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  • Gary Probst

Explaining Our Differences


One of my clients, a middle-aged African-American fellow, suffering from anxiety and depression, had a long conversation with me about why so many people of color struggle so much in life. He has been researching past achievements of black men and has found that many great inventions have stemmed from their intellect---not just peanut butter.

In the meantime, the husband of a local restaurant owner is researching a possible book on the impact of psychological health issues with African-Americans and the connection to slavery. He is from Africa and is saddened by the difference of outlook. He notes the difference between black people in Europe and America. It is perplexing to him.

Now, I know many whites ask why people can’t get over something that happened over 150 years ago. Slavery has not existed here, legally, since 1865. Indeed, many Irish were enslaved by the British and sold off to sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Why do people of color have so much trouble? Do the Irish have the same issues?

Here’s the answer.

I am part Irish but I am not a descendant of Irish slaves. Perhaps those who are descendants of slaves live a different life from me. There may be a basic DNA change that has caused what a person directly from Africa may see as a vast difference between the culture of an African nation and the culture of a black community in many American cities. The brain’s limbic system does adapt to severe trauma. Connections are made within the brain. New “software” is introduced, much of it having to do with survival of the body, therefore, an increased level of vigilance and outright paranoia about others and the future. In other words, when African-Americans with ancestral migration from the South say “you didn’t have to deal with slavery”, they may actually be onto something. It may not be an excuse but, perhaps, causation.

A study at the University of Brussels surveyed and gathered data on 2500 people in Western Europe. The question being posed was about why people of one nation, such as France, have such a different outlook and lifestyle than in a nation such as Germany. The researchers also wanted to note which nations had the greatest level of neurotic behavior and they try and determine why. The research used an overlay of the history of Europe to see if traumatic events influenced different ethnic groups and how they live and relate. Here is what they found.

It may come as no surprise that Germany had the highest level of neurotic behavior. The Germans tend to be stubborn and can be quite aggressive, while people in Belgium and Holland, tend to be less intense. In review of the history of Europe, the Germanic tribes were the people who stopped the Roman advance; took on the Vikings and won and also had to deal with the likes of Genghis Kahn. Threats to security and trauma will change the limbic system of those dealing with the stress and that very slight DNA change, through brain change, can transfer to future generations.

Look at Sicily. Sicilians are known for being anxious; working like there’s no tomorrow and being fiery in their response to things they do not like. Sicily’s history has been fraught with invasion and oppression. Perhaps there is a DNA marker that, in general but not always, leans people from that area toward a more anxious life. Perhaps it is all as simple as what happened to our ancestors.

Curious about my mutt-like European background, I purchased Ancestry DNA. The results were disappointing and enlightening. I thought I would see a blend of French, Irish and German. In reality, Ancestry DNA could not define a nation in Western Europe. They use the term, Western European. It turns out the DNA differences between the French, Germans, Dutch, Belgians and many of those in that Brussels study are so very close in DNA that there’s no strong indicator of origin. I find that fascinating. It is also interesting that the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula can be pinpointed. I could see migration from Iberia to Ireland in their charts, explaining my “Black Irish” roots, perhaps. Nobody’s sure about that. However, there is very little difference within the core of Western Europe.

As the human race left Africa to different parts of the world and differing climates, appearance changed but the original DNA markers still exist, where we all have 99.9% of the same DNA markers, per the Human Genome Project. .1%. Actually, less than .1% divides any of us from being the exact same creature. Within that .1%, perhaps, there are differences caused by traumatic events of past generations, perhaps, many generations ago.

Part of our anxiety in life is separation from each other. Technology is not helping and the tribalism of racism isn’t helping, either. Tribalism is idiotic and based on a less than .1% difference between any of us. If we allow a simple <.1% to divide us, then how natural is that separation? Does that separation help or hurt? When we inflict trauma onto others, are we not inflicting trauma upon ourselves? Did God not make each and every one of us in His spiritual image? Are we not connected, not just from DNA, but through God?

Suppose you support the candidate who wants to build walls and uses racist remarks to incite angry people. Perhaps you support the candidate who wants to amplify that anxiety and supposed uselessness via enabling. I disagree with both of them.

I believe we need to not enable. The soft racism of low expectations hurts as much as a Klansman’s hangman’s knot. Outright hatred and derision of our brothers and sisters, through God’s grand creation, is more overt but the outcome isn’t much different for our fellow humans. It is time to truly unite and find solutions, through elevation of the human spirit within all of us----and I mean ALL of us---as we are all part of a whole of humanity that God intended to grow and develop as his children, together.

Today’s high level of anxiety and subsequent mental illness, along with increasing use of hard street narcotics and prescription pain medications, relates back to past trauma and tendencies developed from the trauma. Let’s do our best to limit trauma for all of us—working together---as very close to the very same people. Creating chaos and drama for any of us creates it for ourselves.

Surely, we have to defend ourselves from evil intent. We sometimes have to battle each other. However, when we harm each other, we are giving up a piece of ourselves, creating further chaos. Although not an easy goal to achieve, we need to work on limiting trauma, for all of us. Let’s try and close that gap of a tenth of a percent between us by living as one species, created by God, to live with God and each other.


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© 2019, The Matthew Project, Inc., Hartford Counseling and Life Span Family Services