Healing from Historical Trauma

A sacred Balinese dance that shows the healing power of ritual and tradition and that can help heal historical trauma

The Pain of Racism

While working as a chaplain on a residential drug treatment unit, I had the opportunity to sit with a young man with white skin who had been given a roommate whose skin was dark. Having been raised to blame and reject dark-skinned people, he felt uncomfortable being close to this other man and wanted a different roommate. However, he didn’t feel he could just march up to nursing staff and make such a demand. He had at least that much understanding of social propriety.

Instead, he came to me to try and process his feelings and behavior. As I invited him to focus on his emotions and judgments, and as I pointed out that judgments themselves are just stories we tell, that they are not true representations of reality, he began to experience the sorrow and pain he felt at being taught to hate. He decided to stick with this roommate. In the process, he gained a friend.

What he did not understand, and what I didn’t realize at the time, either, is that his racism could be seen as a form of, and a reaction to, historical trauma.

A sacred Balinese dance that shows the healing power of ritual and tradition and that can help heal historical trauma

Historical Trauma

Historical trauma is the pain and suffering handed down through generations after a community or ethnic group has survived traumas such as invasions, genocide, torture, the destruction of their culture, or extreme poverty. Dr. Joe Solanto, in a lecture entitled “Intergenerational Trauma and Healing,” lists steps that a traumatized people go through over the course of these generations. [1]

The first generation reels in shock. Decades later, a “stunned silence” appears. Just as with individuals, group trauma memories are fragmented and disconnected. The survivors can express pain, but they feel isolated, confused, uncertain about their stories. Over time, this shock and confusion turns to grief. The grief accumulates for generations because no one knows how to process it. “Future generations are almost destined to carry the unresolved pain of the past,” Solanto says. [2]

In talking about the experience of the aboriginal people in Australia, Solanto notes that although subtle assaults continue to assail the native population, the direct assaults on the people and their lifestyles has lessened. This has created enough space for their anger to emerge.

“So we see an eruption of trauma symptoms in youth as if they had gone through all this trauma.” [3]

If all we do is look at the violent behaviors, we won’t understand how they connect to the trauma that was handed down to the individuals. Even people whose families are financially successful, who were raised them with a loving gentleness, who experienced few significant traumas themselves, can reflect the internalized oppression or externalized rage of their ancestors.

The Stories of Shame and Abuse

In this same way, the young man with white skin who was trying to give up drinking alcohol, and who had probably perpetrated some of those subtle – or not so subtle – assaults on individuals who happened to have been born with skin a little darker than his, may well have suffered from traumas handed down to him. When we perpetrate violence against another, we also wound ourselves. Generations of abusers and perpetrators lived on through this young man. A culture of projected anger was the water in which he swam.

When he began to see the lies behind the stories he’d been told, he felt ashamed, abused, and overwhelmed. Was his trauma the same as that faced by native peoples in Australia and the Americas who lost their lands, their families, their language, the culture, their stories, their faith?

Of course not.

Yet this does not mean his trauma was unimportant. He needed to find healing so he could become a better person. By doing so, not only does he benefit, but so does society.

Healing from Historical Trauma

How does one heal from historical trauma?

Trauma is a soul wound. Solanto quotes elders who say, “The wounding was such that the spirit of the people went into hiding. The soul became a black hole for the people.” [4] Therefore the healing must be spiritual.

This spiritual healing comes through community. It comes through the practices of a people that has survived in spite of repeated attempts at eradication.

Why do we want to take away another person’s sacred stories? We think that in this way we can take away their power, yet their power is never completely gone. Look deep, and you will see their spiritual core.

Although many express their familial and generational trauma through addiction and violence, they can heal. They can find their voice. Together, they can listen to one another and become whole.

Finding Our Voices

In my life, I have experienced traumas that left me with sensations and emotions and almost-thoughts that had no words. I could play the story on the piano. I could even write a poem about the experience, yet the words on the page had no clear image, no coherent nature, no way to communicate a story. The poem might resonate, but there was nothing another person could understand with her mind.

As I learn more about who I am and where I come from, I realize that some of this unarticulated pain comes from my own historical trauma as the daughter or a Holocaust survivor. Because my father would not share his story with me, I have had to piece together what I can from genealogical exploration and historical reading. My healing has come from getting to know my second cousin, and from learning something about the traditions and values of the Jewish people, my ancestors. As I connect to my history, I become more whole.

