A few years ago I began an experiment that I thought would take me only a year to complete. The goal was to regain a sense of myself aside from more than a decade of peace work as founder and first Director of Peace X Peace. I had entered the field of peace work one week after September 11, 2001. I entered it from many years in the arts as a photographer, poet, and playwright. I was midway in writing a book tentatively titled “Diamond Woman: achieving clarity and brilliance in a world still dominated by men.”
Peace X Peace usurped all that. For the first four years I worked every day except Christmas. Long hours every day. Long hours with teams of women that I brought together. We made an impact. Ultimately we had members in more than 120 nations and 20,000 plus members in our Global Network of women talking privately to their “sisters” around the world through the Internet. We were the first global social network for women before the term “social network” was used.
We also made a documentary in Afghanistan, Burundi, Argentina, Bosnia, and the US that debuted at the UN and aired on PBS. We did a book, “60 Years, 60 Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women,” (available on Amazon) that was gifted by the president of the United Nations General Assembly to each member state ambassador.
As a team, we made a significant impact on the rising women’s movement, but after a decade I was so burnt out that when I was asked to speak somewhere a wave of nausea went through me. Not every time, but usually. Peace workers get burnt out, and peace activists often submerge parts of their being in order to tend to a larger whole.
Peace work is the most necessary and honorable work in the world, and there are people who every single day give of themselves to help others, whose compassion drives them to dedicate themselves to others. The result can be a strange mix of both being fed and being depleted by the work. It expands your soul even as it nibbles at it.
I was ultimately depleted and needed to “re-find” the essential “me” that prefers – and naturally tends – to describe everything somewhat poetically, that needs silence, that mixes my sight with sound with words with wordlessness. I trusted the essential “me” was hunkered down inside, waiting, even though it had hardly been nurtured in years.
It felt – and feels – selfish to tend one’s self when others are suffering so much; but it is necessary. We have one life and we have the right – something close to an obligation – to make it beautiful and to grow in gentle impassioned ways. If we were given the ability to sing, we should sing. If we were given the ability of paint, we should paint. If we were given the ability to dance, we should dance. Disaster in the world is not helped by our ignoring our creative impulses and the sweet light at our center.
(It is also not helped by perennial sadness. The world is glorious and we are animals that can be stunned by awe and convulsed by humor. These are our right, but that is a different blog.)
It took me much longer than I expected to come back to feeling viscerally, daily and always, the “who” of who I am. I thought it might take a year, then two years. But it has taken more like three years – three years of stripping down and stripping down and stripping down and shedding of self-definitions. It required doing less and less peace work, of not doing anything that made me nauseous, of spending time with my family, grandchildren, and friends, and of writing again where I didn’t need to be politically correct but could be factually correct instead.
I made it here. I’m not particularly productive artistically or socially. I haven’t launched into a book, little or large. I haven’t resumed photography. Arbitrary actions and projects seem suspect to me, as diversions from facing up to continuing to go to the heart of the “who” of who I am.
This is not a self-indulgent journey. It takes courage to give up self-identification, to not distract myself with work or pleasure, to simply be – albeit with some sputtering on my blog or on Facebook.
I say all this for two reasons. 1) I encourage everyone, particularly as we age, to have the courage to give up self-identification. You are not a businessperson, an athlete, an artist, a meditator, a teacher, even a parent or grandparent. You are you. You are larger than what you do or have done. Getting to that visceral knowledge of “me” is to have removed all the adornments that cover who you really are. It is to sit within the terrifying you without the identifiers of what you have achieved, what you have lost, and what you believe. It is to give up history, knowing, strength, and weakness. It is being.
I say “terrifying” because when you get rid of self-definitions you get rid of what binds you in, what containerizes you. Your boundaries disappear, and you can feel like a large amoeba. At first, that’s a vulnerable state. Then it becomes a place of all potential – of ease, relief, and laughter. Joyous, poignant, encompassing surprise.
I am not saying this is easy. It’s a marathon that is not only frightening, but means giving up the angers, fears, and wounds that also identify you. Doing that means acknowledging them to begin with, which can hurt. Plus, there’s your righteous indignation: “Let them go! But . . . but . . . but . . .” Un-huh, let ’em go. They’re boring, actually.
The key to this aspect of achieving freedom is to feel the pings of pain with the intent to let them go. Then give yourself time. It’s an organic process that takes time and you don’t control it beyond holding the intent to find yourself, naked and beautiful beyond definitions.
2) On the personal level, I made it back to the “who” I knew, but with more than a decade of peace work, expanded knowledge, and some personal traumas thrown in the mix. It is an amazing place to be, and not easy to explain, and speaking of it brings some tears of gratefulness.
But something unexpected has happened. The need to be more active for justice, to tend the earth and its people, has risen again and it is being a real nudge. If I rest in that place where I am – blessed as it is – it will become hollow.
I am aware that undoubtedly every person who reads this is already a person who works hard for the good of others. Some of you are my heroes and heroines. So perhaps I am talking to myself, but please indulge me:
Having one life to live, we must each find our essential “me” in order to live fully and come to wordlessly understand why we are here and who we are.
Having found that, we must then find what is uniquely ours to do to help others. It’s not a free ride. Our souls – that word works for me, change it if you need – are meant to be felt by ourselves and joined with others.
I don’t know why it’s like that, I only know it is.
So over the next few months, I am searching with a few others as to what is uniquely for me to do. I invite those of you who are peace workers to talk to me privately or through comments about where you are, how you see what I wrote, and to tell me what you think is important for our world right now. Thank you, my sisters and my brothers.