The past is never dead. It is not even past.
– William Faulkner
I just finished a Process Work seminar here in Auckland, the second in a series of three. Last week I was in Brisbane, and tomorrow I’m off to Tokyo for a training on workplace bullying (and to watch the US elections from abroad). This weekend’s seminar was called, The Unfinished Work of Ancestors. I wanted to explore how lineal issues, problems inherited from previous generations, determine, influence, and shape our current relationships and family life.
It struck me over the course of the weekend that not only are many of the issues and patterns we grapple with in relationship inherited habits of history, but also how relieving and liberating it is to view our chronic relationship challenges as ‘lineal’ problems – social, historical and political issues that our ancestors struggled with. We are positioned in history, shaped and influenced by social, historical and even natural forces – and the echoes of the great potato famine, World War II, the harsh lives of coal miners in Scotland, of itinerant workers, of Russian peasants reverberate in our intimate interactions, daily habits, and moods.
For instance, perhaps due to the seminar’s setting of New Zealand, the so-called “New World,” for Anglo-Europeans, immigration, refuge, deportation, and itinerancy were themes people connected to their relationship struggles . The immigrant or refugee psychology reflects itself as a lack of certainty, of ‘being-at-homeness,’ never certain of our foothold, of whether the world could sustain or welcome us. What looks like fear of commitment, intimacy problems, or feeling a lack of permission to be yourself with another, for many, was a reflection, amplified through the generations, of the fears and anxieties of their ancestors in a strange land, only tenuously and temporarily hosted by its peoples and government.
Individual psychotherapy, the habit of looking inward, while yielding tremendous insights, needs to be complemented, at least occasionally, with this broad sweep of history. We are who we are for so many reasons, and to realize that our strange tendencies and pesky moods are not only to be found in a psychology text, but in a history book, is, at least for me, a huge relief. What won’t yield to self-reflection and inner probing might best be explained and even resolved by reading the history that our forebearers lived.