This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on Oct. 16th, 2014
When I was a child my parents gave me a small red radio as a gift from Santa, and I was confused. I did not know who Santa was and had no idea why the occasion merited a gift. Apparently, my parents were worried that I may be jealous of our Christian neighbors when we visited them on Christmas and joined them in celebration. These were happy memories from the Iraq I grew up in.
I remember immensely enjoying the decorated Christmas tree, the chocolate we were offered, and the celebratory mood of our Christian neighbors. Santa’s surprise gifts eventually stopped when my parents realized I was not jealous, but what continued was the mutual merriment between Christians and Muslims in Iraq. As a Muslim family, we always celebrated with our Christian friends during their holiday and, in turn, they joined us in our celebration of Muslim holidays. No one thought twice about the difference in religion. We were all Iraqis and Iraq stood for diversity of religion and varied ethnicity amongst its people. But that is not the case in today’s Iraq.
Iraqi Christians have been killed and kidnapped ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Initially, they were caught between Sunni and Shia tensions and fighting — and eventually they were targeted directly by most religious extremist groups, starting with al Qaeda in Iraq. The brutal attacks began on Christian individuals and then culminated into mass bombings on churches during sermons. Then it expanded into more subversive methods, from discrimination within the workplace to harassment in the streets. Throughout that time, priests were advocating for Christians to stay in their homes and not flee their county.
“This is our country. We are the original people of this country and the oldest Christian community in the world. We should not leave Iraq. This is our home,” a priest advocated in a sermon in the very church in Baghdad that was bombed a few years ago. Christians are not alone in understanding the importance of staying in their homeland despite threats. Moderate Muslims who know that the Christian community is part of the social fabric of Iraq are very much part of the same attitude to keep the country united in its diversity. But as fear spread with the arrival of ISIS, things have changed for all.
At the moment, everyone I know in Iraq is afraid. If you are a Muslim, whether Sunni or Shia, you at least know there are militias or armies on either side to defend you. Many moderate Sunnis and Shi’a are supporting the militias of their own sect — not out of beliefs or values but out of pure fear, knowing that the other side wants to kill them. And so they support the militias who will do the fighting. At the moment, it is merely the urge to survive that is driving people’s decisions and not ideology. But no good can come when fear is the motivating actions. Still, Muslims that are experiencing terror within their own communities and from ISIS, who are clearly after all Shi’a and any Sunni who do not agree with their way of Islam, are in a better position than the Christians who live across the country: from Basra to Baghdad to Mosul and all the way to the furthest part of Kurdistan. If you are a Christian, there is no one to turn to — and in today’s Iraq, not even the government.
My recent communication with my Iraqi Christian friends over the past few months evolved from “we are worried,” to “we are scared,” to “we are threatened,” to “we need help” to the following letter from a very dear young Iraqi man whom I had the privilege to work with in the past. And I know of no one who is as dedicated to Iraq and women’s rights as much as my friend George. In his letter he says:
Hello dear Zainab,
Very glad to hear back from you,
The Christian community is shrinking day after day in Baghdad and Iraq in general, even those who live in Kurdistan. My sister and cousin are the last family members I have in Iraq and they are both gone. My sister who had a good job and her husband who works in a UN agency decided to leave to the States. And my cousin who lived in Baghdad with his wife and three children left three months ago to Jordan to apply for asylum.
I have no one in Iraq. Many people I knew in church, or friends, are gone to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. There are about 1200 Christian families now in Lebanon after the latest events all came from different parts of Iraq.
Me personally, I was attacked by 2 armed very young boys. One of them put his gun directly to my head, asking me to give him my phone and wallet. He did not say many words but I will never forget what he said: “you look Christian. That’s why we will not kill you. We will just take your cell phone and wallet.” That happened just in front of my home.
When I entered my home I was speechless really. I was happy that I was safe and alive, in the same time mixed feelings of anger and sadness. I want back my iPhone, because it belongs to me and it is not fair that because I am Christian they can steal my stuff. When I went to [the] police station to report, since they use cell phones in explosions so some friends asked me to go the same day to report, the police were relaxed and smiling in my face and even did not listen to me. Next morning I went to criminal court to report and I finally succeeded in reporting. But no one commented anything to me and I have to admit that bothered me really. A lot.
Rich Christians in Baghdad are called by phone by gangs asking them to pay $60,000 and above or they will kidnap their children, saying that ["]you are Christians we don’t want to hurt you just give us money.["] This is a fact.
Many fled Baghdad to go to the North. But those families are living in churches and they live with no privacy. Because of the crowded churches with so many boys and girls, the churches with parents are arranging for the teenagers to get married to each other so they create social order and take away any sexual tension.
This is not announced but it is happening.
In general, Christians don’t feel they are welcomed or have space anymore in Iraq, for me personally I don’t feel there is a system or law protecting me or my family from violence in anytime someone needs money or revenge or any other reason. My family and other families, which do not have many resources to leave, are waiting for miracles to happen to leave. If I had enough money or savings I would take my older parents, family, sister and brother to a safer place where we can apply for immigration to any spot of earth that respects dignity of human beings…. I think I have [a] depression problem myself and for sure will need trauma healing but my priority now is safety of my family really, because I see impressions of my sister or brother’s face when [the] door knocks after 8 pm. All times of the day the doors are locked.
My only relief is my work, even though I am less productive now and kill my tension and depression with smoking. Yes I started smoking as it’s my way to relax now.
It is hard — very hard — to ask people to sacrifice the well-being of themselves and their families when their lives are in danger. Unless the Iraqi government prioritizes the protection of the minority population in Iraq and makes everyone feel safe and welcome in the country, this government will be responsible for changing the social DNA of the country if the Christian community, as the biggest minority community, ends up leaving Iraq. I write this as a Muslim who believes a country is only as beautiful as its acceptance and protection its diverse social fabric. Since the second Gulf War, Iraq has witnessed the shrinking of its Christian population from 8 percent to 5 percent, or about 1.5 million people, across the country to the current estimated figure of 200,000-450,000. A country is only as good as its treatment of its most marginalized populations and minorities.
If the Iraqi government does not prioritize the protection of its Christian population, as well as other minorities, through political sensitization, protection, and respect, we will lose the Iraq that it once was. And ISIS will have won even if their military is ultimately defeated.
