When Luxury Is Not Enough

Photo is of the MacArthur Landing sculpture.
Photo by L. Laguna

On February 24, 2022, I celebrated the two-year anniversary of my mastectomy in the post More Than Transactional. It was only after this post that I found out that Russia had invaded Ukraine. NPR posted Photos: The sobering cost of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. The New York Times has live updates on the Russia-Ukraine War.

On my social media, government leaders, celebrities, and friends shared their anger, sorrow, and grief over this war.

One post in particular resonated with me. It was by The Holistic Psychologist on Facebook. She wrote the following on February 25th:

May we all evolve back to the truth of who we are + stop senseless wars that cause generational trauma far after they end.

May we realize this truth: we need each other. We are designed to cooperate, to help each other, to feel pain when we see it in another.

May our leaders have emotional awareness, self embodiment, + the compassion that ends these cycles of suffering.

May we evolve past the (wounded) human ego its need for power, exploitation, + dominance.

All @selfhealers.circle members in Ukraine have been emailed—You’ll no longer be charged + have lifetime access.

Please us this space to vent, connect, or share whatever is on your mind #selfhealers

Then she went on to share an image with the following statement:

War related trauma is inherited by future generations. Studies show significant “interpersonal suffering” including issues with: problem solving, conflict, family togetherness, + marital issues.

This hit close to home. I shared The Holistic Psychologist’s message in my own post in which I wrote:

As someone whose parents were born during World War II, I agree with this. Do not fool yourself into thinking that education, careers, cars, houses, and other markers of luxury and success ever fully compensate for living through trauma from war, invasions, military occupations, and colonization.

As someone whose career has been in higher education, I think many people in this field overstate the way in which educational attainment and career success show someone’s resilience and ability to overcome trauma. These material possessions are nice, but they in themselves do not demonstrate that someone overcame trauma.

My parents were born in the Philippines during World War II and grew up in its aftermath.

My mom is one of ten siblings. She, her parents, and her siblings did not always live together due in part to the war. Whenever my mom or her sister tried to explain what their childhood was like, it was hard for me to keep track of what childhood event happened when, where, why, and how. The most memorable experience I had with learning their history was when we had a family reunion in the Philippines and my mom and her siblings brought my cousins and me to the barangay of Libhu in the city of Maasin (my mom’s hometown), in the province of Southern Leyte, on the island of Leyte. We were out in a green space surrounded by palm trees. My aunt told us that this was where they hid in the trees from the Japanese forces during World War II. I cannot even remember who “we” included because, again, the siblings were separated at different points during the war. (Side Note: In the photo for this blog post, you can see a photo of the MacArthur Landing monument by sculptor Anastacio Caedo. I took this picture when I visited Leyte for a family reunion.)

Meanwhile, my dad’s father died when my dad was a baby during World War II. His father was 30 when he died of pneumonia. They were hiding from the Japanese military in an isolated area so my grandfather did not have easy access to medical care. Yes, that is an understatement. This left my grandmother a widow who had to raise a my dad and his brother during World War II and for the rest of her life. She never remarried. My dad was only an infant and his brother was a toddler when their father died. My grandmother did not tell me much about her World War II experiences when I was a child. She told my older cousin about the war. Only as adults, my cousin shared with me some of the gruesome war stories like when our grandmother saw a baby get killed in a very graphic way. Yeah, I do not feel like describing the details of that. It is triggering.

I am the youngest grandchild on both sides of my family. I have nearly 30 first-degree cousins on my mom’s side. I always forget the exact number. Then I have three first-degree cousins on my dad’s side. Maybe it is because I was the youngest that I heard the least about World War II and its aftermath from my grandmother and my parents. My other three grandparents were deceased by the time I was old enough to talk.

When I was growing up, my family emphasized their survival, resilience, and achievements during and after World War II. That is worth commending. With that said, as an adult especially, I have noticed how much they gloss over the trauma from war and other historic events. They said almost nothing about these events when I was growing up.

When I was a kid, I was snooping through a box with my mom’s letters and found one from her sister in the Philippines. In the letter, her sister wrote about what it was like to live under martial law. Neither my mom nor my aunt shared details about that era with me; however, my grandaunt on my mom’s side did share her experiences under martial law, but that was only because I was asking her for a family history paper that was assigned to me in high school. Otherwise, most of what I know about martial law in the Philippines is from history books and online articles. I sought out that information on my own. Nobody proactively gave it to me.

