For a couple of years I have been studying war trauma, inherited trauma, why people do re-enactment of wars in the U.S. and overseas, and why in the U.S. or overseas we commemorate every year all things WWII or 9/11 or any mass trauma event. One big question keeps emerging, do these things continue the trauma energy and transmit to more people or does it heal?
We know that continued repetition of images, sound bytes, and videos of mass trauma events just hold the trauma in place. Sometimes reactivates it in people. Being aware of how these repetitive things also trigger our core wounds and old family wounds, and may create new wounds and trauma in the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy bodies, I question it even more.
If we begin with re-enactment anywhere in the world, I can say I’m no stranger to seeing living history enacted in the U.S. or seeing European WWII re-enactment. I was in a long relationship with someone who participated. I’ve been to events. My perspective on re-enacting changed many times over the last 10 years as a result. But that nagging question of does it heal and educate, or does it harm in that it perpetuates the mass trauma energy? You can take these questions and ponderings and apply it to any living history anywhere in the world.
The more I study trauma from any war, inherited trauma or multi-generational trauma or transgenerational trauma, whichever term you prefer, along with healing the self and ancestors, I have even more questions. In my research recently, a new term showed up, chosen trauma. And I saw a colored thread make its way between this new term and my re-enactment questions and continuing trauma energy questions.
- How are the traumas our ancestors lived, and died, through, transmitted to their descendants or the collective.
- What stories do we tell that perpetuates the trauma energy?
- How does this affect our memories and what we continue to pass on?
- How does seeing a version of the trauma continue to perpetuate that energy?
- Who does it harm?
I’m reading a book by Vamik D. Volkan called, The Third Reich in the Unconscious. I’m getting a huge education about the study of transmission of trauma from parent to child to grandchild…….and learning a bit about how Germans dealt with (and did not) their WWII trauma. The first chapters of this book also taught me that in 1942, two psychologists were already studying inherited trauma as it passed from London mothers to children during and after the bombings. We tend to think of more recent studies of Holocaust descendants.
Now, chosen trauma basically means a group or country, choose a trauma to identify with and on an unconscious level (except by (some – often politicians) in charge who manipulate things) the citizens are re-enacting the trauma various ways and holding on to the victim identity, hero identity, or victimizer identity. This re-enactment of chosen trauma can be through storytelling, memorialization, event re-enactment, beliefs passed through children, etc. Volkan adds to this definition that the trauma event happened a long time ago and there are possibly no living people who lived through it. WWII is becoming this, but different countries and cultures have even farther removed trauma events that have become part of their unconscious, never questioned identity.
It can also be explained this way, “The term `chosen trauma’ refers to the shared mental representation of a massive trauma that the group’s ancestors suffered at the hand of an enemy. When a large group regresses, its chosen trauma is reactivated in order to support the group’s threatened identity. This reactivation may have dramatic and destructive consequences.“
This chosen trauma becomes a national identity of sorts or a way to cope with trauma. It can be seen in Holocaust survivors or those living in Israel (which Volkan uses as an example in this book. See his book for a more detailed description. You can also see Wounds into Wisdom by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone for examples).
Dutch Chosen Trauma
I see this in the Netherlands, as one example, where WWII is honored, re-enacted, commemorated every single year. Why is this one mass trauma event held onto so tightly? Especially in a time when we see “racism” and certain lives matter popping up all over the world the last year. Is remembering WWII less culturally destructive and embarrassing than addressing colonization and slavery (as one example)?
It begs the question, when a country and culture is so fixated on being “the best” at honoring or holding onto a mass trauma, it is just a re-traumatization event for those who weren’t there, since very few WWII era folks are alive at this point? I have used the words, “the best at” in regard to the Dutch honoring of our service members because of the EU countries I’ve visited, they have been the ones most dedicated. Or maybe it is a question of paying back a debt since we liberated their country. Dutch people have used that term with me often especially when talking about grave adoption. Could it also be a mixture of collective guilt and shame because they were occupied by the Germans and didn’t and couldn’t fight back in the way they would have liked due to political/military decisions between World Wars? Collective emotions also damage a society when ignored.
