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.