In January, I participated in a trauma-healing workshop for men on Seabird Island, twenty miles outside Hope. It was run by Charis Lynn, free of charge (by donation). Though it went on five days, I was only able to attend the first day. Nonetheless it was a day to remember.
It was a small group, Charis, myself, and three other men, not counting two small children who came and went throughout the day. Despite the chaotic environment, it was intimate and relaxed. Charis does a variation of Systemic Family Constellations, an alternative therapeutic method which draws on elements of family systems therapy, existential phenomenology, and, of all things, Zulu tradition! Systemic Family Constellations work aims to reveal, in a single session, unrecognized family dynamics that span multiple generations, and to dissolve negative ancestral patterns by interacting with representatives of the past, thereby accepting the factual reality of one’s circumstances.
The workshop took place in the garage of a house belonging to one of the participants, Skiatt, a father of four, of Native American and Irish-Scottish ancestry. The walls of the garage were covered with posters of superheroes. This probably helped me feel at home, since I grew up on Marvel comics, and before the workshop began, I chatted with Skiatt about superheroes and the all-American propaganda of individualism. At one point, I pointed out the irony of my ending up in that garage, working on ancestral traumas with Native people: I am a Brit relocated to British Columbia, which is Native American land colonized by my ancestors (close enough anyway; my ancestry is almost entirely Anglo-Saxon, though there is probably some Celtic blood in there.)
Where there is irony, there is also poetry, and trauma unites us all. This is especially true if we consider how the inflicting of trauma traumatizes those who inflict it, and that some of the worst PTSD sufferers are war veterans who are not victims but perpetrators of terrible acts.
What I noticed very quickly in that garage space was how comfortable I felt surrounded by strangers. The reason was not a common interest in superheroes but a shared acknowledgment of the impact of trauma on our lives. I realized that there is something inherently more real, more trustworthy, about people who recognize, and are willing to expose, their woundedness. It allows for a baseline of humility that may even be true of Native Americans in general—who are certainly among the most systematically traumatized of peoples.
Working in the New2Yew thrift store, I see trauma victims daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. What I don’t see is people acknowledging how trauma impacts us at the deepest possible level—all the way into our cells. When it occurs early in life, it forges our identities, like swords in a furnace. All our fears, hopes, desires, interests, aversions, habits and routines, how we speak, think, and feel, how we interact with one another (and even with inanimate objects), are shaped—or at least colored—by these formative experiences. Yet they are experiences we rarely think or talk about—assuming we even remember them, and there are invariably early experiences of trauma we don’t remember, even if it’s only the trauma of our birth.
In my own case, due to my mother’s alcoholism and some irresponsible medical advice, my birth was considerably more traumatic than it needed to be. Even my conception was indubitably toxic, the result of drunken consummation. For me, there is no state of trauma-free oneness to get back to, no point in my existence that wasn’t already polluted, unless it is the oneness of God, and by God I mean what we all originally and ultimately are, the source and essence of our collective being.
To the degree our identities are formed as a defense against or retreat from trauma, many if not all of our personal orientations are also directed towards conflict and avoidance—just as a sword is oriented towards war. Many of us live and die by this sword of a trauma-generated self. There is a seething swamp of dread, anxiety, sadness, and rage bubbling beneath the surface of our lives, making our every interaction geared towards concealing that quagmire of unprocessed grief. Our behaviors are rife with dissembling, pretending, posturing, whatever keeps us “safe,” while at the same time making our interactions like minefields that prevent real connection from happening.
Trauma victims are spies who never come in from the cold.
In contrast, sitting there in that garage, very much out of my element and outside my comfort zone, yet surrounded by people united by a shared need to acknowledge, express, and heal their trauma, there was connection. It was like the difference between oil and water, love and war, reality TV and flesh and blood living.
