As I sat 4 rows back, 2 seats to the left from the middle aisle, I listen to an Alaskan Native Elder sharing their story. Around me sat a mixing bowl of cultures, as Yu’pik, Western, Eastern European, and other cultures all blended into one. Eyes not wet with empathy were a rarity, and hearts untouched were nonexistent. As I spent 3 days listening in the back of a Historical Trauma: “How to Heal and Move Forward” conference in a church on the Northern side of Bethel, Alaska, I thought, maybe life is all in the reaction.
There was a backpack on the stage as a translation device in my ear mimicked the story that was being told by the Elder up front. “Are you going to choose rocks or balloons?” A teenager from the back parted the center aisle, strapping the backpack on one shoulder at a time. “How far do you think that you could walk right now?” The Elder asked the teen. It was obvious that the backpack was empty, as it sunk into itself, and sat at the midpoint of the teen’s back. Six volunteers walked up to the front, each with a rock.
The elder began again, “Things happen to us in life, that is uncontrollable. We lose our friends, our parents, our kids. We watch people die, or just live their life as if they were already dead. And it hurts us, hurts us so much that we begin to fill our backpack with choices. When our parents hurt us we feel neglected (the first volunteer puts a rock in the backpack). When the world refuses to give us a helping hand, we feel the need to do it ourselves. We become selfish (another rock). When everyone who was supposed to love us failed to do so, we feel unworthy (rock #3). We start to wallow in the pain, become disconnected from the outside world (rock #4), we grow cold and cynical, pessimistic at what could ever lie ahead (rock #5). To cope with all of this overwhelming sense of despair, we turn to the bottle. We drink our lives, our families, our future away (The last volunteer tops off the bag with the final rock).”
The elder asks the teen how far they could walk now, as a slight shake of the head gets a room’s worth of laughter. We are shown that the teen can’t walk very far, they just trudge along, slowly in life with their backpack full of rocks, adding more as they go. Like a snowball rolling down the hill, once the cycle starts, it is hard to stop. So you find yourself fifteen years down the road, still carrying rocks from a childhood of despair, still fighting battles with the demons that are now old enough to drink.
“But, as all else in life, there is a choice to be made here.” The elder then brings the volunteers back up, each with a balloon in their hand, and has them form a line, with the teen in the front. The teen is instructed to take the rocks out of the backpack, without taking it off, obviously (because we can never take our backpack off). After reaching the top one, the teen is left spinning around, looking like a dog chasing their tail. “We can only heal ourselves so much, we only have so much power, until we are left unable to shake these rocks out of our lives. We need help, help from those around us. We need our families, our friends, our loved ones to help empty the rocks from our backpacks, just as they need us to do the same.”
The volunteers each grab a rock out of the pack, setting it on the table behind them. “We have the ability, and the necessity, to move on, to heal. Yes, we do this with our family and friends, but we also do this with our choices. Instead of choosing rocks, imagine how our journey would be if we choose balloons.” Following that, volunteers filled the backpack with six balloons, each announcing their balloon as they stepped up. In order, the balloons followed as: love, caring, respect, identity, self worth, and spirit. “Imagine if instead of choosing neglect, we choose love, or instead of choosing a feeling of unworthiness, we choose self worth. Imagine where or who we would be now.”
There was never any bitterness towards the past from our leaders, never any hateful words spouted about colonialism, or the colonising of Alaska. It all focused on the impact of first contact, and how to change what the past has laid out for the future. Generation after generation have passed down recycled pain, until there comes a point where we are feeling and sharing the pain, without living through the occurrence. This holds true to all cultures, not just native cultures. Our grandfather’s father is hurt in his life, whether it be by love, by rejection, by loss, by whatever. This hurt manifests itself into behaviors, such as anger, depressing, or the like. Passing down his pain to his son, now leads his son to follow in the same steps. So when your grandfather coped with alcohol or violence, it was a learned reaction to the pain that his father felt. And so on, until the pain is recycled through your father to you (this doesn’t just happen with males). Suddenly, there is a hole in your chest, and a pain in your heart and you don’t even understand how it got there.
We must break the cycle. We aren’t taught how to be brothers, how to be lovers, or fathers. We aren’t taught how to heal trauma, or help our families. But this, this can’t be held against anyone. “In order to move forward, to move our family passed this, we must first accept all that has occurred.” We must forgive our fathers and our mothers for acting out the script that was passed down to them. As we all know, we have no control over our parents, and if we could only understand that their behavior was not about us, but about themselves. “They didn’t behave bad because they didn’t love me….they were just too busy trying to deal with the hell that they were going through.” Without this understanding, life creates a truth for us where someone else’s bad behavior becomes who we are.
So how do we move forward? This was the main topic that the rest of the conference covered. Moving forward was synonymous with healing, and healing, as we were told, was impossible to do alone. The Native Culture, as taught, focused heavily on family, heavily on the whole. Contrasting with our western culture, where an individual can leave in order to heal themselves. The only way to heal, the only way to move forward, was to apparently bring your family along as well.
But, we must understand, as Dr William Glasser tells his patients, that the only thing in the realm of our control is us, not our families, or our mates, or our kids. Just us. Understanding that, we then accept that we are “completely in control of our balance.” There is no way to help those around you, if you are behaving in ways harmful to yourself, and to others. So while we may not be able to heal the gashes plaguing our soul on our own, we can alter our behavior and shift our mindset, thus becoming a positive influence on those around us. Like dominos, others will do the same. Once everyone accepts control over their own lives, then the healing can take place.
This first step is not easy though. It is not an easy attempt to become a better person, to attempt to start the process of healing. Like extracting minerals from a cave, you have no idea the darkness and the depth of pain until you begin to dig around in it. People, mostly, will not be supportive. Change is not tolerated amongst small circles, and you changing will be seen as a defiant act against the whole. Initially, they will not support your endeavors, your new needs, your personality and behavior shifts. But this is okay. Often we will fail, and become disheartened because it is a new feeling for us. When we accept our reality for how it is, and refuse to shift or change it, we never fail, because we never try. When we try, when we attempt to start the process of healing, failure is inevitable, but not the end. In her closing sentence, our leader, Rose, stated, “Trying to be good takes a lot of practice.”
Accepting that there is pain, accepting that we all have trauma is a necessity. Hiding from this truth does no good for anyone. Maybe this is the reason that the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that All Life is Suffering. Maybe, once we accept that we all suffer, we all have pain, we will no longer try to fight it. We can accept this as a truth, and work on what comes next: healing, coping, overcoming.