There is indeed a kind of self-righteousness we each possess as we look and judge the world from outside ourselves. We are each the center of our own universe in which we see and analyze those around us in relation to our own experiences with them. We see some of the people we encounter as “good” and some as “bad.” Some we consider as one of “us.” And others we see as one of “them”—those other people who are bad or malevolent. There is even a Talmudic saying that demonstrates this point: “We see things as we are. We do not see things as they are.” Even though it may be unavoidable to see the world from outside our own perspective, it would be an interesting exercise to shift position and see things from another viewpoint whereby the lens is looking inward as opposed to outward. And instead of judging others, we first look inward at ourselves and own our full story with all its goodness and badness. I physically do that in my practice of aerial yoga, where you flip upside down with the help of a hammock and see the room from a different perspective. It took me a long time to learn but when I finally mastered the pose, I wondered what it meant to have this other perspective of myself, how I view my life, and those around me.
Now you may say, “why should I bother to do this? I am happy with the way I am, or I am perfect and content, and don’t have interest in shifting my lens.” If that is what you believe, I would be worried about how you see yourself and what your attitudes are towards others around you. Where there is light, there is a shadow. And we cannot see the full self if we do not acknowledge both the light and the shadow within us. When we are aware of these two dynamics, we can then make a choice of which one to nourish more and which one to accept and control. In my experience, every time I was unaware of my own shadow it would sneak up on me in uncontrollable ways and end up hurting me more than anybody else could hurt me. And every time I acknowledge the shadow within me and understood its source, I take its reign and am able to regulate it and control it. In that process, there is a deeper understanding of the self in a humbling way that makes me more responsible and in control of my actions. It makes one more humble in walking this life, more empathetic and less judgmental in seeing others around you, and more able to see the self fully in its beauty and its beast.
There is no end result of this journey and there is no way to reach a state of perfection. It is an ongoing process that aims to provide a more realistic way of seeing the self. The more one sees the self in a clear and honest way, the more you know what to take in from other people’s opinion of you, and what not to take. The more you own your own story and experiences by looking inward at your own responsibilities, the more you are able to distinguish what is truly yours versus other’s projecting their story onto you. There is a calmness that comes with compassion—not only to oneself but also to all others around you, even those who may have hurt you. The more you work on seeing your own shadow, the more you are able to see those around you with a new lens—a cultivated outlook that recognizes the light as well as the dark. And this will help you spot those who put themselves in the middle of the light and deny their own shadow.
Angeles Arrien, a great teacher and mentor, pointed out in her anthropological work of indigenous cultures around the world how “every person is a mirror of some aspect of our own nature” and how “we are all mirrors for each other.” She identified the mirrors as “clear,” “shady,” and the “no mirrors.” Clear mirrors are those who bring the best out of you, lift your spirits, and bring you joy when you are with them. Shady mirrors are those who irritate and annoy you, or those who you are sexually attracted to. No mirrors are those who you do not notice no matter how many times you encounter them. In Arrien’s retreats, which I had the privilege of attending several times, she has everyone sit in a circle and asks all participants to practice direct conversation with the person who holds any kind of mirror to them. If one is a shady mirror in terms of irritation, she asks us to identify what aspect of ourselves did this other person touched within us. And instead of blaming the other person, one needs to acknowledge that the person who represents a “shady mirror” only triggered this because it exists within you. All of this had to be done by going to the person and having the courage to communicate this to them honestly, without blame, in front of the whole community of retreat attendees.
You can imagine that this is not an easy conversation. Silence is usually held for a long time and each person has to confront their own discomfort with the idea of having to acknowledge their own story instead of scapegoating the other. Even those who are sexually attracted to another person are asked to have this honest conversation by acknowledging their attraction to the person, thanking them for triggering this feeling within their heart. And if they are not available, they are released from all desire to respond or act. Just the confrontation of that in an honest way releases all tension and drama, which are usually triggered when there is sexual attraction and when there is no honest conversation around it.
Arrien proves many points with this exercise. One truth is that there is no obsolete definition for any one person as good or bad. It is impossible for one person to be loved by all or hated by all. Instead, everyone holds mirrors that trigger different things in each other. So the same person can be loved by some and hated by others. This can’t be a sole reflection of the person. A large part of that is the mirror this person holds for others around them. This is an exercise of utter self-responsibility, of seeing oneself from another perspective, of having to confront even uncomfortable subjects we often prefer to hide. But it is also an exercise of liberation from self-righteousness. It is a step towards walking the path of humility and compassion towards the self. And in understanding oneself fully, you understand others around you.
Whatever self-perception we have of ourselves does not matter, really. I could tell myself that I am “this or that” all I want. And I can see others as “this or that” until the end of my life. What is important is the walk one takes in life and the actions one does or does not do. The more you are truthful to yourself, the more you can be in touch with your values and the life you want to live. And with that, the more you can give of yourself with compassion and grace for a better world. So ask yourself, have you had that honest and hard conversation within yourself? Can you have that conversation with others—be it in your family, work, or community. If not, the mirrors around us are plentiful. You only need to start seeing things from other perspectives. The route may be hard—and even horrifying to see our own shadows and to have the honest conversations—but I promise there is liberation in owning our full stories and in having truthful conversations within us and with others. And freedom is always worth the journey.
Years before the news of ISIS in Iraq, I took my colleagues out to a restaurant for lunch to celebrate their hard work at Women for Women International Baghdad, Iraq office. I sat next to Umm Ahmed, the office cleaner, but almost didn’t recognize her at first. Instead of wearing her cleaning clothes, she had on a beautiful purple dress, a nicely pressed black shirt, and a matching purple scarf. She looked lovely as she turned to me and said, “I can’t thank you enough for today. This is the happiest day of my life.”
“Wonderful!” I said. “But let us wait for the food to arrive and hope it is really good.”
“It doesn’t matter how the food tastes,” Umm Ahmed explained. “I am just happy thatI am inside a restaurant. I have always dreamt of getting into a restaurant and today you made my dream come true. Thus it is the happiest day of my life.”
This took me by surprise. I admit going to restaurants is something that I take for granted and never think of as a source of privilege. So the awareness that going to a restaurant is something many never had access to was a humbling learning experience in and of itself. But for that act to be the happiest moment in this woman’s life was hard for me to accept. So I pushed forward, inquiring, “Truly, there must be another happier moment in your life Umm Ahmed.” And with this I asked her about her marriage and the birth of her children and she kept insisting that none were pleasant memories.