It is a national identity (in my observation) that the Dutch are the “best” and “their way is the only way” to commemorate and honor Americans who saved them from German oppression? In fact, a few people over the years have made this belief clear to me. This national identity may also tie into prior historical events/traumas like colonization and slavery, where the Dutch were the “elite”.
9/11 and American Chosen Trauma
We can see a similar chosen trauma in America over the 9/11 event. A smaller number of people were affected by the deaths that occurred, as compared to a world war. Every year on the anniversary, the news and television is filled with mass trauma images of the events of that day. Ongoing lists of names of those who were killed. It is a continual re-traumatization of events to keep people living in fear.
Children are indoctrinated in school about the horrors of 9/11, the changes to the country that were “best for us”, and traumatized through images each year and then it just disappears until the next anniversary.
Does this heal or keep people under the control of fear so they will not question all the rules put in place since then?
Similarly to the Dutch, America has a history of slave trade, although Americans are a more vocal about this history, perhaps because it is more recent. We have museums, exhibits, talks, educating people on colonization and slavery. Yet on the other side of the coin, we also have a lot of societies that people choose to belong to which were part of the colonizer history of this country. We have a lot of societies for descendants of certain wars because in the U.S. society has made that an “elite” or “exclusive” club which of course, not everyone can join or would want to. I do not belong to any of those groups but I do question why people feel the need to join and perpetuate the energy their ancestors inflicted in the world. I wonder, is that part of the old system that will begin to crumble when the world shifts this year and people start questioning why they do certain things or belong to certain groups?
Decontextualized Chosen Trauma History
Today there is this ego and national identity in both countries, that is so decontextualized, most people don’t know why they have these thoughts and feelings about themselves being better than….or why they perpetuate the trauma their culture has chosen to be a part of. (There are a lot of studies on this, My Grandmother’s Hands, by Resmaa Menakem is a good study and how-to heal book on topics of war, slavery, colonization, etc.)
I have wondered for a while, does the re-enactment of WWII (or any war) serve to heal or just continue to re-traumatize people, the energy, the earth where a battle happened, and layer into children and young people today – that they are still victims or victimizers (who reported neighbors, collaborated, etc.) and unconsciously they are trying to heal.
For Europeans, it is an observation from an outsider looking in after living in Europe many years and digesting culture and society, while seeing layers of historical trauma and how they tie together.
No matter where you stand on any of these questions, I feel at this point in global history, these are questions we should be asking ourselves.
- Why do we continue to play war or having living history that doesn’t heal?
- Why do we continue to commemorate or memorialize mass trauma events that keep the energy held within our bodies, cultures, cities, land, and collective consciousness?
- What are the other options to remember so that stop transmitting this energy and instead, we heal and stop the cultural, family, and personal chosen trauma patterns?
In essence – no matter who we are or where we lived, what we commemorate or re-enact, we are all tremendously in need of exploring the patterns and beliefs we have and perpetuate and start healing.
How do you feel about chosen trauma and living history, re-enactment, or commemorations? Do they heal or harm? I am on the fence at this point. I have seen how they might educate and honor those who served or died. I have not seen it act as a way to heal mass trauma. If someone wants to explain how these things heal from their personal experience, I would be interested in hearing their perspective.
I’ve attended commemorations in Europe and in the first years watched 9/11 memorial programs, some many years in a row, and it has been my experience that it doesn’t heal. In Europe, my experience has been basically the same ceremony each year as a way to keep the trauma alive, sometimes with a slight education piece if children attend and read poems or place flowers. Are these just way to make sure the current generation buys into the chosen trauma of the country?
I’m not sure. I still have a lot of questions.
Regine Scholz: IAGP-Workshop ‘Trauma and Identity’, Sarajevo May 9-11 2014. Lecture May 10, 2014.
There are many studies on Chosen Trauma you can look up. It is an interesting topic to consider especially since the world has been in a mass trauma event for over a year.
Learn more about Vamik D. Volkan.
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