Native peoples in this country and in Australia are learning to embrace their sacred relationships to the land, to one another, and to their god. They are telling their stories. They are hearing one another with a silence and respect that gives them voice. The rest of us need to listen, as well. We need to listen to the stories of those who have been wounded by us and by our ancestors, to those whose homes have been destroyed, whose lives have been reduced to dust. In being heard and being seen, is healing.

Perpetrators Need Healing, Too

We all need such healing. Whether we are aboriginal, whether our people were stolen from their native land and brought to this country as slaves, or whether they fled violence in their own country to sail or fly or crawl into a place where they hoped to find a new home, we need it. Whether we are disenfranchised Muslims, or children of Confederate soldiers who feel the shame of loss and reflect it as self-righteousness, or the descendants of poverty-stricken Appalachians, we need healing just as much as anyone else. In one form or another, histories of pain and trauma have been passed down to us all. We all need to be seen and heard before we can do the long, slow work of healing.

I am not suggesting that a perpetrator is the same a victim. It’s not unusual to both be abused and to abuse others. As Solanto explains, grief and rage build in a people, and eventually they must come out. Yet that doesn’t mean a perpetrator is the same as a victim. The former must, in some way, be held accountable.

Yet if I had to choose, I would rather be a victim than a perpetrator. The times I have harmed others, though none too terrible, really, still burn within me nonetheless. On some level, the traumas I’ve suffered still wound me. But I know how to heal the pain of victimization. How do I heal the pain of having wounded another?

Can Love Heal All?

I realize not all perpetrators feel sorry for what they’ve done. Yet some do. Some suffer their entire lives. I’ve known perpetrators who could not stay clean and sober because they so hated themselves for the things they’d done in their youth.

Yet even perpetrators who have no regrets deserve healing. Our communities need them to heal.  Surely their lack of compassion hides some core of humanity. Can the healing power of love reach everyone? Perhaps not, but I will not give up trying.

And how do we reflect that healing love?

Part of my healing has come from forgiveness, whether I have forgiven the one who harmed me or forgiven myself for having hurt someone else. This is a form of love.

Listening is form of love, as well, and all of us have stories to tell. Whether or not we choose to share those stories, is another issue. We cannot force anyone to seek healing. If the young white-skinned man at the treatment center had chosen to push out his dark-skinned roommate, I probably could not have helped him see the pain of his own racism.

Still, I look for openings.

While working at Kaiser, I sat for about an hour with a white-skinned man who hated immigrants, distrusted “Mexicans,” and made derisive comments about some Latinas on a television show he was watching. Gently, with respect for his humanness, I lifted up the emotions he was expressing, hinted at the pain I suspected lay beneath them, and prayed in my heart that he might learn to see the value in every human being. Even in himself.

Healing is Spiritual

Love, forgiveness, listening are all spiritual forms of healing. The spiritual wounds of trauma can be helped by Western medicine and therapy, but only spiritual healing will fully touch those soul wounds.

We all have the capacity to connect to a spiritual wisdom, to find the spiritual truths of our ancestors. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis can trace their lineage back to a people who understood what it meant to love the earth, to live in harmony, to worship the divine. Some of them come from the Celtic Irish whose own descendants fled the potato famine, or they have Mennonite ancestors who fled persecution in Switzerland.

Look, listen, wonder who you really are and where you came from. We blame and hate and hurt one another because within us lies a pain and shame so deep we cannot face it. If we can manage it, though, if we can look at who we are underneath our racism and our traumas, we can begin to act from a more holy place, a place of forgiveness and understanding. When that young man accepted that he’d been taught something that was not true, change became possible.

Historical trauma haunts us all. When one individual or community suffers, we all suffer. Some of us need to accept culpability and be held accountable. Some of us, not so much. Yet we all need to heal. We all need to learn who we are and connect to the stories of our ancestors. We need to claim a spirituality that enlivens our hearts and supports love in the world. And we need to encourage this healing in one another.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Solanto, Joe, “Intergenerational Trauma and Healing,” Sharing Culture,   http://sharingculture.info/what-is-historical-trauma.html.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash