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Intergenerational Existential Trauma:  Transforming to Freedom Within

Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology of South Africa
Date: 11 May 2021



I recently watched a short clip titled ‘why people fly’? It was narrated by Alan Watts, a deep-thinking philosopher and meaning maker who would often draw from Eastern wisdom. The essence of his message is that life is short, and that it is important to do what you love doing. He also talks about the ‘thing’ that holds us back and refers to the intergenerational dynamic of the compulsion to repeat what the previous generation did. He talks about how people get caught up in the mundane cycle of chasing money over meaning that seems to have infiltrated the depths of our collective psyche. This is evident in our consumer driven society and hyper capitalist greedy economic systems that serve the power hungry. He used a creative and powerful metaphor to articulate this dynamic saying, ‘it’s all wretch and no vomit’. The metaphor implies that generation after generation people introject (take into the self or the psyche) this ‘thing’ that in the context of the greater meaning of life, makes us feel sick, but that we cannot get this ‘thing’ out of us. In each of us is the desire to become free from this ‘thing’ that keeps us stuck. The essence of his message is that every human has the desire to experience being free, yet we repeat doing the things that keep us stuck in the hope that these will somehow make us free. It is the painful paradox of the human ‘race’ when what is truly desired is to human ‘being’.

As a psychologist and a paragliding pilot, myself, his message struck me deeply and in a way that has prompted me to reflect on the meaning that paragliding has for me and what it represents. In thinking about this question of freedom I draw on my training in depth psychology. Depth psychology acknowledges that the mind has conscious and unconscious parts to it. The rational thinking mind can be in the conscious part, often referred to as the ego, while the irrational emotional mind is in the unconscious part and often referred to as the id. The id is the seat of creative energy but is primal and without logic which sometimes poses a risk to the sensibility of the ego as rational mind. Governing the ego is the superego which is that part of the mind that is taken in from one’s primary caregiver during the earlier years of development. It is that part of the mind that Alan Watts is referring to as the ‘thing’ that is passed on from generation to generation, but which keeps us stuck. Of course, we need a superego, I am not saying chuck it! But depending on how it develops, it can sometimes be too harsh and unhelpful in its reprimands towards the childlike and free parts of us.

Ok so I have provided an overview of the mind according to the father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, and I have made the connection between Allan Watts’ message about intergenerational trauma and the superego. People fly with the unconscious desire to transform this dynamic. Perhaps it is time to open a window into the story that authored my own story. I grew up in a very average middle-class family in the small town of Estcourt in Kwa-Zulu Natal and was the last born of four children. By the time I came around child rearing had probably lost some of its novelty and the household was full to overflowing with siblings competing for attention. I can remember the tricks I played to try and get my fair share… faking a high temperature, ratting on the older siblings for their wrong doings and so forth. There was never a dull moment in our household. I learnt to stand on an upside-down bucket so that I could reach the sink to help wash dishes at age 4 or 5. We all had to muck in with two hard working parents who labored to put food on the table.

My father had his own toilet hire business… yes that right, he rented out portable shit houses for a living, and my mother was a nurse. We were taught growing up that life is hard, unfair and that to become educated, get a job and earn decent money should be the primary focus. The force was with the introjected (taken into the psyche) superego (governing part of the mind) of Mom and Dad and the force was strong! My father would rent toilets to a music festival in the Southern Drakensberg called Splashy Fen each year and as a child we were allowed free entry into the festival because we were part of the shit house brigade. The music festival in some way represented something of the freedom that Alan Watts talks about in that there was a breaking out from the norms of society allowed in that space. I remember witnessing circles of men and woman playing on drums and blowing on didgeridoo’s, with the pungent sweet smell of marijuana in the air. The woman wore long tie-dyed flowing dresses and danced to the rhythms that saturated my senses. I could feel the freedom, the difference from the mundane hard life my parents had to live for us, all around me and in some way, I think I managed to take some of this into my psyche, or rather, it found its way into me.

I had met up with a group of other 10-year old’s and we roamed free, through the valleys, over hills, though crowds of peace-loving beautiful people, into the ice-cold refreshing mountain river and into the depths of this beautiful place. I remember spotting a couple of men with giant square parachute looking things which turned out to be paragliders. They were using their paragliders to create mini flights for children at the festival and were not even charging money for the experiences! They would start at the top of the slope, inflate the glider, and then push the child, strapped into the harness, down the slope to create short moments of flight. It was not long before I too was strapped into a harness and a kind man with long hair was pushing me down the slope. I later found out that his name was Hans. The ground lifted from under my feet and for the first time in my life I felt that feeling. The freedom in flight. It was a feeling that entered the inner recesses of not only my mind but into some ‘place’ more profound and deeper than is possible for me to explain using only words. It was 1995 and I was 10 years old at the time. Little did I know what this experience would do for, in and to me at the time.

