Chapter Two -- Trial by Fire: Generation Trauma
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
“With the controlled splitting of the atom, humanity, already profoundly perplexed and dis-unified, was brought inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split - and far from controlled.”
~ James Agee, Time Mag., August 20, 1945
"With broken selves in a world on fire, trauma is everywhere."
~ Mark Epstein, M.D., The Trauma of Everyday Life (2013)
If we are going to chart a path out of the existential peril we have landed ourselves in, it is imperative that we understand how we got here to begin with. In our current state, we seem hopelessly fragmented and incapable or unwilling to respond appropriately to the threat we face as a species. Something is stopping us. What could it be?
Scientists tell us we have entered a new geologic era, or epoch - the Anthropocene - an age in which the world has been irreversibly altered by humankind’s imprint on the geosphere, the biosphere, the atmosphere… the NATURAL WORLD, in other words, with which we co-evolved. It is only looking backwards that we’ve come to realize this as a matter of science. As a matter of experience, it coincides with what is known as the Great Acceleration, a time in which everything we humans touch has exploded exponentially. This experience of accelerating growth, this sense that everything is speeding up and careening out of control, is something we can all relate to. Collectively, we are going through a dark night of the soul. We are having a mental breakdown.
All of this is very recent and rather haphazard. But even in the blip of time since the Anthropocene began - the brief span of a single human lifetime - the natural world, the humus in which we humans are rooted and from which we sprang forth, has become greatly diminished. Exponentially so. And it continues to accelerate. Ecologists and biologists refer to this phenomenon as “massive trophic downgrading.” In more relatable terms, it is simply the impoverishment of all life on planet Earth.
In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that we no longer even inhabit a world one could call ‘natural’ in any real sense of that word. There is nothing natural, after all, about plastic - and we’ve somehow managed to fill the oceans with plastic. We could just as easily have named this new era the “Plasticine.” The polymers that make up plastic are, by definition, unnatural. You can’t mine plastic, any more than whales can digest it.
Microplastics are now a significant component in table salt, and are part of us in the same way that the toxins and "forever chemicals" that we’ve emitted into the environment are now passed on from mother to babe in her milk.
What a nightmare. How quickly we’ve progressed from feeding babies mile through plastic nipples to feeding babies plastic through a mother’s nipple!
And it’s unnatural to the same extent and in the same ways that we ourselves have become 'unnatural' ~ alienated from nature.
Here is a critically important, logical point to appreciate in relation to our shared dilemma:
to be alienated from the natural world, as humans have now mostly become, is to be alienated as well from our own… human… nature…
What does it mean to be a human being detached from human nature?
Over the course of my own 6+ decades on Earth, born in the flight paths of the world's busiest airport the same year and in the same town where the very first McDonald’s hamburger stand went up, humanity has become largely divorced from human nature. I know this to be true, because I’ve witnessed it firsthand over the course of my life.
Please excuse me, dear reader. I really feel like it's necessary as a matter of morality to pause the acceleration of time here in order that we may think about this phenomena of humans separated from human nature before we lose the moment here. It represents the realization of the very worst fears expressed by Mary Shelly on that idyllic lake in the Swiss Alps when she first conceived as a ghost story what would soon become the first great modern novel, Frankenstein:
“It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.”
And so I now ask you to consider this conundrum: what could possibly cause humanity to lose the thread of human nature? Is this not the monstrous potential Mary Shelley was trying to warn her poet husband and all future generations about? Are we not her intended audience?
What a thing to believe...
To appreciate just how much we humans have lost touch with our own true nature, the poet inside each one of us, consider the fact that “human nature” itself has devolved into a term that is used almost exclusively in the pejorative sense now, to dismiss or even excuse poor behavior. “Oh, that’s just human nature,” people will often say, dismissively - when what they are usually commenting on is the exact opposite of human nature.
War, as a stark example, is most assuredly not human nature - it is quite inhumane, as a matter of fact. As Steven Jenkinson, the world’s leading theological voice on human grief today, puts it in his book Die Wise (2015):
Death dealt by people is Jacob’s ladder climbed… It becomes Death the Destroyer of Worlds, the act and consequences too vast for humans to carry… [O]ur capacity to kill each other or ourselves is not the natural order of things playing itself out, no matter how common it might be in our history, and in the papers, no matter how much we are inured to it or numbed by the horror of it. Instead, it is a rupture that will not let life live according to its nature (205).
Or, as the Dalai Lama says, war is monstrous!
And the same can be said of any cruelty or atrocity, as embodied today in the cruel and heartless bullies that regularly appear on the world stage in these most chaotic of times, these end times of self-fulfilling prophecy, setting people against each other viciously while gleefully despoiling the natural world. Does anyone really believe that Trump or Bolsonaro are the embodiment of human nature? NO!
Those who answer this question in the affirmative are the same cynical misanthropes who maintain that our species needs to be exterminated for nature to survive. That’s just self-hatred projected outward onto the unknown other. Or, as Caitlin Johnstone points out:
"Someone who says it’s human nature to be selfish, competitive, predatory, exploitative, tyrannical, vicious, brutish and violent isn’t telling you about human nature, they’re telling you about their own [warped] nature."
The present world's authoritarian clowns, allergic to truth out of their deep-seated fear of reconciliation and justice that would necessarily follow a full reckoning, reveal quite graphically how far we have fallen as a race - driven by inhumane greed, lust and avarice - from the natural order and our own true nature. Instead of revering human nature, we have entire religions whose creation myths revolve around this idea of fallen nature. It is telling that, while the creation myths of Indigenous peoples still living in relative harmony with nature, is of being born into a garden, Judeo-Christian people’s myth is of being thrown out of the garden. No wonder we insist on seeking out and destroying the natural habitats still tended lovingly by Indigenous peoples. How DARE they make a mockery of our manifest destiny! This self-fulfilling myth of our fallen nature, drilled into us since the time of our birth as sinful little creatures and reinforced by an endless stream of adverts telling us we're not good enough, is most pathologically reflected in our hostile fallout with the natural world.
But Beethoven! Da Vinci!! Rodin!!!
Human nature is clearly meant to be associated with higher sentiments and natural evolution - not immoral and depraved devolution into chaotic malevolence and cults of personality! Wasn’t the whole point of Jesus Christ to stand up to all of that self-loathing submissiveness? How did we get from that spirit of natural goodness, spiritual beauty and love thy neighbor to Trump, Bolsonaro, and their hateful ilk in the West’s so-called Christian World?
...in a word -- and what a provocative word it is. Trauma is the rupture of all that is natural. It blocks the flow of information, obstructing relations, leaving us fragmented in its wake, overwhelmed - unresponsive.
We must, in solidarity, now reclaim human nature amidst the ruins of this broken world, even as it is unraveling all around us.
There is a profound old Buddhist saying: “In the midst of afflictions, there is awakening.” In other words, rather than awaiting some peaceful mountain refuge near a babbling brook, after all of our problems have been solved, awakening is actually catalyzed in the cauldron of our afflictions, according to how we choose to relate to them.
In this, the Anthropocentric Age, a time when we Westernized humans are responsible for the world’s peril and pending demise, it is we - or more accurately “MWe,” the IntraConnected (Me + We) that Dr. Dan Siegel has identified - who must rip the mantle of human nature from our fraudulent rulers, and (re)claim it as our natural birthright. Might will never make right, and the “survival of the fittest” is itself a pejorative perversion of the benevolent forces that Darwin discovered are actually favored by nature — natural sentiments like cooperation, solidarity and symbiosis.
Social Darwinism is not only not scientific in the least, it is a gross perversion akin to Hitler’s eugenics. And besides, even from a socially Darwinian perspective, these nominal leaders are neither morally nor mentally “fit” by any sane measure. They are the collective and cumulative mistakes of history, and are in no way representative of humanity. There are complex socioeconomic reasons that they have been elevated to positions of power, such as neoliberal hypocrisy and hollowing out of the middle classes, but it is most assuredly not because they are deserving in any meaningful way. It is, instead, a rather modern form of regicide where we have, against our better natures, propped up the worst in us, projecting our shadow selves out into the world, so that we may once and for all reject and exorcise those very daemonic forces that have caused so much suffering and now must die in order that we may finally live.
Human Nature. 1. the qualities common to humanity.
Source: COLLINS ENGLISH DICTIONARY (2012)
There is pointedly nothing common about the detestable qualities of Trump, Bolsonaro, Assad, Bibi, Jinping, al-Sisi, Jong-un, Putin and the rest of the sociopaths who have managed to seize the controls of this sinking ship we call Earth.. In fact, they are all uncommonly despicable and heinous. The common, pejorative degradation of the very term by which we define ourselves betrays nothing less than the sooty reflection we now encounter in the cracked mirror of modern culture and society.
And the lunatics are running the asylum.
It has become so extreme here in the U.S. that we are now somehow able to tolerate hundreds of babies being separated from their mothers and kept in cages on our imaginary national border!
Does that sound like human nature to any sane human being?
The world we seek to revolutionize is a world shaped not so much by ‘man,’ as the term “Anthropocene” is intended quite deliberately to suggest. Rather — and this is a point still largely lost on the enthralled masses and in the manic media — it is a world shaped by humankind’s own unique (among species) form of collective trauma. As the child eco-prodigy Greta Thunberg points out:
"We are trying to find a solution of a crisis that we don't understand.”
To wit: without having experienced collective trauma on a global scale never before experienced by any species in the Holocene, owing to the advent of industrialized warfare, we would quite simply not have inadvertently ended one geologic era and begun another, reshaping the entire world in our own deeply wounded image, and inventing our own warped mythology (the American Dream).
In other words, but for collective trauma, we would not find ourselves in this existential quandary.
PLEASE NOTE: It is quite natural to feel some resistance to this point upon reading and maybe even re-reading it. That resistance, in fact, proves the point, since the fragmentation that flows from trauma gives rise reflexively to denial.
So please, if nothing else, suspend your disbelief, and let me guide you into deeper reflections on our shared traumas. If we can take causative premise as our working hypothesis, we will then appreciate how salutary it can be.
And so I repeat, ad nauseam if need be:
We inhabit a world shaped by our own trauma.
