episode of Point of Relation on YouTube.
The Archaeology of Trauma
My understanding of collective trauma has formed over 20 years of work in the field, and it’s a topic that’s very close to my heart. We often use the word trauma to describe experiences that happen in our own lives. These incidents are important and need care, respect, and healing. But our world is beset by more than just individual trauma. Our societies are massively impacted by large-scale traumatic events, including wars, slavery, racism, oppression, and genocide.
There is a whole archeology of trauma in our societies and we are all born into this ecosystem. There are recurrent conflicts reflected both in our personal lives and through massive re-traumatizations. It’s easy to look at all of this and assume that this is just how the world is.
I would encourage you to look at this a little differently. Because there is a version of the world that is integrated, emergent, always updating itself, always growing and learning. This part of the world is just as real, and it’s important to be present with it, and not lose sight of it.
Addressing Repetitive Cycles
As individuals and as societies, we endure repetitive cycles of conflict and trauma. This becomes obvious when we look at how often we hear the same arguments over and over again. Freud described trauma as having a “repetition compulsion,” or a tendency to repeat itself. It’s a feature of trauma that inhibits growth and keeps us trapped in painful cycles.
This is why it’s important to recognize not just the individual experience of trauma, but also the ancestral and collective experiences. These dimensions of trauma are always present, forming an undeniable part of the ecosystem that we inhabit. They are the water that we are swimming in, and we are digesting them all the time. And yet, they are not spoken about enough.
We need a new set of skills to begin to address collective trauma and its impacts. We can build these skills using process work, and create community spaces to witness and safely explore the reality of our role in the ecosystem of collective trauma. Without these tools, it can be difficult to see the bigger picture. We are so “in it” that our perspective is limited. And we are so accustomed to being “in it” that the line between woundedness and integration starts to blur.
Melting the Permafrost
I often describe trauma as the permafrost of our cultures. It freezes information, pain, and feelings of overwhelm, trapping them in time. During the moment of a traumatic event, this is a necessary, intelligent function that enables us to survive. But when we fail to address the after-effects of trauma, the permafrost never thaws, and systemic problems grow.
In order to respond more quickly and skillfully to crises like climate change, we need a combination of activism and healing spaces. Activism alone, although much needed, is not enough. When we put too much pressure on trauma, there is usually a backlash. To create and maintain lasting change, we need collective healing spaces where the residue from massive wounds in our society – world wars, the Holocaust, slavery, racism – can be held and digested.
These wounds must be felt, attuned to, and healed in relationship. In community, we can reflect on these ongoing traumas, integrate them, learn from them, and grow together. This is the path to transforming the dark legacy of our histories into movement and action. The more we melt the collective permafrost, the more we liquefy the past, and the more energy and intelligence we have available to deal with current issues.
Collective trauma is a crisis, and the more we push against the frozen past, the more it discharges itself through conflict. But this is necessary for systems to change. Resistance to change often arises from an unconscious place. So when we bring things into our collective awareness and embrace both activism and collective healing, we can affect meaningful change on a large scale.
Fragmentation and Interconnection
Author and academic Otto Scharmer describes what he refers to as “absencing” as the root cause of many social issues. Collective trauma creates massive spaces that are unfelt and where our collective awareness is not present or active. These are the spaces where a lot of re-traumatization occurs.
As we observed during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, stress and trauma lead to othering and fragmentation. But this polarization has always existed in our societies, it just becomes more visible when stressful situations occur. During these times of heightened trauma, our patterns and defense mechanisms are laid bare, making the global collaboration that’s needed to deal with these emergent issues very difficult.
When traumatic events happen, we’re quick to point fingers. But we should examine how each and every one of us contributes to the ecosystem that brings these traumas forth. We are not merely separate individuals acting independently. We are ecosystemically interrelated. We always exist in interdependent relationships with the systems we are part of.
Sooner or later, we will all consume the toxins of our history – the thousands of years of killing, torturing, and suppression that exist in this ecosystem. And so we are all responsible for dealing with the after-effects of collective trauma.
But while this ecosystem carries all of this pain and wounding, it also carries all the healing, all the wisdom, all the brightness, all the joy, and all the beauty of existence.
Creating Social Healing Architectures
The creation and implementation of social healing architectures is a public health necessity. When we bring this to fruition, we will see more happiness, motivation, care, and togetherness, and less racism, prejudice, and marginalization. Our societies will be more inclusive because we will see that we are all here, swimming in the same water.
We may think that we’re throwing our toxic waste somewhere outside of our village, but there is no such thing as outside. Everything we’ve put into the world is coming back to us– microplastics, pollution, C02, it’s all still here. And we are in this space together.
Through building our competencies for collective healing, we can create a higher-quality ecosystem. And the more we clean out the toxic residue of trauma, the more this world can be a proper home for all people, not just the privileged.
By looking away from our shared collective past, we are naturally perpetuating it, and burdening future generations. But there is another way, and it requires us to first create awareness of systemic traumatization and its after-effects. Being present, improving our relational skill set, and sitting together with the discomfort of healing is the beginning of collective growth.
We need collective healing spaces, both in our communities and on a larger scale from our governments. If these were implemented right now, there would be a tremendous impact on the health and resilience of our societies, our willingness to collectively collaborate, and our ability to resist polarization and othering. Like a symphony orchestra, we would all be musicians, each person contributing a unique note of healing.
I hope that this inspires you to contemplate how you experience the ecosystem that you’re a part of. If you want an even deeper dive into these subjects, I invite you to explore them further in my book, Attuned: Practicing Interdependence to Heal Our Trauma–and Our World.
This article was based on an episode of Point of Relation, which you can watch here:
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