In recent months I’ve had the opportunity to visit my local art gallery to view an exhibit entitled, Changing Hands—Art without Reservation 3. The exhibit showcased various pieces by First Nations artists whose goal was to demonstrate what it means to be a First Nations person in modern society. Interwoven in each sculpture, display and painting was the underlying emotion of each artist and how they defined themselves as a First Nations person existing in a post-colonial world. The undertones ranged from anger and sadness to hope, vision and celebration. It was moving to witness how each had come to terms with their heritage and culture, and had subsequently forged an identity from their world of experiences.
As I stood witnessing each person’s journey, the hurt, the pain and the coming to terms with who they were, I couldn’t help but identify. My journey is similar. Existing in a world post-trauma, regaining a sense of identity is a struggle; it’s as though your whole concept of self has been tossed to the wind and you’re left picking up scattered pieces and solving the puzzle of where they fit. At times you come upon gaps and those gaps can leave you stuck. In a matter of hours, as I walked those halls, I came to the realization that a piece of me had long been eradicated and denied. I witnessed those comings-together of identity, the marriage of post-colonial non-native views with traditional concepts and beliefs, put together in a way that made sense to the individual. I’d never understood that I too needed to make sense of this piece of my being.
I’d spent my life existing in a post-colonial mindset, a life where denying my heritage, my culture, my background and embracing the modern was the only way to get anywhere in this life. I chose the path of science. I chose a path that defined everyone as human beings and placed them all on the same footing. I viewed my world through the eyes of a Western healthcare practitioner and I denied all that was cultural, belief-based and otherwise unconventional. I made every effort to be diplomatic in my practice because I’d witnessed injustices all my life. It wasn’t my personal trauma that caused my path in life, it was the trauma of my people, the ones who’d suffered before me, the ones who taught me that the only way to prove we deserve to exist, is to excel in the society that “they” created for us to live in. A mouse running in a maze.
In my post-trauma existence there were pieces missing, pieces long denied, buried beneath a belief system that I had adopted in order to be acceptable to modern society, I spent my life obediently trying to be accepted and hide who I was so as not to be disregarded. I was once told that, “You can never understand what it means to be, until you’ve lost all that you have been.” I understand this saying now. As I walked those halls, identifying with beliefs speaking to me from the pieces, hearing tour guides explain meanings that were way off base, feeling my heart grow with hope for a future, I realized that I was never really alone in my journey, only lost, like the rest of them. I thought to myself, if these people, these artists who’ve felt the same generations of pain, hurt and sadness, can make sense of the why’s of their appearance, the nature of their heritage and bring that all into a coalescence of identity, then so too can I rise above all that I have faced and come to terms with a newly defined sense of me.
Changing your beliefs takes time. Growing into a new person takes patience, nurturing and perseverance. All of this, I learned one day in the halls of my local art gallery, where in a matter of hours, I started on a path to becoming “unstuck.” Never fear who you are, stand out in a crowd and take pride in the “who” you were born, not the “who” you have created. Open your heart and accept those defining moments.
Read more on living post-trauma in ON BEING LOST: Living in a world of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder