We all know that trauma exists, but we may think of it as something exceptional that happens to people in exceptional circumstances. If you watch the documentary ‘The Wisdom of Trauma’, by Gabor Maté’, you may realise that it is in fact a much more common experience, perhaps something you can personally relate to.
Trauma and emotional suffering are very much part of our being human. Maté defines trauma as a disconnection. It is not the traumatic event that happens to us, but the experience of disconnection from our own self as a result of it. Maté shows that trauma is being we are left alone with our hurt, being we are unable to express those painful emotions we have inside.
Although these experiences are extremely intimate and personal, the film does show that trauma is not just an individual issue, but a societal one. We experience collective trauma due to the social environment we grow up in. For example, Maté argues that minorities are more likely to suffer from chronic illness and mental health problems not only because of health care being less accessible, but also due to the emotional suffering people are subjected to in their everyday lives. Moreover, the film also shows the impact of intergenerational trauma. The trauma that we experience in our childhood is quite often the result of our parents’ traumas, which in turn were passed down from their parents and so on.
The link between our individual experiences and broad structures is a core topic that is at the heart of all my work on everyday peace, and I talk more about it on ‘The Everyday Peace Toolkit’. After all, this way of looking at trauma shows us how we are interconnected, and how much our wellbeing is related to the world we live in. The more we are divided, the more there is injustice and violence, the more we all experience trauma as we disconnect from those around us, as well as ourselves.
In today’s society we spend much time punishing violence after it has happened, instead of looking at why it happens, and eradicating its root causes. But in a capitalist society perhaps there is no other choice, because capitalism IS disconnection.
Maté argues that trauma also happens in very normal families, to people who have everything. All that is needed is that children grow up isolated, left alone with their hurt, with nobody to hold them, reassure them, listen to them. Trauma happens to children who grow up feeling that they are not lovable, that they are unimportant, or that they are loved only if they fulfill certain standards and expectations. Also when they are not allowed to express themselves, and be authentic, something that, for Maté, is something we need for survival. Being deprived of our authenticity also makes us experience disconnection.
The film dedicates some time focusing on addiction, as it argues that addiction provides a way of escaping a painful reality. Addictions is not not just drugs, alchohol, sex, but also food, gaming, social media, shopping, even work. If we think about it, capitalism thrives on addiction. There is nothing more profitable. The more we are addicted to a product or behaviour we will keep buying and even if it is detrimental to our health, mental health, relationship, or the planet, the more we will keep buying. Many of the products that we consume daily, be it our food or social media, they are designed to be addictive.
Nowadays we are surrounded by products that offer escapes from what we have inside. Most of us probably find it hard to put the phone down, even if we are just scrolling. The more we escape, the harder it gets to connect with ourselves and with people around us, including the ones who depend on us.
While in our lives we are busy doing all the things that capitalism requires us to do to provide for our families, feel financially safe, make sure our children have a secure future, often we have little space left to take care of our physical and emotional wellbeing, and we escape the pressure through all these things we have available, but at the same time it gets harder and harder to connect. As it gets harder to connect with ourselves and our loved ones, we may feel worse about ourselves, find less support, and have challenges in our families and relationships.
In summary, the film shows us how traumas are interconnected. What is most intimate in us, our emotional experiences, are all linked to one another and to how we live as a society. At the same time, it shows how disconnected we are.
The solution offered in the film by Maté is what he calls ‘Compassionate Inquiry’, which helps patients discover their trauma, and understand that they are not the trauma and start healing.
As a peace researcher, I do agree that healing is a crucial step, not just as individuals but also as a collectivity. If disconnection is the problem, it makes sense that the answer is to experience a sense of love and connection. Although the film focuses a lot on childhood trauma, I think that we need to face the fact that many people who experience trauma live in a world where they still keep getting hurt and feeling disconnected, put down, left out, excluded.
Connection is way out, but we need to think about making room for connecting more broadly in our societies. To achieve this, to build a society based on love, a society where we are nobody is left alone with their hurt, and punished because of it, we need many radical changes. Thinking of traumas and violence as structural may make us feel powerless. And yet, I think that it should be the opposite. It means that we are not alone, that we are not the only ones going through this, and we can work together to make change happen.
‘Wisdom of Trauma’ premiere is available to watch until June 14 2021; check out the official page here.