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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

The Landscape Of Our Past and Present

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

‘One without a myth is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or even yet within contemporary human society.’

Carl Jung

We all have a story to tell, but where does that story start?

We are all familiar with the idea that childhood plays a part in the adults we become, but what if we take our stories back even further to the experience of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors.

Could the experience of slavery, colonialism, poor laws, partition, war, and land clearance ripple through time to have an impact on the intersections of our lives, and how we function today?

It is an intriguing idea, and whilst it may be possible to imagine the metaphorical dimensions of this, what about hard evidence? Does the science back up the hypothesis that we hold the trauma of our past in our DNA?

There’s a good reason have curiosity about this.

When people come to therapy, they often recount how their feelings are not always connected with memory. The outcome can be a sense of disconnection with life, depression, anxiety, and a reliance on self-limiting coping strategies. These clues require us to turn detective to uncover a wider story which may have an ‘epigenetic’ perspective.

What epigenetic means is that each of us holds the trauma and deprivations of past generations at a cellular level.

Whilst trauma does not ‘alter’ DNA, it does cause certain genes to effectively switch on and off, depending on stressors. Research has shown that babies born to people who have experienced epigenetic trauma have raised levels or cortisol. In conjunction with certain environments and stressors, this can lead to an inability to self-regulate, and to create connection. The fight or flight response is always ‘on’, which impacts how we function, how we are in relationships.

Some interesting facts here: In Derry, Ireland, 18.5 % of the population has a diagnosed mental health disorder. The city has one of the highest levels of suicide in the UK, one of the lowest levels of breast-feeding. Alcohol and drug misuse are higher than elsewhere in Europe.

There has been a tradition of silence and shame around this trauma. Try and find out more about family history in Ireland, and there are big gaps. Researchers propose that the loss of ancestral land, famine, partition, and the scattering of Irish people across the world has led to distinct manifestations of intergenerational trauma. This has become known as The Vast Silence.

I have a personal interest in this. My grandfather was one of the 10 million Irish people who emigrated from Ireland for survival. I know very little about him. He was brought over to Liverpool as a child, without his parents. He worked at the Ford factory in Manchester as an engineer and died aged 36 when my mother was one-year-old. In our family, this was never talked about, but I am now aware that the emotional disconnection, shame and physical dislocation played a part in my attachment experience.

Imagine such an outcome on millions of individuals, communities or even nations.

How do we heal this? In the West over the past 70 years, there has been a focus on the use of pharma. No more so than in the States, which of course has its long history of slavery, oppression and mass migration. The over-medicalisation of mental health continues there, contributing to the maintenance of systems that are clearly not working, stigmatising marginalised, traumatised people.

The inheritance of deep unspoken wounds can leave us feeling angry and disembodied. It can keep us in a place of victimhood. In this place, we may depend on systems and structures that do not serve us well, that do not encourage us to be curious. Stuck in this place of shame and denial, there is no healing just the side effects of unheard rage.

Of course, we cannot change the past. However, it may help to remember that we have neuro-plasticity; our wounds do not need to be our forever narrative.

The Irish writer, Kerri ni Dochartaigh, proposes that the healing of epigenetic trauma takes place through 'song rather than the sword'. This is known in Ireland as the path of reclamation.

Communities have come together, to explore and reconnect with pre- Roman Catholic culture: language, lore and the landscape. The threads of the past are rewoven; stories are retold and remembered. Within this there is a permission to feel the pain that has been repressed and violently expressed for so long.

When we use our wounds in the service of ourselves and others, healing happens.

With thanks to Confer:

Further reading:

Kerri ni Dochartaigh - Thin Places

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