Everyone by now has seen and been moved by the images of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven out of Syria and in their frantic diaspora are trying to find safety wherever they can. The photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned three year old boy whose body washed up on a Turkish shore might remind us of a child sleeping peacefully, except for the fact that we know he is dead. Another photograph makes it easy to imagine the circumstances of his perishing. This is the almost equally famous picture of a Syrian man holding a child in his arms as his anguished facial expression tells of the overwhelming terrors that he must deal with in order for his family to survive. Such images are shocking and poignant, yet also necessary, for they evoke compassion and motivate people to act to alleviate the suffering of innocent victims of war. Here in Britain, it was gratifying to watch the haste with which David Cameron was forced to reverse his decision not to allow any more Syrian refugees into the country following the public outcry against his refusal to grant asylum to people who so clearly need it. The British people showed the compassion that he once claimed would be the hallmark of his government. Yet the events that caused this crisis are complex and the region in general is so highly volatile that there is little realistic hope of finding immediate peace there. The situation can be likened to a terrible blaze that shows no sign of ever being extinguished. While most people would like a counsel of peace to prevail so that civic order can be restored, the raging fire of enmity and strife almost assures that any such counsel would go unheeded.
The horror that we now witness in the Middle East is, of course, nothing new. War and its dreadful consequences seem to be what history is made of, though we tend to forget this in times of peace. Or perhaps, rather, we repress the horror of war in order to escape the dreadful memory of it. My father fought in World War ii and participated in a number of battles that were legendary for their savagery. But he didn't like to talk about those experiences or remember the carnage that he witnessed on the battlefield. "You just don't want to think about it," he told me. My father, however, was fortunate in being able to set those terrible memories aside. Others who may be more psychologically vulnerable or suffer losses such as my father never had to endure, find it impossible to free themselves of the oppressive memory of their suffering. Abdullah Kurdi, Aylan's father, lost his wife and another son at the same time that his youngest child was drowned. He now says that his soul was buried along with his family and just by seeing the picture of the corpse of his youngest son we know that he is not exaggerating. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that he won't always feel this way. But the fallout of war is not confined to the people who have had direct experience of it. The after-effects may be felt, if not actually remembered, later in life by those around them. Although my father suffered no lasting trauma from his experience of war, he frankly admitted that it was the closest thing to hell that he had ever witnessed. Fortunately, as children, my brothers, sisters and I had little inkling of what he had suffered as a combatant. As a therapist, however, I have often heard stories of some older clients about their parents who, as children, suffered from traumas inflicted on them during WW II. As adults, their parents could become inexplicably moody or given to sudden outbursts of anger which left their children--who would later become my clients--feeling frightened and confused. A child's small gesture of defiance could provoke a towering rage that was way out of proportion to the act that had provoked it. At other times, a gloomy silence could fill the house like a noxious cloud. Perhaps worst of all, my client's parents were emotionally unable to provide the love and support that all children need. The wartime traumas of their parents were thus contributing factors to the post-war suffering that brought my clients to therapy years later, long after their parents had died. The trauma of war survived those who actually experienced it.
The idea of transgenerational trauma may seem too vague to be truly insightful. And if history is a recurrent nightmare of war punctuated by peace, who hasn't been affected by it? It might also be reasoned that if the nightmare of history is inevitable, what can be done about it except arm ourselves for the next conflict? Although psychotherapy may try to tend to the psychic wounds of individuals affected by war, the underlying cause is much greater than psychotherapy can ever hope to address. The endless round of violence and retribution appears to be the way the world continually reorders itself. There will, it seems, always be a fire next time. The phrase "the nightmare of history" comes from James Joyce's Ulysses, and is spoken by Stephen Daedalus in mild resistance to an anti-semitic tirade by a man who blames the Jews for the decline of England. The novel was written more than a century ago and though history has since raced forward through events that nobody in the early 20th century could have predicted, the hostilities that were alive then are no less and perhaps even more virulent now. The nightmare of history from which Stephen Daedalus wanted to escape is flourishing as strongly as ever.
But what could waking up from the nightmare of history actually mean? Many people seem to think it would mean making the world a more peaceful place in which mindless conflicts don't send millions of people into exile or expose children and other innocents to the murderous ravages of war. Although this would certainly improve the world, the unconscious urge to violence and war would still remain within us. An important goal of politics should be to keep those destructive urges safely dormant and far removed from the social sphere. Yet, a nightmare born of some festering frustration could still erupt into an unexpected crisis at any time. Buddhism, of course, advocates awakening in a more thoroughgoing sense that goes to the very roots of our dangerous, unconscious urges. Waking up would mean facing up to and letting go of all the bogus needs that give rise to our conflicted interests. Ultimately, it would mean escaping samsara, the round of birth and death, but more immediately it would mean becoming aware of the fact that the nightmare of history is our own creation.