Her arranged husband to a man 20 years her senior did not bring her joy, the birth of her girls brought disappointment, and the birth of her son came at a time when there was no food to share. But when I asked about her childhood I finally saw a joyous twinkle in her eyes. She initially denied there were any happy experiences, as she faced poverty in her youth and went hungry many nights. But the spark in her eyes finally came when she talked about the days her father came home with food, as many other days he didn’t arrive home with groceries.
That childhood memory of food evoked the same happiness she exuded when she told me about her dream of dining in a restaurant. Both sources of her happiness were related to money, or that’s how she saw it when she explained to me: “At the end of the day, the reasons for all my sorrow, my fights with my husband, my daughters quarreling with their own husbands, is ultimately about money. We didn’t have it, and we still don’t have it, so it consumes all of our attention and takes away all of our joy.”
Well, one cannot deny that the lack of money and resources in general can lead to a lot of stress and stress does indeed lead to unhappiness. To deny this reality and instead tell people you are free to create the life you want is, in my opinion,insensitive to the reality millions of people live in around the world. It helps to have education, resources, and a support system—even if it’s just one person who believes in you—to walk the journey of your chosen destination. When none of these factors exist in someone’s life, it is not impossible, but it is darn hard—very hard—for that person to come out on the other side and achieve her or his dream. We simply need to acknowledge that reality even as we talk about the possibilities of hope and change in people’s lives.
Having said all of that, I still believe that money is not the source of happiness. I may have worked with the poor for 20 years but I know many people who have all the wealth in the world and they are still struggling with the same concept of happiness. In a nice restaurant in New York City, a friend recently told me, “I just got this beautiful house. I had it built and thought of every detail in it. It is beautiful in every way I can think of. But can I tell you I am happy? No. I am not happy.” For this friend, all the enjoyment that can be achieved by money, a successful career, and a wonderful family were indeed met. And yet after years of working hard to get all that he was able to attain, there was still, to his surprise, no happiness. So what is happiness then and how can we get it?
Recently I was hiking in the mountains after a year of addressing some sadness I was carrying in my heart. And in the midst of the silence of the mountain, I thought of all the beauty that Mother Earth provides us, and surrounds us always. Yet we keep on looking for heaven and peace as if it’s in another world, in a place that we cannot reach and attain until we die. But indeed we have it all right here, all the time, in front of us, in the most equalizing factor for all beings: humans and animals, poor and rich, countries and cultures, ethnicities and race. In that moment, I realized, like Umm Ahmed and my friend with the new house, I too have been looking for happiness as if it is somewhere I could not reach—something that existed outside of me, be it love from other people, resources, or whatever we each concern our minds with. But what if happiness is not something to attain from the outside? What if it is inside our hearts that are as close to us as nature is to us all. And yet we spend years thinking it is as far away as heaven is to us all?
The motto for hiking a mountain is go slowly, slowly. This way you do not exhaust yourself fast, at least in technical terms. When I was forced to walk slowly, I realized that the patient pace was forcing me to hear myself better and to be more in tune with what is around me. This made me think of my life, the lives of many other people, and how fast we go about it, valuing our doings and not valuing our “not doing.” But that very process exhausts us and makes us miss hearing our own soul’s wants and needs. Inner peace lies deep in silence, as silent as the nature around us. It’s like we run around and make noises and spend and drink and dance and do all these things to attain happiness from outside ourselves. What if it is the reverse process? What if, within that slow confrontation of the silences, we can eventually tap into what I call peace? Peace being the ultimate happiness as I see it. What if we are each individually the cake of our own happiness, fully in charge of what bring our souls joy, and that the people around us are the cream on the cake? They can sometimes make life tastier but a cream by itself is never the main ingredient of a delicious cake.
Happiness is not a mythical concept that is hard to attain. To achieve happiness,however, does entail much work. But that work is done on the soul level and not a material one. Material resources help give us the time and space to focus on what is meaningful, and a peaceful environment can do the same, but ultimately the path to peace and happiness is through the clearing up of whatever issues may have provided obstacles to being who we truly are. Addressing our own responsibility for each story is essential, as well as communicating our truth with loved ones in ways that lead to healing rather than blame. That is hard work—very, very hard work—that no one else can do for us. In the process of doing the personal work, staying in the uncomfortable moments of pain, and holding the space to those feelings without rejecting them or filling them with busy activities eventually leads us to peace within the heart. This peace is what brings me joy, personally. This peace is being fully present in the moment, wherever we may be, and fully absorbing everything around you. This peace is being in nature, the earthly heaven that is right here in front of us.This peace is in the ability to find love and joy from within and not become preoccupied with outside forces. What if happiness is as simple as silence? What if it is as beautiful and quiet and free as nature? What if our heartbeats are as peaceful as that of Mother Earth’s? What if we all can find that quite and peace regardless of our circumstances? Is it possible? It may be harder for Umm Ahmed to defy her harsh circumstances to get there and when survival is at stake it is that much harder, but even she can access that serene peace inside her heart. And if your basic needs are met and you are living in a country with no wars, you definitely can. Just take one step towards the beauty that surrounds all of us and feel that silence in your heart. And then yes, you can. Happiness is right here inside.
Forgiveness is a concept that is much easier said than done. Often I think it is used loosely, as if forgiveness is as easy as love or generosity or kindness. Like these other actions of emotion, forgiveness is about giving—but, unlike these other actions of emotion, this form of giving happens despite one’s pain and that makes it a difficult thing to do.
I once had a dream where I saw a line saying, “We need to forgive even when not asked for forgiveness.” When I saw the words I thought this was too much to ask of anybody. Forgiving when asked for forgiveness is one thing but when not asked is quite another thing. The latter implies the one who got hurt has to do all the work and that, for the longest time, I thought was too much to ask. But I couldn’t forget these words and in order for me to practice such forgiveness, I needed to approach the concept from a place of absolute authenticity to seek a true resolution of the conflict within my heart.
So I started the exercise with the times that I needed to ask for forgiveness from someone else for wronging him or her. This entailed not only acknowledging what I had done, but also acknowledging the underlying reasons for my actions without making excuses for them. Now, I don’t know about you, but I tell you that involved some real courage to dig deep within oneself to see one’s own shadow. It is much easier to see the faults of others; it is much, much harder to see one’s own flaws. But what is growth and truth if we can’t do that work? So I kept on going.
