June 12, 2023
8 min

A Lost History of Trauma

Uncovering our past to unlock our future

I recently took a trip to Ireland with my wife, her parents, and their friends. Eleven native Russians and my American Irish self. Ten days of joyful traversing of city and countryside on a private coach. Delightful, exhausting, and jam-packed with exploration.

As we wove through lush green matrices of stunning mountains, fields, stone walls, and ancient structures, the landscape seemed to whisper to us….

What stories were eager to make their way beyond the confines of the roots and rocks?

photo by Anna Vernikov

What secrets lie in the soil?

photo by Anna Vernikov

How might those stories liberate us to lead fuller lives?

Currently, Brexit is looming. Nationalists, Socialists and all manner of “ists” are organizing in larger numbers. Alliances are shifting. The virtual manifest destiny of the internet is creating new unseen borders between world Superpowers. Tensions between Russia, China, and the U.S. are reaching new (old) heights. It feels more important than ever to get a grip on local and global histories to stay sane in this climate. In this crisis of global sustainability, I think personal sustainability is the best place to start. So let’s get back to Ireland.

The Russians and the Irish share a lot of commonalities. Humor in the face of brutal adversity. True grit. A propensity for hard work and harder play, and no shortage of witty, good-natured shit-slinging. The painstaking curiosity of the Russians about every aspect of Irish life made me realize how little I knew about my ancestral past.

A pang of disappointment crept its way into my bones as I reflected on my inherent culture. The music, dance, literature, poetry, cadences. The superstitions, Magick and mystic Druidic wisdom. The invasions. The cultural sabotage. The subversion…all those genuine sources of the infamous “fighting Irish” spirit! All part of my genetic makeup. All playing an invisible role in guiding my decisions, eliciting my emotions.

photo by Anna Vernikov

Whereas my emergent culture as an American is easy to define, my deeper inherent roots are drifting aloft — fading away in a distant resonance. Remnants only found in the intangible fibers of my DNA and conditioned programming.

A St. Patty’s Day pub crawl and gorging on corned beef is how most of us American-Irish celebrate our heritage. I’m lucky to have an extended family nearby that I can spend the holiday with. But there is no tangible connection to the inherited stories of our culture.

What I know about my family tree is little. My great-great-grandparents emigrated some time during the Potato Famine in the mid-1800s. A time when half of the entire Irish population fled or perished by blight and disease. There was plenty of other food produced in Ireland at the time. Yet, the British diverted those resources away to their citizens abroad. They had appropriated land farmed and cared for by Irish farmers for generations. Feeding their own while occupying the starving Irish with needless work was the priority. Miles and miles of stone walls to nowhere were built for pennies by starving workers. To this day, Ireland’s population has not wholly recovered from this period. A cruel story for another time.

My Great Grand Uncle, Archbishop James Hayes

It seems that my family kept close to New York upon arrival to the States. The only distant relatives whose lives I know something about were more public. The first Archbishop of the Philippines at the dawn of WW2, and two jazz musicians in the Paul Whiteman Band. A large dose of spiritual persuasion, and a call to music. It makes a lot of sense, to anyone that knows the Hayes family!

Thankfully our Irish tour-guide-and-driver helped fill in the gaps of my ignorance. A retired police officer with a thirty-year tenure, he spoke at length about the history and sociocultural standings of the island. This was filtered through a lens of first-person experience of tragedies that forcibly divided the country. While serving in Belfast and Dublin, he had seen most of his original academy unit killed by car bombs during the Troubles.

Much to his dismay, since the Brexit vote, this timeless cauldron is bubbling yet again. A rising investigative journalist was recently killed while covering a New IRA riot. She was a Forbes’ 30 under 30, a writer who dug into unusual territory. She also wrote about the abuse she experienced having grown up gay. The NIRA blamed Britain’s Crown Forces for the death, but the deeper truth is always more nebulous. Britain’s manifold influence on both jurisdictions of Ireland merits its own article.

Meanwhile in Russia, another young investigative journalist was badly beaten while in custody. The subsequent protests have been shaking Moscow. In China, one million people marched to protest a new extradition bill. Media crackdowns are increasing across jurisdictions worldwide. Yet, the power that the youth in these countries hold is not likely to be constrained. Especially with a cultivated sense of solidarity with one another. A strong sense of shared roots. Again I find myself reflecting on how this connects to personal sustainability.