In setting out to conquer the world, and succeeding now with frightening pace, we modern Westerners have cumulatively, by spiritual accretion, created a kind of ‘trauma-sphere’ — a traumatized cultural climate filled generation-by-generation with the accumulated detritus of genocidal mania, slavery, misogyny, nuclear detonations, endless war, the war on nature, and the ever present, self-fulfilling idea of Armageddon or Jihad represented by a lit fuse of rekindled religious extremism in all corners of the world (which here at home happens to take the form of white supremacy).
This is where we have arrived in our colonialist history, which is, sadly to say, the history of the world. Inevitably, without fail, unresolved trauma gives rise to intractable drama in human affairs. Just as is true in our personal lives, when we're honest with ourselves.
Trauma => Drama
The longer the trauma accumulates without being fully acknowledged and processed, the greater the dysfunctional drama that is produced in order that we may act out that unresolved trauma we carry in our political body, and give voice to it in our fragmented culture. And now the scale of this collective trauma has become existential — giving rise to existential drama.
It just doesn’t get any more real than that.
Eventually, it becomes readily apparent that continuing denial and deflection is suicidal, leaving us with no choice but to confront the elephant of our accumulated trauma. And that, too, is where we have necessarily arrived in our political history in Westernized Civilization — divided between those who are willing to face up to our responsibilities in all this, like adults, and those who insist on continuing to behave like spoiled children and troubled teens. Disavowing truth itself. Dispensing with inconvenient facts.
How else would an imminent existential threat manifest in the human race? Why are we even shocked by this?
Because we self-designated adults too, after all, have been living the dream. We, too, have been lulled into a false sense of exceptionalism by all the materialist excess and fabulist distraction. And now the world has arrived at such a crisis point that the sane and aware among us can no longer tolerate pretense in ourselves or in others. It’s all right in our face now, and once we acknowledge the reality of what we're facing, then continuing on as before itself becomes an intolerable prospect.
The time has come to grieve our losses, and process our unresolved trauma and grief. It isn’t so much about waking up, as "woke culture" would have it, as it is about growing up.
Children rarely have any choice but to act out their traumas, due to a relative lack of self-introspection. We adults, however, have agency over our unresolved traumas. In mature relationships, we learn very quickly that all past personal traumas are present. Growing up in relationships involves seeing into and processing through our own traumas and the unresolved traumas of our beloved others. And it is only when we're able to do so, to break through the wall of our destructive patterns of behavior, that relationships survive and life becomes meaningful.
And that’s where we are collectively now in our spiritual development as a species, in the maturation of our social systems, and in our relationship with Earth. Until we learn to master our collective traumas, we will continue to be their slaves - risking genocide at our own hands. Without the kind of spiritual emergence that can result from spiritual emergency, I'm afraid we will continue to be hobbled in our efforts to tackle our climate emergency. We must come to see, collectively, what is trying to emerge from the great unveiling associated with these apocalyptic times.
Since “trauma” is one of the most emotionally charged words in the English language, a term that on its own can trigger our limbic system, prompting us to shut down or turn away, it may be helpful to begin by defining our terms with some precision and clarity. This will help you to appreciate that what we are talking about in this book is a little more fluid than the label ‘trauma’ might suggest.
The Greek word traûma literally means wound. A gaping wound is about the most unnatural thing that can happen to an embodied being, isn’t it? We begin with this miracle of life, the sheer complexity of biological life of which we are a unique expression, and then a grievous injury is inflicted, causing the whole to dis-integrate, break down, or even turn on itself, the threat of annihilation made manifest in the flesh.
From the standpoint of nature, it’s a shock to our system. If we are lucky enough to survive, we often become scarred for life. There is of course a place in nature for death. But apart from all the many natural threats, there is really no place in our psyche for the threat of an unnatural death - whether our own or a loved one’s. There is no room in a healthy psyche to integrate the deaths in the holocaust, women burned at the stake, young boys sliced up on a battlefield, bodies overcome by plague being thrown into pits or piled up on the outskirts of town, becoming fodder for wolves, or to cite a more contemporary example, bodies thrown through a windshield at unnatural speed with the exaggerated force created by the very vehicles which we have, psychologically at least, made into extensions of our identities.
These are not natural events, and we have a hard time making sense of them when they happen to us or to those we care about.
The ancient Greeks largely understood trauma in the physical sense. A “physical wound,” like that of Achilles, say, or more symbolically, Psyche’s wound from the arrow of Eros. It is only over the course of the last century-and-a-half in the West that trauma has come to be associated with a psychological condition. In fact, it is the study of the effects of childhood sexual trauma in Victorian Vienna and Paris that marks the beginning of what we have come to know as (Western) “psychology.” Given the 11,000 year old course of human civilization, with all of its disease, pestilence and war, it’s rather remarkable that it took us that long to become self-reflective in this way. But there you have it.
So trauma is the very reason the discipline of psychology even exists. Trauma, we could accurately say, is Western Psychology’s raison d’etre. And yet as recently as when my father came home from WWII, we still had no real, practical understanding of how trauma imprisons us in our bodies, or how it can shape and limit the entire course of our lives, causing us to compulsively self-harm - not to mention the course of human affairs, which is self-harm writ large.
Unlike the Greeks, today we all tend to think of trauma as a "psychic wound[ing] — an unpleasant experience which causes abnormal stress.” I would add “which we are not, by our nature, equipped to handle emotionally.” Because if we are able to integrate an experience emotionally, then there is nothing split off from psyche that needs to be stored somatically.
Since this behavioral knowledge represents a very recent development in human understanding, it remains difficult or problematic for us to even broach the subject - like a social taboo - while we continue to learn more and more about the pervasive nature of trauma’s insidious effects every year, generation-by-generation. For example, as I first write and much later edit this, we remain in the cauldron of collective global trauma called “COVID-19,” learning as we go about human responsiveness and lack of responsiveness to a daily, pervasive existential threat. And in this age of climate crisis in which the coronavirus is embedded, in this Anthropocene era defined by man’s continuing lethal assault on the natural world and other species, we really cannot afford to keep getting trauma wrong!
We all need to become conversant in the language of multivalent trauma.
So yes, let us talk about the very thing that nobody ever seems to want to talk about. That thing that it seems like it's never the right time to speak about. Let’s talk trauma, and let’s not stop talking about trauma, at all levels, until we’ve resolved enough of it to become functional again.
Let’s talk about how we broke the world.
This is a sensory test of your trauma defense system.
(full screen, top volume, please)
When trauma overwhelms our psychological defenses, we quite naturally shut down, we suppress the experience itself, and in extreme cases we even dissociate from the reality of what is happening to us altogether. Then we repress any memory of that experience, pushing it down into our somatic memory (‘soma’ = body), conditioning our behavior much in the same way our body stores muscle memory. And not unlike how we store emotional stress in various parts of our body, like neck and shoulders, or lower back, unresolved trauma is effectively codified and stored in our muscles, nerves, and the largest functioning organism in our entire body, very recently discovered lurking right under our skin - the fascia (a.k.a., the 'interstitium').
Fascia is a thin casing of connective tissue that surrounds and holds every organ, blood vessel, bone, nerve fiber and muscle in place. The tissue does more than provide internal structure, fascia has nerves that make it almost as sensitive as skin. This organ might help protect the rest of our organs and tissue. It could also explain the spread of certain cancers, as well as how a number of diseases progress in the body.
This is like our mainframe. Stored here, unresolved trauma lies in wait, and can be triggered at any time, distorting our relationships and creating all kinds of problems. Unresolved trauma is like having an invisible predator in our personal lives, cat quick and always ready to pounce on whoever dares trigger us. Instead of seeing this unwelcome presence in our lives as having a cause, we tend to just accept that this is how we are, or even who we are, and others just need to deal with it - because we’re unwilling or unable to deal with it ourselves!
Similar to the way we tend to deal with trauma individually, Dr. Judith Hermann characterized the history of trauma in the West as “a history of forgetting.” Which is precisely how it causes trouble for the collective, and why understanding how trauma operates and how it is released is such a key not only to personal growth, but also in fully appreciating our current collective predicament. We can appreciate this by considering the fight/flight/fright response of our political body (in codependent relationship with popular culture) in the face of the existential threat of climate chaos.
Returning to the individual valence, it’s a bit like blissfully forgetting we’ve been dismembered, and finding a familiar solace in our disembodied state. Re-membering our trauma, by contrast, involves coming back into our bodies, and is reflexively painful - but necessary if we are to ever feel whole again, or at least embodied. Talking with psychologists, one of the most telling traits of people in today’s culture is how detached we’ve become from our bodies - especially men who get de-sensitized from a young age (e.g., killing animals on ranches/farms).
Think about how you are when you’re walking somewhere. Most of us tend to live in our heads, so that even when walking somewhere we are lost in thoughts about where we’ve been, where we’re heading, or some other story we’re telling ourselves. If we’re not present for walking in our bodies, then it’s a good bet we’re part of that disembodied culture. Most people first realize this when they try to sit for mindfulness practices, where we’re asked to sink our awareness into our bodies, to feel into our soma and listen with attentiveness. For people afflicted by disembodied culture, this is torture - all they can feel is panic from the thoughts racing through their head. Fortunately, all it takes to get past that conditioned reflexive stage is fortitude and persistence. The secret to mindfulness and meditation is just showing up.
So here is a really important thing to understand about trauma. The longer we repress our trauma — literally carrying it around in our body (and at the collective level in our political body, as expressed in the cultural zeitgeist) — the more we tend to act it out in ways that are harmful to ourselves and others. Trauma begets drama, remember, which usually precipitates even more trauma, sucking us into a downward spiral of self abuse and bewilderment: “Why do I keep making these same mistakes?” is the common lament of someone with ‘trauma issues’ and 'history repeats itself' because of unresolved collective trauma.
Here's another important insight: trauma wants to be healed. We naturally tend towards wholeness. And so we keep recreating the stage plays, with an ever-changing cast of interchangeable characters, by which we act out those traumas that most need/want to be healed. Until it is resolved, trauma increasingly interferes with our ability to live our life. Paradoxically, trauma demands resolution and wholeness by producing dissolution and brokenness in our personal and collective lives. It doesn’t just want to be healed - trauma demands that we heal.
And that is trauma's super-power. It pushes us, quite often kicking and screaming, towards healing and wholeness.