The next step entailed understanding what triggered my actions. People rarely do harm for harm’s sake. Most of us are reacting to our own past experiences, which trigger some actions that we are proud of and some that we are not. In my case, the times I hurt others stemmed from my own fear of addressing a certain truth or calling a spade a spade, if you may. My avoidance of addressing an uncomfortable truth about myself or others, combined with not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings—a cover up for a desire to be liked—led me to betray myself at times and loved ones other times.
Upon this realization, I was confronted with the choice of either keeping that confession to myself or rousing the courage to go and directly ask for forgiveness from the very person I hurt. This too is a very hard thing to do. Addressing issues within our heart is just one step, and admitting it in front of another person is quite a different step. It is easy to be the hero; acknowledging that you too have been the villain at one point in your life is more complex. Expressing this with sincerity and humility is the most crucial thing to do.
I learned the importance of asking for forgiveness with authenticity while observing a Gacaca court session one day in Rwanda. After the 1994 genocide that led to the killing of more than 800,000 people and the rape of 500,000 women in only a 100 days, the Rwandan government reintroduced a traditional justice system to prosecute the majority of people who participated in the genocide. The Gacaca court literally means the grass court where all community members gather around with community elders who run this communal court. In there, the person who has committed a crime has to stand up and acknowledge in front of everyone what he or she has done. Then the elders decide how best this person is to be dealt with, be it community service or material retribution. The essence of this tradition is twofold. First, the person who committed a wrongdoing should not get away with their criminal actions and just sweep it under the rug. Second, the best way to address the issue is by giving an opportunity for the defendant to grow and show his or her remorse rather than merely isolating and alienating them. The prison system leads to more destructive, rather than positive, contribution to society.
What I didn’t know before I had the privilege of attending one of these community grass courts is the importance of honesty. In that particular court a man stood up and described in detail how he stole from certain individuals and contributed to the killing of a few people. He kept repeating the details as the elders asked him more questions. But when they came back from their consultation, they didn’t ask him to serve the mother of the son he helped to kill, as they did with the man before him. Rather, they told him “we do not feel your sincerity in your testimony. You have more work to do for yourself to be truly remorseful about what you have done. Go back, and when you reach that stage, come back to us and we will do another trial.” “Wow!” I thought to myself, as I was observing this whole process. Only when we get to that stage of true remorse can the other person really get to a place of forgiveness.
These are all very hard steps to implement but are essential to truly understand the meaning of forgiveness with integrity. In my case, only when I could galvanize the courage to admit my own wrongdoing, was I able to build compassion that helped me forgive others regardless of their asking for forgiveness. But I must admit forgiving others was an equally hard process—especially when it came time to forgive those I respect and love most.
I first thought to myself: how can I forgive when the other person can’t even acknowledge what he/she has done? There is a sense of arrogance that comes with ignorance, which only makes the pain grow deeper. I could let go of an issue, but forgiving? Truly forgiving? That takes much more work than the mere saying of the word. But I needed the forgiveness so I could free myself from the story, as all forgiveness leads to freedom in my opinion.
At one point I realized that I often expect others to act from the same value systems as me, whatever those values may be. But then I noticed that this is like expecting everyone to know the taste of chocolate even if they’ve never tried it. In other words, these values we have for ourselves are not automatically available for others around us, even those we love and respect. That logic helped me to see the other person from the perspective of not having this or that value. That helped but did not do the magic trick. I realized that perhaps just as my fears led me to do things I am not proud of, those I love and respect may also have been afraid and their fear led them to betray themselves or their own loved one’s.
These processes eventually leads to compassion. By seeing someone else’s decisions from their perspective, it allows us to see the same story from different angles even if we do not have the same motivations. That method consistently calms my spirit and leads me to sincerely grant forgiveness, irrelevant of whether the other person asked for it or not. By truly having compassion for other’s emotions, even if that emotion is something you do not agree, offers the ability to understand why someone did this and not that. And that is when I could release myself from the story.
Now I have to say there isn’t anything as heartwarming as being asked for forgiveness when wronged. Those who are able to build the courage to ask for forgiveness show a great humility and big courage. And that always leads to deeper respect at least as I see it. Now, I have had the privilege—yes, the privilege—of experiencing the whole process of forgiveness. These experiences allowed me to look deeper into the good, the bad, and the ugly within myself and others. And it is that journey that has led me to true love—both of myself and in my ability to give love to others. Years after I had the dream, I know that it is possible to forgive even when not asked for forgiveness. That is the journey of true love.
Knock My Socks Off
Sitting by a river in Montana, observing the sun set on a beautiful fall evening, I started crying. The open plains, the silence that comes with sunset, the breeze, and what was left of birds humming all triggered my longing for a sense of home—my home back in Iraq—but I felt the bittersweet pain of knowing that that home was long gone. Destroyed. I sat there with tears in my eyes. You know, it was just one of those moments where pent-up emotions just pour out, as I mourned loss in my life, my family, and my country. In that instance, a young man who was staying in the same compound as me approached me and offered his comfort. I didn’t know this man and although I used to immediately have faith in strangers and welcome sympathy, over the years I have become more reserved and less trusting of strangers.
“No, thank you,” I replied to his offer to sit by me. “I do not know you. And frankly I do not trust any stranger,” I said honestly and clearly.
“But all I want is just to comfort you even if I don’t know what are you crying about,” he assured me.
There were days in which I trusted people’s words—especially when they were loving. Friends often say “I love you” to each other. “You are my dearest friend”—God knows how often I myself said that to so many people. “Oh, don’t you adore so and so,” and so on. Are you familiar with these repeated expressions of affection and niceties that friends share with each other? Well, I often said, and meant, them from the bottom of my heart, and I was one of those who believed people when they expressed companionship through simple and earnest phrases.
However, over the years, I noticed that there is a difference between words and actions. Words are easy and plenty. Actions are hard and require showing up. Words are fancy. Actions are rugged and demand courage at times. Words are beautiful. Actions may entail uncomfortable conversations. And after many experiences, I realized that friendships are not about merely sustained by hanging out with each other, going to movies, or sharing meals. These are all fun things we do to stay in touch, but they only deal with the surface of what true friendship really means.
