Mirroring images

Individuals often connect through a unique mix of similarities and differences. We hold a mirror to each other, providing opportunities to better know ourselves, comforting us through common features generating a sense of familiarity. This in turn creates resonance among people and solid partnerships. Differences, on the other hand, may generate a feeling of uneasiness, but also help us decide who we want to be, confronting us on our path by pointing to other possibilities in life which feel less appealing to us. We may not resonate with people with whom we have differences, but we can be drawn to opposites and learn from those differences, ultimately accepting what we do not necessarily understand as enriching nonetheless. We learn about ourselves in contrast, and it is by connecting with others that we have a chance to reflect on where we differ and can add value. We can also be drawn to others, neither through similarities nor differences but rather through admiration, usually realizing—perhaps unconsciously—that the qualities we admire in other we often possess as well. Others act as a mirror, helping us define who we want to become. Through all these connections among people, it is as if we have many different people living inside, expressing themselves with different voices into a unique container. It is difficult to know which voices to pay attention to and which ones to ignore or dismiss to find our unique path. The point is to let them speak and hear them out.

It is not very different in international relations: many voices, one world. The point is to let them speak. Countries will often align themselves with those they feel are closest to their own values. I have worked for an organization of member countries which shared similar values to the point where they would trust their own defense to others. The resonance among these countries has led over time to a powerful partnership. However, the opportunities to learn from differences among nations seem far less prominent, and those partnerships, when they exist despite differences, are very precarious. Differences often breed a sense of insecurity and are rarely sought out or even understood. More often than not they are a cause for conflicts. We tend to criticize the behaviour of nations who dare to be different and reject our set of values. By observing the different behaviour of other countries such as Russia, western powers seem unlikely to be reflecting on their own behaviour by looking at it as in a mirror, thereby learning about their own shortcomings and their own path. In addition, when drawn to another country through admiration, as many have been attracted over the years by what the United States represented in their eyes, few have tried to emulate and define their own path accordingly. People emigrated but few tried to find within their own countries the same potential.

The mirroring images among individuals are yet similar to the effect of mirroring images among countries. Why is it that countries do not reflect on their own shortcomings when they face differences in other countries that make them feel insecure? Why are they prompted to judge and react rather than step back and reflect on their own records? Are differences in our world view from that of neighbouring countries a threat to our own perspectives, or a sign of weakness of our own creative power to inspire the rest of the world? It is, of course, so much easier to lay the blame on others tripping us, than to question our own standing and start by tying our own shoe laces.

Mirror images and self-reflection do not advocate introversion, forgetting about the rest of the world. On the contrary, they keep our gaze on the outside, engaging in international relations, in order to attend to our internal development. It is a different way to look at the world. In the end, we will not change the world if we do not change ourselves. In fact, the world hardly needs changing, but we do. Through all these connections among people, we have different voices in a unique container helping us find our own path. The world is showing us the way to self-development, if we are prepared to look into the mirror rather than at the mirror.

As we look into this mirror, let us give a voice to each and every aspect of our being, allowing them to come into awareness and giving them a chance to speak, to express their perspective, and let us listen without comment. As we listen we may be amazed at the wisdom and energy inhabiting each parcel of ourselves. By bringing each one of them into a closer relationship, we may be propelled into a new way forward, a balancing and unifying whole, fully centred, and yet connected to each and every parcel of our world.

Political science is not a science but an art

I still remember the days in university when I would discuss with other students whether political science was an art or a science. After thirty years in the field of international relations, there is little doubt for me that it is an art. Nonetheless, when you watch the news nowadays, whatever may be the topic under discussion, you are usually provided facts and figures and the views of experts. In fact, so many people can now provide competent, expert views that the news story of what is happening in the world is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. We need the human stories that go with it, and you do not get this from knowledge. The mind is of little help to embrace the world if you do not have a heart.

As I try to write about international relations, I am reminded of the classic French author, Blaise Cendras, who once wrote: “I dip my pen not in ink, but in life.”

Today there are many experts, well-trained professionals and well-crafted students who can talk elegantly and eloquently about international relations. Though craft matters, it is important to remember that craft is but the servant of the soul, and the soul is to be found in the way you perceive the world within and without.

Much as for the artist, the writer, when I look at international relations, I feel subjectivity is important to relate to what is happening in the world. It is a way to connect. William Turner used to say when he was painting: “I am interested in drawing what I see, not what I know.” Like a painter, I had to stand some place in order to put forth my vision and to find my voice. This place was my life – hardly an objective place.

In identifying with the world, one needs to identify with the journey of another human being in its heartfelt originality. As a child, the first I heard of World War II was through my mother. You often read about bartering in war times when there was no more food to buy and no products to find. Bartering is not a word my mother would use. She would talk about neighbours “giving” salt while they would “give” butter. Her perspective certainly has more heart than our history books.

As we listen to or read about international news, let us not miss out on talking to people, listening to their subjective stories and perspectives. This may be the only way to open our hearts and overcome the pervasive indifference around. No amount of facts and figures, no expert is bound to generate the necessary feelings for the audience to identify with the world. Even images nowadays are unlikely to produce the necessary emotional connection for people to care. Irrespective of the right and wrong stories of international relations, it is through a heart-centered presence that we will be able to address the current challenges of our world.

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!