In the heart of the jungle in Columbia, the U’wa people live a simple existence mostly beyond the reaches of modern society, having had little contact at all with the outside world until a few decades ago. Their indigenous relationship to the earth sustains them in a collective role as caretakers of the earth and an equal facet of nature. Thus, when the prospect of international firms making plans to drill into their ancestral lands for oil in the late 1990s arose, they perceived the concept to be intolerable, apocalyptic even.
The tribe of 5,000 people made it known that even the act of searching for oil on their homelands would destroy their way of life, initiating the same kind of colonization, exploitation, destruction, and violence that has happened elsewhere. In fact, one hundred and sixty kilometers east of the village, the Caño Limon oilfield run by Shell and Oxy, earns Colombia hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The pollution, loss of wildlife, and changes to society as a result from drilling in the area are devastating—and that is only half the story. The increase in guerilla terrorism, gun-running, and drug trafficking by those attempting to sabotage or commandeer the oil operations has taken a severe toll, spilling over into U’wa lands as violent machine gun battles waged between opposing bands and stray gunfire invaded the U’wa village.
On receiving the news that exploration, and ultimately drilling, would imminently occur on their lands, the leaders promptly announced that the entire tribe of some 5,000 men, women, and children would willingly step off a 1400-foot cliff rather than suffer the horrors sure to follow the drilling. In fact, this impossible decision to commit mass ritual suicide has happened before. The nearby cliff is on sacred ground where everything is alive, land protected by ritual and dance, land which tribespeople refuse to enter for fear of violating their covenants with ancestors, spirits, and the earth. In another event centuries ago, faced with moving onto forbidden sacred grounds in retreat from the invading Spaniards, the greater part of the adults of the tribe threw the children over the cliff in clay pots, then stepped off into nothingness themselves. For the U’wa, oil is the blood of Mother Earth, and to invade it—above or below ground—causes imbalance and ultimately, death. “I sing the traditional songs to my children,” a tribeswoman says. “I teach them that everything is sacred and linked. How can I tell Shell and Oxy that to take the petrol is for us worse than killing your own mother? If you kill the earth, then no one will live. I do not want to die. Nobody does.”
In his book The Inner World of Trauma, Donald Kalsched uses the word trauma to mean any experience that causes unbearable psychic pain or anxiety. For an experience to be "unbearable" means that it overwhelms the usual defensive measures which protect us from perceiving horror and pain. The distinguishing feature of trauma of this magnitude is what Heinz Kohut called disintegration anxiety, an “unnameable dread associated with the threatened dissolution of a coherent self” (as cited in Kalsched, 1996, p. 1). This kind of anxiety portends the complete annihilation of the human personality. For the U’wa, the trauma created by the very concept of violating their living sacred land, the mother of them all for whom they are responsible, was “unbearable,” threatening to completely dissolve the way of life, the values, the worldview—indeed the very tribe itself.
Bernstein, in Living in the Borderland, points out that when the Navajos were displaced, many of them simply disappeared. The disorientation initiated by loss of ancestors and memory, of being located in a larger web of meaning, is profound and irreversible. Estrangement from land results in uncanniness, the feeling of not being at home. Thus, to be without place translates to not existing at all. When viewed from this perspective then, perhaps the decision of the U’wa to consciously and intentionally end their existence rather than waiting out the trauma until life as they knew it ended for them is really not so strange.
Glendinning (My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from the Western World) corroborates the notion that our collective culture exhibits all the symptoms of one that has been traumatized, and that we, as humans, live pathological patterns of abuse and addiction due to the fact that we live in an “extreme and untenable situation” (p. 122) related to a sense of profound homelessness. She agrees that humans have lost that vital connection to nature which is our birthright and have suffered a violation that, in her words, ”forms the basis of original trauma” (p.64) resulting in exile and psychic displacement. Thus modern humans exhibit pathological behaviors typical of trauma because we are aware at some level that “something unnatural has happened to us” (p. 63).
Robert Stolorow, in "Empathic Civilization" in an Age of Trauma goes as far as to designate the contemporary era an “Age of Trauma” because, according to him, the “tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides” (para. 2). He refers to ongoing and increasing global issues like global warming, terrorism, and economic collapse, all of which raise issues of existential vulnerability and threaten to annihilate the core framework by which we make sense of our existence. To this list by Stolorow, I would add the pace and intensity by which we are fed information by mass media which assaults us with information like a firehose, inundating us at every moment with horrific news about violence, crime, disease, loss, death, and destruction, allowing no time for us to integrate or “hold” the news in a lifestyle which provides no container in which we can witness it.
Activist and author, Joanna Macy points to a general apathy in our culture which she defines as a state that derives from dread. She claims that we live in fear of confronting the despair we all carry that lives just under the surface. For Macy, despair is "the loss of the assumption that our species will inevitably pull through" (p. 1, column 3). More and more, we are bombarded by data that questions, perhaps for the first time, whether or not our culture, our species, or even our planet will survive. Growing numbers of people are tuning in to this horror across a broad spectrum of the global population. Worse, Macy points out, feeling despair in and about a cultural context can be isolating, further amplifying the dilemma. She believes there is a psychic dissonance between our felt sense of impending apocalypse and the increasingly desperate mechanisms to maintain “normalcy” as our society requires us to become adept at sweeping our fear and pain under the rug in order to avoid the taboo around directly addressing despair. "Our dread of what is happening to our future is banished to the fringes of awareness, too deep for most of us to name, too fearsome to face". As well, individuals who tap into the unnamed dread often conclude it is them and not society that is insane.
Ultimately, trauma is a transition that moves us to a threshold, what Casey (Getting Back into Place) refers to as spatial areas of transition. This threshold places us at the portal to a new way of being, a new home, even if for the time being. It locates us in a place of potentiality. In some indigenous rites of passage, as the initiate goes by, the villagers open their doors to witness the initiate and to symbolize the opening of the way. We are all in this together. We all belong to the earth. Whether it be the U’wa who locate their authentic selves and the very soul of their tribe in the face of the ultimate impossible choice to enter a great wide chasm that hosts death, or the Borderlanders who hold space with their pain while the rest of the world begins to wake up, memory--and narrative of that memory-- can create a sense of sacred space, a place where everything belongs and has meaning. The memory, the narrative, the witnessing all carry us to the open door, the edge of the very precipice where something new awaits, a homecoming to the place where the new skin made tender by trauma can be touched by the first rays of gentle sun that rise beyond the horizon of pure potentiality.