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  • Writer's pictureDr. Paul D'Alton

How the death of a child breaks open the human heart

The tide has turned. The image of three-year-old Aylan washed up on a beach in the holiday resort of Bodrum, Turkey, has cut through months of passivity, politicisation and procrastination.

Three small children walking through a refugee camp under a cloudy sky.

The tide has turned. The death of a child breaks open the human heart like nothing else. The death of a child changes the rules. The death of a child breaks down our psychological defences in a way that is utterly unique. The image of three-year-old Aylan washed up on a beach in the holiday resort of Bodrum, Turkey, has cut through months of passivity, politicisation and procrastination.

The death of a child changes everything because it goes to the core of what it is to be human. It activates our most basic psychological drive to protect what is most vulnerable; our children. This drive to protect children is a primitive, hard-wired brain function that has ensured our survival as a species down through the centuries. The drive to protect is paradoxically our most primitive brain function and also what makes us most human. It cuts across ideology, right and left politics, religion and international politics.

In the pictures of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach, we see our children. His little shoes and his red T-shirt are unbearably similar to the clothes many of us dressed our children in this morning.

We try not to think about his brother Galip, just two years older than him, washed up on another beach in Turkey.

These two boys, just a little over a month ago, were playing football together on the street.

They shared dreams of one day playing football for their country or being a fireman or a teacher or maybe a pilot. Seeing Aylan in his little shoes and red T-shirt activates our most human of human capacity - compassion.

Compassion has been described as the human desire to alleviate the suffering experienced by another human being.

Every St Patrick's Day, our Taoiseach, a bowl of shamrock in hand, makes an impassioned plea for the undocumented Irish in the US to be treated with compassion and their status regularised.

The years following the banking collapse witnessed many thousands of Irish people flee these shores in search of a better life. This is not a new experience for the Irish. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we have an unfortunate genetic inheritance when it comes to leaving our homeland and being recipients of compassion from other nations.

The Great Famine saw the deaths of a million Irish citizens and the mass movement of a million more in search of safety. Forced to risk their lives upon coffin ships, in attempt to reach a safe haven, those who left faced an ongoing battle simply to survive. This was a little more than 150 years ago, a blink of an eye in historical terms. A heart beat away in psychological terms.

We know that the trauma of our past does not end when the events that cause the trauma stop. Indeed, we Irish know all too well that trauma experienced by one generation lives on for our children and our children's children. We frequently refer to the Irish 'famine mentality' and many commentators have said that the well recognised problem we have as a nation with alcohol likely results from our troubled past. This inter-generational trauma is alive and well in the Irish psyche.

This intergenerational transmission of trauma has many routes. Social influences, such as parenting practices and typical genetic inheritance, have long been identified as ways by which our past lives on in future generations.

More recently, Dr Rachel Yehuda and her colleagues at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital demonstrated another mode of transmission for trauma. Working with parents who lived through the Holocaust and their children who had no direct experience of trauma, the team's pivotal research identified genetic changes in those who survived the Holocaust that were then found in the next generation.

The changes found in this research were not in the genes themselves, but rather in the chemical tags that attach themselves to our DNA. These tags essentially switch genes on and off. These findings represent a significant step towards demonstrating what is known as 'epigenetic inheritance' - that is the idea that environmental influences, such as psychological trauma, high stress and diet, can affect not only your children but also your grandchildren by changing how our genes respond to the environment.

These new scientific findings support what our experience tells us: that today's trauma shapes the societies and individuals of tomorrow and for many years to come.

We are at a critical moment in European history. The current humanitarian crisis on the borders of Europe is the worst since the Holocaust of the Second World War.

The Europe that we know today is a response to the horror of the Second World War. We have seen moments like this in the past.

What's very different though is that the images of horrendous human suffering during the Second World War did not arrive in such an immediate way. This moment is one that we cannot pretend we didn't know was happening. The human crisis happening in the Mediterranean could not be more visual. Unlike many of the humanitarian crises of the past where images came after the event, this is happening in real time before our very eyes. Aylan in his little shoes and red T-shirt cannot be politicised away.

Aylan in his little shoes and red T-shirt breaks down our defences, breaks open the human heart and changes the rules.

As a people who carry the legacy of our own coffin ships, we are called upon in a unique way to provide leadership in this crisis of human suffering.

We have a genetic inheritance that enables, empowers and gives us an authority to step up and be the strong, compassionate voice for our fellow human beings. We need our Taoiseach to articulate the deeply held wish of the Irish people to uphold the human rights that are universal to us all. We need our Taoiseach to lead in Europe on our behalf now.

The rules have changed.

Originally published in The Irish Independent 05/10/15.


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