As an adult, I realize how crazy it is that I do not have many firsthand accounts from my family about World War II, martial law, or other historic events like that.

Maybe it is not crazy though. It makes sense that some people want to move past traumatic events and not discuss them in much detail.

Here is the deal though. I still think I inherited war-related trauma as The Holistic Psychologist stated is possible.

When I was a kid and got into major arguments with my dad, he would mention about how sad he was to grow up without his dad who had died during World War II, and he never imagined that he would end up arguing with his own child.

Only a few weeks ago, when I was griping about a conflict that my dad and I were having, my older cousin reminded me that he grew up without a father. He did not have a model for what healthy parenting looked like.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago, my mom and I got into an argument. At some point, she started mentioning how the Japanese military destroyed her aunt’s home. When she says stuff like this, I already know she is talking about World War II and its impacts on her family. At first, I thought her mention of the destruction from war was random, but maybe it is not so random.

Yes, my parents survived World War II, met in medical school in the Philippines, immigrated to the United States during martial law, practiced medicine in the United States (my dad did not get past residency, but my mom practiced medicine until retirement), and raised my sister and me. Yes, my mom bought a couple homes and a few cars. Yes, they have enjoyed the luxuries of material possessions and vacations. Yes, they gave my sister and me access to education and healthcare.

These are markers of success, but I would not say that they are proof in themselves that someone overcame trauma. What does it really mean to overcome trauma anyway? Does anyone ever really overcome it, or is it something that we just manage?

I do know that the management of trauma is internal work, and external appearances alone do not indicate how someone has responded to trauma.

Here is an example from my later life. When I met my ex-boyfriend, I learned that he had immigrated from the Jamaica to the United States as a preteen. There were various traumas he had experienced both in Jamaica and the United States. There was the challenging adjustment to being an immigrant and also the different types of abuse he had experienced as both a young child and an adolescent. Like me, he was in high school when 9/11 happened. He joined the military at age 17 with permission from his mother. Soon thereafter he was deployed to Iraq. He had done a couple tours of Iraq by the time I had met him.

I was well aware that he was a veteran when I met him; however, I did not necessarily realize how much trauma he had experienced in his life during his childhood, during his adolescence, during war, and after war since I had met him. I was aware of the challenges he had with racism in the workplace and other parts of his life while we were dating, but I do not think we used the word trauma at the time to describe those experiences. Plus because he was a successful person in terms of his education and career, I took it as a sign he had overcome his multiple traumas. Only later did I realize I was sorely mistaken. Now that I am older, I do realize that those experiences were trauma whether he used that term or not. When we were dating, Black Lives Matter was already a movement, but the racial reckoning in the United States and around the world started years after I had broken up with him.

Actually, that is the interesting thing. When I broke up with him, it was primarily because he cheated on me. Do you want to know what he brought up to me after I had broken up with him? All of his traumas. He mentioned that he did not have friends like I did and he had survived so many things on his own. Now, yes, he did have friends, but he was not close to them like I was to mine.

It is interesting. In other relationships where there is cheating, the cheater might focus on the immediate factors that played into their decision to cheat. However, with him, he was upfront about explaining how traumatic events from his childhood, adolescence, the Iraq War, and life after war impacted his ability to connect in relationships.

I do not think he was making excuses. I can completely understand how his past experiences compromised his ability to build a healthy relationship with anyone whether it be familial, platonic, or romantic.

When I was dating him, he reminded me of my parents just because they were all islanders who immigrated to the United States. Now I realize the shared experience of trauma, particularly war-related trauma, was still present in their lives years after they were physically living in war. I say physically living because it does not mean that they had stopped living in war mentally, emotionally, and socially.

No, I am not someone who has been present in a war zone in the way that my parents and ex were, or in the way that people in the Ukraine currently are, but I do understand how generational trauma lives long after someone survives war. Luxuries are nice, but no amount of luxuries can ever completely compensate for the trauma that comes from war and its losses—even when someone is on the side that technically won the war.

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