In my last post, I wrote about the essential role ceremonies play in helping a story's protagonist and ourselves reintegrate into society. I also shared a few excerpts from Sebastian Junger’s fantastic book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.
To me, one of the most fascinating parts of Junger's book is when he describes the way American Indian societies used rituals to help warriors deal with their traumatic wartime experiences. He contrasts this with the way modern-day society greets returning combat veterans by allowing them to board first on planes and by repeating generic sentiments such as, “Thank you for your service.” Junger argues that these well-intended but ultimately empty platitudes only make vets feel isolated and alienated from a society that cannot relate to what they have been through.
When I was reunited with my birth family in 1997, I experienced a similar feeling of isolation. While I had friends who had been adopted, none of them had been separated from their parents in such a dramatic fashion. It wasn’t until I visited El Salvador in 2011 for my documentary film that I found a community of people who have been through a similar family separation. While meeting my peers was deeply meaningful, it didn’t help me connect with the society in which I had been raised, my “Ordinary World.”
Fortunately, when I discovered storytelling, I stumbled upon the beginnings of a path forward, a way home, if you will. You see, to create a story that resonates, a writer must structure a series of events, real or imaginary, in such a way that they mirror our collective human experience. This is why writing my autobiographical novel has been so rewarding for me because it has allowed me to find meaning in the challenging, disjointed, and chaotic experiences I’ve had. I thought that finishing my book would be the end of my journey, but reading Tribe made me realize that there was one final step I was missing, sharing it with others.
Junger makes the case that a person’s ability to find belonging depends heavily on the society that the individual returns to. American Indian societies created ceremonies that allowed warriors to share their often horrific wartime experiences with the community they fought to protect. He postulates that these ceremonies worked because:
[The warriors] didn’t have to contain that trauma within themselves. The entire society was undergoing wartime trauma, so it was a collective experience—and therefore, an easier one.
For me, the idea of “collective experience” is the key to homecoming. To help people feel whole, we must listen to what they have been through so they do not bear the burden alone. While bearing witness to the difficult stories of others is not easy, I believe it is one of the most generous acts we can do for another person.
In closing, I want to leave you with a quote from the climactic scene of X-Men: Days of Future Past that touches on this very subject. While the movie as a whole isn’t that special, this bit of dialogue moves me every time.
Charles Xavier: All those voices... so much PAIN.
Professor X: It's not their pain you're afraid of. It's yours, Charles. And as frightening as it can be, that pain will make you stronger. If you allow yourself to feel it, embrace it, it will make you more powerful than you ever imagined. It's the greatest gift we have: to bear their pain without breaking. And it comes from the most human part of us: hope.