Human History Abounds With Trauma

Making generalizations about a topic like “human history” is a tricky business. Any generalization is easily countered by examples that do not follow the argument being made. And the term “history” is a very broad word. Every topic has its own history: there are dozens of offshoots, some of which are also very broad: for example, there is this huge entity called “scientific history”, and then there are things like “the history of sewing machines”, which have far more specific histories. Many of these specific histories are based on innovations and improvements. This is also true of the scientific disciplines that study our social lives: in general, the history of psychology and sociology and anthropology are about thought leaders and innovators in those fields.

And I think because of that, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that general history is focused on something very different. Crucially different.

How General Human History Is Conceptualized

General history is based on wars, geo political upheavals, epidemics, severe economic problems, and fear based discrimination and turmoil. Studying the history of Africa, Europe, North America, South America, or any other geo political place, means learning about the specific wars, battles, hardships and struggles of the people in that area. Studying general world history is mostly a study of violence. Military history takes up rows and rows of books in any history section. War, strife, conquests, colonizations, famines, epidemics and natural disasters are what we think of when we think of history in general terms. In short, when we think about our roots as humans, we think in terms of trauma. We mark our epochs by trauma the same way individuals divide their lives into life before the trauma, and life after trauma. We come -as a species- from traumatic roots. We -as a species- are all very much like families that grew up with generational violence.

Environmental/Natural Traumas

Historically there were (and, in many parts of the world continue to be) “routine” traumas due to death by worldly factors we did not know how to control- epidemics, cancers (wasting diseases), difficult childbirths, malnutrition brought by famines, drought, swarms of insects, etc.  And even in highly developed countries, these things happened until recently. Polio was not understood or contained until well past my own mother’s childhood days. My own father lost a brother to measles. These things produced trauma for everyone affected, families, communities, entire nations.

Other natural disasters such as fire, earthquakes, floods, droughts, freezing conditions, and hurricanes took lives with frightening regularity. Even certain animals were real threats and took lives with far more regularity than they do today.

We still routinely lose battles[1] to diseases, and in many parts of the world, entire groups of people suffer and die from natural disasters, preventable health issues, and hunger, just as they have for millennia.

Human Made Trauma

All of those rows of military history in bookstores and libraries tell stories of innumerable trauma. The collective trauma of oppressed and colonized peoples, enslaved people, war torn people, displaced people, persecuted people, ostracized people, is absolutely staggering in scope. A CONSERVATIVE estimate of World War II is 40 million casualties. That’s the equivalent of blowing up every last person living in California today in the course of 4 years. That leaves a legacy.

Wikipedia’s “Casualties of War” page lists well over 325,000,000 people perishing in and because of (large scale) wars in the last 5000-10,000 years. All of those people had families, most of whom grieved their lost family members. If you’ve ever lost a loved one -even from natural causes- and you remember the intensity of your grief and you then multiply that by 325 million times, then the impact of those numbers becomes truly infathomable.

These paragraphs don’t even begin to account for all the non lethal violence (both purposeful and accidental) that has traumatized millions of people in just the last 5000-10,000 years. The weight of that trauma is something we are not aware of, but its influence has been profound on our species.

Some of the trauma we’ve inflicted on each other is in some ways even worse in that it was done while we were trying to help each other.  As we’ve made attempts to heal from disease, sicknesses and the hardships of our environments, we’ve produced countless innovations. And almost inevitably, some of those innovations compound and reproduce traumas, either through greed or ignorance, usually some combination of both.  The book explores the many implications of this in more detail.

Repeated Trauma and Earlier Cultural Contexts

People were exposed to trauma more routinely and in repeated ways several thousands of years ago. Though much has changed, these people shaped the foundations of our current day cultural contexts in profound ways.  People who lived only a few generations previous to us also experienced quite a bit more insecurity and trauma than we typically do.  And they also shaped our cultural contexts in profound ways.

When there is the possibility of more trauma -when trauma is routine- there is no way to think deeply about how to process the trauma, because by necessity, one needs to focus on how to best be prepared for the next trauma.

Instead, regaining an immediate sense of power and control was needed, and it was done by any means available.  Looked at from this perspective, it is easy to see how trampling the rights of others ended up being byproducts of desperate attempts by people to feel safe/please God/empire build (which served to prove that they were in control and therefore safe).

The Present Abounds With TBRs

Culturally speaking, we’ve also learned to try to control nature and man made environments. This in itself is not an unusual response. In fact, it’s a perfectly logical and predictable dynamic in the aftermath of trauma. A psychologically healthy and normal response to trauma is to try to control our environments to keep future traumas from happening again.

However (and this is an enormous however), knee jerk attempts to control future traumas are -often- ill thought out, ineffective and lead to more problems. As we’ll discuss elsewhere, the prevalence of knee jerk decision making in the aftermath of trauma is a very common -and almost inevitable- phenomenon. And, it’s an enormously important one; I will be referring to the dynamic as a “trauma based response” (TBR).

On an individual level, to stop ourselves from repeating the same TBRs over and over, we need safety, awareness of the root issue, support, knowledge of techniques, willingness to delve into uncomfortable territory, and space and time to practice those techniques. Those conditions were simply not available to our ancestors in the same ways they are available to us now.

The scope of historical trauma and current trauma and trauma based decision making behaviors are explored in more detail in the book. The main points for now:  are 1) We have experienced many, many traumas as humans. 2) Trauma routinely changes how people conduct their lives, often in unnoticed ways.  3) Coping techniques that can work in the immediate aftermath of trauma- that is TBRs- can become large problems for us later. These TBRs are also transmitted from individuals to produce cultural norms, assumptions and values.

As we proceed with our cultural analysis, it becomes clear that many -possibly even the majority- of the innovations and infrastructures we humans have designed to cope with the world have come from TBRs. We have reacted to our environments as traumatized people do, in ways very analogous to people with PTSD.

Becoming aware of our TBRs on a cultural level is a crucial puzzle piece that has been missing -or at least not emphasized enough- as we’ve attempted to solve many of our most vexing problems.

Current Rates of Trauma

Finally, historical trauma also plays into our epidemic levels of current traumas inflicted on humans by other humans.  Explorations of physical and sexual abuse as well as state sanctioned force in the form of warfare are explored in more detail in the book.

The Impact of Trauma

The list of traumas that we have endured is long and has occurred in many realms. By definition, trauma of any sort has consequences.

People studying trauma say that trauma has a way of dividing life into before and after trauma[2]. Researchers note is that trauma survivors often experience themselves as changed due to the traumatic event: they say “I’ve changed”, “It changed me”, “Life is not the same”. For people, for example, who have had a loved one die in an auto accident, or have been assaulted, a very common response is to develop a mindset of “life before the trauma” and “life after the trauma”.

Feeling a sense of power and control is something we all still currently need.  Remember that fear causes us to act in irrational ways.   Currently, people still experience or fear that they will experience trauma.  So many feel the need to foster a sense of power and control by any means available (including building walls, shooting unarmed people, continuing to defend discrimination in various forms, etc.).  More exploration on the impact of trauma can be found in the book or in other areas on this website.


[1] Using the word battle to describe struggles is so second nature to us, we barely register the violence implied by our use of the word. But taking a look at the definition shows us how immersed in violence the word really is. “battle: a sustained fight between large, armed forces. Some synonyms: fight, armed conflict, clash, struggle, skirmish, engagement, fray, duel, war, campaign, crusade, fighting, warfare, combat, actions”
[2] See for example: “Trauma Change Resilience” talk by Dr Megan McElheran TEDxYYC, 2011