The Sins of our Fathers: Disease and Low Anthropology

Gabor Maté on Emotional Repression-Turned-Stress and Remembering Who We Are

Amanda McMillen / 1.27.20

Dr. Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No was published 15 years ago, when I was in 7th grade (sorry boomers). At that point in my life, I had given my childhood very little critical thought, except that I should for sure have a later bedtime. In my mid-twenties, I find myself thinking about my childhood all the time, for the first time. And, as somewhat of a hypochondriac, the title of this book caught my eye. So with that, it became the first tick on my Goodreads list for 2020. *pats self on back*

The main idea of the book is that there is a direct link between stress and disease, especially chronic disease. Dr. Maté provides examples via interviews with his patients who suffer from such conditions as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and irritable bowel syndrome, and he asks them not just about their physical symptoms, but also about their home lives. How is your marriage right now? What is your relationship like with your parents? What was your childhood like? Through these interviews, Maté makes the argument that the dis-ease of our bodies manifests by way of accumulating stress throughout our lives. So, not great news for anyone. Also not surprising.

What made me dog-ear pages was not the argument that I already agreed with, but Maté’s discussion of generational stress and disease. In summarizing an interview with Barbara, a breast cancer patient who discussed her troubled childhood with an absent father and abused mother, Maté asserts, “It was Barbara and her aunt who died of an overdose and her alcoholic uncle and her brave mother, Betty, and all Betty’s children, who, to one degree or another, suffered for the demanding immaturity of Betty’s father and for the lack of true assertiveness by her mother. And these parents, too, were suffering and carrying the burden of generations. There is no one to blame but there are generations on generations who had lived to bear a part in the genesis of Barbara’s breast cancer.”

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Emotional repression, Maté says, is the psychological mirror to autoimmune disease — turning on one’s self. This coping mechanism begins early.

“Not one of the many adults interviewed for this book could answer in the affirmative when asked the following: ‘When, as a child, you felt sad, upset, or angry, was there anyone you could talk to — even when he or she was the one who had triggered your negative emotions?’ In a quarter century of clinical practice, including a decade of palliative work, I have never heard anyone with cancer or with any chronic illness or condition say yes to that question. Many children are conditioned in this manner not because of any intended harm or abuse, but because the parents themselves are too threatened by the anxiety, anger, or sadness they sense in their child — or are simply too busy or too harassed themselves to pay attention. ‘My mother or father needed me to be happy’ is the simple formula that trained many a child into lifelong patterns of repression.”

Negative emotions don’t just disappear of course, but turn inwards.

It’s this emotional repression-turned-stress that adds to our bodies’ capacity to develop disease. Again, this is not good news. None of us have had perfect childhoods with perfect levels of self-expression, I would assume. Some of you are parents and may be wondering how you’re doing in all of this. Maté explains,

“Parenting, in short, is the dance of generations. Whatever affected one generation but has not been fully resolved will be passed on to the next. Lance Morrow, a journalist and writer, succinctly expressed the multi-generational nature of stress in his book Heart… ‘The generations are boxes within boxes: Inside my mother’s violence you find another box, which contains my grandfather’s violence, and inside that box (I suspect but do not know), you would find another box with some such black, secret energy – stories within stories, receding in time.’”

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As Maté asks later in the chapter, “Whom do we accuse?” Knowing our wills are bent towards selfishness, that sin infects our whole world and all of our hearts, we answer that question: “None is righteous; no not one.” The dance of generations continues, we pray to God for help, and if we can afford it, we find ourselves in therapy facing our demons.

To conclude, Maté describes what he calls “The Power of Negative Thinking.” He explains, “The power of negative thinking requires accepting that we are not as strong as we would like to believe. Our insistently strong self-image was generated to hide a weakness — the relative weakness of a child. Our fragility is nothing to be ashamed of… We cannot do all that we thought we could.” In other words, we are not God. Someone Else is. We are children, and to heal, we must first remember that we are children.

Our bound wills have made us act in ways we wish we hadn’t, and it did the same to our parents and to theirs. Our desire to always seem strong was born of imperfect childhoods and being more of an adult than we ought, which has repressed our emotions and led to a facade of positivity that is physically hurting us. This is suffering, generation by generation. This is suffering in our smallest cells, our most exhausted organs, and our most painful family relationships.

Thank God — where there is death, there is also resurrection.

Death happens in that moment of giving up, desperately recognizing our need for help, remembering again that we are children and admitting, “I cannot handle the pain of this disease — body, mind, or spirit.” Resurrection follows with Jesus’ words, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”