ANZAC silence: why we don’t talk about inter-generational trauma

red-poppies-anzac-day

On the 25th of April every year, Australians and New Zealanders gather to remember those lost in the world wars. It is a solemn commemoration. Red poppies adorn lapels, heads are bowed, wreaths are ceremonially placed, trumpets sound and shots are fired. Tribute is paid to those who died and those who survived. Some of these ancestors had no choice; they were conscripted. Duty was compulsory, and it is far easier to tell stories about just wars than to consider the political power-struggles over territory and resources that are always involved. Realities are always more complicated.

Some criticise the glorification of war and the narrative of historic bravery, courage and justice, but what we don’t tend to talk about is that our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers (as well as the women who are hardly ever mentioned) often returned from war traumatised, with PTSD, unable to function emotionally. We don’t talk about how many of them became violent alcoholics and raised generations of boys (and girls) to be tough, rather than to feel.

With no tools for processing difficult emotions and healing from trauma, what else can we expect but a society where violence is normalised? We sweep our vulnerability and emotional scars under the rug. Our shared cultural legacy lurks in the dark, painfully silent. We loved these people who hurt us. They didn’t know any different – any other way. We internalise their trauma and take to our own children with that same painful tension. The trauma is obvious, despite the silence.

Sure, not everyone who went to war came back traumatised, but this is more than just a private issue. Almost everyone countries who fought these wars has is a descendant of someone who was badly affected. These personal wounds are political. Violence is not a private matter, it is a deeply social concern… So why don’t we talk about it? Perhaps it is more respectful, or just easier, to glorify these heroes – just as we omit many speckled realities from funeral eulogies. But when will we get the chance to actually deal with it? When we’re drunk and prone to outbursts? Maybe this is just humanity. Maybe we have always had wars and resulting traumas to deal with, but isn’t it time to start to talk about it?

It is hard to talk about sensitive things. It is easier to create perfect fictions of heroes than see their failings, weakness, vulnerability and the suffering they caused. But maybe if we stop just seeing the dark stuff as personal, we can really start to deal with it – and begin to heal this inter-generational trauma. We are living in a society where everyone has felt the after-shocks of this trauma, and what we do know about violence is that it tends to create vicious cycles – unless we can break out of them. Awareness is the first step.

Avoiding the romance narrative trap

confustulation

Are you wondering why your love life isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be? Why doesn’t your partner bring you roses, arrange surprise weekends away and find all your flaws lovable? Why doesn’t that hot guy or girl you have a crush on accidentally find your phone/wallet/umbrella, track you down then ask you out for a coffee at that cute cafe you’ve been wanting to go to? Why doesn’t the person you’re seeing reply to your texts straight away and always know the exact right thing to say to make you feel good about yourself? Well, my dear, it seems you are stuck in a romance narrative trap.

A what? 

Well, narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives: our values, our pasts, our future ambitions, our identities.  Romance narratives are those that get all gooey and, well, romantic, like when you start to turn that girl/guy you’ve…

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The myth of ‘the individual’


One of the strangest and most prevalent myths of our times is the myth of ‘the individual’. It is so prevalent, in fact, that it isn’t often questioned: we are all individuals… aren’t we? It is an integral part of our development to identify as ‘I’ (according to Western psychologists). Perhaps it is actually just a developmental phase – perhaps we have been culturally stunted here because isolation is particularly good for the economy… but wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.

You probably know the story of The Little Red Hen. You know, that iconic story that libertarian Ayn Rand fans love to tell you in the middle of the night when you’re drunk in their kitchen and have nowhere to escape to – because it proves that human beings are selfish and that poor people are just making bad choices? You know, that chicken who wants to make some bread and asks for help at every stage, but all the other animals in the animal farm are too busy being hedonistic assholes, so when her bread is finally made and they all smell the delicious yeasty scent… and come scrounging… and she’s like: “nah ah”. Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but that never happened. You know why? Chickens are communal animals. They hang out in groups and scratch for bugs together – sure they fight over food, especially when there’s scarcity, but being together is something they do. It’s good for their survival, and it’s company. If chickens were going to bake bread, you can bet your arse they’d do it together.