So when the young man offered to comfort my tears, I looked at his words with a complete lack of trust for they were only nice words. And that’s all I heard. Respecting my decision, the man sat to the side, giving me some space as I continued in my reflections and thoughts. And suddenly, he reached out again—but without words this time. He took his socks off from his own feet and put the socks on my own bare feet. He noticed that I was shivering from the cold breeze of a Montana evening and without saying another word he simply acted and fulfilled the words he said a few minutes earlier. This time the comfort he brought was not language, but warmth to my feet. It was in that moment that I stopped and looked at him and said, “I trust this act. I trust what you just did. I still don’t know you and I am not about to pour my heart out to you, but I can trust what you’ve just done.” It was real, tangible, and authentic. The moment was sincere. I was truthful to myself even if I may not sound as grateful as you would expect me to be. You see, I think we miss the true meaning of friendship when we are merely satisfied repeating nice words. Of course, verbal expressions of appreciation are essential, and these words work as long as everything is OK and everyone is having fun. But they’re only part of a friendship—not the cornerstone.
Ask yourself about your ability to have a truly honest conversation with a friend that requires you to fully show up, either for yourself or for your friend, even if that openness may risk you losing the friendship.
Are you able to listen fully to a friend’s grievances about you and assess where you own your part of the story and where you don’t?
Are you able to apologize when you cross a line with a friend?
Are you able to go out of your way just to be on hand for your friend in times of hardship?
Are you able to see your friend for both their goodness and flaws and still love who they are?
Are you able to make choices that your friend may need as a sign of caring about them and your friendship?
Are you able to be generous with your friend without fear or worry of their judgment or projection?
Are you willing to be utterly vulnerable in front of your friend and not only present when everything is going well?
I thought to myself that I was perhaps asking for too much from friends. But then what is life if we cannot be in truth to ourselves, our values, and to each other? Asking friends to act their friendship rather than just say it may result in less friends by definition. But hey, never mess with someone’s hope, and promise only what you can deliver, was something I used to say when working with refugees all over the world. Hope is the most precious thing each person holds onto in times of war. But here I am in a peaceful country and I say never mess with someone’s hope about the true meaning of friendship. Say only what you mean and are willing to do. And be a friend who walks the walk and not only talks the talk.
For years I put the meaning of friendship all in one bucket, which entailed that I liked you and thus I opened my world to you. And over the years some people exhibited integrity, and some people left the meaning of friendship at the service of words. At times that hurt me a lot but over time I’ve come to trust actions of friendship that build the foundation for a relationship—step by step and one sock at a time.
Everyone has a nightmare they fear may really happen one day. Mine was to be alone at home in a vulnerable situation, be it sick or injured. Well, this nightmare of mine became a reality a few months ago when a jar shattered in my hands. I found myself with two hands gushing with blood on a Sunday afternoon. After a few minutes of calming myself down, I wrapped my hands, took my purse, and went to the street to take a taxi to the hospital. There were a few taxis on the street but all had passengers. As I passed by them to look for a free taxi, one of the drivers rolled down his window and pointed at me. “Good,” I thought to myself, “he is going to take me to the hospital and maybe drop his passenger on the way.” But that is not what happened. Upon rolling down his window, the driver opened his wallet and gave me a dollar.
You can imagine my shock. This instantly brought another nightmare of mine to life, which is to be homeless. Although I am not homeless, that taxi driver thought I was. Between that and my injured hands, it was a very tough and trying moment. With surprise I looked at him and said “Are you kidding me? I need the hospital, not a dollar.” And without a word, he took his dollar back, rolled up his window, and drove away. A few cars later a taxi driver stopped, and he got out of his car to open the door for me, and helped me get in as I couldn’t use my hands easily. He then took me to the emergency room, followed my instruction to take my wallet from my purse to pay him what I owed him, and bid me farewell after making sure I got into the emergency room safely.
The rest of the story is not as exciting. I obviously survived with functioning hands, which are allowing me to write this piece today. And by having to face my nightmare—not by choice but by force—I came out knowing it was not so bad and that life keeps on going despite all. Most importantly, I realize that fear no longer carries the same weight in my heart. It actually lost its meaning and this time it was not replaced by anything else but the knowledge that there is no need to fear. All of us have a great sense of resilience that we can face these challenges and pass through them. I know I do.
But that incident left me reflective on the meaning of kindness. You see, the first taxi driver who offered me the dollar is a good man. Think of it: he saw a vulnerable woman, he went out of his way to roll down his window, and offered a full dollar—which is not a small thing to give. But he did not see me and what I needed, which was to go to the hospital. His act of kindness was more about him identifying as being “kind” than about the person he was being kind to. It’s like a woman I met once who kept on expressing her love, admiration, and friendship over and over again through emails, gifts, invitations and what have you. But when I reached out to her one day and asked for her perspective on a certain story that required her to show up, she wrote: “My life is crammed to bursting with people who want my attention. I have many friends going through breakups, illness, depression, death. My love and good wishes for them are infinite. But my time and energy aren’t.”
Well, the taxi driver and this woman feel the same to me. In both cases they chose to enter someone else’s space, him by rolling down his window and her by overly expressing her love and friendship. Both defined themselves as kind and loving from their own perspective, and both missed seeing the need of the person in front of them. Kindness in this case feels more about the giver than the receiver. It’s reflected by the “act of giving” rather than “seeing” what the person needs. I am sure both individuals define themselves as kind and loving, but both individuals did not take the time and care to look at what exactly needed to be shared through their kindness.
On the other hand, the other taxi driver who took me to the hospital probably does not think he did a kind thing by picking up a passenger who was injured, taking her all the way to the hospital, and only taking what she owed him from her wallet. He was doing his job and he got paid for it. But from my perspective—the perspective of the person in need—I experienced true kindness through him. For he saw me and what I needed, and responded accordingly. His kindness was not about him but about the person who needed the help. It’s like when my mother was dying, some friends who I did not think as close at all-no constant repeat of loving expressions-showed up fully in times of need with kindness and grace in actions that made a real difference for my mother and I. I still don’t know if they will call themselves as close friends, but for me they are a true expression of friendships in how they showed up.