The Multivalent Traumasphere:
From the Personal to the Collective
We ignore trauma’s cumulative demands at our own increasing peril. (Look around!)
We obviously each need to think about that personally, in relation to our own experiences of violation and loss. That’s a big part of our individuation, or self-realization, process as we mature and ripen as human beings. For most of us, myself included, that process kicks in when we have a mid-life crisis of some sort, where our repressed spiritual needs overwhelm our ego’s agenda:
Michael Washburn sees the midlife crisis as a shift in the movement of the ego. Instead of its outward flow toward accomplishment, it turns inward toward transcendence, which is where, according to transpersonal psychology, the self is grounded and was initiated. “The ego goes back over the old ground of the psyche and childhood for healing and regeneration” (Cortright, p. 87). How long and how deep this “regeneration of spirit” is depends on whether and how the person relates to it—face the midlife developmental process, or escape it? It takes time and support to embrace the shadow. It is helpful if one’s culture supports regeneration.
Narvaez, D. (2019). “Ego Dissolution,” Pysch. Today.
But while we are following our own healing path, we can also learn to see how these dramas play out on national and global stages when our society refuses to acknowledge, let alone resolve, our chronically symptomatic collective traumas. Just as we carry our personal unresolved trauma in our bodies, and just as we carry our unresolved generational traumas forward in our genetic expression and family dysfunction, so we also carry our unresolved collective traumas forward in our cultural ‘norms,’ express them in popular ‘memes,’ and encode them in our social structures - such as the systemic sexism, racism and structural violence encoded into the body politic against oppressed minorities.
What it means to “act out” our unresolved trauma is that we repress the feelings around that deep wound whenever we’re triggered, and then we tend to repeat echoes of the original trauma in our patterned behaviors. At the collective level, this can take on many guises. An obvious example to me, as a baby boomer, is the perpetrator trauma (a kind of unspoken guilt) Americans carry from dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations.
It is not necessarily just the thousands of additional nuclear bombs we subsequently detonated on ocean islands, in the desert, or underground — though that is certainly significant and reinforcing — but moreso, I think, in our propensity to continue bombing civilian populations generally, dismissing such war crime as “collateral damage” and pretending it’s acceptable because America is somehow “exceptional.”
By repressing our nuclear trauma, we became addicted to making bombs of all kinds. Carpet bombing Korea in the 1950s, Napalm bombs in Viet Nam in the 1960s - bombing civilian populations under the banner of “human rights!” - all the inhumane bombing in Iraq in the lead-up to the Gulf Wars - a poignant example of repressed perpetrator trauma, actually, with Secretary Albright’s statement that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children from bombing water treatment plants in violation of the Geneva Convention was “worth it” -- echoing similar statements made about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That cold-hearted, inhumane and criminal behavior is a repurcussion of the unresolved collective trauma that is the psychological fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or consider POW-PTSD Senator John McCain gleefully singing “Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys classic “Barbara Ann”!
Really, the whole idea of "American Exceptionalism" is a psychological compensation and over-justification for perpetrator trauma. As with dropping nuclear bombs on women, children and old people, it is somehow okay when we do it, and terrorism if someone else does. It is not difficult to understand how this same kind of attitude can lull us into a sense that it is somehow okay to fundamentally alter the climate, as it is 'necessary' in order for us to pursue the American Dream of conspicuous consumption.
And now our infatuation with drones has reduced civilian bombings and executions, once considered to be “collateral damage,” to a kind of video game played by precocious kids sitting in dark rooms in Las Vegas, the City of Lights. Remember, all this began with dropping nukes on civilian populations in the Land of the Rising Sun. We are psychological through-and-through!
We’ve become, in the infamous words of Roger Watters, “comfortably numb.” Nobody bombs like the U.S. And nobody is as shameless, since nobody else has had to live with the specter of what we did to the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And oh, by the way, nobody does mass shootings like us, either. And of course we are, cumulatively, the world’s leading emitter of Greenhouse Gases, and #1 producer of fossil fuels.
These things are not unrelated!
They instead are representative of a complex, and painfully illustrate how unresolved trauma perpetuates itself through increasingly dramatic cycles of behavior echoing out in time. Trauma demands that we acknowledge and begin to resolve it - or else! The reason Black Lives Matter is so imperative is because we have yet to resolve the terrible twin traumas of slavery and civil war, which of course we continued to act out through the mass extermination of Indian Americans in the immediate aftermath of that fraternal slaughter fest. Recognizing the terrible cumulative force of trauma, one begins to appreciate just why it is that America is now the bubbling cauldron of the global oppression that empowers mass extinction and climate trauma.
At some point, however, the face of the shared trauma we perpetuate, accumulate, and pass on becomes unmistakably ugly and, to most, intolerable. We see this quite clearly right now with new generations of young children demanding resolution of the climate crisis, and who seem to see social injustice so clearly compared to those of us who’ve somehow tolerated it up to this point.
When have we ever seen a social movement led by children in the world?
The cumulative trauma we have visited on the natural world is so great that this new generation is refusing to inherit it the way the average citizens in each preceding generation have swallowed it.
We boomers are their worst nightmare! And no small wonder, either.
So we can see how trauma is multivalent here, simply by broadening our perspectives of loss - our 'trauma lens' - from the personal to the collective. ‘Valence’ is a term from physics for the graded shells, or inner and outer orbits, of electrons around the nucleus of an atom. What is fascinating about these shelled frequencies in nature is that when change happens in the configuration of electrons in orbit, they jump from one valence to the next - a quantum leap - without ever actually appearing in between. It's one of those natural phenomena that calls into question our quaint notions of how change really comes about. In the natural world, change is rarely, if ever, linear.
The same can be said of trauma and related complexes. Change happens like the collapse of a wave, or suddenly finding yourself in one field of experience when you never thought you’d escape from a very different field.
So I use this term “multivalent trauma” purposely. We carry epigenetic trauma at the deepest level of our psyches and bodies. Just as the expression of genes is an individual response to being triggered one way or another, so we express, or act out, our epigenetic traumas (expressions of stunted RNA) in our families, which become encoded in dysfunctional family patterns of behavior. And, of course, we carry our own share of traumatic experiences around in our fascia as well. Our cultural traumas are experienced collectively (9/11, Jan. 6, etc.), embodied in our politics, and encoded in our popular culture. So, like Russian dolls, we have indwelling epigenetic trauma, individual traumas carried somatically in our fascia, the family dysfunctions that are an expression of both, all embedded in a larger culture that imparts and offers its own cycles of trauma, such as exploitative corporate culture, destructive consumer culture, polarized political culture, and patriarchal/misogynist religious culture.
Trauma deforms. It distorts our view of others, like a maladaptive lens.
Generational trauma is just the inner valence of our own shell, hardened into prejudice and defensiveness, seemingly protecting us reflexively from a world perceived as threatening. While this inner valence can be resolved with love and a shared sense of purpose, or growth, it can also metastasize if childhood trauma, in the form of abuse or chronic neglect by trusted adults, is piled on top.
This presents a real challenge to social evolution or cultural transformation, because families who have adapted to their own generational traumas in dysfunctional ways will then perceive attempts to acknowledge collective traumas as threatening their 'way of life.' This presents a real challenge to social evolution or cultural transformation, because families who have adapted to their traumas in dysfunctional ways, such as militant Christian Nationalism, will see attempts to acknowledge collective traumas as threatening their way of life and their most cherished beliefs. And so they tend to rally behind autocratic figures who are expert at triggering and manipulating those all-too-common traumas for political reasons - “father figures” posing as friendly tyrants that will do their bidding.
I distinctly remember the moment I realized Trump might actually become President. His lovely daughter Ivanka, dressed in angelic white with her hair blowing in a stage-generated breeze, introduced him at the GOP Convention with a speech during which she repeated the phrase "my father" approximately every 25 seconds. Remarkably, nobody in the media picked up on this. It was fascist stage craft exquisitely adapted to our chaotic times.
We see all kinds of collective traumas expressed and reflected in our institutions and in our media, from textbooks to video games, and certainly in our police dramas and movies, all of which provide creative outlets for acting out - but not with a view towards resolving - our most personal traumas as fantasy, in a relatively safe spiritual container (living rooms, movie theaters).
Consider for a moment the “fanatic” behaviors of individuals at sporting events all around the world, not to mention the ritualistic recitation of national anthems at the beginning of such events, and remember for just a second how it all began in the Roman Coliseum! Forcing humans to engage in mortal combat, or even feeding them to ferocious animals, as public spectacle is pure trauma, is it not? In our culture, we have photographs of public lynchings, with families bringing picnics to celebrate slave culture. Or the erection of gallows for lynching and waving the Confederate flat in the halls of Congress on January 6 - the day after the first African American candidate (and first Jew) won a senate seat from Georgia. Culture is replete with these kinds of encoded traumas, and can serve as a relatively safe forum for either resolving our traumas or, if profit and power prevail, perpetuating them.
Excuse my Industrial Age metaphor, but culture is rather like a ‘natural trauma resource,’ there to be mined for good or ill. It is fine to be openly critical of culture, but let's be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
And now, after a couple centuries of industrialized, exponential growth, and with the onset of the Great Acceleration in the wake of World War Two, we are seeing the trauma we’ve inflicted on the natural world coming back to haunt us in the waking nightmare of our deranged global politics and trauma-exploiting tyrants, our disintegrating lives, families and cultures, and our unravelling landscapes and ecosystems. It seems like we’re just waiting for the global economy to finally collapse, like the house of cards that it is, before we really make the fundamental changes that are called for in response to this existential threat. And looking around, there is nowhere left to serve as a repository for our gross preponderance of accumulated, unresolved traumas.
We are, collectively and as a species, in a bit of a panic.
Chaos reigns supreme on the world stage right now, does it not? Doesn’t it almost feel like we’ve entered a new reality? A different, stranger dimension? We’ve fundamentally and unalterably changed the atmosphere, the biosphere, the troposphere, and the lithosphere. Psychosynthesis therapist and social systems thinker Mark Skelding has quite sensibly proposed that we complete the Gaian organs listed here by adding the ‘psychosphere’ by and through which we are all inextricably connected, enmeshed in sentient awareness with all that lives.
