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How to Bridge Our Divides By Owning Our Experiences

We are living in a time of shadows. What is ugly in our world is rising out of the basement where we have locked it up for a long time. Countries, communities, and individuals are divided into extremes: left and right, rich and poor, citizen and foreigner, Muslim and Christian, ruler and rebel, employer and employee, man and woman, all of us with vastly different points of view that seem never to agree. This is creating panic and confusion.

As an Iraqi-born Muslim American who has worked most of her life in service to victims of war, especially women, I have lived through instability and unrest, have known dictators and world leaders, have dodged snipers’ bullets and fought for justice. I have tried to address some of the world’s rights and wrongs through my humanitarian work in war zones and later in my media projects that shared some of the struggles and triumphs of people around the world.I know conflict, struggle, and division intimately. And I have learned that when we lead with fear and anger, we eventually become the very aggressors we are fighting against. We become what we despise.

This is especially important to understand right now. All over the world, we are pointing our fingers in fear and anger at perceived enemies and aggressors around us. Afraid and bewildered, we are searching for the “other” to confront. Indeed, there are plenty of people we could point fingers at. We can point at the people who voted for Trump or Brexit or in the referendums in Catalonia or Kurdistan. We can point at the mass migration from Syria or the destabilizing force of Russia. Or we can point our fingers closer to home, at people who practice different religious customs than we do, at bosses who block our progress, or at family members who abuse us.

But it’s time to ask, “Now what?” Now that we see ourselves pointing our fingers in accusation at one another, what do we do about this turmoil?

Each life, each place, each culture, each individual has the good, the bad, and the ugly within it. We all have a story, and it’s usually complex. When we demonize or idealize anyone, we remove ourselves from the picture and oversimplify the situation. We do it when we think all Afghan men are oppressive and all Canadians are peacemakers or when we say all conservatives are closed-minded and cruel whereas all liberals are open-minded and compassionate. We do it when we think all male bosses are bullies and all female bosses are role models. These generalizations may be convenient, and some may contain a grain of truth, but they cannot be fully true. When we demonize or idealize, we lose any sense that we also carry the good, the bad, and the ugly in us as well. We lose sight of the fact that we all have a story. And from our stories we all make choices.

We need to find another way to deal with our panic and confusion. We need not only to talk about what is wrong with our world but also to find a way to talk to one another and cross the divides. In the West, many of us want to be the hero of our own movie. We want to see ourselves on the side of the good. It’s a noble inclination, but we don’t always see the whole picture. We don’t understand what’s at stake for the other side. And we certainly don’t understand our role in it. What have we done ourselves, as good people, as innocent, caring people, to encourage this troubling division and turmoil?

We need a new language to connect with those we consider “other,” different from us, and whose actions we find hard to comprehend. Because unless we know what it means to be a hero in all the small ways of our lives — in our marriages and families, in our work and social lives, and in how we account for our past actions and current values — we will not become that hero we fantasize about. If we talk only about the big stories and big traumas out there, we can easily hide from our own stories and our own shadows inside ourselves. Our reactivity and self-righteousness will create more division, turmoil, anger, or hatred. Then, we become the polarizing force. As we stab our fingers at “the enemy,” we ourselves create enemies.

True change starts with owning our own experiences. It means owning the complexity of our emotions and dreams, as well as the discomfort of our missteps and misfortunes. Then we are not intellectualizing our lives. We are not operating from the narrow simplicity of merely thinking about things or reacting to them. We stand on the wisdom of our lived experiences. We are no longer available to being manipulated by others who want to tap into the shadows that we carry but cannot bear to face.

Awakening creates a bridge to our authenticity. When we wake up, we can have a more honest way of relating to those closest to us and also to those whose lives we’ve never given any thought to. That’s when we can begin to better understand the world around us. Only when I began to see that “other” within myself could I truly see the “other” in them, in the “rednecks” of America, the “Arabs” of France, the “fundamentalists” of Islam — and in all of us. From there, we start to bridge the divide between us and them, between the many “others” out there and our inner “other” whom we live with every day.

Once our own dark and light are more integrated, our voices of protest change from harsh barks that speak to some but alienate others to a resonant call that many, many more people can hear. We have all the tools we need to begin. It’s simple, really, because all we need is ourselves. It begins with us.

Excerpted from Freedom Is an Inside Job: Owning Our Darkness and Our Light to Heal Ourselves and the World by Zainab Salbi. Copyright © 2018 Zainab Salbi. Published by Sounds True, October 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, media commentator, and the author of Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam (Avery, 2006) and her new book, Freedom Is an Inside Job: Owning Our Darkness and Our Light to Heal Ourselves and the World (Sounds True, October 2018). Zainab will be in Los Angeles on Friday, October 19th, doing an event at Book Soup in West Hollywood at 7:00pm. Find her online @zainabsalbi on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

This book excerpt was featured in the Oct. 14th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.




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