This made me think about the meaning of kindness in our own lives and how we think of ourselves as “good” and value the “doing” kindness if we buy someone a nice gift or send a loving email to a friend for reasons or no reason. I am one of those people who probably did that many times but never stopped and questioned what the other person needed, and—relating to the story I just told—if I am giving them a metaphorical “dollar” or helping them go to the figurative “hospital.” I have also been the recipient of many acts of kindness in my life—and I am always surprised by who shows up and who doesn’t show up in times of need. The two taxi drivers only magnified the story for me and put it into perspective.
Love is abundantly around us, and so are words. It is not enough to say “I love you” or to roll down your window. That is the easiest thing to do, but in it is a deception to ourselves about the meaning of kindness. Kindness, as I see it, is about being present to what is around us rather than being self-serving about ourselves and our definitions of kindness by giving a dollar, a gift, or loving words.
I know next time I roll down my window for anybody, I will be conscious how I will be entering that other person’s space. I will see them and their needs before I fool around with words that are meaningless without true action. Without understanding what the other person needs, a supposed act of kindness could lead to more damage than help. Could it be that kindness is as simple as showing up fully and taking a moment to consider what the other person needs? I think it may be as simple as this indeed.
On Anger, Justice, and Love
A man in the audience of a recent speech I gave asked me for advice to help him deal with his anger at all the injustice he sees in his community and in the world. I was so touched by this man’s courage to talk about his anger publicly, an emotion that is seen so negatively in society that we would rather suppress any discussion of it than address it in public.
There are many definitions of anger. One of them, from Webster’s English Dictionary, defines anger as: “excited by an injury offered to a relation, friend or party to which one is attached; and some degrees of it may be excited by cruelty, injustice or oppression offered to those with whom one has no immediate connection, or even to the community of which one is a member.” I understand that definition as I feel it every time I see injustice in front me, be it in my own surroundings or in world at large. As a matter of fact, my anger at injustice has been a major driving force in my life. It has helped me maintain my determination to serve those who have been marginalized, and impacted by injustice, in some of the hardest parts of the world.
Anger at injustice may be the spark that serves as an impetus for actions but angershould never manifest in the action itself. In other words, I believe that when we see injustice we need to do something about it—but that doing has to be with love, kindness, respect, and generosity of spirit. Otherwise, if we allow anger to dictate our actions, we end up becoming the very thing that we are trying to fight against to start with. To make real and healthy transformation from injustice to justice we need to utilize compassion rather than anger, and understanding rather than ignorance.
Recently, however, I had to question all these notions when I was faced with an act of manipulation and violation on a very personal level. In a moment of pain, I reached out to the person where the violation happened in her place for perspective and counsel. To my surprise, she answered saying “concepts of right-doing and wrongdoing always cause suffering so I can’t deal with it.” She continued and explained that she feels everyone is ultimately “innocence seeking peace.” That includes, in her description, fathers who raped their children, husbands who cheated on their wives, and definitely my own encounter with injustice.
Well, her answer left me perplexed and even disoriented for a while. It didn’t make sense to me. The world I live in has right-doings and wrongdoings. The acts of rapists are simply wrong and the raped victims have faced injustice. The act of stealing, lying, killing, manipulating—just to mention a few—are fundamentally wrong. To equate all wrongdoings and right doings as the same, and brushing everything together as “innocence meeting peace” felt cruel. And that “cruelty” was covered in the name of “love,” which makes it even harder to accept, as it represents the betrayal of love itself.
Love is not stupid and it is not blind to injustice. Love, as I see it, is clear and truthful. Through love we can address wrongdoings and do something about it. But to brush off injustice in the name of love is an insult to love itself. In other words, when we see something wrong, we have to confront it. Seeing and acknowledging wrongdoing is part of the healing process for the victim and the aggressor alike. And doing that with compassion is what leads to true healing.
I didn’t think my anger could transcend into compassion towards those who have committed injustice until I met a certain 16-year-old young Iraqi woman. She told me how she appealed to her rapist moments before the rape by looking at him in the eyes and saying: “Please, please don’t rape me. Don’t you have a heart?” At that moment, he looked her in the eye and said, “My heart died long time ago,” and then he proceededto rape her.
When I heard that story from the girl herself, I had tears in my eyes and a painful ache in my heart. But the emotion of hurt wasn’t only for her–it was for her rapist, as well. You see, her soul is intact even though she was violated. It is he who has experienced “soul death” and that is the saddest thing in life. So today, I cry for him, as well. But that does not mean I think he is “innocence trying to meet peace,” and thus should do nothing despite him committing such violation. What peace is that? As much compassion as I have for him, I also think he needs to face justice, go ontrial, and serve whatever service necessary to allow understanding,
That woman I reached out to is a very spiritual person and that is why I reached out to her. And, in truth, “love for all” and “all is good” are concepts that I hear often from people in the spiritual Western world. Allow me to clarify something: being ungrounded in values reflects being out of touch with the reality of this world and irritates the heck out of people who suffer real injustice in the world. If I tell all the people that I have encountered in my life who have faced more horrible stories than my pen can write about that all is “innocence seeking peace,” I will lose any connection to them, to their real pain, and to their real stories. And I will definitely lose all respect! Spirituality is beautiful but only when grounded in this earth and this reality. For when it is not, it leads to more disconnection than connection between not only individuals but cultures and nations as well. So for those who are out there, please come home to this earth. The world needs you to show up and be fully present in this reality.
Back to the man who had the courage to talk about his anger–thank you for seeing and hearing those who are suffering. And make sure that when you act against injustice, you do it with clarity, justice, and most importantly love and compassion. That is the only way we can make a difference in the world. And for me, What I experienced recently was great pain indeed. But that pain is no longer there and I am left with lessons that helped me grow and scars that will always remind me that life is ultimately beautiful and love is indeed bigger than all.
 Webster’s 1828 English Dictionary, http://sorabji.com/1828/words/a/anger.html
Why there is more desire to live the life of a celebrity instead of the life of Gandhi?
Everything around us is inundated with news about celebrities: their lifestyles, what they wear, what they did, their homes and boats, their love affairs, and everything in between. You can’t actually escape such information even if you are not interested in the subject. What I don’t understand is idealizing the life of a person we know nothing about beyond their acting skills. We do not know the individual behind the celebrity—their hopes, dreams, desires, accomplishments, feelings of inner peace, and who they are as individuals in their hearts. We see the masks and we are obsessed by it. We desire it thinking it is the real thing—perhaps thinking it is real happiness and peace. In the meantime, we look at people who have walked the journey for real peace of heart and mind, such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, in an admiring way but we leave them alone on a pedestal to admire and maybe criticize but not to aspire towards.
