Civilization’s Cycle of Trauma

Lately I’ve been trying to integrate Gabor Maté’s ideas about attachment and authenticity, with my thinking about what I’ve called Civilization Disease — the mental illness that seems, to a lesser or greater extent, to have afflicted all of us living in our now-global industrial civilization. A disease and mental illness which has led to an absurd and unsustainable population of 8 billion humans who have managed to destroy the planet’s carrying capacity for most if not all life, including human life, and immiserate much of both the human and more-than-human population in the process.

For a while, I have been positing that this mental illness is the inevitable result of the (arguably illusory) sense that humans are separate and apart from everything else and have (arguably illusory) ‘selves’ that believe themselves to have free will and be in control of the body they presume to inhabit. After all, when faced with an endless stream of evidence that we have no free will and are not at all in control of what ‘our’ bodies do, that has to be crazy-making. What are ‘we’ about, if not steering this strange bag of bones, cells and organs to do better than it would do without ‘us’?

I’ve made this argument repeatedly, including forwarding a hypothesis (the Entanglement Hypothesis) for how this erroneous belief arose.

But the question is — Can this be reconciled with the theories (most clearly articulated by Richard Lewontin in The Triple Helix) that chronic stress, poverty and overwork are the root causes of most human strife, violence and disease?

The chart above is an attempt to accommodate both Richard’s ideas, and Gabor’s argument about the importance to our psychological health of secure attachment and the ability to be our authentic selves. It’s pretty self-explanatory: The stresses inherent in civilization culture, combined with the effect of past generations’ trauma on our parents, preclude us from getting what we need to be healthy human beings in early childhood. And then as we grow, and are subjected to the accumulated trauma of teachers, bosses, peers and others, and continue to be deprived of the attention, appreciation, and reassurance we all seek, need and believe we deserve, so we end up inheriting that trauma, and its associated sociopathic illnesses, and passing them on to our own children, students, co-workers and colleagues, repeating the cycle.

And then of course we act out that trauma — often in acts of violence, abuse, anger, hatred, depression, fear, anxiety, and war. Humans’ capacity to condition each other, which is essential for our human societies to thrive because we require other humans living with us in community to do so, then becomes weaponized by our trauma. The result: Civilization Disease.

Here’s a more expansive explanation of how that might play out for many humans:

So they grew up with really busy, frazzled parents. Maybe their father was a war survivor. Maybe their mother suffered abuse in childhood or in her marriage. Neither parent had much time for their children, but they did their best.

So the children didn’t really grow up with a sense of close attachment to either of their parents, a sense that they would be loved and cared for no matter what happened, and no matter what they did. So they had to be careful sometimes, about what they did and said. They couldn’t always say what they really felt, either because their parents weren’t there to hear them (physically or mentally), or because they were afraid it would upset them. It was always safer not to upset them, even if that meant lying, or hiding their feelings. Sometimes they were not even entirely sure what they thought or how they felt themselves.

As they grew up, their relationships with their friends, their teachers, and their co-workers seemed a lot like their relationship with their parents — feeling obliged to agree or to do what they were told even when they thought it was wrong. They bottled it up, deciding it was wise not to show fear, anger, or sadness, unless they were with people who they knew agreed that fear, anger, or sadness was appropriate. And then it really came out, although since fear was considered immature they often masked it with a display of anger or righteous indignation, especially when people they cared about shared these feelings.

They weren’t lonely kids, but they did sometimes feel a bit abandoned. Whoever they were with, they never got quite as much personal attention, appreciation, or reassurance as they would have liked, or that they thought was warranted. So they often felt that they weren’t doing as well as they should, or as well as people expected of them. They often didn’t feel like people actually listened to them. They often felt a little lost, confused, unsure of themselves and what they should do, or even what they wanted to do.

Life wasn’t that hard, but they had to stay on their toes. Health issues, financial problems, issues of personal security, work pressures, and other stressors were always coming up, sometimes almost too much to deal with. Nothing was ever quite enough, or quite good enough, and the dangers of sudden losses or reversals of fortune were always in the back of their minds. Most of the times things were OK, but there were times of struggle, failure and suffering that they wouldn’t wish on anyone.

For some reason perhaps they decided they wanted to be parents, teachers, managers, executives. They swore they’d be better at it than their parents, teachers, and bosses. They wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

But 20 years later they wondered whether they’d actually done any better. When they asked, they were always told they had done a good job, at least under the circumstances. But damn, it was a stressful time, and there were hard, painful times, and they couldn’t always be their best selves. Over their lifetimes, the world had become more competitive, more challenging, more precarious. Never enough time for themselves, for thinking and talking things through properly, or for doing the things they knew they could be doing better. Something was missing they couldn’t quite put their finger on…

This is all just a theory of course, no better or worse than any other theory of human behaviour. It works for me because I see no logic or virtue in assigning blame for ‘misbehaviour’, since it suggests our conditioning could have been any different from what it was, and that the outcome could therefore have been different, when IMO it could not. I’m just looking for a plausible explanation for how our promising civilization ended up taking us to where it has, in the accelerating stages of a collapse with severe implications for all life on the planet. And this theory makes as much sense to me as any other.

