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Gift From The Future

By Dawson Church, PhD

Relationships between parents, children, and society are in the midst of a tectonic shift. Behaviors once thought to be private matters, such as child battery, alcoholism, drug abuse, and spousal abuse, are now considered public matters. Attitudes have changed drastically in just a century. Consider:

  • Just 150 years ago, children “hurriers” in Great Britain were still sent down tiny mine shafts to haul coal wagons up to the surface. Most died early and horrible deaths of black lung disease. The US did not ban child labor until 1938.

  • When my grandfather was born, women in England and the US did not have the right to vote. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920 in the United States and 1928 in England—and not until 1971 in Switzerland!

  • Ten striking workmen were killed by policemen and thirty wounded in Chicago in 1937. Among their outrageous demands? A 40-hour work week. This event is within the memory span of many people still alive today.

There are many countries today in which exercising your religious preference can cost you your life. In Iraq in 2002, there was a stable, established, and thriving Christian population. Today, an estimated two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians have been killed or driven out. But in most Western societies, religious preference has become so unimportant that friends may not even know which church others go to, or whether they go to church at all.

I could cite many other examples of radical social mind change. When we are embedded in a society, change can appear slow, just the way a parent rarely notices, day by day, how a child is growing. Then a friend may remark, “Goodness, how big Johnny’s become!” and suddenly we realize the change. From within a society, social progress might be equally invisible. But in reality, huge shifts in “groupthink” can happen in time frames that are, historically, a blink of an eye. The Renaissance, that glorious flowering of art, music, science, and philosophy that began in fifteenth century Florence, was startlingly limited in time and numbers. A small group of just 1,000 people formed its core. Yet in a mere 25 years, those thousand people changed the entire direction of Western civilization.

What is the Renaissance of today? What changes are bubbling just below the surface of our society? Who are the Renaissance women and men of the twentyfirst century, and what will the lives of their children look like?

Children of the new Renaissance are being raised very differently than children of old. The human potential movement gave us tools for ferreting out the unique talents of each person. Tests like the Myers Briggs Personality Inventory gave us nuances far more revealing than a child’s grades in grammar and mathematics. Concepts like social intelligence and whole-brain learning may yield insights much richer than IQ tests. Enlightened new charter schools have ditched the archaic academic structure of traditional public schools, designed for the agrarian economy of pre-industrial America, with only 180 days in session, classes ending early in the day, and three months off to cull a long-vanished summer harvest.

Thousands of today’s toddlers were sung to and played with in the womb by fathers and mothers who understood that they were bringing more than a body into the world. They knew they were midwifing not just a brain but a consciousness. In a book I wrote in the 1980s, Communing With the Spirit of Your Unborn Child, I defined the job of a parent as providing an emotional and spiritual environment in which the soul of the child could come into full expression through body, mind, and heart. The first generation of these children are now maturing, and they represent a complete break from an era in which “to spare the rod is to spoil the child.”

But if parents could pluck the brightest jewel from the coming culture of the twenty-second century to give to their children today, it would not be Baby Mozart or Brain Gym. I have come to believe that there is one gift that parents can give their children that trumps every other possible advantage.

That gift is to heal your own emotional wounds. It won’t just help your children and your parents. It will help your partners, your teachers, your friends, your colleagues at work, and everyone whose lives you touch. If you don’t heal the traumas you acquired from your parents and grandparents, you will pass this unwelcome legacy on to your children.

What’s so important about emotional clarity? I believe it’s the gateway to spiritual realization, explosive creativity, vibrant health, and peak performance.

If you want to see the effects of repeating old emotional traumas, just look around you. You’ll see couples who move from drama to drama. You’ll see children and parents who are either fighting or striving to repair the damage. You’ll see workplaces corrupted by greed, stupidity, and short-sighted ignorance. You’ll see organizations with the brain-to-weight ratio of a dinosaur (the kind that became extinct first). You’ll see pointless religious conflict, and you’ll see egos laying waste to the surrounding countryside through their clashes.

Emotional wounds are the traumas that keep on traumatizing. A guy in my men’s group recently asked if his relationship problems were due to his stuff, or his partner’s. “It’s simple to figure out,” I told him. “If you’ve had the same feeling many times before, with different people, it’s you.” We tend to fall into habitual ways of reacting. We can move from relationship to relationship, picking different partners to trigger our wounds. Yet while the triggers are different, the wounds just get deeper and deeper with each re-enactment. The neural bundles that govern those pathways literally become thicker. A physician named Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2000 for his work showing that the number of synapses can double after just one hour of repeated stimulation. We are literally etching trauma into our brains if we fail to clean up our emotional reactivity. And all the problems we create in our lives as a result then consume vast amounts of our personal power, attention, and energy.

Emotional trauma does not just sicken your heart, mind, and spirit. It sickens your body, too. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study was undertaken by Kaiser Permanente (a giant hospital chain) and the Centers for Disease Control. It examined the medical histories of over 17,400 adults. ACE found a striking correlation between unresolved childhood emotional trauma and several conditions including cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, bone fractures, depression, and illicit drug use.

The correlations were not trivial. A person with a lot of adverse childhood experiences is three times as likely to smoke, and thirty times more likely to attempt suicide. And despite the assurances of writers from Geoffrey Chaucer onward that “tyme doeth hem cure,” time is not, in fact, the great healer of emotional trauma. The median age of subjects in the ACE study was 56; the events that were devastating their physical health had happened half a century earlier. The proposition that emotional trauma and physical disease are inextricably linked has been shown beyond reasonable doubt; numerous other studies reinforce the conclusions of the ACE study. They point toward a future field of medicine in which emotional trauma is the first line of healing and popping pills or cutting out organs takes a supplemental role to releasing the energy enmeshed in the wounds of the past.

Even those of us not raised in violently abusive households may still have suffered thousands of incidents of misunderstanding, neglect, or accidental shock. I’m sometimes asked, “How severe does an incident have to be to leave an emotional wound?” The answer is that it depends on the person. One client in therapy regained a memory that, as a baby, his father had misjudged the depth of his crib, and dropped him a few inches onto the mattress. He was terrified when recalling the incident thirty years later. Others may have suffered rapes or beatings, and yet determinedly battled their way to psychological health as adults. But I’ve yet to find the person who had an entirely happy childhood free from what psychologist Brad Blanton calls “normal, middle-class child abuse.”