After American Tragedies: The Courage to Feel Pain

"As survivors of genocide, my people know this pain and the generational trauma that accompanies it."

“As survivors of genocide, my people know this pain and the generational trauma that accompanies it.” — Sherri Mitchell

Guest Commentary

The courage to feel pain is something that most of us are never taught. Instead, we learn to distract ourselves from it, to insulate, and hide.  The irony is that when we avoid our pain it hunts us down, becoming increasingly stealth in its machinations. It hides behind one mask after another, surfacing and resurfacing, endlessly. It disrupts our lives, torments our minds, and destroys our relationships. It chases us continuously, pushing us further away from ourselves and one another, until we can no longer see each other’s faces. When we look at one another all we see are a series of cleverly devised masks, which drives our fear, anger, and hatred and causes us to keep running, though we’re exhausted and can’t breathe. Our inability to feel our pain keeps us from being able to truly connect with one another and with the individual moments of our lives. The trigger of pain may shock us initially; it may cause us to react in the moment, but then we submit to our training and slide into a state of passivity or heightened defense. Sometimes we become spectators to the real depths of pain that are being experienced around us; the kind of pain that you can’t escape.

Sherri Mitchell

Sherri Mitchell

We become lucid commentators, controlled, and ultra-focused on capturing the images of that pain, while refusing to allow it to penetrate too deep. We learn to describe our pain in flowery, well-articulated sentences, allowing our words to become a shield from its razor sharp point. All the while, the pain is stalking us, taunting us. We can never rest, because the pain will find us. Rather than stopping to feel the pain, we don our masks and act out the pain. We fail to acknowledge it and then inadvertently inflict it on someone else. We have been trained to look for the outlet, and begin directing it onto someone or something outside of ourselves as quickly as possible, so that we don’t have to feel it for too long. This is how the pain survives.

Far too often in recent years, we have been given opportunity to experience pain. This past week, I wept when I learned of the tragic deaths in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. I wept for the killing of two more black men, the sons of two black mothers and black fathers. I wept for their friends, colleagues, and loved ones. I wept fresh hot tears when I finally watched the video, and heard the traumatized voice of the woman describing what had happened and the sweet voice of her child seeking to console her from the back seat of the car.

The pain of it haunted me and stole my sleep. I also wept when I heard about the officers killed in Dallas, and I worried about the next act of retaliation that would follow. Then, I stopped weeping and tried to find the explanation, the cause, the responsible party, someone, something, anything, that I could project this pain onto. Then, two days later the unthinkable happened. I noticed that I had begun examining it in a detached manner, with a form of distant and passive empathy. I had effectively separated myself from it. This realization brought on a new pain, and a great deal of sadness and longing for the deeper sense of humanity that had been lost along the way. Was this self-preservation or self-denial?

When we don’t allow ourselves to truly feel the pain – the deep, agonizing soul pain – that results from a life lost, we separate ourselves from a certain truth, which is that we are all impacted by the pain of violence and loss; the victim, the perpetrator, and the witness alike. We all suffer deep and lasting trauma. Killing another living being causes the ultimate wound to our psyche – It is a violation against life itself and its mournful cries echo through us all, becoming lodged in our genetic memory. We then carry the trauma of that pain in our bodies and pass it on to those who follow.  As survivors of genocide, my people know this pain and the generational trauma that accompanies it. We recognize the deep inexplicable wound that is not solely our own, but that comes to us from those who came before.

In dealing with my own pain, and the trauma that I have experienced and inherited, I have learned something fundamental. The only way out of pain is to stop running from it; to meet it, sit with it, feel it, and see what it has to teach you. Pain is our greatest teacher. It’s a signal that tells us when we need to transform. That signal is ringing loud and clear. The anger, the shame, the guilt, the rage, the frustration and the fear are all outcroppings of our pain. We all carry it within us. We all have deep generational wounds from our shared history of violence. These wounds are not new.  But, how we respond to them can be.This pain and these wounds can mobilize us and lead us toward the transformation that we so desperately need. If we have the courage to face them, openly and honestly, they can heal us.

We cannot escape the collective pain that we all carry.We can’t insulate ourselves from it or wish it away. Remaining ignorant to the pain of others, or opting out of it, is an act of privilege. It denies those who have been granted no quarter, those who have been given no relief. And, it denies the existence of the pain that is carried within you as an individual. When we deny our individual and collective pain, we are prevented from dismantling the systems that our pain has built. And, we are prevented from seeing the many ways that we continue to harm one another, and in so doing harm ourselves.

Elie Wiesel wrote, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”  The center of our universe is right here, right now. It is in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, Orlando, Ferguson, Charleston and San Bernardino. Black and Native American populations have been living in this universe for centuries, as have countless other marginalized groups. But, it doesn’t exist somewhere out there. This universe exists within us all; it is in our backyards, our kitchens, and community centers. This is where we must meet and begin having real conversations about racial discrimination and racial violence, deep seated religious biases, layers of privilege, and centuries of fear and hatred.  This will require us to replace blame with accountability; anger with understanding; rigidity with openness, and; apathy with empathy. It will be uncomfortable, and it will cost us. But, the cost of not doing so will continue to be paid in lives lost, and that is an unacceptable price to pay. So we must show up.

The time has come for us to transform, individually and collectively; to face one another honestly; to deal with our sordid history, and; to heal our collective wounds. We can stop the endless repetition of these vicious cycles, but it will require us to have courage. We must somehow find the courage to face one another, remove the masks and feel the pain. Then, we must find a way to reconcile that pain, heal it, and move forward together.

Sherri Mitchell (Wena’ Gamu’ Gwasit) was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian Reservation. She is an Indigenous Rights attorney, writer and teacher. She’s been an adviser to the American Indian Institute’s Healing the Future Program and the Spiritual Elders and Medicine Peoples Council of North and South America. Sherri speaks around the world on issues related to Indigenous rights, nonviolence, and the traditional Indigenous way of life. She is currently completing her first book, titled “Sacred Instructions.” Follow her on Twitter @sacred411 or on Facebook.

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