Working in international relations, we often come across dreadful stories of human suffering, which make our own challenges pale in comparison. The thought of human suffering in Syria today prompts us to minimize our own difficulties. Even the loss of a dear one, let alone professional challenges, seem trivial compared to losing everything, witnessing the death of loved ones around you and facing your own on a daily basis. And yet all suffering deserves acknowledgement for compassion to take root in the world. Comparing and disparaging our own feelings as less important than others is a mistake. It leads to denial and ultimately to numbness over the misery around us.
For most of us, a wall of pain supports our daily lives. It is part of who we are and affects the way we see the world. Only a few acknowledge it, and even fewer have the courage to take action towards healing. Nonetheless, the longer we sit on pain, the harder it is to process and the more likely it will rear its head in the most unpredictable, inconvenient, and at times destructive way. The mere thought of bringing this pain out in the open in order to process it usually brings strong resistance, especially if we feel that we have it under control. The first step, however, is simple recognition. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to honour that pain, to acknowledge its origin, be it the fear of rejection, the anger at being mistreated, or the horror of human indifference. Only by going deep into the pain can you set yourself free, and bring the gift of compassion to the world.
Following my expulsion from Russia, it took me six years to realize my mistake in disregarding my own feelings of rejection and abandonment, and my unwillingness to fully experience the pain of losing not only a job I loved, but also a home with friends and loved ones. In leaving Moscow, I had to part with the only family member I had at home as a single mother. At sixteen, my son felt compelled to put himself into boarding school in the United States to be able to finish his school program, as I was returning to Europe to a headquarters that expressed little use for my services.
I found out about my expulsion from Russia from the newspapers, in the midst of total indifference on the part of my employer. The shock of being given 48 hours to leave the country quickly turned into fear, and ultimately into anger. My first thought went to my son, who was six weeks away from exams at the end of his school year. What would happen to him if we were to leave within 48 hours? What would happen if I was unable to pack all my belongings and make it out on time? What about our physical security in a country where I was no longer welcome, notwithstanding the animosity in Russia against the organization I was representing? And what would I do, all of a sudden stripped of a job I thoroughly enjoyed for five years?
I stared at the paper for a whole day as the phone was ringing off the hook with journalists, colleagues, and friends trying to find out—like me—what had happened. I never felt so lonely and exposed without any news or backing from my headquarters. Where were my authorities? What were they thinking? The call I finally received was essentially to suggest that I try to negotiate my own “exit strategy” directly with Russian authorities. While regular diplomats would rely on the support of their establishment with rules and regulations to support them, I was out on a limb.
I met a great deal of empathy on the part of Russian authorities. They allowed me to stay in the country for as long as my son needed to finish his school year. I received a lot of praise for the work I had done. The story line in Moscow was essentially that this had little to do with me; I was the victim; it was very sad and I should not take it personally… Russian authorities even ensured my own safety as a public figure, safeguarding my home and our whereabouts. The situation seemed surreal!
How could I not take this personally, when this was my life unravelling? Have we become so inhuman that we expect people to dissociate with what is happening to them? And what about my own authorities? Radio silence for the six weeks I stayed in Moscow, asked to remain at home and keep a low profile.
Upon my return to Europe, it took a long time to get the facts and understand what had happened, putting the various pieces of the puzzle together on my own. For months I was left in an empty office with no work. No one wanted to hear my side of the story—too close for comfort. Victims have a way of being stigmatized and kept at bay. I took my fate in my own hands and competed for another job within days of my repatriation, but the organization decided that victim once was not enough and opted for another candidate. I was left alone in an office for a few more months then asked to take up a position I did not want or to resign from the organization…
With hindsight I wonder what the universe was trying to tell me. How much more rejection does one take before opening up to other possibilities?!
I settled into an apartment hotel three thousand kilometres away from my son, where I ended up staying for two years, unable to set up another home all by myself and to unpack my belongings, all of which stayed in storage. I felt in storage myself.
The pain was too much to bear. My employer had made it clear, in so many words, that there was no place for personal stories in my professional environment. How did our system, so attached to human rights and the protection of democratic values, became so inhuman? I wonder.
I cannot help but wonder how an international organization like the one I served for seventeen years could ensure the security of its members when it cannot take care of its own people. I wonder how such an organization can effectively hear from various countries when it cannot hear its own staff. I ultimately wonder how an organization which cannot be prosecuted in a court of law given its diplomatic immunity, whose staff cannot expect any accountability from its leadership, can possibly lecture and contribute to any debate on good governance in the world. I simply wonder.
The minute we lose touch with the pain around us we simply become inhuman, above the law of compassion.
I finally took a leave of absence from the organization that failed me, and joined with my son in the United States for a few years. I started over in a country I hardly knew trying to step back and expand my horizons, seeking a bigger picture to shift my perspective. I was desperately trying to buckle up and to move on, in fact to fast-forward. With pain we tend to look for the fast-forward button to get out of our misery as fast as possible. Yet we all know deep down that we need to process the pain rather than bury our heads in the sand. The desire to press fast-forward can lead to escapism and denial. While trying to find the fast-forward button, we hit pause and prolong our difficulties. The more courageous path is to embrace the pain, process it, and pay attention to what is happening.
After a three-year pause, I finally summoned the courage to face the pain I so long denied. I retraced my steps and returned to Europe to find the purpose of that suffering and learn from it. Could it be to cultivate a sense of humanity in an organization where indifference is the modus operandi?