Do you see the absurdity of our obsession with the masks rather than what is behind the masks? Do you see how convoluted our understanding of happiness and contentment is? We think we desire only the mask: the lifestyle, the glamour, the clothes, the cars, the houses, the travels, and the beauty. And we want the mask for we think that is the journey that will get us the joy we all seek in our lives. And so we leave the journey that is behind the mask alone, and with it we leave Gandhi and Mandela alone too. We respect them but rarely do I meet people who want to walk their journey. “Why?” I wonder.
All I know is that the journey to truth and inner happiness is a hard one for you cannot buy it no matter how much money you have. You can only work on getting it from within and that entails confronting yourself, your demons, and your heart’s truth. In that journey, no material possessions matter. You can have it all, as many celebrities do indeed have it all, and still do not have joy and happiness.
How ironic, the thing that is accessible for all, for rich and poor alike, is not popular and the people who have walked that journey are just studied in history from afar. You see that inner peace and happiness does not require buying anything. That desire to help people, and to speak truth to power, requires a lot of courage and even sacrifice at times. But it allows the person to sleep soundly at night and when the moment of death comes, there is no resistance to it. To get real joy is to surrender and release our egos, as well as desires to being acknowledged or loved. Oh, it is so so much harder to walk that journey than it is to make money and buy that fancy car. And it is so much more joyous to feel that peace–and to dance with joy in your own skin–than it is to buy that gorgeous dress that you can’t afford. The first gives you a prolonged taste of that joy and the latter gives it to you momentarily, maybe daily and maybe only hourly.
Seriously, we’ve all experienced the excitement of buying a beautiful new dress or a new car. But if you are just slightly like me, that joy lasts no more than a few days for a dress and maybe a month for the car. That joy stops when what you already possess becomes the norm. And so you want to buy a new dress and another new thing over and over again to give you that taste of that joy rather than reverse the journey and do the hard work to achieve inner peace, where the self lies blissfully in silence.
We know nothing of celebrities and who they are as individuals. What we know is the mask they wear, as we all have our masks, and the obsession with how beautiful their masks are. Rather than viewing role models as those who have historically excelled in living his or her truth, our society asks us to idolize the mask of a celebrity. Are you with me? I think this is weird.
Celebrating the Ordinary
Rumi once said that “silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” As a lover of God, I always seek God in the wonders of the world, in serving other people, and in the exploration of all kinds of spiritual practices. I felt like these were attempts to catch a glimpse of God but in the process I could not hold onto that glimpse as I returned to my daily life. That glimpse was always somewhere else outside of me. Sometimes I saw it in the beauty of humanity amidst the worst of human atrocities. Sometimes it was in an act of kindness by someone we may know or may not know. The glimpse has always been like a jar that poured water of hope and belief into my heart. It was that belief that kept me going even as I worked in wars for many years. Other times that glimpse was in spiritual retreats I explored as I tried to make sense of all the wars in the world and the stories I was being exposed to. Other times I found it in my daily meditation and prayers. All were beautiful experiences but I also wanted to hold on to the sensation during my ordinary routines, be it attending a meeting, giving a speech, or traveling.
But recently I decided to explore that silence in the ordinary of every moment in my life. Instead of only separately carving some space for my meditation and prayers each day, I decided to integrate my seeking of the presence of God in every inhalation and every exhalation I take. So instead of checking my phone and my emails as I sat in the taxi or the subway, I just focused on my breathing—and with that, I focused on God. And so the practice spread throughout my day: in the shower, while walking from one place to another, and with every meal. And suddenly I noticed a beauty—a new beauty—I had not experienced before and that is the beauty of the ordinary.
Ecstatic feelings came out of the simplest experiences: the sensation of my feet touching the ground as I walked, the softness of every breeze touching my face, and even the drinking of a glass of water. And when everything was so beautiful, my seeking of the divine turned into the exploration of the ordinary of everyday life with no more separation between that, my prayers, and my daily activities. All became one.
And with that came a new curiosity. A curiosity to see everything in all its truthfulness for I figured that is where beauty lies. For example, I am someone who always put nail polish on my toenails because one of my nails broke a long time ago and never grew back normally. Therefore I always covered it up with all kinds of colors. But when the ordinary became so beautiful, I took off all my nail polish and was enjoying my broken toenail in its fragility, beauty, and even ugliness. I shaved my head and took all my makeup off. I know this is a bit extreme, but it is an extreme I can afford and am willing to do. Soon I started noticing how makeup felt like a mask that I was putting on every day: sometimes for good reasons, sometimes to cover up sad stories, and sometimes to pretend everything is perfect. It is not that I stopped putting makeup on, but at least I laugh at my silly attempts at masking. And “why mask?” I started wondering to myself. It is in our vulnerability that we connect to each other as people. It is in our joy and our sorrows, in our light and our shadows that we connect, learn, and grow. Suddenly those in my life who covered their shadows, as I covered the dark circles under my eyes with concealer, stopped being of interest to me. How can I connect with those who hide their shadow so deeply? It feels as unreal as the perfect looking woman who is full of plastic surgeries. She is beautiful! But everyone knows it is not real, natural beauty. And it is hard to connect with the unreal. For God is only in the real!
So here I am starting my 2014 with the most obvious knowledge that I have not paid attention to all my life: the beauty is in the ordinary. It is in the ordinary of our behavior of love, generosity, and kindness. The beauty is even in our behavior that triggers shame, embarrassment, and anger. For these moments help us grow. And in the cracks of the self, new light eventually comes. And with this, I started experiencing God with every breath: not separate from my daily life but part of every movement and every step I make. And for that, I am grateful!
May 2014 helps us all see the beauty of the ordinary.
What do you do with those who betray you? Love Them!
I remember myself as a youngster playfully repeating “Et tu, Brute?” to my friends after reading Julius Caesar. Regardless of Shakespeare’s brilliant description of betrayal, I still had no idea of the deep pain betrayal causes when I first read about it. When I experienced the feeling myself later on in life, I realized it is like a dagger that digs deep down into alleys of the heart no one knows about except those we willingly let in. Betrayal can only happen when there is love and thus trust. For in the act of love, we let people into the most intimate aspect of our hearts, letting down our walls and protections. That’s when we risk hurt and betrayal but that’s also the place of utter love.