It is this sentient being-ness, this psychosphere, that has been grievously wounded, and is thus intentionally triggering all of our systemic alarms. In other words, we are now inhabiting a traumatized psychosphere - a traumasphere - of our own making, which is euphemistically labeled (again, by us) the Anthropocene ~ more mirror than geology.
As Pogo put it way back when I used to deliver newspapers:
Are we brave enough to look in that hyper-objective mirror? To admit that we've been wrong all along?
And isn't that what is really called for by these particular, curious exigent circumstances?
In his book Hyperobjects, modern philosopher and existential thinker Timothy Morton strikes at the very heart of our crisis:
“What we desperately need is an appropriate level of shock and anxiety concerning a specific ecological trauma — indeed, the ecological trauma of our age, the very thing that defines the Anthropocene as such.”
It is thus incumbent upon us, if we are to chart a course out of this global miasma and planetary mayhem, to try to make some sense of it all, and to make peace with ourselves. Only when we acknowledge the real reasons that we’ve created the mess we find ourselves in, only when we can identify its true causes, will we even begin to understand the scope of the crisis well enough to see our way out of it.
It helps to see that this, too, is part of our human nature. We express it in our movies, which are nothing other than myth-making for modern times. The stories we keep telling ourselves about ourselves, over and over, almost always involve our overcoming impossible odds and extricating ourselves from intractable situations. It’s just how we modern humans roll. And please believe me when I say this: we can and we will solve this, no matter what terrible toll our recalcitrance exacts.
Indeed, we’ve already begun the difficult and taxing work of resolving our collective traumas. Building on the solid foundation of the global Civil Rights Movement, on the broad historical shoulders of women's suffrage, Mahatma Ghandi, the Rev. Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, efforts like MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Landback Movement (Indigenous Rising), together with the historically unprecedented Children’s Movement (Fridays-For-Futures, Sunrise, etc.) and the rights-of-nature movement will, over time, succeed - because they have to - and these relational adjustments will in turn free up the energies and resources needed to fundamentally transform our relationship with the natural world.
Of course, there will be push-back from the more trauma-deformed sectors of society. And yes, it's not happening fast enough.
But it is happening. Order always emerges from chaos.
Therefore, despair is useless. Hope is pointless. Activation is everything.
The New and Emerging Taxonomy of Trauma
Against this backdrop, it is easy to appreciate that nothing is more vital to our survival and the survival of so many other species than acknowledging and understanding trauma. Because of the central importance of the clarifying lens of collective trauma to resolving the world’s most intractable problems, a brief summation, or primer, on trauma is in order here. We must all become trauma literate in order that our actions, at individual, familial and societal levels, can be trauma-informed. Trauma-informed actions are the heart of both healing and collective activism.
Trauma can generally be thought of as experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing. Trauma overwhelms our ability to cope, leaving us feeling powerless. By absencing ourselves from the conscious experience of trauma, we give rise to patterns of behavior on our lives that are harmful echoes of the original trauma.
It is important to point out right at the outset, and to keep always close to mind in our conversations around trauma, the yin/yang relationship of trauma and oppression. This is why unresolved trauma eventually gives rise to social justice movements - because it is our oppressors who benefit unjustly from the perpetuation of trauma’s cycles of pain and suffering. Pull back the curtain, and we see this injustice reflected in the unprecedented wealth gap today between the super-rich, whose wealth is inevitably based on exploitation of people and planet, and the populous poor, whose poverty is inevitably rooted in injustice.
For example, the systems of slavery and capitalism are forms of collective trauma, while White Christian Nationalism and the minimum wage “slave labor” resulting from power-over economic models are the unjust echoes of those unresolved traumas. Trauma is inflicted and perpetuated by overt oppression, and can only be resolved by fundamentally changing relationships, whether through reparations or labor unions.
Now, because of the developed world's continual assault on our shared biosphere carried out largely by transnational corporations at the behest of their shareholders and consumers, we find ourselves inhabiting a ‘brave new world’ of Orwellian proportions that perpetrates a relentless assault on all of our psyches and central nervous systems. This is the meaning of traumasphere. We can observe it on full display at all levels of life today.
As William Agee prophetically pronounced at the start of the Anthropocene, everything is split, we're increasingly polarized, and everyone seems caught up in a vicious cycle of fight, fright and/or flight, leaving no one free to live their life the way life was meant to be lived. All of our long-held assumptions are being questioned. We feel a growing sense of dread in our bones and in our guts. We are facing unprecedented levels of insecurity, anxiety, and fear.
How do we cope with all this madness? It’s TOO MUCH!
That is the feeling of powerlessness the traumasphere induces. (And that’s the feeling our traumaspheric oppressors exploit)
What we’ve learned so far from the study of trauma here in the West since the beginning of Industrialized Warfare (WWI) has come mostly from studying the after-effects on those who have been subjected to major common traumas - the victims and perpetrators of chemical trench warfare, survivors of the Shoah and their children, as well as the survivors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Viet Nam war, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocide of first peoples everywhere, the descendants of slaves and, more recently, from our cultural responses to 9-11 and the Capitol Insurrection of 2021. From all of this experience, we've learned sequentially, over time, that human beings experience trauma on at least these three distinct, but interrelated and inter-acting, levels:
individual trauma: as with child abuse, sexual assaults, automobile accidents, or battlefield experiences. This is the trauma we’ve long recognized, and is rooted in violations of trust involving people or activities;
inter-generational, or epigenetic trauma: first observed and studied among the children of Holocaust survivors, and more recently observed in the expression of stunted RNA passed on by the sperm of traumatized fathers. This category involves unspeakable assaults that are so profound as to impress themselves on our genetic code and/or otherwise fundamentally alter the way we relate; and,
cultural trauma: as seen quite starkly her in America with Native American culture and in the ghettos, as well as with Aborigines in Australia, Tibetans in China, Kashmiris in India, or even our own poisonous culture of neoliberal “exceptionalism” that has metastasized in the wake of 9-11, giving rise to endless wars.
Native American example of generational/cultural trauma
What we’ve learned the hard way, again and again, is that the effects of trauma do not just subside and fade away when we ignore them. Contrary to the popular adage, time most definitely does not heal all wounds! This is neither true at the individual or the collective levels. The passage of time only masks our traumas with scabs that constrict our broken hearts. Collectively, this social or ethnic scarring and cultural masking set the stage for mob rule (e.g., Jan. 6), inter-tribal or even internecine grievances (e.g., former Yugoslavia).
The effects of trauma will stubbornly persist, accumulate, and if not treated eventually metasticise, until the underlying, common traumatic experience itself is recalled, brought up from the body somehow into conscious awareness, and cognitively processed in safety, with some combination of unconditional acceptance and compassionate awareness.
In other words, only active healing heals traumatic wounds. Time is rather irrelevant, apart from the cumulative force of unresolved traumas.
When we fail to acknowledge trauma — well, that’s where it gets its power from. That’s the real troublemaker in our lives and in the world. Trauma feeds off our avoidance behaviors, our patterns of repression, active suppression, and denial, including our repressed rage, anger and hurt. We act out our unresolved traumas in small, habitual ways and, episodically, in big, damaging ways. Simply stated, unresolved trauma deforms all our relationships.
So, as a prologue to any dialogue for healing our collective traumas, before we can really understand how to resolve climate trauma, it behooves us to first ask ourselves some even more fundamental questions:
What seems to be the root cause of trauma?
What is the nature of this beast that feeds on our silence and rises up in our shadow selves, in our families, in our mobs, and in our armies?
Who is the real enemy here? Why this evil??
Crimes Against Nature
Trauma can be distilled down to humans (or any life form) unjustly experiencing inhumane injuries and/or intolerable circumstances in relationship with trusted figures and activities. The more an action or experience goes against our innate human nature, the more we recoil in horror and disbelief, and the more our cognition and emotional system shuts down in response to overwhelm.
Here is as good a definition of trauma as any I’ve come across out there:
“a rupture that will not let life live according to its nature.” (Jenkinson, supra.)
We should never accept the propaganda that war is somehow part of human nature. If war was in fact congruent with human nature, then why, after millennia of practicing war, do soldiers still come home traumatized by their experiences on the battlefield? If war was so natural, then would we not expect humans to thrive in relation to our battlefield experiences, rather than be anesthesized by them? Of course, sociopaths and psychopaths may thrive in war, but that only proves the point.
What we today celebrate as “Veterans Day” was, for many decades, a humane response to the trauma of industrial warfare, observed quite soberly as Armistice Day. During the 11th minute of the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, people everywhere, no matter what they were doing, used to pause collectively to observe a full minute of perfect silence in remembrance of the ‘unspeakable’ horrors of World Wars I and II. Today, people wave flags and celebrate their patriotism. This gets back to trauma involving a history of forgetting.
The idea of Armistice Day originated on the battlefield, actually, with the realization that what soldiers were experiencing during the new forms of warfare in the 20th Century defied our imagination. It could not be adequately described in words, and the decisions generals were making in their war-rooms on paper could no longer be so easily justified with what was happening in the trenches.
Industrial warfare, quite simply, made war intolerable to the average human being.
This is surely still the case. It’s why we’ve never seen a “limited” nuclear war, for example. And it explains why drone warfare is so easily tolerated by its perpetrators. It also explains why bringing the Viet Nam war quite graphically into our living rooms on the evening news, in a way that had never been possible before, hastened its end. And yet, for some reason, our rulers found it necessary to replace Armistice Day with the more celebratory, more amnesia-inducing term Veterans Day.
Of course they did. Armistice Day was bad public relations for the war industry that lords over our elected leaders. Something very important was lost in that nominal exchange.
War is inherently unnatural - inhumane. War involves the perpetration of crimes against nature - human nature (and Nature, as well). Yes, war is monstrous. Is any of that remembered on Veteran’s Day anymore? Does anyone bother to pause and reflect on the inexpressible horrors of war at 11:11 on Nov. 11?
Trauma is the history of forgetting.
* * *
So the takeaway from this condensed primer on the brief history of trauma in the West is this:
Trauma is what happens when humans violate Nature
We simply cannot emphasize that enough. That’s the key to understanding trauma at all levels — in our lives, in our close relations, in politics, and in the headlines. If you retain nothing else from reading this book, you must remember this: the cause of trauma is unnatural human behavior.
