A few months ago I journeyed to stay in a rural community on the East Coast. One night wandering on a warn gravel path with moonlight shimmering off fallen leaves, and clusters of trees stretching back into an encroaching fog, I came upon a cat (let’s call them Tiger) playing with a mouse. Concerned about the mouse and unable to see them I automatically picked up the little feline to support in the mouse’s possible escape. Within seconds Tiger began to cry out in agitation from my forceful restraint and tried to scamper across my shoulder. Feeling upset seeing the results of my use of force on Tiger, I hastily put them down only to see them rush towards the mouse to play once again. At the moment of the renewed confrontation, I stretched my hands out through the leaves, shuffling debris aside in an attempt to find and rescue the mouse. Finding myself over a few minutes unable to help this smaller critter (though I could hear them squeak from fear or pain whenever Tiger would pounce), confusion and sadness rose in me like a great mistful tide, tension began to burn in my chest. And between the sharp, convoluted cries of the mouse I began to notice helplessness and despair settling in my body. Nausea building in my stomach, I knelt as this interaction took place adjacent to me.
All the moments of pain and regret I hold around missed opportunity for living up to my sense of integrity, of protecting myself or others from harm, of living with compassion and courage when it mattered, came to me in my vulnerable state. In this fierce longing to support and live with care towards these two beings I found myself feeling powerless and lost. As I was with my own intensity and a part of my mind desperately seeking a non-violent solution to the interaction in front of me, the mouse’s cries became weaker until my desperate thoughts only brushed against the silence of the night and now there were just two beings next to each other instead of three.
Why was it so challenging for me to find a path to act with integrity in that moment? And how does this relate to the crisis I see us facing in the larger world?
Our disconnected self
Most of us, from the moment we are born into the world, receive a flow of messages or actions that break our trust that our needs matter. Especially in family systems, where we have a deep attachment and dependency on our primary caregiver or parent- a caregiver’s inability to be there for us can be deeply traumatic. The reason for this compromise is deeply complex, but can be linked to an interlocking relationship between personal, intergenerational, and societal trauma along with structural arrangements that chronically under-support our needs as infants.
When early life experiences have been traumatic (often felt as profound helplessness and powerlessness) there is a severing in our sense of trust and connection. This has a physiological impact on our brains, shaping our actions and behaviors to where we give up our own needs to care for those we are dependent on. From this place we experience a diminished sense of self trust, self worth, and self-care in order to survive.
This distance from our worth and trust can accumulate as we grow up within institutions that systematically devalue our needs as young people. In the school system, we are largely instructed to obey rather than encouraged to be attuned to ourselves and act from a place of choice. Our emotional and spiritual needs are lowly, if ever, prioritized. Or how we systematically receive messages about being too naive to understand anything complex in the world, and that we need to be controlled (often through punishment or shame) if we don’t act in ways other people deem appropriate or acceptable. All of these arrangements alienate ourselves from staying committed to our own values and needs. We slowly become less alive, mistrustful about who we are and what is our place in the world, and regulated by our own fears and trauma in ways that block the fullness each of us have to offer the world.
From trauma to aliveness- a journey for community and spiritual reclamation
From my own experience, research, and learning it is my understanding some of the most powerful forces for supporting us in stepping back into aliveness are resonance and togetherness. Both mean that on an acute and visceral level I have an experience of being gotten or joined in whatever is happening for me; that I have this felt sense of no longer being alone or out of place in the world. All of these forces require someone else to be at the center of our interaction or experience. This leads me to a belief that we need each other to come back into alignment in our hearts and minds- in the company of others, we can best heal personal and collective wounds.
Like ecosystems, we are meant as humans to thrive and regenerate altogether and not be separate from the whole. This for me is crucial information, showing just how invaluable community is in changing the planet. We will need to come together in ways we can never imagine doing- and this path will seem unnatural, will feel scary, uncomfortable, or confusing for all of us. We each will need to find a way to place our trust and hope back into one another despite how hard this is. I have immense hope we can discover a path through the overwhelming complexity we face as a species if we join each other in a commitment to rebuilding trust and connection- and reclaiming the beauty, meaning, and worth in each of our lives we’ve been longing for.
Loss and Renewal
Revisiting my story earlier- later on that night I went to find a friend to receive support in the pain I was experiencing. This companionship allowed me to explore my own fears and shame without feeling stuck in my trauma, allowing me to experience the fullness of compassion I have for those feelings. I began to see that my fear around the well being of these animals wasn’t so much about them but about me and a deeper fear I hold about my own safety and wellness when I see others being harmed, because of how this fearing part sees itself as dependent on others safety for my own. This clarity allowed me to be free to be with my own woundedness, and from this place a strategy emerged for how I could take action to empower this vulnerable part in the future.
A couple days later, I came across Tiger on the same path who was battering another mouse beneath the leaves. This time I took the jacket I was wearing, and when Tiger took a brief pause in their rapturous attack, I threw the jacket over the spot where this justle was taking place and bundled up as much dirt, leaves, twigs (and hopefully mouse) as I could beneath it. Lugging away the full jacket from a whimsical-looking cat, I walked a short distance where I loosened the bundle on the ground. Too my relief, out darted a mouse into a nearby fern. This was a regular practice between Tiger and I for the next 2 weeks while I stayed on the land.
Being able to come back to our resilency shapes how the future forms. And if we can reclaim our resilency as individuals, we can live fiercely committed to our own truth and integrity in this world.
MD Bessel Van der Kolk. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2015
Peter A. Levine. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restore Goodness. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2010
Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zöller. The Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2008
Alice Miller. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. New York.Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983