A Theory on unhealed Trauma

I’ve mentioned before that in my life I have a lot of ‘operating theories’ about things, and that they are constantly being adjusted based on new information and experiences and insights.

Today I feel like sharing one of those theories, because if it is correct, it explains a lot about the CRC in Canada in general, and maybe will explain some things you’ve wondered about locally as well.

My theory is that a large proportion of the early wave of immigrants from the Netherlands — those from before WWII — were entrepreneurial adventurers seeking opportunity in new lands, and that the post WWII immigrants tended more to be escaping traumatic memories, and/or fleeing a devastated situation of some kind. This means the earlier immigrants came with a different attitude and emotional state than the latter ones.

We know from history (or we should know) that war and intense conflict leaves people traumatized, or psychologically wounded. Personally I have spoken to various people from that generation, who’s stories range from being brutalized in concentration camps or other prison situations, to knowing they killed Germans as part of their work for the underground, to recognizing they were the black sheep in the family that did not have a strong chance of following in the family business. Part of their reason for leaving was the hope of getting away from those memories and difficulties. Of course, memories are hard to leave behind. Overlapping that, there were the wounded from various theological battles that were also being waged.  These predominantly traumatized people underwent the further trauma of leaving behind (at the time they believed it was forever) loved ones and all they had known, to endure, unbeknownst to them as they set out, two more levels of trauma, one in the leaving and traveling into a foreign culture, and then also finding that the place they had come to was not flowing with milk and honey but in fact had giant obstacles to be battled and overcome, one of the bigger obstacles being climate, and maybe the next biggest one poverty, and then maybe isolation.

What that amounts to is a generation who were traumatized in multiple ways when they got here. Considering that, it is amazing how their faith and resolve brought them through. They got to a land that only gave them, for the first decades anyway, a hardscrabble existence that demanded hard work and steadfastness, and which did not give them the luxury of what we would call today “expressing and processing their feelings.”

What I believe this created — particularly because it came with a theology and worldview that was already suspicious of emotion and was focused on ‘thinking things out’ — is a generation with un-dealt-with trauma suppressed in it, who didn’t even have language or tools to even know where to begin to unpack it. This unhealed state of theirs led to a lot of confusion. Whatever coping mechanisms the post WWII immigrants used, whatever practices they found comfort in, they were likely driven to by this unresolved grief and pain and a stoic, cerebral way of coping.

Over time God has been increasing my capacity for compassion for this state of theirs, where I used to just get frustrated and angry.

Modern research has helped us know today that if you experience trauma at a young age and are not helped through it emotionally, you tend to freeze at that emotional age and stop maturing. So we have probably all in our churches had experiences where a person in an adult body behaved in a way we knew to be very emotionally immature. For me, one incident that is a clear memory is of being a rookie deacon and having a older man suddenly stand in the middle of a council meeting, slam the King James Bible on the table and say “If dit is not de true vurd of Ghod to all ov us here, den I can’t be vit you!” and stormed out of the room. The shocking thing to me was that someone went after him, calmed him down, and brought him back… and that he did not apologize for what I saw as the equivalent of an extremely inappropriate childish tantrum, supposedly with a theological point. So the reality is — and I say this without blame, because that first generation did not know better nor even what was creating their stresses — that there were and are a lot of emotionally immature adults around because of that unhealed trauma.

And this generation raised my generation, the one born to post WWII immigrants!

Now, it is known from studies of the children of survivors of the Holocaust and of Residential School abuse that if original sufferers are not healed from their trauma, something of it is passed on to their children, possibly even in an amplified way. This is called “Second generation testimony transmission” or “Postmemory”. Basically, our generation’s parent’s behaviours shaped us, much of the time negatively. So much of my generation’s values are directly shaped in opposition to those our parents seemed absurdly focused on. Think of the times you were compelled or badgered into not wasting food… that is just one example of the kind of behaviour I mean. Think of the times your parents said things like “what are they so upset about, why don’t they just get on with it” about someone who was grieving or otherwise emotionally upset. People that are traumatized as immigrants in the way I have described, tend to cling to old ways, to traditions, just as toddlers cling to security blankets or binkies (aka soothers), not for their meaning so much as for the fact that they felt safe and comforting for them in a time of trouble. And the next generation just as resolutely tries to yank their security blankets away. As a result, many like me are convictedly against some of the traditions of our immediate forefathers, not realizing our fighting them is possibly rooted in the same original unhealed trauma.

This theory is in flux, as they all are, and I have a fresh resolve to pay more attention to it. Having just come from some time in Iowa, I see the behaviours afresh, and I see their uniqueness. The main take-away for my generation and our children is that we might have a responsibility to identify what ‘baggage’ we have picked up out of the unhealed trauma-baggage of our parents, and we need to be a generation that begins the healing, so that it does not go to the third and fourth generation. The beauty of our situation is that we now actually have the luxury of being able to do some emotional processing… if we slow down enough to stop running away from it.

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