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  • Samantha Stokesberry

Looking Back with a Lion's Heart

"Oh yes, the past can hurt.

But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it."

- Rafiki

If you’re a Disney fan like me, then you’ve probably seen the movie The Lion King. As a kid, I never expected this movie to impact my life the way it did years later. This popular movie tells the story of a lion cub named Simba who hopes to follow in the footsteps of his father, the King, Mufasa. During a heartbreaking scene, Simba wanders off and gets caught in a dangerous stampede of wildebeest. Mufasa rescues his son just in time, only to get murdered a few minutes later by his disgruntled brother Scar, who then frames Simba for Mufasa’s death. Out of fear and shame, Simba fled. He fled from his family, his past, his friends, his home, and his future identity as king. He cut himself off from his loved ones and he refused to look back.

While wallowing in isolation, Simba meets a pair of quirky outcasts who teach him how to put his past behind him by embracing a lifestyle of “hakuna matata” (meaning no trouble/no problems in Swahili). This mantra may have helped Simba cope in the short-term, but it wasn’t enough to take away his deep feelings of guilt and shame in the long-term. Just when all hope seemed lost, Rafiki (meaning friend in Swahili) reminded Simba of his true identity. Rafiki, the wise mandrill baboon who was also a dear friend to Mufasa, decided to challenge Simba with this ultimate question…

Who are you?

To answer this question honestly for ourselves, we’ll first need to take a long and hard look at our pasts. Ubuntu is a widely used Zulu phrase in Africa which means “I am because we are.” This phrase highlights the universal bond that humans experience. It reminds us that we are all connected and impacted by our relationships with one another. We are who we are because of the people who surround us. Whether we like it or not, we are shaped and defined by our families, our cultures, our faith backgrounds, and yes, even our traumatic experiences. We did not get to choose the country we were born into, the color of our skin, or who we would one day call parents. We did not get to decide if our childhood homes were going to be safe and secure or dysfunctional and dangerous. However, in spite of what we could not choose, we do get to choose how we will respond to the experiences that influenced us. We get to choose who we want to be and how we want to define ourselves.

So, instead of running from our pasts like Simba, we need to slow down and take notice. Our pasts have so much to teach us, and we have so much to learn! This act of looking back, however, will require an abundance of curiosity, humility, bravery, patience, and compassion. It will also require a big picture perspective, a teachable spirit, and a heart that is willing to forgive.

To help you answer this question for yourself, I’m going to share a personal experience that helped me along my journey…

Growing up, my mom and I fought often. We constantly argued and tensions were always high in the house. As a teen, I would frequently catch myself saying things like, “I never want to be like my mom. I don’t ever want to turn out like her.” Any time my mom and I had a conversation, it would end up in an explosive fight, and when we weren’t fighting, we were passive aggressively ignoring each other for days at a time. When it was time for college, I couldn’t move out of the house fast enough! In fact, I didn’t just move out of my hometown— I ended up flying 7,000 miles away to the Southernmost Tip of Africa! But as we just learned from Simba’s story, running away is never the answer. My traumas and fears and dysfunction followed me wherever I went, and the distance between me and my family never solved any of my problems.

I knew I had to heal, but to heal — I had to look back. That’s when I made the decision to get my own trauma counselor. One of the first things my counselor and I did was create a trauma timeline that encouraged me to get curious about my past experiences and take notice of dysfunctional patterns that kept repeating throughout my lifespan. As I reflected on my timeline, I started to notice that my problems were bigger than just me. Looking back even further, I discovered that my mom had her own traumatic childhood filled with verbal and emotional abuse from my grandparents. And my grandmother had a traumatic childhood due to the death of her own mother at a very young age. These discoveries taught me to look beyond my mom which helped me to recognize that similar patterns of hurt were being passed down through multiple generations in my family. Because I finally saw the patterns, I now had the power to change them. It would start with me.

For the first time in my life, I could look at my mother with compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. I understood that her sadness and anger were not about me. I could see that her trauma and family upbringing shaped her worldview and how she parented me and my siblings. She was doing the best she could with what she had, it wasn’t her fault, and she wasn’t to blame. This revelation changed the way I related to my mom and to others around me. I began to take the hurtful reactions of others less personally, and I began to take ownership of my own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By looking back, I was finally able to move forward. Instead of fearfully avoiding my past (and my mom), I drew closer, stayed present, and became a better version of myself. I took this power back and initiated a pattern of healing and growth in my entire family that has changed the way we relate to one another.

Simba did the same thing. He decided to face his fears and return home. He confronted his Uncle Scar and reclaimed his throne as King. Simba owned his past, took responsibility for his future, and remembered who he was. His behavior and willingness to stay present and look back changed the future for his entire family. The same can be true for you. It only takes one person to change the dysfunctional patterns in an entire family system. It only takes one person to be brave enough and humble enough to look back and face their past, learn from their experiences, and answer the question, “Who are you?”

Now, the power and choice is in your hands… will that person be you?

Samantha Stokesberry, Graduate Student Intern

Supervised by Angel Hirsch, #78101

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