Whenever I felt betrayed by people I love, for it can only be triggered by those we love, I was left with a very confused feeling. The shift from a place of love to a place of hurt and anger triggered by betrayal is a radical shift over a short period of time. It feels like an earthquake has shaken the foundation of your love and it leaves one desperately trying to grab on to any solid land to get a grip of what has just happened. I usually grab the land of sorrow first, then anger, then disappointment. Eventually, I realize that all of these feelings eat my heart from within and I come to the realization that the only way out is through love. But love? Really? You may wonder how one can transform the pain of betrayal into love. I too did not believe it could happen at first but now I do.
Cambridge Dictionary defines betrayal as the “act of not being loyal when other people believe you are loyal.” In “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Oscar Wilde describes betrayal by saying “each man kills the thing he loves. By each let this be heard. Some do it with a bitter look. Some with a flattering word. The coward does it with a kiss. The brave man with a sword.” I see it simply as the lack of courage at being truthful to oneself or to others. Betrayal for me is not in the act of abandonment but in the lack of ability to communicate the truth, one’s truth, with integrity and grace to those we love. Only when we tell the truth can there be true healing. And the truth, no matter what it is, resonates in people’s hearts even if it sheds light on the worse aspects of who we are. For, the worse information, when told in the simple and honest truth, can be taken with the grace and love truth carries.
There was a few times in which I felt betrayed in my life. My first experience came from my mother the day she tried to commit suicide when I was a child, and then again when she pushed me into an arranged marriage later on in my life. Other betrayals came from friends and romances, people I deeply loved and trusted. As I am writing this, I am thinking to myself, “Well, it’s not so bad. I am almost 44 years old and I only felt betrayal 5 times in my life. Once for each decade. Not so bad really J.” I can laugh about it now but I can assure you each was a very painful experience that left me confused at the whole world, not knowing how to make sense of it all. I held on to the anger I felt towards my mother for many years for example. How could the woman I loved the most in my life, betray me so deeply, I often asked myself? But that question kept on repeating itself every time I felt betrayed. How could this person that I loved so much betray my trust and my love?
I was told once that a horse’s biggest act of love is when it lets humans caress it in between its eyes. I am sure there were times in which there were violations of this most intimate moment for the horse. We violate such spaces when we are afraid, insecure, feel powerless, or even jealous. I have a hard time believing people we love do things out of meanness. Hurt can only come out of hurt. Maybe I am wrong, maybe not, and maybe there are exceptions to this theory. Whatever it is, I am sure there were horses whose eyes were injured or even blinded in that moment of violation which can be seen as betrayal. If I was a horse I could only process what happened to me if I understood the feeling that triggered the person I loved so much to violate my space in such a painful way. Suddenly, I wondered if a horse would so easily let people come into that space. And that’s when I started wondering if I have ever betrayed myself?
Things started shifting from seeing any point of betrayal from inside out (its all about the others who betrayed) to seeing it from within the self. When have I betrayed myself? I started asking. What were those moments? What triggered me to betray myself? Ouch! For the journey to the self is always the hardest one. Here, I am embarking on yet another inner journey to see what I needed to discover, heal, love and accept about myself. Just as I was hurt, angry, and disappointed at the loved ones who once betrayed me, I became angry and disappointed with myself for all the times I let go of my instinct and did not trust it; for all the times I did not stand up for my rights or own my voice and power; for all the times I justified sacrificing myself and my well-being in the name of love; and for all the times I tried to protect my vulnerabilities by creating illusions and projections of the people I loved, rather than addressing and seeing my true needs and what I was seeking thereby seeing the true being and who they were.
I continued to dig and dig and dig deeper until I found the little girl in me that was acting out of her pain, vulnerability and fear rather than from the strength of the adult woman that I had become. The betrayal of me came from my own injuries. Some go back to my childhood and are still working themselves out in my adult life. Suddenly, the anger and the disappointment I felt towards myself transformed into deep love and affection right down to the vulnerable part of me that was acting out of pain, for I understood that pain and its source. As women we are trained and so used to being hard on ourselves and almost fearing self-love that it can be seen as selfish, not motherly, or as not giving enough. Fluctuating the self and punishing it for all the wrong we have done is so much easier than loving it. But then again, there cannot be healing, true healing, without love. And I had to consciously go into love to heal myself from the time I had betrayed myself.
In order to heal and love, one has to forgive. I once had a dream where I heard someone telling me, “We must forgive even when not asked for forgiveness.” I objected to that line in the dream. “This is too much,” I said. “Is it too much to ask to forgive those who have not asked for forgiveness?” But, the dream kept on repeating, “We must forgive even when not asked for forgiveness.” Finally, I calmed down regarding the saying, rested in it, accepted it and understood why we need to do it. It’s the only way we can heal ourselves and let the self be free of all resentments, anger, pain, and hurt. People hurt each other out of their own pain just as we hurt ourselves out of our own pain. So only when we release ourselves from that pain, see it, love it and forgive it, can we truly love the essence of the self in its most beautiful aspect and also in the aspect we are most embarrassed of, our own shadows, for that is the true meaning of love. That’s when I could love, truly love, those who have betrayed me and love them from their very point of betrayal. If they betrayed me out of their pain just as I betrayed myself out of my pain then I can understand, sympathize and I can love without needs or expectations but for what it is and what that person is, without any illusions or projections.
So yes, it is possible to forgive even when not asked for forgiveness and even when people betray their own courage at telling the truth. Though I still believe that only when we tell the truth can there be true healing, I also understand that it takes much courage to tell that truth and sometimes it will entail revealing the most insecure, frightened aspects of ourselves. I can only go through this process for myself. I cannot expect it at all from others. To each his or her own. For me, it is a journey of love. For I believe love is bigger than all. And love is the only true healer. That includes deep, utter, and true love for the self so we may give it the respect it deserves and not betray it again. At least hopefully so… Is it possible to love those who betrayed us? Absolutely YES! I LOVE each and every single one of them, most importantly my mother and also the friends and the loved ones who later came in my life. And in that I found my healing. I am sure a horse would have done the same.