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Touching Ancestral Trauma

Not long ago, I took a trip with my partner to Sedona, Arizona. I was excited to share this awe-inspiring place and have a romantic day in nature with her, but life had other plans.

I should have seen it coming when we found out that one of my favorite hikes now had a Disneyland-esque forty-seater shuttle bus that takes the sunburnt, sweaty, and exhausted tourists to and from the mountain to a bigger parking lot, many times a day. I wasn’t the only one who loved this hike. I had never seen it like this.

Fifteen years ago, I went to Sedona for the first time with my grandmother and it was a ghost town, comparatively. I still can’t believe the shuttle bus is a thing as I am writing this. No amazing place is off the map these days. But, I digress.

We still decided to do the hike. Maybe I decided. She was indifferent- but it’s always fun to engage in an activity, that’s cathartic for you, with your partner- I had to do it. After catching the tour bus to magic mountain, we got off and hiked our way up, dodging tired and wobbly-legged sightseers making their way down.

Upon reaching the top, we searched for a quiet spot to take in the vibe of the tranquil and serene peak. We were somewhat successful, but after hearing the echoes of a loud group coming up it was time to take a couple of pictures and hike down. Lunch was awaiting us and I hoped our plans there would be more fruitful.

An important element to mention is that I was doing this hike barefoot, as I often do. It’s quite obnoxious to hike barefoot when there are lots of people because every other person stops you and says ¨whoa, barefoot? You’re crazy, man!¨ and the ones who don’t stop you often whisper something like ¨Honey look. That guy’s walking barefoot!¨ to their spouse. So, sometimes I wear shoes just to avoid the banter, but that day I couldn’t resist the Sedona red clay that feels so good on the feet.

Nevertheless, we arrived back in the park-and-ride line with smiles on our faces and some experiences to laugh about for the rest of the day. As we got on the bus I could hear various conversations going on about where people were going to eat lunch and what they had planned for the rest of their stay.

Another important note is that most people on the shuttle were wearing masks. This was a time when masks weren’t mandatory, so given that we just had come from a sweaty hike and breathing was already compromised, we chose to go without.

Now, I have no inclination to provoke the covid-ethics discussion that has had its own turn of virility over the last couple of years. So that we don’t get hung up on this, just know that this element of the story is only important in the context of what surfaced from it.

Anyway, one of the post-hike conversations came from what looked like a family of four (parents and two teenage daughters), who were sitting in the back of the bus on that awkward four-seater bench seat, below the A/C unit, that most buses have.

The family was loud and didn’t realize it- you can see that I was looking for a more quiet atmosphere that day. I could hear them telling another couple that they were headed to an acai bowl place for lunch as I walked on the shuttle (thankfully, we were headed elsewhere). We sat a couple of rows in front of them.

After we sat down, there was a rapid drop in the pitch of their voices, but still loud enough for us to hear them. ¨Is this their attempt at whispering?¨ I thought. They were unhappy with our choice not to wear masks, which I understood. They may have felt less safe due to our choice and it was a reasonable concern. This wasn’t an issue for me.

What became the issue was that for the whole ten-minute plus ride, they proceeded to actively demonize my partner and me. Again, they were ¨whispering¨ so you did have to tune in to hear them but I have never felt so publicly slandered in my life.

Then they saw that I was barefoot and that took them over the edge. They called us ¨hippie-dippie’s¨, ¨moron’s¨, and ¨disgusting.¨ Ten minutes of demeaning comments from people that didn’t know a single thing about us. I was appalled, through their actions, at humanity’s capacity to be so brutal and hateful.

Consequent to their actions, I deduced that these people were having a meager time on their vacation and most likely in life in general. The parents were probably looking forward to this trip for the last few months so they could finally take a break from the demands of modern-day life, only to realize that the demands are deeply ingrained and therefore followed them on their vacation.

So, I took this all into account as I sat there and did my best to not take anything they had to say personally. What a practice that was. I tried to find compassion through the lens that their safety was being compromised and how that can be a sensitive trigger. However, there was still something happening inside of me that cut a little deeper. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but looking back at the grief, unworthiness, muteness, and pain I felt during this experience, and even now as I write this, was strangely ancestral.

As a Black man, I find it interesting that the family was white, this experience was happening on a bus, and I was cast out through bigotry. It only makes me wonder how many people in my direct lineage had to deal with such situations. Far worse of course, but with this same underlying essence and energy of hatred. The experience, inside of me, felt like an aftershock of the injustice and racism that America was founded on.

I know this is a big statement and one that may have some people think that I am minimizing the more overt hate crimes of our past, but I haven’t taken it lightly in writing this. I feel it in my guts and I have allowed it to stir in me over the last several months. One reason I share it in this way is that I feel it in this way. And God knows I’m learning to trust in my feelings.

The other reason I share it in this way is for us to learn. To grasp the fact that many of the ways we act were adapted long before we were born. To see that our work, as the collective of now, also lies in repairing the hurt of our ancestors. Meaning, to look and listen for those echoes of the past that are rippling through our culture like a shockwave, and slow down enough to feel what they have to say.

Without this increased sensitivity and awareness, there is no progress. This, I know for sure. Life will keep beckoning for wholeness to be restored to everything that is (or has been) contained within it.

I look back at that day in Sedona with heartache. The rest of it held high amounts of overwhelm for me. I couldn’t relate to my partner and felt completely isolated. In other words, I pushed her away. Again, at the time there was no pinning my afflictions, but now it’s clear.

The sorrow I have inside of me as I write this stems from a longing to be with the ones I love, not wanting to miss opportunities to share life experiences with others, and from the newfound understanding of the implications collective trauma has on my personal life.

The damage done in the past does not remain in the past but is right here between you and me and our connection to the fullness of life. We often overlook the subtle ways these wounds present themselves in our lives. Which doesn’t mean they don’t affect how we live. It means we are absent from the ways they meet the present moment.

The absence is a strength, no doubt. The wounding our ancestors went through or created is overwhelming to feel, so better to shut it off. We chose that because it was necessary for us to continue on. However, I believe we are more resourced than ever as a collective to look at the ways we are speaking from the past.

If we start to become aware on an individual level we will see the idea we have of ¨the way life is¨, as one of my teachers likes to put it, is in fact not the way life is, but the ¨way life is when it’s wounded.¨ Meaning, that the societal structures of today include the wounding of our past. So what we might call normal is actually only normal because it has been that way for so long. Look deeper and there are reverberations of past hurt continuing to obstruct the light.

So bringing presence to moments of absence will help us move forward in wholeness as a society and, on an individual level, allow us to keep the continuity of connection to the people we love. It is my wish that we will all carry this in our hearts as we walk our path. In doing so, we will slowly chip away at the mountain of absence in our collective to properly move forward towards the future that awaits us.

“To feel the problems of our world is to know its suffering, but this requires compassionate “response-ability.” If we fail to address the world’s collective trauma with clarity and compassion, we imperil the survival of our children and our children’s children—and countless other species.”

- Thomas Hübl