In Karmic Tones

Comments on Miyoung Yoon Hammer’s “Psychological Homelessness: Healing Intergenerational Wounds.” Dr. Yoon Hammer’s article can be found in SANACS Journal #4

Things happen to us. These things make us who we are today. And things have happened before we were born, in our parents’ lives and our grandparents’ lives. Stuff maybe no one even remembers, and yet also making us who we are today.

Dr. Miyoung Yoon Hammer is a psychologist. She looks at life as a psychologist would, seeing people as more than distinct and discreet units, but as a part of bigger things. So our troubles and experiences are not just because of who we are. But who we are is of all our troubles and experiences.

Stories and Systems

An example: as a young man, I had a habit of compulsively wrecking cars. I’ve lost count, but in my first 15 years of driving, I must have been the cause of 3-dozen accidents. [*] Was I just an awful driver, careless and dumb? Or were things going on in my “systems” pushing me to drive too fast, too close, too tight?

The technical term for what we’re describing is “systems theory.” And a systems approach is a beautiful thing. It’s realistic and thorough. It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand that we’re all active participants in our environment, impacting and being impacted by what’s around us. [1]

Miyoung seems most interested in the systems between generations. How the events of prior generations persist in impacting the present generation, even after those events are forgotten.

In my example, my father died in a car wreck when I was very young. The details surrounding the accident are vague and rarely talked about, except every once in a while, at a bar, with someone who used to know my dad back-in-the-day. And even then it’s confusing: what a great person he was, but what an awful lot of trouble he had gotten himself into.

Miyoung talks about her father too. As a 10-year-old boy, he escaped communist North Korea, leaving his family home in hopes of waiting out the war. He never made it back, and instead immigrated to the other side of the world to start a family. And the cost of that choice was high. He left a seminary position in Korea to work in a factory in Canada. A time Miyoung describes as “demoralizing.” And her mother toiled under a similar burden, embracing an ambitious resolve to leave her family behind to pursue greater professional goals. Later, Miyoung would make a similar decision to leave her family home and pursue an education on the other side of the country. Her mother’s response was, “Well, I left my mother so I guess it’s fate that you are leaving me.”

Miyoung describes these heart-wrenching stories as steeped in the “two themes of loss and resilience,” themes that impact her present day choices, experiences and relationships. She goes on to talk about the tension between loss and resilience plays out in her life. In the tension she feels navigating her different worlds: Korean – American – Seventh Day Adventist. This tension is summarized in her marriage a non-Korean man from a different religion. A choice that crushed her parents’ “hopes and dreams for putting down deeps roots for their family in America.”

Generational Karma

Miyoung gives a heartfelt account of an experience that I’ll call, for lack of a better term, generational karma.

In my cursory understanding of Buddhist theology, karma is the enactment of the Law of Cause and Effect. Meaning, simply, that whatever happens makes something else happen, and those “something else happens” are connected to the initial “whatever happens.” I drop a vase; my karma is a broken vase. I plant an apple tree; my karma is apples.

In Miyoung’s story, parents from one generation are seeing the effects of their causes played out in their daughter’s life. Only what they’re seeing is not what they’ve hoped and planned for. But more simply the natural effects of their actions. So Miyoung’s parents pioneer a trail of leaving home (literally and symbolically) to forge a new life. And Miyoung herself leaves home and forges new a life.

An apple tree is planted and apples are gotten.

In my story, the turns of a father keep rippling into his son’s life. A vase is dropped and a vase is broken.


There is another aspect to systems theory, what I’d call equilibrium. In a family, it’s the idea that the assembly of people in the family attempts to balance itself. So family members are pushed into playing different roles. For example: a blamer, a distractor, a computer, a leveler, and a placator. [2] And, once a system is in equilibrium, it tends to stay that way.

Thinking about Miyoung’s intergenerational stories, I wonder how families seek out and maintain equilibrium through generations, playing out a back-and-forth across the ages, having an elder drop out of a role as a descendent fills it in. There’s a harmony in these shifts. A grandfather is a carpenter; his son is a poet; his grandson is a carpenter. Reminds me of the old idiom, “Talent skips a generation.” Or the Rilke poem, “Sometimes a Man Stands Up During Supper.” [3]

But in many of our stories, we’ve seen a generation of massive disruption throwing family equilibrium into chaos. Miyoung talks about it in the trauma of uprooting and transplanting plants, the trauma of immigration, disturbing a natural pattern. So now, instead of a family smoothly balancing itself out within and in-between generations, the system is in survival mode, just trying to re-establish itself as viable.

I can imagine Miyoung’s pull to this graceful back-and-forth when she laments having grown up without her grandparents, losing track of the rhythm of her family’s intergenerational system. I can feel my own version of this pull, missing a physical father while being propelled into life by an invisible and unconscious father in my mind.

Loss and Resilience

I like Miyoung’s invitation to listen, not jump at answers. It’s a beautiful nod to the therapeutic process. Another wonderful part of therapy is an old and resilient idea: the interventions don’t matter as much as the relationship. [4] It seems to me that intergenerational wounds do, over time, re-establish balance. Immigrant families do plant deep roots. Barriers of language and culture eventually make way for common ground. We, more recent immigrants, can see this in older immigrant cultures, cultures that have become more distinct cross-culturally American.

So I conclude my thoughts by humbly bypassing Miyoung’s request. I suggest that there is a solution, one that is slow and patient and full of love. It is staying in relationship: conversing and sharing and being together, fighting and rejecting and breaking apart, understanding that something in us will hang on and heal and get back to the business to growing. And, as our stories entreat us, that though much is lost, much abides.


[*] An exaggeration. I did sit down and add it up once. It was a fairly large number, but inflated by including minor fender-benders.

[1] Systems theory is very broad and includes work in many different disciplines, including biology, engineering, and economics. In psychology, it can refer to several areas of study. In this post (and in Hammer’s article), I’m using the term within the parameters of Family Systems Psychology. A downside to systems theory, detractors might comment, is that it takes away from individual rights and responsibilities, turning personal problems into collective problems.

[2] These are roles identified by the “Mother of Family Systems Therapy,” Virginia Satir. Satir believed that families can get stuck in playing out these roles instead of developing healthy, authentic and flexible identities.

[3] “Sometimes a man stands up during supper and walks outdoors and keeps on walking, because of a church that stands somewhere in the east. And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead. And another man, who remains in his own house, stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses, so that his children have to go far out into the world towards that same church, which he forgot.” From A Book for the Hours of Prayer, translated by Robert Bly.

[4] This theory has proven to be fairly rigorous. In recent meta-analyses by the American Psychological Association, Norcross found that “the therapy relationship makes substantial and consistent contributions to patient success in all types of psychotherapy studied (for example, psychodynamic, humanistic, cognitive, behavioral, systemic). The therapy relationship accounts for why clients improve (or fail to improve) as much as the particular treatment method.”

2 responses to “In Karmic Tones

  1. Pingback: On Purposeful Forgetting | SANACS

  2. Reblogged this on GHOZT WRITER and commented:

    I wrote this for SANACS(digest) a few months ago. Thought it had a similar confessional tone as my last post here: “I Don’t Believe in the God I Worship.”

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