As I listened to our driver weave tales of the indigenous Irish, I was overcome to hear vivid details of systematic annihilation. Hundreds of years of cunning, tactical removals; of land, of rights, of beliefs, of language. Bringing up parallels all too familiar to people who have managed to sustain their traditions in the face of crushing modernity.

These parallels don’t end with the erasure of traditions, identity, and language — their ramifications go far beyond. Did you know only 10% of the Irish population still speak Irish? This brought me to a broader mode of thought experiment:

How could this sort of genealogical foray into our personal origins promote the positive development of the self?

Change starts within, right? As Jordan Peterson said,

“The well-developed individual is the antidote to tyranny.”

To be sensitive of the times we live in — this is not an argument that “we’re all Indigenous”. There is a distinction. There are cultures that have been broken down, re-educated, and indoctrinated into “civil society” over time. Then there are the cultures who have resisted the desecration of their traditions, heritage, and wisdom. By textbook definition, we are all indigenous. Yet as arbiters of Planet Earth, only a select few remain who can credibly champion that title.

I would rather explore this topic from the perspective of a fourth-generation Irish American. Irish heritage in the US is seven times larger than the whole population of Ireland — there’s a whole lot of us, and we’ve got a murky history! Opening those floodgates could unleash a tsunami of healing, with a bit of imagination.

The Irish first came to America unwillingly — shipped as indentured servants alongside African slaves. The Irish were afforded a quicker rise up the socioeconomic rungs of society due to their inherent whiteness. Amnesia of origin and shared experience quickly ensued. It was akin to not being able to look yourself in the mirror. Perhaps the shame of succumbing to the game of status violently enforced by a ruling class. Many generations of blacks had to be vigilant when passing through Irish neighborhoods. The stigma of the racist Irish cop persists as a stereotype to this day.

While the Great Famine was tearing through Ireland, the Choctaw tribe assembled a meeting to discuss aid for their “white brethren of Ireland”. This was soon after being forced from their ancestral lands in Mississippi via the Indian Removal Act. For anyone who remembers reading about the horrors of the Trail of Tears — that was it. And mind you, President Andrew Jackson was of Irish descent. He was anxious to make a model out of the Native removals. Still, the Choctaw collected and donated a sizable sum of money to provide relief for the suffering Irish. The story of Choctaw Nation’s generosity lives on in Ireland to this day. As evidenced in County Cork by this piece of art by Alex Pentek, called “Kindred Spirits”.

source: https://www.choctawnation.com/news-events/press-media/choctaw-irish-bond-lives

Today, it feels more important than ever to seek out the inherited traumas that define our actions, and develop ways to reconcile them. What happens when we shift the focus from those divisions to the shared roots and the solidarity that comes from re-framing history? Perhaps a country that stands together on behalf of humanity. A race-less coalition for equality of opportunity. An incentive structure that honors sustainability, stewardship and cooperative competition rather than subjugation and predatory zero-sum competition.

If you’ve ever seen a therapist, entered rehab, drank Ayahuasca, or rocked the Hoffman Process, you likely found some deep conditioning rooted in childhood experiences. We often spend a lifetime trying to unravel the cause-effect of our neuroses. Eliminating negative thought patterns and bad feedback loops long established and long forgotten.

So what about the multigenerational trends of reinforced feedback? The lost history of ourselves as once-indigenous cultures? The traumas we face on a micro level and the existential macro rifts that divide entire nations are derived from the same protocols. Those deep-rooted, conditioned norms of our childhoods exist in the childhoods of the nations we inhabit and the cultures we call our own.

Centuries of inherited mistreatment are now lashing out in emergent polarized social battlefields. From postmodernity vs. modernism to conservatism vs. liberalism, equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome, gender constructs to imposed racial division. To move forward, it strikes me that we must figure out how to gain collective sovereignty of our heads and our hearts first in order to achieve grounded unity and coherence. Looking at the common denominator that unifies us — our shared history on Planet Earth.

Learning about our genealogical histories is the first step to connect to this truth in a meta-personalized way. Stripping away dogma and the pride of exceptional experience will only quicken the process. This world and our existence within it is a dance. A symphony. And we all have our own requisite choreography and music to perform. Riding on that bus, feeling the cadences of Irish and Russian colloquy clash together, it struck me…

Understanding our real past may hold the secret to unlocking our future, after all.