I've been interested in trauma since I first heard about it a few years ago. Frankly, the more I understand about trauma—especially since I just started looking into Resmaa Menakem's white-body supremacy trauma—I wonder if it isn't the most human of experiences and our primary emotion if you will, especially when we look at trauma from an epigenetic standpoint.
Before I jump into it, for those less familiar with trauma and the science, there's a growing body of research that asserts that trauma gets stored in the body. Furthermore, if this trauma is not released from the body and resolved, it is passed on epigenetically to the trauma survivor's offspring. It's also important to note that trauma is our body's adaptive and beneficial response to overwhelming or traumatic events that our brains cannot rationally process in the moment.
Let's dive right into a controversial point of view. What if the original sin that the Bible talks about largely references generational trauma passed down from parent to child? In his book "My Grandmother's Hands," Resmaa Menakem notes that we can trace trauma in white people in America back to the ubiquitous violence of the middle ages that white people committed against one another. What if we extrapolate a little further and take the Hebrew Bible—its many depictions of battle and slavery, two significant contributors to trauma—and assert that many of the Israelites, if not all, carried in their bodies some amount of trauma?
For a minute, let's assume that the author or authors of Genesis, who wrote the creation narratives, did not record first-hand reports. Let's also assume that we know more about health and medicine than the early Israelites, which feels pretty safe. Finally, I find it necessary to note that written language took some time to develop as humans. Even if you're still holding some reservations about the first assumption, we have to leave room for the fact that any initial report was passed down a few generations orally.
Okay, so with those assumptions in mind, back to trauma and original sin. It stands to reason that any story passed down from one generation to another takes on a life of its own. Given that the account was probably not first penned until sometime in the 900s BCE and then compiled into its more recognizable state some 300-400 years later, this story would have taken on quite a life. From what we know about literary analysis, the account—no matter how inspired by God—bears the imprints of a people wearing the physical and emotional scars of centuries of slavery, decades of wandering in the desert, years of wars and battles, and then captivity. To say that trauma ran deep feels like a gross understatement. Is it possible that the original sin they had observed in themselves was generational trauma?
As we think of trauma epigenetically, it's quite reasonable to think of trauma as our first memory. We enter this world with a limp, to borrow some Biblical allegory. Since we are all unique, with different genes, personalities, and a host of other factors, this trauma manifests very differently in our bodies. I find this concept of "first memory" captivating at the moment as I feel it is universal despite its destructive implications. It serves to connect us as humans further; trauma is a universal language.
As I mentioned earlier, trauma is the body's response to overwhelming events or situations. As we better understand PTSD and complex trauma (C-PTSD), we see that no person or culture is immune to experiencing trauma and how necessary a response it is. Our bodies all respond in similar ways regardless of language or country. In this way, we can understand trauma even if we are unaware that trauma is what we are specifically observing—we are communicating on the somatic level beyond the depth of words. Yet, this brings us to a grave problem today.
What do I mean by trauma as our primary emotion? No, trauma isn't an emotion. However, our very young selves learn how to deal emotionally with the presence of trauma in our cells before we are born. As our brain's emotional part or limbic system is forming, we are first learning how to live with trauma. We do not know emotion without the presence of trauma. Thus, emotions such as joy, fear, anger, sadness are all colored by our experience of trauma in the womb.
Despite its pervasiveness, we as a society are woefully trauma-uninformed or trauma illiterate. In a way, it's as if trauma is too visceral and human for us to accept. It appears the truest embrace of our humanity is not so much embracing our limitation as confronting our original trauma.
As we find comfort in nursing our traumatized selves, I find it—speaking specifically about what I observe in myself and the other white Americans I know—driving us further and further apart. You see, the primary responses to trauma are to get away, create distance. I see us doing this societally, and we've been doing this with increasing rapidity since the Enlightenment. Thanks to the internet and social media, we can all be alone together. Perhaps our fierce individualism is merely unresolved trauma.
Perhaps our fierce individualism is merely unresolved trauma.
Are we ready as a society to ask this question? How about individually? I wonder if this isn't the key to bridging so many of the deep ideological and systemic divides in this country? I wonder if healing our original trauma isn't the only way to save ourselves?