Like placing humans in chains for no other reason than to control them. Or sexually assaulting a child. Or crashing a car. Or creating killing factories for animals. Or vacuuming fish from the oceans. Or removing a mountain top to get at the coal.
Now you might still be asking yourself: why the compelling need to come to agreement on these ideas of trauma and human nature, or to be talking about this at all? It’s a most uncomfortable topic, after all, in any kind of social situation. We normally only feel safe enough to discuss our traumas in the refuge of intimate relationships, where it is hoped we might be able to process them with the support of our loving partner or a trusted confidant.
It is a rather risky proposition to discuss the topic of trauma apart from that level of intimacy. So there has to be a good reason if we are going to embark upon or even advocate for a national discussion of trauma and its discontents.
Let us, then, bring this discussion home by getting right to the most salient point of our shared existential crisis…
We are now experiencing an entirely new and unprecedented form of trauma: Climate Trauma. You will not find it in the APA’s DSM V, it is on full display everywhere you look today. It is undeniable to anyone with eyes to see, the loud and omnipresent ripples of a grievous injury that is being actively inflicted on the entire biosphere - which, of course, includes us self-proclaimed wise bipeds.
And Climate Trauma is quite unlike any other form of trauma we have ever experienced or actively forgotten. It is constant, not episodic. It is pervasive, not limited to individuals or groups — or even species. It’s like a cracked mirror every time you look up to the sky, warping our view of ourselves.
The best and worst thing about climate trauma is that, due to its relentless and pervasive specter, it's always triggering all our unresolved traumas. All our past traumas are now present, all demanding resolution at the same time. And that, too, feels overwhelming. It’s like a Rubic’s Cube of multivalent trauma that we must solve before the whole Earth explodes.
The 11,000+ year Holocene Era in which civilization arose and developed, an era marked by a nurturing, accommodating, and relatively stable climate, is now ancient ‘history.’ That epoch is officially over, as a matter of science, culture, and psyche. We are now inhabiting (and shaping) the Anthropocene.
You are to be excused if you missed the memo, since at the time the Holocene was ending we were all quite oblivious to the fact, but geologists have now marked the start of the Anthropocene quite precisely:
July 16, 1945
5:29 a.m., PST
TRINITY … The religiously named first successful detonation of a chain-reaction nuclear bomb, the vision of which sparked a thought in the mind of its creator, the brilliant and pretty cool in a 1940’s kind of way American physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer:
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer, seeing into the future through that rupture of time and space when we ripped open the very fabric of reality, spontaneously recalled this passage from the 5000 year old sacred Hindu scripture, the Baghavad Gita. But he was speaking for all of Western civilization, if not for our species itself (Indigenous peoples rightly object to their inclusion in this secret conspiracy).
And so while it may well feel like we are inhabiting the long-prophesied End Times, in another sense it is also like we are at the beginning of creation, having so recently been spawned by the primordial trinity.
In the beginning…
Let us begin again with a confession from this baby boomer born at the very height of that population explosion. Always a good place to start. BOOM!
This world we are now inhabiting, this new epoch with new, never before deposited elements in the geologic record, like the trinitarium created in the blast itself, with nuclear legacy wastes that will still be radioactive ten or more millennia from now, with oceans, with marine life itself, filling with plastics and micro-plastics made from man-made petrochemicals developed for industrial warfare, and now tragically mistaken for food by marine animals, now in our mother's milk - this Anthropocene!!! - is largely the rather direct and precipitous result of the unresolved traumas my father’s generation and his father’s generation first suffered through, and then, in their own efforts to cope — without any real support from mental health professionals or culture (just copious amounts of hard liquor) — subsequently suppressed, acted out , and inflicted on the entire planet, on all life forms, and on all generations to follow, beginning with my own…
Over 2000 detonations of nuclear bombs in the first half of my life, all much more powerful even than those dropped on Japan. My life is NOTHING compared to the half life of THAT fallout! I’ve long suspected that all that extra radiation sped up time itself.
As James Agee prophetically opined on the back page of Time Magazine in the immediate wake of Hiroshima, “With the controlled splitting of the atom, humanity, already profoundly perplexed and disunified, was brought inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split - and far from controlled.”
… Wait! Don’t despair! This is the GOOD news!!
Can you see why?
Being so new, climate trauma is really difficult to acknowledge. It took me years of studying it without understanding it before I finally recognized it for what it is. And while so many other psychologists and social thinkers grokked it right away, most mainstream professionals still refuse to see it, let alone name it. Fortunately, that is changing, too. As the popular philosopher Timothy Morton first observed in 2012, in his influential book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World:
“What we desperately need is an appropriate level of shock and anxiety concerning a specific ecological trauma — indeed, the ecological trauma of our age, the very thing that defines the Anthropocene as such.”
Being such a recent phenomena, it's still quite accessible, and quite remediable as well - psychologically, at least. Climate trauma is still subject to a group intervention, you could say. And that would unleash a cascade of healing ripple effects, altering all of our relations at the root, almost archetypal level.
But we must face this new form of trauma now. It is our collective shadow projected out onto the planet itself, like a great eclipse that has now gone total. Behind this shadow is a light that can reveal all the solutions we seek.
We cannot, however, continue to perpetuate climate trauma psychologically by adopting euphemistic misnomers like “climate change,” “global warming” or the APA's banal diagnosis of "eco-anxiety," all of which only serve to satisfy our reflexive need to cast the trauma we are experiencing viscerally as a distant threat on the horizon. We must face all of our worst fears at this unique and pivotal time in history; because behind these fears, unresolved traumas hide from us, gaining power and causing endless trouble.
It is another kind of exceptionalism to pretend that I should only feel traumatized by the climate crisis in the wake of an extreme weather event. I do not need to live in Australia in order to feel and grieve the traumatic loss of 3 billion animals in a single fire season. That is not "anxiety"! We all feel that because we are all integral parts of a living planet. It is simply a matter of the degree we are sensitive to that collective experience of trauma. If we are cut off from our own embodied traumas, we will not feel climate trauma. Instead, we'll keep it in our heads. And maybe that is what "eco-anxiety" really is - the inability to feel climate trauma even though you see it happening in real time.
While biospheric trauma is now pervasive, it is the aggregate of a number of distinct, unnatural behaviors which we have been conditioned to ignore by those who have charted and profited from this disastrous course:
* Ideas like industrialized warfare, for example. What a concept from its inception! Trench warfare with poison gas, which rather quickly gave rise to human killing factories, carpet bombing, cluster bombs, “collateral damage,” and nature-destroying chemicals like napalm and Agent Orange.
* From there, it wasn’t far at all to industrialized agriculture — killing everything that lives in soil with gas and deadly chemicals, and the ‘collateral damage’ of poisoning our own bodies in the process - with toxins showing up in our mother’s milk, making us all industrialized babies (unless like me, you were weaned on formula delivered via plastic nipples) - eventually leading to pandemics of autism, Alzheimers, the rise of autoimmune diseases and immune deficiency syndromes, obesity, ad nauseum.
* Like industrialized fishing — emptying the source of all life, the oceans themselves, of life. 90% of all big fish gone in my lifetime, with plankton now being rapidly displaced by micro-plastics, causing whales to starve due to the relative lack of nutrition in their intake. We are on pace to hae no life at all in the oceans by 2050. Oh, and at least half the planet's oxygen is produced by marine life. Meaning we are close to snuffing out the very source of our own life. That is not a global "greenhouse" - it's a global gas chamber.
* And oh those killing factories — could anything be more unnatural? — first designed in war, for humans, and then repurposed as factory farms and industrialized slaughterhouses, perpetuating the atrocities of WWII in collective patterns of behavior and numbing humanity to the scale of suffering from 70 Billion animals - with real feelings, just like our pets - inhumanely slaughtered every year.
* Chemical warfare has also persisted, in spite of the obvious horror, including all the napalm dropped in Southeast Asia for the purpose of directly obliterating nature itself — so that the enemy had nowhere to hide, you understand — and the many other unimaginable horribles attending carpet bombing (Dresden, Tokyo, Korea, Cambodia), “shock and awe,” fracking, clearcutting, strip-mining, MOUNTAIN-TOP REMOVAL (!!), and vast chemically-dependent monocrops used to fatten up McCows (and the people who eat them) and mass produce Frankenfoods.
WE ARE AT WAR WITH NATURE ITSELF! Homo industrialis horribilis. That is the species awaiting transmutation.
And make no mistake here - this isn’t a war we can win. In fact, we are being routed, as evidenced by increasing tides of refugees surging across the planet in search of new homes. The Syrian war began as a fight over water between farmers displaced by unprecedented droughts and Assad’s forces on the outskirts of Damascus. Water wars will become commonplace as the glaciers that regulate water supplies for most of our populations dry up and disappear.
We see, and are banally complicit in, this same kind of industrialized war against Nature happening in Indonesia today, perpetrated on orangutans rather than Viet Cong guerrillas, so food manufacturers can have cheap palm oil. The raging war against Nature includes transnational corporations colluding with corrupt governments to regularly kill Indigenous activists and remote tribes people guilty of the sin of trying to protect the natural environment they’ve co-evolved with since “the time when the memory of man runneth not to the contrary” (legal def. of “time immemorial” which is the source of custom’s legal force).
And again, at an even larger scales, we see it on the ocean floors and on the high seas, with China’s fleets going everywhere to satisfy their insatiable demand for fish stocks created by wiping out all the fish stocks in the oceans around China itself, and with Japan’s relentless slaughter of whales for “research purposes.” And, of course, we are witness to the eradication of whatever intact natural ecosystems are still left in the world at an accelerating pace. An area of wild lands the size of Mexico has been eliminated just in the last decade, mostly to grow crops to feed cows for fast food giants, just as much of the sea plunder goes to feed chickens and cats!
INSANE!! Homo industrialis horribilis is utterly insane. While it is still nascent, and doesn't have to be this way, the Anthropocene at this point is an industrial crime scene.
And all of this, when we get right down to it, owing to our collective failure to resolve traumas of such recent vintage! In my case, it’s my father’s traumas I’m trying to redeem. My goodness, if we hadn’t been determined to punish the people of Germany so harshly in the buildup to the Great Depression, that monster we created with poisons in the mosh pits of WWI, Adolf Hitler, would never have gained traction in Weimar Germany! A harsh lesson, but one we are so slow to learn STILL! (See, e.g., Israel’s uber-harsh treatment of Palestinians displaced in their own homeland as reparations for German sins).
