This post is written by an anonymous contributor.
Like many who work in humanitarian aid, when I am asked about why I do it, I dissemble and misdirect, I make a joke or change the subject without actually answering. Sometimes I tell the truth as a joke, and hide it in plain sight. “World Peace” is such a reliable cliché to raise a smirk and avoid the question. To say out loud why I really do it, to put those words into the air, is too hard. I am afraid of the look I will see in the other person’s eyes, and afraid of their judgement. I am afraid that if I am honest, I will have to say it through the medium of a jaunty pop song, possibly from the 80’s. Because the truth is, I do it because I believe in love and I believe love can make the world a better place. Saying it out loud sounds so adolescently idealistic, so sentimentally naïve at best, self-righteous, arrogant and sanctimonious at worst.
I left my job at the end of last year in a maelstrom of mess; stretched out to the point of coming unravelled, shattered by too many emergencies, and a level of hostility within the organisation that I was entirely ill-equipped to withstand, profoundly disillusioned. I felt like the worst kind of fool for believing in any of it, and no longer had any faith in my own judgement. In the months since then, I have been trying to work out what happened, to parse out what it was all about, and to find my way back to myself.
I know about fear, as so many of us do. I know about those moments of absolute clarity when we think we may actually die, today, now. I know about the exquisitely heightened alertness of being in a moment that could go either way; a checkpoint guard toying with his gun, a blast that’s just a bit too close, the near miss where ‘nothing happened’ but everything did. The continuing fear, when there is close gunfire every night, for months. I know about other people’s fear, what people do and what happens to them when they’re very afraid and they’re flooded, and sometimes drowning, in adrenalin. I know about women’s fears of being raped, of being beaten, of being abandoned and destitute, of being killed. I know about the fear that someone I love will be hurt or killed, and the energy that goes into willing that they will survive. I know about the fear that underpins PTSD and the endless re-runnings of the possibilities of dying, here, today, now. I know about the flashback fear that leaves me paralysed and shaking for no visible reason in an ordinary street on an ordinary day.
I understand powerlessness and what a terrible thing it is to feel responsible and to have no power to act. I have learned to live with my failures to prevent harm, though I am not quite able to forgive myself. I understand how to swallow my tears because it is not someone else’s responsibility to console me for my failures. I remember the times when the best I could do was to bear witness and be honestly present with another, when there was nothing more I could do and my sense of helplessness was crushing. I have come to understand what it is to keep going even when it feels futile, even when the battle has already been lost, even when you have been entirely outmanoeuvred, outgunned and betrayed.
I have become intimately acquainted with rage. Not the steady slow burn of anger at injustice, the kind of anger that is useful, energising, purposeful. That kind is an old and familiar friend. I have become acquainted with the purple kerosene flash of consuming rage; the kind of rage that follows fear and powerlessness. The kind of ineffective rage that comes out of my mouth in biting sarcasm, in ferocious, cynical scorn. Rage that has cartoon images running through my head of how much damage I would like to do to the unthinking, smug, self-righteous and brutal fuckwit in front of me, who has so much more power than me, and who is so unfit to wield it. Whose decisions put women at increased risk, dehumanise them, strip them of dignity, and tell them they (we) are worthless. Rage that wakes me up in the early hours, breathless and jangling, because it has nowhere to go.
A very wise woman once wrote “love is worth nothing until it is tested by its own defeat … love, even if it ends in defeat, gives you a kind of honour; but without love, you have no honour at all”.
In the distance, I can see the shape of the love that carried us through so much. I know that it was love that made us challenge the resistance and stand in front of the violence. It was love that answered skypes in the middle of the night, or the middle of the afternoon. Love that wrote proposals, and found money through tears. It was love that kept us going late at night, and kept us advocating until something changed. It was love that dug tunnels when the mountains wouldn’t move. That made moments of tremendous joy in the face of catastrophe. That made us laugh, and in our laughter, diminished the power of the chaos around us. There was so much love in spite of it all, because of it all.
I can see in the distance the shape of the love we made that sustained us all; I can see how much I have learned from women whose bravery and compassion have changed the world, and continue to change it, every day. There are so many women in this world who have shown me how to love in the face of defeat; I carry them with me in my heart. My sisters are women who glow with honour, and have the kind of spirit that will never be defeated. It has been the gift and the privilege of my life to stand alongside them and with them.
I find myself thinking about T.S Eliot;
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”
I am coming to understand, now, that this love is not sentimental, or naïve. It is a love that is bruised, mottled, sometimes a bit lumpy and often a little clumsy. And it is fierce, and powerful. It is hard-won, and precious. It has changed the world, and changed our worlds. It is the only thing that does. As I grieve for all that was lost, I am starting to see that I wasn’t wrong and I wasn’t a fool.
What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?