Often I wonder why I feel so connected to the traumas of Native Americans or African-Americans in this country. My family arrived here in 1957 with no awareness of what had happened here, in this golden land of opportunity. They had a daughter who needed help after polio had paralyzed her leg and hoped to get their own legs on some solid ground, give their children education and a whiff of middle-class prosperity if they could get that far. Which they did.
But you could imagine their bewilderment some years later when they found fingers pointed in their direction calling them racists, or at the very least active participants in a racist and genocidal society.
It took me a while to come to grips with what it means to be a white person here, in some people’s words: a perpetrator. It started with reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, and since then the panorama got wider and wider.
But that’s not the only reason. I’ve been reading The Year of the Comet, a novel by the Russian writer Sergei Lebedev. His protagonist is a boy living through the dissolution of the USSR, and this is what he writes of the boy’s family:
Every family in the USSR was “overloaded” by history; the family space did not protect you from anything, it had lost its autonomy. Too many people had died before their time, and the family remained exposed to the crossfire of history, constantly reconfiguring itself to the intensity of the losses, finding a replacement for once significant figures.
Probably every family at any time lives like that. But there seems to be a threshold for loss, after which there is a quantitative change. The family stops being a communal entity unfolded in time, built on values and meanings, and it becomes simplified, moving into a reactive existence within opaque zones where you can hide from time and the state.
. . . A child’s life in such a family is not at all necessarily horrible, the child can be loved and spoiled, but he still feels that below the cover of daily existence and the concord of communal life, there are tectonically active layers saturated with blood that is hardly symbolic.
A child grows in a field of conflict greater than his horizon of comprehension, inheriting historical anxiety as a background and milieu of life.
Some sociologists now call this multi-generational trauma, with symptoms like anxiety and fear of what the new day may bring. People suffering from this often try to find oblivion in alcohol or drugs. But it’s Lebedev who nailed it on a much deeper level.
Growing up this way, you feel it’s not your life to begin with, that underneath the rhythms of daily existence—get up, breakfast, go to school/work, talk to people, work, lunch, more work, take care of family, make dinner, walk dog, watch news, go to bed—underneath all that the earth is moving. Nothing is what it seems. Nothing is as normal or mundane as it seems. Underneath the little acts there are big forces at work, and those forces are acting on you and through you, whether you like it or not, whether you chose it or not.
I grew up feeling exactly like the boy in The Year of the Comet. My family didn’t live under Stalin or get sent to the gulag, they grew up in Eastern Europe and saw that world disappear under their very feet, fought and got hurt in a war in Israel, and always felt the enemy was all around. Their children inherited that in their very genes, in every single one of the billions of cells that made up their bodies.
You have your life ahead of you, my mother used to say, you have more opportunities than I ever had. But I knew in my guts something very different: It wasn’t my life at all, there were forces deep and strong working on the family, on me, and through me. The personal part of it was small; the much bigger part of it lay beyond me.
Growing up here, I watched white American children go through their lives with no sense of that at all, as if everything was within their reach, as if they were masters of the universe. Even at a very young age I suspected that not only were they not masters of the universe, they were not even masters of their own lives. The only difference between us lay in that they didn’t know it, and I did.
I actively participate in our programs with the Lakota because I am aware that they, too, know this. They, too, as Lebedev said, have grown in a field of conflict greater than [their] horizon of comprehension, inheriting historical anxiety as a background and milieu of life. We’re different, and alike.
For years I tried to fight the tectonically active layers saturated with blood that I felt lay under my feet, that would rob me of a personal, individual life, but I stopped to do that. That is my life, I now say to myself, and I’m grateful for it. Let me bear witness to it as fully as I can, act as consciously as I can, and be a small agent for the powerful, creative forces acting on this roiling humanity.
I can only go day by day, otherwise the whole thing becomes crazy and even self-aggrandizing, of which I’m wary. Start the day with meditation, feet on the ground, awareness in the mid-point of my body rather than up up up. Later in the day walk the dog between the raindrops, feed the horses their apples, and otherwise, let not my life but the greater life take over. As if I had a choice!
What choice I have is to go unconscious, or wake up to what acts through me. Not fight, not get distracted by self-doubt, Trump, or anything else, just make a vow to help those who struggle, love every minute of life that’s given me, use whatever clay (or words) comes to my hands and make my tiny, well-meant offerings, one eye looking sideways at the invisible that’s always there.
You can learn more about the Zen Peacemakers’ Native American program here. You could also register for free for a one-hour Q&A taking place on Friday, May 4, featuring Renee Iron Hawk and Roshi Genro Gauntt, two of the retreat’s leaders, here.