Before attending, I assumed, since it was free, that it must be funded by government or other charities. But Charis told me there was no funding for the workshop-retreat. What was more, no one involved had done it before. She explained that, if trauma-afflicted people sit around waiting to get their act together before doing something to help other trauma-afflicted people, nothing will ever happen. So they had just done it. The only way to map new ground is to enter the unknown without a map. In that regard, I was in my element. In this swampland of trauma-denial, finding the ground always entails breaking new ground.
By working with Charis, it occurred to me that, if we rely on government or other charity programs to do it for us, we will be left to languish in a kind of Stockholm limbo, waiting for the agents of our abuse to rescue us. Who but the traumatized can help the traumatized? Who knows what they are dealing with better than people who have learned to function in the world despite their trauma ~ not by pushing it down into unconsciousness but by bringing it back into awareness, one damaged cell at a time?
By coming together to heal, traumatized people help each other simply by virtue of a shared willingness to do so. Leading by example means that movements happen without followers or leaders, merely when enough of us begin moving forward visibly. It means willingness to be, not just visible but vulnerable, exposed, raw, unguarded, and honest, no matter the discomfort. It means having no focus, interest, or goal besides that of becoming whole.
If we were all natives once, now we are all (more or less) equally displaced; we have all been torn from the womb of peaceful community existence—a time and place beyond anyone’s memory— just as we were once unceremoniously torn from our mother’s womb. Perhaps, as we heal the wounds in ourselves, we also heal the wounds that come between us, the fractures in the human community? I don’t think there is any other way.
How do we dissolve the barriers that come between us? Perhaps more importantly, why would we want to? If we can only participate in a healthy, loving community by healing the fractures within our own psyches, the reverse is also true: loving community only comes about when we, as individuals, heal our own interior spaces; when we bring our cells, organs, muscles, bones, and all the warring aspects of our souls into harmonious communication—loving community—within us. As within, so without.
All this is hard to write, but even so I know it is a whole lot easier said than done. When I was in my early twenties, I read Dostoyevsky (he was my father’s favorite writer). Dostoyevsky defined Hell as “the suffering that comes from an incapacity to love.” It took me thirty more years to begin to extrapolate, via direct experience, that, by this same definition (which I never doubted the truth of) heaven (enlightenment) depends wholly upon an increase of our capacity to love.
Since no one can force themselves to love (and will only become monstrous if they try), what that leaves is letting go of everything that prevents us from loving. We start from a place of deficiency, bankruptcy. It feels like Hell, and it is. But what counts is not how deficient we are, what counts is how honest and open we are about our deficiency. To let our lameness show is an act of love and trust, and with it, a deficiency becomes a power.
I think, based on years of doing it, that being willing to be seen in all of our hidden, shadowy aspects not only protects us but also empowers us. Not in some superheroic way, but in a peculiar way that makes us smaller, softer, meeker, and tenderer, rather than bigger, stronger, harder, and tougher.
The power of vulnerability is that it invokes and invites vulnerability in others, because it signals that we are not a threat (we are vulnerable), while at the same time indicating that we are not afraid (we are vulnerable by choice). By showing vulnerability, we signal to the world that there is nothing it can do to threaten us, while at the same time—and by the same token—we communicate that we do not present a threat to it. Like you-know-who when he got up on the you-know-what.
By showing we don’t need to have control over how others perceive us, we show the world that it has no power over us. And because only total vulnerability allows for the fullness of our capacity to love and receive love, it is actually the most enticing, inviting thing there is in all existence, as well as the scariest. It is how the power of love conquers the love of power. And who doesn’t want that for themselves?
For most of my adult life, I have had a deeply felt intuition about the truth behind the word “God”—that there is an inherently benevolent but invisible power guiding and shaping our existence. I have never, until recently, been able to feel the same about human beings. Yet little by little, in a community called Hope, I am starting to feel that there is an inherently benevolent but invisible community which we are all part of, if only we can know it, and show it.
It is not easy. It is happening one cell at a time.
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The Power of Vulnerability: The Only Protection Spell that Works