Of course, lest we forget, the ever present threat of nuclear warfare, the immediate precursor to climate trauma, which also was bequeathed to us by the insanity of WWII and Harry ‘Horse-Shit’ Truman, the industry-picked successor to FDR (because his chosen successor, the wildly popular VP Johnson, cared too much about working people). If trauma is truly cumulative, left unresolved, and biospheric trauma is the (ill-) logical culmination of this pattern and practice of industrialized trauma, then we cannot overlook the greatest globally felt traumas of all, the ‘original sins’ at the very root of all this unnatural devastation. In response to the killing factories of the Holocaust, the American Commander in Chief recklessly unleashed Hell on Earth in the land of the rising sun, mere weeks after shamelessly invoking Trinity in the unholy consecration of our new, anthropocentric age.
How Freudian is that, really? No culture has been more poisoned by Freud’s thanos, or death wish, than good ‘ole “God Blessed” America. It is here we find the real demon seed of our present climate trauma - the 'Old Glory’ seed that spawned the Anthropocene. The reason I keep circling back on it is that it disrupted our most fundamental archetypes - a creator god and mother nature - and the cure for climate trauma will be found close to this deep, collective psychological wound.
While it is no doubt true that slavery and genocide are our original sins as a nation, it is Trinity that led the whole world inexorably to biospheric trauma on a scale never before imagined, and is thus our original sin as a species. Indeed, it was Trinity that introduced us to unimaginable scales that philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects,” and the overwhelm they induce. That demon seed is just as alive in us today, with every chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” (or, more recently, "LOCK THEM UP! LOCK THEM UP!"), with every invocation of “American Exceptionalism,” andwith every bomb dropped on civilian populations, as it ever was back in those more innocent times when we were saving the world from Hitler. Indeed, with the repressed perpetrator trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the festering of climate trauma, we have now invoked those same fascist archetypal forces we were so stridently aligned against back in the 1940s. We are summoning all our demons now.
What comes up for you when you think of those 2 nukes falling on mostly women, children, their pets, old people, songbirds, and even American POWs (more Americans were killed in those bombings than died in the Trade Towers on 9/11) in the crowded cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
< O >
As dawn broke that bright August day in the White Sands Desert of New Mexico, one of the physicists joining Oppenheimer as witnesses to Trinity remembered his own impressions…
Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen.
it bored its way into you.
It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye.
It was seen to last forever.
You would wish it would stop…
… altogether it lasted about two seconds.
That was Isidor Isaac Rabi’s evocation of our initiation into a new world order that fateful day, when everything was split, when man assumed ultimate dominion over Nature. Rabi's description is so vivid, so emotional for a trained scientist in a time of war. And yet, expressed so organically, his words are quite telling for anyone who has ever studied trauma.
Dr. Rabi was imprinting in real time (time being a product of memory, after all) a very deep experience of trauma - if not the very deepest - from both the perpetrator’s and the victim’s perspective. This trauma inflicted by man on the pristine, white-sand, morning sunlit earth, an unutterable violence carried out in our name against the very laws of nature whose secrets we’d just unlocked - rather like Pandora opening the urn, or box, on her wedding day.
This open box then quickly let loose a parade of imaginary horribles, unleashing death of a kind and on a scale too horrible to imagine. Jacob’s ladder would’ve been a more appropriate name than Trinity.
(read Rabi’s vivid description once more, please, with feeling)
Trauma victims themselves become frozen in time. Our most unnatural of experiences become trapped in a perpetual present, a present moment that is preserved and encoded in our somatic system, our muscle memory, and in our neural networks, rather like the outlines of Hiroshima’s vaporized bodies inscribed on sidewalks and against buildings, the eery shadows of people who no longer existed. The experiences are by definition shocking, a violent and unexpected wound that is inflicted on our psyche.
Certainly, nothing has ever quite approached the sudden violence of that lonely moment in frozen, white-desert time, quickly reverberating in the detonations that ended a world war, and then continuing to ripple out for decades into the oceans and penetrating Earth, with two thousand or so more detonations, violently blasting apart ‘uninhabited’ ocean atolls, or turning Pluto’s underworld into molten waves of soil and rock, testing new versions of plutonium and uranium bombs.
What kind of perverse alchemy do we practice when we extract elements from the Earth in order to create death? Humanity taking control over the “basic forces of the universe,” as Truman crowed from his perch atop the ruins of world war, hubristically assuming the province of creator gods - of providence itself - and subsequently overcompensating with televangelical fervor on the road to perdition, all under the guise of “American Exceptionalism.”
Like the Holocaust it was intended to end, the idea of our nuking civilian populations living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki lies just outside of our imagination, at the boundaries of our ability to rationalize or even conceive. To really think about it, say in terms of children on playgrounds, young lovers kissing, fathers going to work, or infants suckling at their mother’s breasts, all unknowingly defining "Ground Zero" on the bright mornings of August 6 and August 9 in the year 1945 — well, it just overwhelms our emotional capacity…
…like an experience that is seen to last forever…
…though you wish it would stop.
It is through acting out our unresolved traumas
that we are still remaking the world in our own image.
There is agency here, in a collective sense.
So yes, we really do need to talk about this. We need to own this, because its already too late. It may be uncomfortable, but life as we’ve always known it is coming to an end as I write, which just happens to be during a global pandemic under a vast cloud of smoke from yet another season of unnatural forest fires.
Our world is dying all around us. As Greta says quite poignantly, our house is on fire.
Ask Australians. Ask someone who once lived in Paradise, California, or Detroit, Oregon. Ask an Amazonian tribal member. Or a fisherman from Maine or Alaska. Ask a killer whale in Puget Sound. Or a matriarchal elephant leading her family and herd to a last-resort, distant water source that has always existed in the most dire of times - only to find dust.
This terminal condition can be appreciated most critically by pausing to reflecting again on where all life began - in the oceans that comprise our Mother Earth’s womb. As a largely unintended, unseen, and cumulative consequence of the industrial age that began in the soot and grime from burning coal in 19th century London — the world’s first megalopolis — global warming has now heated the oceans by the equivalent of one-atomic-bomb-exploding-every-second… for the past 150 years!
Talk about hyperobjects! Morton defines "hyperobjects" as phenomena that are "massively distributed in time and space" relative to us. How could we possibly wrap our mind around this horrifying math? It doesn't seem possible, does it? Maybe the reason so many people have such a hard time accepting the facts underlying our climate crisis is because they sound like science fiction!
When I was growing up, the very idea that we humans could affect something as vast as our oceans was, if you will excuse the pun, unfathomable. That very word embodies the ocean as a hyperobject. As is the idea now of one nuclear bomb going off every second under the ocean’s endless waves.
Call it the exponential growth of the nuclear age as concept, like the flash of impossibly white molten light that emanates instantly and everywhere from the detonation of a fusion bomb in the empty space of thin air.
That shocking statistic, by the way, comes from a fairly recent (Nov. 2018) study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — I’m not making this stuff up! — the same study that revealed the oceans have been absorbing 90% of all greenhouse gases - about twice as much as previously assumed. This is rather troubling news, and a good illustration of how nascent climate science is. Apart from measuring trends in physical CO2 emissions or the chemical composition of ocean water, anyone who pretends certainty about Gaia’s future is not to be granted credence. Even as I edit this, in 2022, an enormous volcano has erupted in the Pacific Ocean, and vulcanologists are still studying the cooling effects of increased volcanic activity registered in ice cores and geologic records. What if Gaia’s response to global warming was increased magma activity?
In any event, what we can say is that what we’re now seeing in the atmosphere and troposphere is quite literally only the tip of this climate iceberg lurking beneath the ocean’s waves. The oceans have reached their saturation point when it comes to CO2.
You know… like Godzilla? No longer the enemy who once delighted in toppling Japanese skyscrapers, Godzilla is cast as an unlikely eco-warrior battling to defeat the Titan menace -- led by the three-headed King Ghidorah -- and save humanity from itself.
That’s OUR Frankenstein, Ms. Shelley. The monster from the depths of our collective psyche, conjured up in the wake of WWII and breathing nuclear fire. Commenting on the latest “climate” make of the movie, anthropologist Nathaniel J. Dominy and biologist Ryan Calsbeek opined in the journal Science that “What began as a pointed anti-nuclear fable has since evolved into a broader allegory for human folly and our reckless disregard for the natural environment.”
“We need to engage with the reality of climate change in order to deal with it,” said Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist who lectures at the University of Bath in southwest England on the topic of climate trauma as a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance. “The monster gives us a metaphor, a narrative through which we can do that.”
And now, in relatively short order, having never really confronted, let alone resolved, this psychological dragon, we have somehow effectively created a global traumasphere. And it's leading us right back into the womb of our own creation, the very amniotic waters we’ve been mindlessly poisoning during the 75-year Great Acceleration.
It’s time we confront and slay that dragon.
* * *
The world’s foremost expert on the marine world, Sylvia Earle - now in her 80s - devotes whatever time she has left on Earth to traveling the world over, informing politicians at every stop that yes, it’s true - the oceans are dying. She’s like a sweet old planetary canary in the deepest, darkest coal mine of politics. And, of course, she reminds them as well that without living, vital oceans, we can kiss our sorry bipedal asses goodbye. Unlike the plankton it is displacing, plastic microfiber does not produce oxygen!
I know how distressing all this can be.
Really, I do. I know full well how easy it is to tune it out now, as most of us are still adept at doing - even while bringing children into this dying world. We can’t stop having babies, either. What we really need is more adults, not fewer babies.
Because if we refuse to recognize, accept, and understand how the world is shaped by our own inherited traumas — traumas that we are all acting out with our relations to each other and to the world every single day this crisis continues — we will never have another opportunity to come into balance with any semblance of the beauty and wonder of the natural world that gave birth to us.
The world that has sustained us for over 11 millennia with a stable climate.
The natural world that nurtures us still, in spite of all we've done to her. The natural world that is doing everything she can to call us home to our true nature.
