Epiphanies, Advocacy, and the Dreaded Walk to the Other Side
“All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.” ~ Samantha Power
I remember walking down the street years ago in Beirut. It was a few months after I moved there, and I was experiencing gut-wrenching culture-shock. It felt like everything that I was as a person--my identity, my body, my personality was being torn apart. That’s a dirty little secret that expats don’t take about in broad daylight--how living in another culture rips down everything are you. It’s a painful process but I have learned over the years that if you stick with it and work through the pain, there is a wholeness, oneness, openness that comes with living cross-culturally.
Anyway, I remember having a thought as I walked through the rain on a dirty, busy, sopping wet Beirut street—that I was lucky. That even though I was hurting because I was going through a reconstruction process, Beirut--it’s people, it’s craziness, its culture was making me a better person. A well-rounded human being and it was making my spirituality more personal, real and less superficial.
It’s been over 10 years since I had that soaking wet epiphany and since then I would add that it a big piece of who I am, but it also is isolating. I really don’t fit in anywhere, not fully in America and not in the Middle East. I seem to be a little too Arab in America and way too American in the Middle East. I recently had coffee with an Iraqi lady who came here as an immigrant a few years ago. She is so lovely, and we had a great conversation. When we said goodbye, she said she really enjoyed talking to me because she didn’t need to explain anything. I understood what her life was like in Iraq and the kind of shock and blessing that she was experiencing in America. Which was one of the most heartwarming things said to me in recent memory.
There are a few things (just a few) I understand about the Middle East after living there and I constantly struggle with communicating that in a way people can understand here. We have a lot of misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims. We have been programmed by our own culture, media, and religion—that is the lens we view the Middle East through. Which isn’t always helpful or the truth.
The epiphany walk in Beirut made me realize that there was clarity about others and even my faith as a Christian when my worldview was taken away-- this has stuck with me to this very day. One of the questions I constantly ask myself is how to advocate for Palestinian refugees in an honoring way to them, me, and you. It isn’t an easy question to answer and on many levels I feel like fail regularly. I mean, it is part of my job to champion Palestinian refugees and make their situation known here. This is serious.
The part of advocating that gets tricky for me is am I championing them and supporting them or am I speaking for or arguing for them. There’s a difference to me. I think it’s a heart issue for myself. I constantly need to check my motivation.
What is the state of my heart? Am I lifting up others above myself and my needs? Am I using my rights to fight for others to have the same rights? What are my blind spots? Am I viewing this conflict in black and white terms? Do I need to view those that I am advocating for as pure or angelic? Can I see the good and the bad? Can I see all sides? Can I hold the tension? Am I speaking on behalf of them? If so, why do I believe I have that right? Do I think this about me? Is this about my ego? About my legacy? Am I creating more division and hate as a result of my advocacy?
I honestly believe that the power of advocacy lies in the state of our own heart, in our own emotional health. We must commit to lifting up others at the cost it may bring us. We must commit to commit, regardless of the amount of time and effort. We must be willing to cross over the other side and see things from another perspective. Not our own.
We must build bridges. That’s what advocacy is—a bridge for us to experience, share, and make known what others are experiencing.
“Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can't live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice.” ~Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters