Together We Rise
"What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action." ~Thomas Merton
I took a silent retreat this month for three days. I believe my last retreat was over 3 years ago. Before I started Beirut and Beyond, before I got banned from Israel, before I started this film project, before a bunch of gray hairs. It was long overdue. I have to admit turning off my phone, not checking email, and being off all social media was heaven. I thought I would get antsy but it was a welcome relief from the outside world.
Not only was the silence nourishing, it was also an opportunity to reconnect with God. Only once I am in that flow, can I reconnect with myself. I felt pretty beat up from the past several years. Starting an organization from scratch is hard, but when it is an organization benefiting Palestinian refugees, it might be the hardest of the hard. Especially when it’s your passion. This indeed is the core of my heart, my life’s calling, and the vulnerability aspect of putting your work, soul, and heart out there over and over again tears you down. Am I communicating clearly enough? Do people understand what we are doing? How do I educate people well? Am I being kind when people misunderstand? Am I adding clarity and love into a charged topic or more hate and more misunderstanding? Am I honoring Palestinian refugees well?
So, you can see the pressure I put on myself. It’s all up to me, all on my shoulders. If I screw up, it’s all lost. The perfectionism streak in me runs long and deep. I have also learned that once you step out into something and make it public, it sets you up for major critique. Sometimes helpful, but mostly unhelpful and usually painful. Add in the actual work in the Middle East, the loneliness, and the stress of Arabic and of living in another culture. Then add in when everything goes south so to speak, as it always does in the Middle East. Plan falling apart, denied entry into Israel, interrogation, and finally being banned for many years. The shame of that while having to communicate one of the most painful experiences in your life in a way that doesn’t add more venom while feeling like a failure.
That’s where I found myself before I left on my retreat; it’s evident from my last blog post, my rawness and tiredness. That’s why the quote from Thomas Merton is so powerful to me because I was at the end of my resources. How do we deepen our capacity to love others, let alone ourselves? And why do we (I) think I (we) can help others, foster justice, and create social awareness, or give platforms to the marginalized in this world without working on our own motivations, darkness, and self-awareness. I know the train wreck I am when I am operating out of anything but the flow of God. And what I mean by that is being aware and present to my circumstances, to my heart, to God, and to others created in the image of God.
I’ve also seen how destructive “social action” and “advocacy” can be when people and organizations are operating out of agenda without the soul work Merton describes above. As he concludes, you will become solely focused on self not others.
If I am to be aware, I must look at my thoughts, emotions, and failures. Serendipitously, I brought Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong on my retreat. I highly recommend it. I am tempted to quote the entire dang thing for the rest of this post. But, this quote in the very beginning of the book by Teddy Roosevelt resonated with me.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
That was me, I thought! I felt like I was laying in the arena bloodied, being mocked as I continually came up short for the entire world to see. Whether that’s the case or not, I had to admit that’s how I felt. Brené later writes about a client she was researching who felt like she was on the arena floor. This woman decided to be present to the moment and envisioned what she saw as she was lying on the dusty arena floor. It was powerful. So, I thought, “well, if this is really where I think I am, what actually do I see from that lowly position of laying on the ground?” And whether this was my imagination or God speaking to me, it doesn’t matter. When I looked around I saw dust all around me and when it cleared, I saw friends from the Middle East and I saw my friends from America. Both were telling me to get up and that I could do it. Both were cheering me on.
That’s when I decided to focus on them. That’s when I decided to live in that moment. To the yes, not the no. Maybe, that’s the truth for all of us. We can focus on our shame, focus on our fear, focus on our failure, and we can focus on all the critics. But the hope in life comes from those who love us and can reflect our worthiness back to us. So that we can live out our worthiness. That’s the truth, that’s the reality, that’s the capacity to love, that is where God is found.
And when I let go of all my shame and fear, I was able to see the reality right now. I have had so many people join me in serving Palestinians over the years. Supporters and volunteers. So. Many. People. It’s overwhelming to think of all the volunteers that are helping me right now: grant writing, fundraising, script writing, advising, and helping with admin work. The investment they have made and the community we have as a result is amazing. That might just be the beauty of failure; of lying on that arena floor to be gutted, but having your friends pick you up.
“I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time. Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” Brené Brown, Rising Strong