We no longer have any choice in this matter. That is the whole point of attaching the “existential” adjective to “crisis.” Our lives and all lives depend on our own emotional intelligence and maturity - NOT on our so-called leaders. They represent the worst in us, not our best! Don't Look UP! (not to them, at least).
“If you bring forth what is within you,
what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Gnostic Gospels (ca. 200 CE)
The food chain is breaking down, on land and at sea. There is mass human and animal mortality, and mass migrations are underway. The ice caps are melting. The forests are disappearing in megafires. We are experiencing a pandemic that seems to be mutating as fast as we can develop vaccines for it, and we’ve just begun to unleash viruses and bacteria from the melting permafrost that have not seen the light of day for thousands of years.
Fukushima has yet to be safely contained!
Is this not an unprecedented scale of trauma?
So why are we treating it like weather? Or a scientific problem?? Why do we pretend that the only people traumatized by all this are those who experience extreme weather events?
It is precisely because of the accumulation of this kind of unacknowledged, unresolved trauma that we ended up watching a white terrorist and misogynist like Donald Trump, an obese embodiment and (ahem) hair trigger for all our unresolved traumas, ascend to the height of political power. Trump is not just some random shit-show, he represents our national shadow, our cultural id on steroids and Adderall, and the nightmare he is visiting upon us emerged from the depths of our own collective psyche.
FOR A REASON! It’s meant to wake us up, in the same way any nightmare startles us awake and forces us to face our worst fears.
Shaped by our unresolved trauma, the world is dying. As the recently departed Thich Nhat Hanh asked of us, can we hear the cries of the world?
Are we ready to grow up? Or do we instead chronically tune them out, left deaf, dumb and benumbed by our own unresolved traumas?
Stated another way, are you an Earth Protector, or a World Destroyer?
This is the question posed to each and every human being by the existential threat we in the dominant culture have facilitated through our collective neglect.
This is Climate Trauma.
When I say the world in the Anthropocene is shaped by Western man’s trauma (and for once, I mean “man” and not humanity’s, since 99% of the trauma is our doing, and women have suffered as much as anyone), we have to remember that the Industrial Age, which replaced the Agrarian Age and led precipitously to Industrial Warfare, Industrial Agriculture, the petrochemical industry, industrial fishing, factory farms and a dying planet, began maybe 7 generations ago. The trauma we have visited on the Earth in that time, the trauma we continue to carry and act out, is an exponentially accelerating cumulative force that is carried on the wings of our unresolved generational trauma - especially during the Great Acceleration that was spawned by WWII, with the wholly unnatural, alchemical accelerant of nuclear radiation and polymer soup, all reinforced by exponential population growth.
But that historical perspective certainly doesn’t make generational trauma seem any more remote, does it! It is right here, right now, all backed up and heart-attack serious. We carry it in our bones, in our bodies, and in our hearts, just as surely as we inherently possess human nature as part of our makeup. Except one is natural, and the other is not.
Collective trauma is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing when we are brave enough to face it, before it destroys us, and if we are wise enough to resolve it. It only becomes a curse the more we choose to ignore it. Then it is like Pandora’s open box, spewing forth a wide pantheon of imaginary horribles - like Fukushima spewing heavy water and cesium into the ocean currents.
As a famous Supreme Court Justice once said in an entirely different context:
Seven Generations of idiots is enough!
We the living perpetuate generational trauma - in our minds. It finds expression in our habits. We encode it in our culture. It clouds all our relationships, including at its root our own spiritual relationship to our true selves and to Mother Earth, our life source. It pollutes our relationship to our own human nature and, thus empowered, to the natural world of which human nature is intimately an integral part.
The underlying and ultimate "climate feedback loop" is unnatural thinking and inhumane behavior that dis-associates us from our own human nature, keeping us trapped in an unnatural, abusive relationship with the natural world, the symptoms of which which we try to remedy with unnatural thinking and inhumane behavior.
So it has become imperative now, faced with all these increasingly existential threats, that we as individuals, in community, as a culture, and as a species acknowledge, appreciate, and grow to understand generational trauma - how it is encoded in and perpetuated by cultural trauma, and how it triggers us and others in the most polarizing ways.
Otherwise, there is no hope for us in closing this trauma-feedback loop and remedying biospheric trauma.
The cumulative force of all this trauma is coming to a head right now, especially with these newer generations. And guess what?
They’re mad as hell, and refusing to take it anymore!
Good on them! It’s time we learned from our Indigenous elders to think seven generations ahead. That’s what it means to be an adult in today’s world.
I feel climate trauma - it is personal to me, too. And I grieve these accumulating losses, and have anticipatory grief for the losses still to come. In fact, it is only because I grieve deeply that I am able to feel and experience the depth of our climate trauma. It has pounced and bored its way into me. It is a vision I see with more than my eye. It looks like it could last forever.
I wish it would stop...
“A child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)…
We find ourselves at this unique inflection point in human history.
While climate trauma is an affliction of the powerless, addressing it at the levels of cultural and individual trauma is truly empowering.
And so we rise up against our oppressors. We rise.
We are each cells in Gaia’s auto-immune defense system. We are being activated now in order to defend Her right to life. I mean this literally, not figuratively. Eventually this new Gaian Awareness will fill us with appreciation at the deepest lever for Her Sovereign Nature.
This is Her time.
My Personal Traumography
I consider myself an expert on generational trauma. I mean that quite personally, not just from some dry academic perspective. You see, I was born at the very height of a generation named after what our War Department actually called the "cosmic bomb.” The baby boom generation. I am a boomer.
Yeah, about that. How many other generations have been named after a trauma, like a bomb exploding? You think it a coincidence that this happened to be the generation after we dropped two nuclear bombs? Or are you one of the millions who have avoided ever even thinking about this? Atomic Age. Nuclear families. Boomers. American Dream.
The world I was born into…
In order to represent yourself as an exemplar of the baby boom generation, it is necessary, I think, that your father have been traumatized in some special way by the Great War, whose rubble all us babies burst forth from. And, of course, he never got any professional help for his psychological problems, right?
That’s my generation. This allowed for the trauma to be passed on in its purest, most unadulterated form: the generational trauma expressed in the family dynamics of a dysfunctional home. Which describes every American family of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, really. The exceptions were few enough to prove the rule.
My pop was stationed 2 years in the seething, sweltering malarial jungles of the Philippines, fighting what was then called “jungle warfare,” only later to rebranded “guerilla warfare” in the hell realm of Viet Nam. And it was just this kind of claustrophobic, suffocating primal warfare that, after Nam, finally prompted the American Psychiatric Association (in 1980 DSM) to recognize a mental illness called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My dad was long gone by then. In prior wars, PTSD was simply labelled “battle fatigue” “shell shock” or “casualty of war.” Extreme cases, debilitating cases, were simply labeled defective men. Because war was natural, you know, and men were meant to fight them. My father’s generation, boys of the Great Depression who’d gone off to redeem the world in their late teens and returned en masse in their early twenties, treated their PTSD and other unresolved traumas with nothing more than hard liquor and chain smoking.
At the conclusion of his two-year guerrilla war stint, the war now having been won decisively, rather than returning home to join the celebrations in the streets, my father was sent to Nagasaki, as part of an effort to convince Japanese that Americans were not really Godzilla. Battle weary from the jungle, they were tasked with building bridges in the Auschwitz-like moonscape left behind by “fat boy,” the first fusion bomb dropped on a civilian population center. Hiroshima had been the recipient of the first fission bomb. Fat boy had detonated above Nagasaki only 2 weeks before my father arrived.
As you might imagine, he and his buds, who called themselves “Atomic Boys,” were not happy! This was their reward for winning a war?!
After he died 30 years later from glioblastoma at the stem of his brain, a not-uncommon end for many of those Atomic Boys, his mother showed me a letter he’d written on the short voyage to Japan, railing against his government for sending boys from the Philippines, as a cost-cutting measure, when there were plenty of fresh recruits awaiting deployment in the U.S. who’d yet to see any action at all.
That experience did have the effect, however, of softening his heart towards the Japanese he’d been jungle fighting for two years. His brownie photo album alternates at this point between hellish “Dante’s Inferno” landscapes and the heartbroken, still smiling faces of young Japanese children puzzled perhaps by the presence of their vanquishers amidst the scattered graveyard rubble of their ancestors.
I wish I knew what was going through his mind taking those photos, but like many of the Greatest Generation, he could never bring himself to talk about his wartime experiences. The photos themselves were his lasting testament.
Since trauma appears to be transmitted from one generation to the next physically, by the stunting of RNA in the father’s sperm cells, I literally carry the trauma of fat-boy’s Nagasaki extermination encoded in the genetic structure of my cells. And in addition to being the witnesses to his intense fits of rage growing up, all the more intense for being physically restrained by his moral compass, our nuclear family (my father had moved us away from our relatives in New England when I was in my mother’s womb) was then re-traumatized by the effects of fat boy’s dis-integrating fallout thirty years later. His genius-level mind was taken from him slowly, then warped into a personality none of us could recognize, finally leaving him at the end deliriously reliving his battlefield traumas in the bed of a nursing home, for days on end. He passed from his desiccated ashen grey body, reminiscent of those sidewalk ghosts from the nuclear flash, in the middle of the night, with none of us around. A casualty of war as sure as those he was forced to leave behind in the swampy jungle battlefields of his mind.
In that brief span of a few decades between Nagasaki and glioblastoma multiforme, our government continued unleashing ever-more-powerful atomic bombs on land, in the ocean, and underground - some two thousand nuclear bombs! - until everyone finally shared some cigars and agreed to stop this Freudian insanity in the 1980s. And all the while, I and my brothers and mother, along with so many of the children and wives of that Greatest Generation, had to deal with domestic explosions of unresolved battlefield rage and nuclear fury that would regularly erupt from our undiagnosed fathers’ unconscious depths, fuses lit more often than we intended by the most trivial of cultural triggers (e.g., report cards, unattended chores, etc.).
That, and the copious amounts of distilled spirits with which they attempted to drown their suppressed sorrows over having witnessed and experienced hell on Earth. It’s right there in all the family album pictures from those years - scattered liquor bottles, fancy glasses and cathartic smiles in every frame, it seemed. What we didn’t really appreciate so much at the time was that all the pressure we felt to be perfectly adjusted all-American families had mostly to do with our father’s needing to justify all those nights spent in foxholes, behind barricades, and in swampy jungles. We were their only reward, you might say, and it could never really measure up to the compensation they were ultimately owed for what seems like unfathomable sacrifices. There were no “tours” of duty in WWII, remember. They were just expected to endure until the war was won.