Human beings are social animals – probably even more so than chickens. We always live in communities. We are never completely individuals. We all depend on each other. It is a bit ridiculous to think of ourselves as independent individuals – when we are all so obviously and completely inter-dependent. It’s a bit like treating a cell in your body as an individual – or taking anything and isolating it from its environment and then trying to understand that thing. It doesn’t work. Individuals can only exist in relation to social and environmental contexts. We cannot be removed.

fish

The funny thing is that people are so embedded in their culture they really can’t see out of it – it’s the water in our goldfish bowl, right? So the way we thing – well it’s just normal – IT’S JUST THE WAY THINGS ARE: OKAY? It’s hard for us to even imagine a society without ‘individuals’… but actually, our mythology is not universal. There are lots and lots of cultures where ‘the individual’ is not really all that important. This is a bit hard to understand from a Western perspective because our philosophical history is based on the idea of ‘the individual’. Our morality starts with ‘me’ and extends out – hopefully – to other people, sometimes it stretches to other animals, but rarely does it encompass the ecosystem (which is probably why the ecosystem makes a better starting point). The anthropologist David Graeber, points out:

Western social theory is founded on certain everyday common sense, one that assumes that the most important thing about people is that they are all unique individuals. Theory therefore also tends to start with individuals and tries to understand how they form relations with one another (society)… With no concept of either “society” or unique individuals, [the Melpa] assumed the relationships came first. (Towards an Anthropology of Value, 2001, page 36, 37)

The thing about assuming that we’re all just selfish is that it ignores that we’re equally not. Sure, it makes a great economic platform if you like to promote the kind of economy that destroy ecosystems and exploits people as much and as quickly as possible, and it fits with the Christian heritage of Western culture that assumes we’re all sinners, but it ignores the blindingly obvious communal aspects of us – as a species. Basically, if someone was like: ‘dude, when you’ve got a minute, can you help me grind this flour so we can have some sweet gluten-free fairtrade bread in five hours’ and you had the time and energy, and that person wasn’t a talking chicken, you’d probably be all over that, right? You’re a decent kind of person… and people have been making bread communally for thousands of years.

Anyway, there’s another reason The Little Red Hen is a terrible story: it sucks to eat alone. If I went to all that trouble to make some kick-arse bread I would want to share it, and the recipe, and get all the social credit for my awesome baking. Just sayin’

Being powerless is scary: confronting the delusions of the romance narrative trap


Over the last few weeks a good friend and I have been having this recurring conversation about attachment and intimacy. We have both been struggling with attachment issues arising in different situations. She says needs intimacy but doesn’t know how to pick which situations are worth her energy. She will meet someone and think they have a connection, only to find that person ambivalent, or find herself in the reverse situation, withdrawing from a love interest who has become too needy. Sound familiar? Just more of the ins and outs of the romance narrative trap, right?

We have been going over and over various factors in this conversation, and listing our limited options: look for someone who is…, learn to be single better, etc – when it occurred to me that maybe our biggest problem is that we think we actually have more control (or should have) than we really do. “That’s a scary thought,” my friend replied, “How do you navigate romance if you have no control?”

Really, with these ‘matters of the heart’ we don’t really have much control, do we? We can’t control who we like or how they will respond to us – our control is very limited to small gestures and behavior… It’s kind of like steering an inner-tube down a river. You never know who you will bump into or whether you can stay connected for very long… or what debris you will encounter along the way.

“So is the bottom line that you should just accept the lack of control in romance and let yourself be swept down the river?” – That’s up to you, but given the lack of control, is it not a bit futile to gesticulate wildly at the current? “Very futile.” And we do seem to strain ourselves going over and over our very limited options… but lack of control is so hard to accept that we get caught up in the minutiae all the same.

This was starting to look rather bleak: “What that means is even though I’m putting time and energy (and getting caught up) in situations I maybe shouldn’t, there is no point trying to do anything to change the pattern, as I really don’t have any control over stuff.” Well, you only (mostly) have control over how you react to the powerlessness… which is your pattern. It is hard to face sometimes, especially if you’re someone with slightly neurotic over-thinking tendencies, but while some things can be relatively self-determined, a lot of the time in life things just happen to us and all we really get to choose is how we react.

“Being powerless is scary, people never care enough about me for it to feel okay.” For you to feel safe? “Yeah… seems that the only person in the end who fully cares about my well-being is me.” Well.. we are all the centre of our own universes – so that makes sense – for everyone…

“It would mean that if you want to be looked after by another person you’d have to accept that they won’t always care about you.” They may not – and they will definitely die at some point too. “Another truth!” Yup – it’s the dirty truth about attachment – and why Buddhists say it’s the root of all suffering… which it kind of is… but is also pretty integral to life. “Maybe life shouldn’t be totally without suffering.” Well, if it should be, we’re all doing it wrong – these are all things that are we are better off learning to accept – over and over – acceptance is a practice, not a one-off event. it’s like emotional breathing. “Emotional breathing?” It’s a metaphor. “Oh”…

republic of mind

Republic of mind

 

People tend to be chained to particular ways of seeing…

We are meaning-making beings, and while we don’t really 100% know if any of the meaning we’re making is actually REAL, outside of our heads, we continue to make meanings all the same – in much the same way a spider spins her web. We have some ‘free will’ or agency in the meanings we choose to create, outside of those we are taught from others. We can question, observe and weave new meanings from experiences.