So, drawing this whole theory together:

  1. I propose that it was the entanglement of the hemispheres of our brains, an evolutionary accident, uniquely in humans, early in our history, that gave rise to the entirely illusory (but very convincing) sense that human individuals are separate from ‘everything-else’ and are possessed of ‘selves’ that are in control of these individuals’ bodies.
  2. This false sense of self and separation was and is inherently traumatizing — we feel that we are capable of, and responsible for, protecting these bodies from every sort of imaginable danger, and directing them to take appropriate actions, when we intuitively ‘know’ and fear that we cannot protect and do not direct them. This terrifying ‘realization’ (which we call ‘consciousness’) has led us to do remarkable, and remarkably destructive, things to try to protect and direct our selves and our world, including the invention of language, and the creation of civilizations and the tools of war. This sense of separation has also ‘disconnected’ us from being what other living creatures simply are — part of the single inseparable organism of all-life-on-earth, always intuitively seeking to sustain the delicate balance of their entire organism (that is their conditioning).
  3. These well-intentioned human civilizations, being inherently fragile, unsustainable, and disconnected (like a cancer) from the rest of the earth-organism of which we are an inseparable and integral apart, have, by trying to self-perpetuate our ‘separateness’, given rise to human societies that are rife with chronic stress, poverty, precarity, violence, and overwork (the gold box in the chart above).
  4. These dysfunctional human societies have, by depriving us of the essential needs for physical and psychological health, produced the endless cycles of trauma and sociopathy illustrated in the chart above.
  5. And the end-product of all that is Civilization Disease, and the next Great Extinction of life on the planet.

The whole thing began with an accident, an experiment with the structure of the brain that turned out to be a serious maladaptation. And now it’s just running its inevitable course, playing out the only way it could.

‘We’, who presume ourselves to be separate and conscious, are just observers of this playing-out, chroniclers of this strange aberration in one species’, and hence the planet’s, evolution. Helpless, and blameless.

Not the ending we would have wanted. But man, quite a show!

PS: An afterthought:

If this theory is plausible, it has one further, very concerning, implication, and that is for our readiness and resilience in dealing with the accelerating collapse of our civilization. Our ability to cope with collapse will depend to a large extent on our mental health as we face each crisis, on our resilience to be able to take each challenge in stride, and on the level of basic competencies (such as the list of nine I identified in my recent article) that we will have to bring to bear to create new, functional, sustainable post-civ societies.

As long as we’re continuing to deal with the cycle of trauma (which is likely to continue as collapse accelerates), our mental health, resilience and community-building competencies are likely to remain poor. That does not bode well for our survival.

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6 Responses to Civilization’s Cycle of Trauma

  1. Vera says:

    Ooh, a treat, Back to the non-duality puzzles! :-)

    So, I’ve been wondering… given that I accept that what we perceive every day is an appearance, not some bedrock reality itself… how do the non-duality people make the jump from “apparent” to “illusory”?

  2. Renaee says:

    The expanded explanation rings very true for me, and the part where I thought I would do better than my parents, and now unsure if I did or not, hits home as well. i was feeling particularly lost and a sense of pointlessness today – and this is something of a relief to read, a good reminder. and will read those older posts linked too.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Renaee. I’ve had some conversations lately with what have been called Third Culture Kids (those growing up mostly in North America but with parents from other cultures, who kind of establish something different from either culture to navigate their way). Their kind of trauma is seemingly quite different from others’, and it’s quite fascinating to see how (quite capably, because they have no other choice) they manage to cope with it. Too small a sample to be representative, but interestingly the TCKs I’ve spoken to seemingly have little or no interest in having kids themselves.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    “I’m just looking for a plausible explanation for how our promising civilization ended up taking us to where it has, in the accelerating stages of a collapse with severe implications for all life on the planet.”

    I’m not sure our civilization was all that promising… it was very good for a very few people for a very short time, but premised on taking whatever it could from everyone and everything else. And as that has chugged along using up so much of the world, fewer and fewer benefit, including many of the people who once believed this civilization had promise.

    Also, I’m not sure a hyper-sense of self is inherently human. It seems more tied to a social system that has to have selves, has to have hierarchies of selves, more specifically, some to benefit and some to… well, not. My Navajo friends are very different. In fact, you really can’t talk much about a being in isolation from others. The words don’t exist in Diné languages. Because that isolated state of being doesn’t exist in the real world.

    And that is where hope for dealing with all the messes will come from. The edge peoples are not without their traumas, but those traumas aren’t viewed as the “world as it should be”. So while they are damaged, they are also more able to act outside the system and much, much less interested in sustaining it. Plus, with little concept of “every man for himself” they are better able to work together, defining “together” as everything in and around their homelands, not just humans, certainly not elite humans.

    However, that means that most (all?) of the things that do rely on selves using up the world are going to fail. This will not be easy… it will be hardest on those who most benefited from the system when the people who currently keep everything working abandon the system and start to tend to their own needs. Which is already happening.

  5. Tamás says:

    Dear Dave,
    Sorry if I am offtopic, but I found your new political map ( very interesting. Could you help me with some further information or with some helpful links about “Neo-Environmentalists” (in camp D) and “Human consciousness” (in camp F)? I can not really identify them despite busy browsing.
    (I’m making a text for students about attitudes on environmental crisis and your map is very useful.)
    thx in advance
    Tamás from Hungary

  6. Peter Webb says:

    I think you’re spot on Dave. Get the text ready to put into a time capsule; our biggest challenge is psychological as the way our minds were trained, other interests were in mind. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but reality in the end wins out.Thank goodness you have explored well non duality, as the imagined I is not the real one at all; Don’t blame it on the brain; the evolutionary design is perfect, it was just programmed by distorted minds.

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