Not long after the war, back home in New Hampshire, my grandpa came upon his son, my father-to-be, sitting in a wooden chair in the middle of a room, alone and staring silently into space. Finding him unresponsive, Grandpa made the mistake of trying to shake him to his senses, like in the movies I guess, and was promptly pile-driven through a wall. They told them that my dad was suffering from “recurrent malaria” due to his time in the Philippines. Ooo-kay then…
Like so many of his peers, Dad never spoke of his battlefield experiences. Sometimes, sitting in his lap watching Vic Morrow in the weekly show “Combat” together, I’d ask him about some aspect of his own experience. He’d avert his eyes, take a long pull off his ever-present Benson & Hedges cigarette, and answer dismissively with that suddenly absent look in his eyes, alerting me subconsciously not to press him for details.
I can attest that epigenetic trauma is passed on through dreams as well as repressed emotions. From my earliest memories, around the same time I would’ve been still sitting there in dad's lap watching Combat, I was haunted by recurring nightmares of soldiers fresh off bloody battlefields, in such detail and with such stares that I still don’t think I could’ve conjured them up in my own imagination without the genetic expressions of those deformed RNA molecules imprinting on my still developing mind. Television in those days was not nearly as graphic as my dreams. My gory nightmare soldiers left nothing to the imagination, and conveyed the battle field scenes empathically. I would wake up screaming at “the horror, the horror…” sitting bolt up in my bed — only to see the two surviving soldiers still staring at me through the window!
This pattern repeated itself for what seemed like years to me, though time and memory are strange bedfellows, until one time I awoke, bolt upright looking eyes wide open out the window of horrors — and one of the soldiers was absent. Instead of screaming, I was overcome with sympathy for the survivor’s sudden loss. He looked at me with pleading eyes, the eyes of grief rather than shell-shock. I never had that nightmare again.
So I think I can grok where the children of the Jewish survivors of the Shoa were coming from when researchers were so surprised to find their trauma symptoms more severe than the parents from whom they’d inherited this still-unresolved horror. Not that my own symptoms were worse than my father’s -- I'm referencing instead the mysterious means of transmission from one generation to the next. The stunted RNA is the least of it.
I also can recognize how Jewish and European cultures have done a much better job of processing their trauma than mine has -- probably because they had little choice, standing amidst the rubble and pock-marked landscape. For us here in the U.S., the war happened far away, and was then sanitized for us American children by our hero movies. It didn’t really represent an existential threat to us, and we weren’t forced to build a new world from the ashes of the old.
It was easy back then for the War Department to enforce an embargo on media from Japan after the bombs were dropped, so that we could celebrate our victory over fascism and evil without having to confront our own complicity in the genocidal behaviors of that war. Most Americans did not see the Japanese as human, anyway, and would’ve been just fine with our dropping atomic bombs on every one of their populations centers. It is that kind of warped cultural expression and suppression of trauma that encodes and perpetuates generational trauma, especially perpetrator trauma, camouflaging it with prosaic myths of American superiority acted out by John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, Kirk Douglass and many others. Just as we did with the slavery and genocide rooted in our own blood-soaked soil, creating the cowboy myth to explain away and romanticize the severe strain of trauma from the Civil War that infected the Indian Wars to follow.
And then, of course, there was the day the music died, so to speak. The shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, hero of PT 109, emblematic of everything my culture believed to be great about America after the war, the youthful and dashing icon who was taking us to the moon, inspiring us to undreamed of greatness as a new kind of people. There was so much promise in the air at the beginning of the 1960s, truly heady times.
Until there wasn’t. Until a bullet to the brain cancelled Camelot. Just like Trinity, this was a seminal collective trauma I don’t believe we’ve ever really recovered from. The graphic scene of Kennedy’s killing appears as the very image of a deep, horrific wound in our collective psyche. Similar in spirit to a young girl’s first sexual experience of being raped by someone she trusts, nothing would be the same for our nation after that grievous wounding.
I was six years old on November 22, 1963, which means I was in Miss Strapmeyer’s 1st Grade classroom. I have no memory of that day whatsoever, though I know we must’ve been sent home at some point.
What I do remember is the feeling of an entire nation in stunned mourning for the week or so that followed. I was raised in a Catholic parish just outside Chicago, and we still functioned as close-knit communities in those days, centered around our churches. Of course, Kennedy was one of us, the first Catholic President, and so that sense of community grief stretched all the way into the television. I also remember vividly, for some reason, the moment Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. My brothers and I were sitting with our mom, huddled around the tv, and she was knitting a pair of red slippers for me.
And I remember the funeral, the graveside eternal flame at the end of a long horse-drawn procession, and Jon boy standing there at his father’s open grave as the casket was being lowered. He was just a little younger than me, so of course I identified with him, trying to imagine what it was like for him on that strangest of days with everyone dressed in black and a whole nation watching.
That feeling of grievous loss, of unfulfilled promise and unrealized dreams, really served to shape my generation more than any other feeling. All the foolish optimism of the 1950s was gone in an afternoon, and we and our parents stopped unquestioningly trusting our government. To this day, I think we all knew intuitively that he’d been taken from us purposefully by shadowy forces who had other ideas.
They fed us an official story that nobody believed. The magical bullet fired from the distant tower. Even Walter Cronkite - Uncle Walter for crying out loud! — didn’t buy it. He devoted an entire special to debunking the Warren Commission’s nonsense, which of course included the Magruder clip of shots clearly coming from the grassy knoll. And then we just went on with our lives, with the sad undertaker LBJ for President. What a bummer - but at least the British Invasion and Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali saved us from that darkness.
Much like the mysterious collapse of the 3rd tower on 9/11, sometimes the terrible truth is right there before our disbelieving eyes. When national traumas like these are not resolved in truthful ways, conspiracy theories compete with truth. And if we have enough of these unresolved national traumas, eventually conspiracy theories become more comforting than truth, and thus more popular. We saw what this kind of pattern leads to on Jan. 6, 2021 - conspiracy theorists literally going to war with Truth.
At the time of Kennedy’s assassination, of course, I was too young to make a lot of sense of all this. But my father was always interested in the national discourse, and easily saw through the charade. Then came Nam, then came MLK, then came Bobby, then came Nixon, Watergate — the walls came tumbling down. By then, of course, I was old enough to have become a mostly anti-society high school 'freak' who had trouble with authority, exploring the joyous decadence of drugs and music in the immediate wake of the ‘60s, not giving a flying fig about anything else.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-fifties that I realized just how deep that vein of trauma still runs. I was watching one of those wonderful documentary series about the sixties, and when it came to Kennedy’s assassination I couldn’t help but release tears that cascaded into sobs. I sobbed deeply and at surprising length, suddenly seeing how so much of the rage and anger I’d directed against my government, pretty much my whole adult life - including a successful career suing land agencies to protect wildlife and wild places - was still rooted in that original trauma. For me, this didn’t come until after decades of exploring my mind through meditation and the formal study of psychology from many different traditions. So I can assure you that my generation, we boomers, still carry that world-war-trauma in us.
On top of the slavery trauma ingrained in our social systems (systemic racism). On top of the genocidal trauma of cowboys and Indians, now taken out on bison, wolves and other wildlife in the name of sacred cows, or acted out by loggers against hippies and eco-defenders. All still suppressed, actively expressed, and still unresolved. No wonder so many of us are emotional cripples! And none more-so, by the way, than rancher’s kids in the West, conditioned by their cowboy culture to kill anything they can’t make a buck off, even prairie dogs, with no feeling about taking life. Cut off from the next down. Sad.
And that is the critical significance of social movements like MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, Animal Rights, and the Landback/Indigenous Rising Movement — all moving us towards collective mental health and ultimate survival. That’s what makes us old boomers show up time and again for social justice demonstrations and climate marches and Extinction Rebellion, even in our retirement and even after a lifetime of failed activism. We still carry a heavy burden, and one of the things about trauma is that it wants to be resolved. Re-solved, because we have not done a good enough job ourselves of solving these cascading crises. Many of us have tried. Very few of us have succeeded, and not always for the right reasons. As generations go, we boomers are kind of a hot mess.
Sorry about that!
The other movement that is critical, and underlying all the others, is the movement back into our bodies. I and many others in my generation can attest to how disembodied our culture has become. We’re losing the simple ability to walk on Earth, to inhabit Nature when the opportunity presents itself. And it is mostly, or perhaps just more profoundly, men who become disembodied in our culture, who cannot even walk from one place to another without thinking of where they were and where they are going to the exclusion of where they are. And this is a huge enabler of trauma, because it is reflexively protective of our wounds. Once we become re-embodied, we feel not only the trauma stored in our bodies, but all the trauma in the systems we are connected to as well. In this day and age, however, that is what it means to be grown up.
Carl Jung believed that the dead are more alive than the living, and that they’re persistently seeking redemption through us, speaking to us in our most private thoughts.
The Greatest Generation is dying out, but we boomers are still here. We’ve got a leg up on this whole ‘seeking redemption’ thing. I come from the environmental movement, and thus speak authoritatively when I say that ours is a failed generation. But like I say, we’re still here, and many if not most of us are still trying. Failure has never stopped me. I’ve built a whole career on it!
And we’re experts on trauma. Just ask us! We can even understand why the accumulation of unresolved generational trauma has become so unbearable for the newest generation. And so I think I speak for all grown up boomers when I say that we are reaching out across generations to help in any way we can to defuse this traumasphere and re-solve the way we humans relate to one another, to ourselves, and to the natural world. I, for one, know we can do this. I know from a lifetime of experience that it will be really hard, too. And I know that none of our generations can shoulder this burden alone.
The Industrial Age is 7 generations old. Fuck those old greed heads from the 18th Century!
Looking ahead, for the 7th generation out, let’s hope we can succeed in finding redemption by finally overcoming the illusion of separation on all levels in this New Aquarian Age of Interpenetrating Interdependence. This Quantum Age of Awareness that is now dawning.
We have no choice to succeed, really… in all our relations… and for all species.