Drinking the Tears of the World

These words, taken from a chapter heading of Francis Weller’s exquisite book on the sacred work of grief, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, struck me this morning. It has moved me to share with you my reflections on the outpouring of grief events in Israel/Palestine have triggered, and some simple (though, possibly, uncomfortable) practices to help channel these feelings into inner and collective healing, opening new pathways for greater compassion and meaningful dialogue on this topic.

In the midst of my own grief over losing my father, I am also shedding tears for what is happening in Gaza right now. I have struggled to find words, in some ways feeling a responsibility to say something publicly given the work I do now and given my experience of living in Palestine.

Yet I also know two things, that sit very deeply within my heart: Firstly, that we have to find new ways of communicating over, and caring for, the suffering of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

And secondly, that finding these new ways not only takes time, but requires each of us as individuals to pause, feel and heal for ourselves first.

These are simple acts that many activists and humanitarians deny themselves on a regular basis, leading to greater burnout and greater disconnection from oneself and others.

Being ‘right’ is not enough

Too often I have seen discussions about this decades-long crisis very quickly descend into lobbing intellectual or emotive grenades at each other, to use what I hope is not an insensitive metaphor. Each side entrenched in their positions, unwilling to listen to the other and instead intent on point-scoring and ‘winning the argument’. Indeed, I have been one such provocateur for many years in my history of pursuing justice for the Palestinians.

I do not put aside my values and beliefs that the Israeli occupation must end, nor that the Palestinians in Gaza must not be subjected to the collective punishment, land destruction and thousands of deaths that are occurring now and that will, in all likelihood, multiply in the days ahead.

Bowing to personal and collective grief

However, this is where my public advocacy for the Palestinian cause ends – at least for now. I am taken by a deep need to pause, knowing that I am not causing further harm, nor neglecting my role as an activist or advocate in doing so.

In this pause, I am able to acknowledge the deep grief I am feeling, that needs to be seen and heard if I am to be more human and more humane in this world full of polarisation and fragmentation; a world where the average person fears engaging in any public discussion on the issues of our time because of fear of personalised attack of some sort.

I am still very much in the throes of grief over losing my father, who died in February. He too was an advocate for justice for the Palestinians; he produced documentaries about doctors working in Gaza and the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and visited me in the West Bank when I lived there. We would talk endlessly about the latest upheaval and bloodshed occurring in Gaza and our deep concern for the fate of the Palestinians. It is times like this where I miss him all the more. I miss a person I can turn to who understands how I’m feeling about Palestine without requiring a full explanation as to why I feel the way I do.

It is tiring to explain oneself when you are feeling sad and desperate; and in recent weeks I have felt the heaviness of conversations in which people require this from me in relation to how I’m feeling about Palestine. I am reminded that this is the routine, and exhausting, emotional labour of the activist or humanitarian who works on these sorts of world catastrophes every day.

My fahter’s photo of me in Ramallah

What it means to pause, feel and heal

My approach these days has changed from what it used to be, and I am now seeing the value of the pause I have mentioned. In this pause, I have allowed myself the time to grieve: for the lost conversations with my father, for my aloneness, for the despair and hopelessness and worry I feel as I hear the latest news in Gaza.

I have found spaces which feel safe to express these feelings, even among those who may take a different position. In spite of our differences, we come together in grief for the suffering we are hearing about; we come together to drink the tears of the world.

Further echoing the ideas of Francis Weller in The Wild Edge of Sorrow, we allow space for the ritual of grief that does not require us to win an argument or explain ourselves but to simply listen with respect to where we feel our suffering, and the suffering of the world.

Ritual as resistance to burnout culture

These sorts of rituals are often lost in our western societies. Whilst there is plenty of space for political point scoring and backstabbing on social media, in conference halls and meeting rooms, there is little space to sit in quiet stillness and sadness together for all the hatred and separation we are witnessing around us. And this is none truer than in the humanitarian and development sphere, where pausing in this way is seen as indulgent and self-absorbed.

Yet now this is what I invite you all to do, if you are engaging in activism or social change work – on Israel/Palestine or any other world issue.

Can pausing in reverence to the personal and collective grief that needs to be seen, felt and heard, be part of your practice of activism?

Can you find someone who can sit alongside you, so you do not feel alone with it?

To commit to these practices also requires a healthy boundary setting around what, and with whom, we are willing to engage on these very heated and emotive topics.

I’m learning this myself, cultivating greater courage in expressing my desire not to engage in intellectual discussions around Palestine with those who want that from me; knowing that by allowing time to really feel, I can come back to these discussions feeling less depleted and antagonistic and more centred and open-hearted in how I engage.

There are no easy answers or solutions to the huge divisions and conflicts we see

throughout the world right now. But maybe, just maybe, letting ourselves be more human and vulnerable by tending to our own grief, is a way of enabling a response that is more rooted in kindness and compassion for our shared human suffering.

If you are in need of a space for deep listening and sharing around the grief we feel as humanitarians and activists, consider joining my book circle. I will be starting a new group in early 2024, and you can register your interest by contacting me here.

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