Later that year my folks, being unconsciously intuitive, bought me a kite for my 11th birthday. It was one of the first power kites to be developed and resembled the paraglider that Hans had used to give me the experience of flight. I was delighted and obsessed with my kite and would fly it at every opportunity for the rest of my childhood. The kite as a gift from my parents seemed to represent an object of freedom, a desire, perhaps unconscious, but it was a way of imparting a gift of freedom. Perhaps this object was taken into my own psyche and formed a part of the complexities that involve the free child within seeking freedom in the world. Perhaps it represented something that could challenge the conventional superego in me to transform the repetitive intergenerational cycle of entrapment. It could mean many things, but paradoxically it did represent something about being deeply empowered by my parents to challenge the superego and to transform the cycle of stuckness that Alan Watts talks about.

The years passed by and I grew into a troubled and rebellious teenager. We moved far away from my comfortable childhood hometown to live in Mpumalanga. I blocked out the possibility for freedom as I had experienced it before, I guess the loss of my inner free child was too painful to acknowledge and work with at the time. In psychoanalytic terms one might say I repressed my free child deeply into the unconscious mind to cope with my loss and with my trouble. After dropping out of school, leaving home at the age of 17, completing my school via correspondence while holding down a job, and then experiencing a gap year in the UK, I eventually found my way to Pietermaritzburg to study my undergrad. There I was chasing hard to become employable so that I could hopefully one day earn a decent wage and work to live, repeating the cycle of intergenerational existential trauma. I wanted to be someone after having worked at washing dishes and serving tables in the UK for people who were especially important in my mind. This was my chance to be someone in the world. The race was on!

It was in the second year of varsity in 2006 that I saw a poster advertising sky diving for varsity students. My inner free child leapt into my conscious mind and before I knew it I was jumping out of an airplane. My father was not so keen on the idea and gently directed me towards flying paragliders as an alternative. By this stage I had no recollection of my early childhood experience at Splashy Fen, I thought this had been lost and so these memories were buried too deeply for me to access. After a short bit of research my Dad and I identified Wild Sky paragliding school in Bulwer and signed up for the intro course with Hans. After a theory and practice briefing it was time for the first low slope flight! My heart was beating out of my chest with excitement. Hans pulled on the risers from the front and up came the glider…. ‘run run run run run’ he shouted, and ‘hands up hands up, that’s it’. Just like that in a moment, that feeling found me again. I was alive, I was flying, I was (without realizing it at the time) recovering my inner free child who had become lost to me for all that time. It was not the same feeling as jumping out of an airplane, although the canopy ride did bare some resemblance. On that day, under an old Profile school wing, a part of me was invited back into my experience of being in the world, I was on a journey towards becoming my whole person again.

It was not until some years later that Hans and I made the connection, that it was me in the photograph that he had of himself giving the experience of flight to a 10-year-old at Splashy Fen in 1995. Somehow, some part me found the way back home to the feeling of freedom, to a place of reclaiming my free inner child whom I thought was lost forever. He was not though. He was repressed into the depths of my unconscious mind to cope with my pain and loss in my teenage years. This brings me to reconnect my story to the question posed at the start of it, ‘why do people fly?’, and to connect to my reflections on what paragliding represents for me. Flight is a form of freedom, but it takes courage to leave the ground where the compulsion to repeat the previous generation’s traumas has the potential to keep us stuck. Stuck with that ‘thing’ that needs to be vomited out and purged if we can have an opportunity to transform our lives. Paragliding represents the recovery of the free child within for me and a vital part of my journey as a human being towards wholeness and towards healing. It represents something that has the power to challenge the inter-generational trauma that keeps us stuck in patterns that are not helpful. But most importantly, this journey has taught me to trust in the unconscious, and to trust that no matter how difficult life becomes, and no matter how lost I can feel in the world, that there are always forces beyond my comprehension guiding me back home, to myself and to the place where I am not wounded, but whole and healed and free.

Calum McComb

Psychologist, paraglider pilot, socio-psychoanalyst, seeker, and consciousness traverser.

13 March 2021

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