“The degree to which we do not allow ourselves to feel our pain is the degree we also do not feel our joy, for they are the exact same polarity.
So, if we are not willing to embrace our pain,
we cannot have the joy.”
–Dr. Marianne Rolland
In 1977 I was twenty-four years old, a social worker living and working in rural Alaska Native villages. I lived alone in an isolated cabin with no running water. Outside temperatures sometimes dropped to 60 degrees below zero. My assignment was to provide comprehensive social services to eight villages and two larger communities, all linked by a regional hub road system.
My training provided me with the skills to be a good listener, to have compassion for others’ experiences and points of view without judgment, to reach out to others who were suffering, and to seek potential resources. To do all of that, I had to be willing to knock on the doors of total strangers in a culture foreign to my own life experience.
Discovering Hope for Intergenerational Suffering
Soon, I realized I was a welcomed guest. My first friend was Elizabeth, an elder within the community. As we sat at her kitchen table sipping hot tea and nibbling on pilot bread crackers, she poured her heart out to me in her broken English. She told me horrific stories of human cruelty as she shared the hurts and suffering of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “Drinking caused all of the bad things that people do to each other,” she told me.
Despite her emotional pain I also sensed her hope, her inner calm, and the belief that things would get better. As trust was nurtured between us and our hearts bonded, we became a team working together for the betterment and healing of the community.
I soon met more elders and became overwhelmed with the depth of their grief and suffering. I recognized their desperation and yet sensed the wisdom among these people. The elders repeatedly expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be heard and stressed that life in the villages had become imbalanced. They wanted the pain to end, and so did I.
Confronting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
I wasn’t aware then that the majority of the people in the villages were suffering from repressed trauma and PTSD. I also wasn’t aware that their stories were activating repressed feelings within my own psyche and body.
Nothing in my formal education had adequately prepared me to work with emotional trauma, so I returned to the University of Washington to earn master’s and doctorate degrees in social work.
Healing is Possible
When it came time to complete my dissertation project, I was drawn again to the elders to gain a deeper understanding of their historical perspective on human traumas and traditional ways of healing. The elders, who are considered the wisdom-keepers for their tribes, repeatedly gave me the message that healing is only possible if you include the dimension of spirit. A middle-aged man trained in the traditional methods explained it this way:
“In the old days, everything was in balance. Everything was considered through a spiritual lens or realm. The medicine man, shaman, or sleep doctor was at the center of keeping things in balance. It was a whole and balanced system and it was highly spiritual. Each person learned how they were to be, to interact within that well-defined system.”
Maintaining Balance the Traditional Way
In traditional Native American communities, daily rituals and ceremonies were practiced to help maintain that balance. Everybody watched out for everyone else’s well-being. The elders also told me that “true healing comes from within.” I was intrigued by the concept of healing from within, and yet, I couldn’t find anyone to show me how to do it. I sensed that the elders knew, yet bringing long-forgotten traditional practices into the modern world was difficult. They all spoke in broken English, and they thought primarily in their Native language.
Despite the language barrier, I witnessed my elder friends releasing intense emotional pain. Even though they were isolated and blocked from using their traditional practices to ease suffering in the larger community, they allowed for the flow of great emotional energy in themselves, with me as their witness. They taught me the value of being present, and the power of having human witness to our pain and deepest suffering. I was honored and moved to the core of my being.
This experience planted a seed within me about what we all might need in order to heal our emotional pain. The concept of “balance” within the individual, the family, and the community became a guide for me as I gathered elements of what eventually became a very specific healing process.