Stepping beyond fear and anger

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?



Honoring a painful experience

When pain comes our way, our natural tendency is to push it away, hide it, brush it under the carpet, move beyond it as quickly as possible. Why are we resisting pain, when we actually know that the more we resist, the longer it will persist and haunt our days? We push back out of fear—fear of meeting that pain again.

Conversely, embracing pain deepens our connection and understanding of life. It opens space for new life teachings. It allows us to expand beyond the limits of our experiences to date, instead of retracting and closing off to what life has to offer and teach. It is so important when pain comes around to honor the experience, to welcome it into our lives as a new connection, opening a sacred passage to deeper awareness and mindfulness..

At the beginning of my career, as a specialist of Africa I was asked to brief a Canadian General who was preparing to take up his new assignment, commanding the United Nations troops in Rwanda, in the summer of 1993. On 6 April 1994, a genocide began in Rwanda. Upon his return home at the end of his mission, I sat again with the General for a debriefing on his experience. This was a very different man. I will never forget this defining moment in my life. It took him some time to finally put his story on paper and publish a book. He gave an interview over four days in the fall of 2003 (nearly 10 years later) where he described how Rwanda would never leave him: “My soul is in those hills, my spirit with the spirits of all those people who were slaughtered. … Lots of those eyes still haunt me, angry eyes or innocent eyes. But the worst eyes that haunt me are the eyes of those people who were totally bewildered. They’re looking at me with my blue beret and saying, ‘What in the hell happened?’” He became a humanitarian advocate, providing leadership and action to prevent mass atrocities in the world.

There are different ways to honor a painful experience, by sharing, talking, writing, creating, performing, leading, grieving. Be it psychological, emotional, or physical pain, it is always about marking a transition and ushering transformation in our lives. For as long as it stays inside unshared, we will remain stuck.

I was expelled from Russia, on 6 May 2009—a Russian political decision in retaliation for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the international organization I was representing in Moscow. I learned about this in the newspaper… bewildered by the lack of personal interest—compassion—from my own authorities. Where were they? What had happened? My son called from school that morning: “Mom, what is happening? You are in the front page of the newspaper! My world unravelled within a split second; my job, my family, my home, everything disappeared in record time, never to recover.

I chose to buckle up, focus, and move on. Whenever asked to talk about my experience, I would push back, hiding the pain, running away as fast as I could in the hope of getting it all behind me. Six years passed. The pain never went away—only dug deeper.

Why keep silent for so long? There was no need to speak about the ugly politics of this breakdown. The human dimension was the story to tell. No amount of politics, knowledge, theories, and analyses are likely to bridge the gap between people. Storytelling may stand a chance. The heart enters darkness where the mind stays at the door.

The time has come to embrace the pain with courage!

“The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms”

                                                                                                                                                                  “Who will speak these days, if not I, if not you?” Muriel Rukeyser

In the Speed of Darkness (1968), the poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser, musing on Einstein’s discovery, wrote: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Every story has a sacred dimension waiting to be discovered, transmitting through generations the existence of men and women and the reality of their world, making sense of their lives and helping them discover themselves. Life experience is rooted in storytelling.

To you, the listener, make no mistake, you are just as important to the story. You are the soul connection! You are the bridge between someone’s reality and the world on earth; the one to bring the suffering out of darkness into the world, in time and space, ensuring that we do not lose touch with ourselves.

Storytelling is an art, and it is not only about literature. It is about connecting people beyond time and space, travelling together and building bridges between people. Storytelling is about community rather than information sharing. In today’s world where knowledge reigns all powerful, we have lost the messenger. We have lost the ability to see through his eyes, to feel her passion, or share their suffering.

The artists among us, writers, painters, help us reconnect with the world around us, helping us relate to the soul of a place, well beyond the information transmitted at the speed of light and in mega quantities. Storytelling is the only way to connect with the world of others.

The most useful book I read prior to moving to Moscow was Letters from Russia by Astolphe de Custine. The Marquis de Custine’s record of his trip to Russia in 1839 is a perceptive, one might even say prophetic, account of one of the world’s most fascinating and troubled countries. It is also a wonderful piece of travel writing, rich in stories of people with whom Custine met during his travels, with vivid descriptions of St Petersburg, Moscow and the Russian countryside. Custine, through his sharp sense of observation, his wealth of descriptions, brought me along on his journey. With eyes wide open, I fell in love with a country I still cherish in my memories through its people and their stories.

I had to leave the country abruptly and many of my friends asked that I put pen to paper and recount my journey. The circumstances of my departure made it difficult. Six long years have passed and I only recently understood the power of storytelling. My story is not mine to keep. It is yours as well. Indeed, the first purpose to write may be to reveal or discover something within yourself. The second purpose is clearly to share with others and provide a mirror for humanity. Healing international relations is about storytelling and building bridges. It is about recognizing that what you see in the mirror is also part of you.