Subjective experience

We can look at whether the meanings we are making actually serves us of makes life difficult (PSYCHOLOGY). We can construct interesting patterns of meaning and argue about whether some are better than others (PHILOSOPHY). We can develop ways of testing our meanings with repeatable, measurable observations (SCIENCE).(Yes, I know science is a methodology, so stop treating it like a religion already). We can turn our intuited, felt or thought meanings into art, music, creation, function. We can sell or buy some representations of meaning, others, we may consider priceless.  The bottom line is, we are all continuously creating, co-creating and re-creating meaning. That is basically what human beings do.  If nothing else is gained from an experience, we can use meaning to learn and interpret experience into ways of making sense (THINKING) that may serve us better and perhaps even lead to less suffering and more joy… or we can keep being miserable, if that seems like the easiest, safest option. Either way, people tend to choose the meanings that they think will cause them the lease amount of pain. We are pretty simple that way.

 

Meaninglessness?
There may or may not be a greater ‘meaning of life’ or lesson – but having one may either help or hinder us. It is more practical to have meaning that helps us. ‘Objective’ reality is possible, but we are not it – we are meaning makers. We have some relatively consistent experiences of ‘reality’, day and night for example, but we cannot help but make meaning out of them – it is our condition.

Even to say something is devoid of meaning is a kind of meaning and assumption. The only real truth is not to know…
But we can chose to make meaning that serves us.

 

meaning making 1

 

Does my meaning serve me? (THE ETERNAL QUESTION)
• Does it resonate?
• Does it make me happy, or worried?
• Does it help me do/be well?
• What does it make me create? (relationships, dramas, pictures, love, art, communication, joy, spreadsheets..?)
• What am I afraid of?
• What am I joyful of?
• Can I alter my meaning to make me more joyful and less afraid? (if not… why not?)
• How?

Some potential meanings:
We are the universe’s meaning-making babies – we were created by god/universe/whatever(?) To make meaning (love, art, abandon)

Having purpose is practical – whatever it is (within reason… uh?). Without purpose the chances of being effective are very low.
Some purposes:
 To learn
 To love
 To be safe (the catch 22)
 To make better
 To challenge and question
 To help
 To share
 To be recognised
 To change
 To heal
 To be happy

Goals
It’s hard to achieve any goals if you don’t have any. Achieving makes for happy brain joy❤. Unfortunately, having goals makes us vulnerable. If we want something, and it has meaning for us, and we are attached to that meaning, it can feel really shit if we don’t get there.  On the other hand, it will feel really shit anyway if we’re too scared of getting hurt to even risk having goals. Life’s tricky like that. This is why they invented motivational posters.

REMEMBER
Other people’s meaning is different, not necessarily inferior… bastards. Sometimes other people’s meanings don’t make sense – at all – but that is probably true for everyone. That is why self-examination is quite handy.  There are probably a handful of wobbly underlying-thought’s/meanings that underpin your basic assumptions about life. If you don’t mind excruciating mental discomfort for ultimate rewards, try picking your brain apart, piece by piece, figure out where all the things you think you know come from… Mum/Dad? Science? Religion? Yes, they were all a bit wrong. That is how meaning works. It is always at least a bit wrong, because we are subjective meaning-making creatures. That is just what we do… so when you come across those meanings that seem dreadfully wrong, in comparison to yours, just remember not to be a dick about it, or all the other people will learn is that you’re a dick.

 

Poor People are Dangerous


*WARNING: Generalisations are employed here for effect. I am aware of them. They are not the point.

If you watch the news, in any part of the world, you will see poor people*, usually with dark skin. They will will wear hoodies and low-slung pants. They will appear, mug-shots, wanted by police. They will walk around the court room and stand behind the glass, heads bowed, charged with violent crimes that we cringe to hear the details of. They will gesticulate to the press. They will wear patches that make them look dangerous, they may not even attempt to display middle-class manners. The news doesn’t usually have to tell us: These are poor people. They are dangerous.

Poor people are dangerous because the laws that protect more-privileged people, do not protect them. The laws that give power to more-privileged people, don’t give power to them. In fact, they tend to do the opposite. For this reason, poor people don’t have any good reason not to break those laws.

Poor people are dangerous because they are human beings who ARE All dangerous when cornered with no other options but to be dangerous. And, because everyone else already judges THEM, they have no good reputation to protect*, no security to protect, no bank balance, no job to begin with, nothing to lose*.

