219 years ago, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck hypothesized that the characteristics that one acquired during the life time can be passed on to the next generations. This proposal was largely dismissed by his contemporaries. Roughly 60 years later, with the publishing of On the Origin of Species, Darwinism became the modern paradigm of evolution.
We have since believed that we are genetically predetermined beings.
However, centuries later, a rising amount of studies seems to indicate that Lamarckism might have had some truth. Epigenetic researches show that the experiences of our ancestors are quietly coded into the chemical modifications of our DNA, influencing the expression of our genes.
“When I work in my family tree, I understood the strange communication of the destine that unites me to my ancestors.”C.G.Jung
It turns out that, after all, it didn’t start with us.
In his book It Didn’t Start with You, Mark Wolynn draws on his astounding personal experience of having once lost his vision and his expertise as a psychotherapist to presents a potent overview of the epigenetic studies on the transmission of trauma. My favourite part of the book is Chapter 2 where he summarizes:
“…biological residue of traumas your grandmother experienced can be passed down, with far-reaching consequences.”
He directs our attention to the fact that three generations – we, our mother, and our grandmother – at one point share the same biological environment. This blew my mind; I could not help but start racking my brain, looking for traces of stories that my mother has told me about her mother.
Echoing the maternal line, Wolynn states:
“…your father’s sperm continues to be susceptible to traumatic imprints almost up until the point when you are conceived.”
This particular piece of information has propelled the expansion of the “Intergenerational Trauma” workshops, setting me off on a series of familial inquiries into the life of my maternal grandma and my father. The details saved for the workshop, it shocks me how the experience of the family members I have never even heard of have been mysteriously shaping my emotional world.
Mark Wolynn elegantly articulates:
“Pain does not always dissolve on its own or diminish with time. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma had died, even if his or her story lies submerged in years of silence, fragments of life experience, memory, and body sensation can live in, as if reaching out from he past to find resolution in the minds and bodies of those living in the present.”
Once I recognize that I have been carrying the unspoken burdens of my ancestors, I know I could put them behind me, one step at a time.
This book provides exactly that. Spending years searching for answers to his deteriorating vision, Wolynn has found his way of healing, conceptualizing the “Four Core Languages” framework as a guide to help us tease out our languages that are in fact carriers of our ancestors’ pain and anguish. In each chapter, he lists questions to guide our reflections, and to facilitate the resolution of trauma by owning the sufferings and the resiliency that comes with. He emphasizes:
“Following our core language map can bring us face-to-face with family members who live like ghosts, unseen and ignored…Once we find them, they are set free and we are set free.”
This book is particularly useful for people who have done a decent amount of self-reflection, but couldn’t seem to be rid of the feelings that don’t have a substantiating root in their own life. It is important to recognize that no one book or theory holds all the truth. We must be our own curator when piecing together our unique map for healing.
However, one thing I find curious is the intentional or unintentional omission of, among the discussions of the massacres and genocides around the globe, the Nanjing Massacre. For a Chinese person, it defines what trauma is; it aches me to see the death of 300,000 (some source says 50,000) souls goes unmentioned. I shall write about that another day.
For those science-minded you, chase this book with a strong shot of Dr. Rachel Yahuda’s studies, or a less-intense but sufficiently-informative writing by science journalist Martha Henriques on BBC Future; for the hearts that are dying for a dosage of healing, try the short and sweet Then She Sings a Willow Song: Reclaiming Life and Power with the Ancestors by the Native American spiritual activist Gemma Benton.
“Our Ancestors knew that healing comes in cycles and circles. One generation carries the pain so that the next can live and heal. One cannot live without the other, each is the other’s hope, meaning & strength.”Gemma Benton