From Personal to Global Trauma: The Through-Line

A guest blog by Sarah Peyton

When Kim was a tiny person, maybe three years old, just when our human sense of actually existing-as-a-separate-being-with-a-self starts to emerge, Kim lived in a family where people were frightened, and angry, and sometimes kind, and sometimes scornful. When Kim would start to dance, the family members would make jokes and laugh at Kim and turn away. When Kim learned something new and brought discoveries to share, the people in this family would pay no attention, or say that they already knew this, or point out what was wrong about what Kim was saying. Sometimes, when Kim did things that the family didn’t like, or when people were themselves hurt or angry, they hit or slapped Kim.

Each time Kim experienced these crashes of disappointment, shame, or pain, the child’s nervous system would make small agreements with itself for protection: not to care as much, not to reach out, not to try, not to expect responses, not to feel, not to invest, not to love, or not to be a part of this world.  And each of these agreements would be embedded in Kim’s emotional memory, linked to the action of reaching out and linked to expression, so that Kim became more and more protected by these nervous system agreements. We could say that Kim’s life expression became more limited, but Kim would not even know that this was happening. Meanwhile, Kim’s capacity for prediction and intelligence grew very strong, and Kim learned what to say or do that limited the experience of crashing.

For all of us, the question becomes, just as it is with Kim, where do we get to breathe? We breathe in the least painful places. Even if they are very small. How small are the spaces that our culture allows us to exist in without dismissal or punishment? What are the ways in which the larger systems and social pressures and stresses cause the people who are taking care of us to turn away from us? How does the social location of the people who care for us affect them in ways that shape their response to us? How do we in turn take the multiple levels of social trauma into our own bodies? How do we find the edges of these many layers of limitation? The limitations of expression that are created by not being met or accompanied become invisible to us – walls made of a million small nervous system contracts, so their edges can be difficult to find. And why would we want to know? Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to just stay in the small spaces where breathing is not as painful?

Here are the problems with staying small:

  1. We rarely know who we really are, or what we came here to do.
  2. We don’t easily know what our bodies are telling us or asking us.
  3. We can’t trust our instincts or our intuition if we aren’t able to take full breaths.
  4. We can’t really know other people.
  5. We have little idea what our integrity is asking of us.
  6. When we are in the small spaces, we can’t see or feel what’s happening to our world.
  7. When we can’t see or feel what’s happening to our world, it’s harder to take action to live in integrity.

There is a through-line between the common, everyday experiences of diminishment and lack of resonance (we could call these experiences “everyday trauma” – larger traumas, of course, have even more profound disconnecting effects), and the destruction of our planet. Here is the through-line: others are caught in their own limitations, brought about by the ways they were cared for and by the ways that societal traumas have caused them to cramp into smaller configurations than they were meant to be, painfully correlated with where they are located within society; they meet us with diminishment or oblivion (or abuse); we make nervous system agreements with ourselves to shut down to avoid loneliness and distress; this causes us to stop experiencing and noticing what our bodies are feeling; our brains’ shift out of relationality and into instrumentality; other people and animals become functions rather than infinite beings (we put them into roles and classify them into categories and we don’t really see them); we participate in economic systems that reduce all value to utility (we work to survive in this system); and we become incapable of holding other beings of all species and our planet as wondrous and precious and irreplaceable. The small ways that we diminish one another lead directly to becoming blind, deaf and mute, to othering based on social location, and to our destruction of the planet.

Now that we know why it is important to see the edges of our expression, we return to the necessary question: how do we find these contracts that limit us so that we can dissolve them? This question brings us directly to the body. An essential by-product of the contracts we make with ourselves is that we close the door to the body. Our bodies are the convergence zones of everything that has ever happened to us, is happening to us right now, and what we expect to have happen in the future. Once we re-open the door to the body that we were born with, we can begin to listen to our cells again, and the inexorable repercussions that lead to us turning away from our planet home begin to be reversed.

Reading the words, “we can begin to listen to our cells again,” I remember T.S. Eliot’s line, “I do not think that they will sing to me.” We will pause now for a moment to acknowledge any doubt or fear we may have that it is too late to listen, for ourselves or for our beloved planet, or that we are too small for our listening and existing to have an effect. We will acknowledge helplessness and hopelessness; we will acknowledge the decades we’ve spent closed away from the beauty and excruciating degradation of this world; we will acknowledge that brains take some years to heal once we begin to listen (and that the movement into the relational brain is built, neuron by neuron, by accompaniment and resonance); and we will say, “I can see and feel as much as is possible for me right now, and I can act from this place. I can begin the healing journey that takes me into delight and despair, and I can bear this movement, because I am not alone, and I can move neuron by neuron. No being is closed to me now, not even myself. This direction is the richest one, it is the only one for me.”

Sarah Peyton, author, Your Resonant Self
www.empathybrain.com

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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image Credits:  Top: Photo by Alexander Lam on Unsplash. Second: Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash. Third: Photo by Josie Lopez on Unsplash.

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