Poor people are dangerous, because they’re suffering, because they’re vulnerable and desperate, struggling under the weight of inter-generational trauma and multi-level policy failure, because the experience of living with trauma is of constant psychological pressure, pain and fragmentation. (Interestingly, people who have never experienced this kind of powerlessness, pressure and lack of options, often find it hard to imagine why poor people don’t “just get a job”. These people are sometimes known as “dipshits”.)

Poor people are dangerous because they reflect pieces of us we cannot bear, because it is easier to project everything we don’t like about ourselves and our human nature onto someone else and judge them, than it is to recognise that we are all capable of atrocious things and a combination of circumstance and will have negotiated where we are now, but if the balance of circumstance tips too far, our will might not be enough.

The poorer and more traumatised people are, the more dangerous they become. They lose the luxury of morals. At this point, they can be called “Criminals”. The way society views criminals is as follows: criminals do not deserve to be treated like human beings. They are scary. they must be locked up (to keep us safe) and punished (because that’s what God did in the Old Testament).

Poor people are dangerous because they make “bad choices”, that outsiders assume are just things they shouldn’t do. They gamble, drink and take drugs, the are violent, they abuse children, or so the news tells us. Every one of these bad choices are related to trauma, often intergenerational. Don’t believe me? Look at the RESEARCH.

There is only one way to solve this problem: WE MUST ERADICATE ALL POOR PEOPLE, by stopping them from being poor; by providing healing and developing therapeutic programmes, by funding mental health services, by reducing inequality and supporting community-based organisations and grass-roots solutions, but most of all, by providing many many possibilities and options.

*Yes, these are generalisations. No, I’m not talking about all poor people, so don’t be offended if I’m not talking about you.

growing up feminist

Sometimes my childhood seems like some sort of strange social experiment. I wasn’t allowed to draw stick-figures or colour in colouring books. I most definitely wasn’t allowed Barbie dolls. Care Bears and Jem and the Holograms were strictly forbidden. My mother shuddered at anything pink and frilly. I wasn’t allowed to become a gender-stereotype, even when I wanted to be. I was given Lego and blocks to play with. I was told to be creative – to colour in the whole sky in the pictures I drew, rather than just the thin line at the top.

When I was two or three I told my mum the Smurfs were sexist because there was only one girl. She stopped letting me watch it after that (little did I know that Smurfs are actually asexual, and Smurfette was created by Gargamel in one of his failed evil plans). I stopped telling her shows were sexist after that. At primary school, the word “sexist” didn’t go down very well. The other kids thought I was being naughty when I called them on their bigoted behavior: oooh, you said sex!

sexism

I’m allowed to draw stick-figures now

When I was about five I drew a picture of sexism, as I understood it. On one side of the paper I drew a girl wearing shorts and on the other side a girl wearing a skirt. The day I drew it I was at the University with mum because I was too sick to go to school. Mum was so proud she printed the picture onto an OHT and showed her students in class. I had to explain to the class that sexism was saying that girls couldn’t wear shorts and that they had to wear skirts. I was getting the hang of being a good feminist. I went to a talk about violent toys with my mother and grandmother one night and pointed out to the speaker that the Power-Rangers were sexist, because there were only two girls and their costumes were yellow and pink.

There was one situation where my own understanding of symbolic gender ambiguity got me into trouble, however. When I was about six, there was some event on at school. I was desperate to pee so I went into the office block and wandered down the unfamiliar hall-way looking for the toilet. The only one I could see had a picture of someone wearing pants. Women can wear pants too, I reasoned. This would have been fine if I wasn’t interrupted, half-way through, by kids who were outraged that I was in the men’s toilet. The humiliation was devastating. It’s hard to be a good feminist child when other people don’t grasp your sharp social critique.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realised some people didn’t like the word “feminist”, that it made them think of man-hating or other things they didn’t like, or that it is no-longer needed now that women can vote and do other things they couldn’t do before. The negative stereotypes around feminism are evidence that it is still needed. When I was teaching first year sociology I would ask the tutorial class “who here thinks women should be able to vote?” and when everyone raised their hands I would say “Oh good, so we’re all feminists here.” Sociologists like to mess with people’s conceptions of the world and shake things up a bit. Feminism is in the water, in that we take all the things it has worked to achieve for granted, but there is still so much more work to do. The difficult thing is that gender-discrimination is often covert nowadays. It comes out in rape-culture and the sexual objectification of women (and sometimes men), it is hidden behind those sleazy remarks that make us uncomfortable, it is still evident in horizontal and vertical gender segregation in paid work, it is compounded by poverty and racial discrimination, and it is global, in the two-billion women living below the poverty line. Identifying as a feminist is making a statement that things aren’t just fine and dandy. There is still more work to be done.