A memoir and manifesto of revolutionary love, by Valarie Kaur (a summary by Pat Evert)
“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ear, ‘You are brave’? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition?” “What does the midwife tell us to do?” I cried over the roar. “Breathe! And then? Push!”
This book is for a world in transition. Within twenty-five years, the number of people of color will exceed the number of white people for the first time since colonization, and we are at a crossroads: Will we birth a nation that has never been—a nation that is multiracial, multifaith, multicultural, and multigendered, where power is shared, and we strive to protect the dignity of every person? Or will we continue to descend into a kind of civil war—a power struggle with those who want to return America to a past where only a certain class of white people hold political, cultural, and economic dominion? I believe revolutionary love is the call of our times. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving—a choice we make over and over again. This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love. “Revolutionary love” is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us. I use birthing labor as a metaphor that can belong to all people, a way to tap into the bravery we all need to create new possibilities. This book, written in the throes of all that struggle and hopeful anticipation, is about how to labor with joy.
Part I – See no stranger; loving others
Wonder was my first orientation to everything, the thing that connected me to them. You are a part of me I do not yet know. Guru Nanak, the first teacher of the Sikh faith emerged with a vision of Oneness: Ik Onkar, the Oneness of humanity and of the world. This vision threw him into a state of ecstatic wonder—vismaad—and he began singing songs of devotion called shabads, praising the divine within him and around him. In other words, he was in love. Love made him see with new eyes: Everyone around him was a part of him that he did not yet know. “I see no stranger,” said Guru Nanak, “I see no enemy.” Guru Nanak taught that all of us could see the world in this way. We best cultivate our orientation to wonder. Wonder is our birthright. We start to wonder about the people in our lives—their thoughts and experiences, their pain and joy, their wants and needs.
The call to love beyond our own flesh and blood is ancient. Guru Nanak called us to see no stranger, Buddha to practice unending compassion, Abraham to open our tent to all, Jesus to love our neighbors, Muhammad to take in the orphan, Mirabai to love without limit. We are all indivisibly part of one another. You only have to reclaim a sliver of what you once knew as a child. Wonder is where love begins, but the failure to wonder is the beginning of violence. If you choose to see no stranger, then you must love people, even when they do not love you. You must wonder about them even when they refuse to wonder about you. I’m from India. My family had lived in the United States for a century, but Sikh Americans still had no place in the nation’s racial imagination. Our minds are primed to see the world in terms of us and them. We can’t help it. The moment we look upon another person’s face, our minds discern in an instant whether or not they are one of us. This happens before conscious thought. When one of us does something bad, we tend to attribute it to circumstance, but when one of them does the same, we attribute it to essence—Oh, that’s just how they are. In other words, who we see as one of us determines who we let inside our circle of care and concern. In the United States, the stereotypes are persistent: black as criminal, brown as illegal, indigenous as savage, Muslims and Sikhs as terrorists, Jews as controlling, Hindus as primitive, Asians of all kinds as perpetually foreign, queer and trans people as sinful, disabled people as pitiable, and women and girls as property. Wonder is an admission that you don’t know everything about another. Before my family arrived in California’s Central Valley, this land was not farmland. It was home to the Yokut and Wintu peoples for thousands of years. When this land became part of the United States, the first governor of California armed local militias and sanctioned the extermination of all indigenous peoples. Scalp bounties were posted, some for $5 a head. Men, women, and children were hunted like animals. The indigenous population of California fell from 150,000 to 30,000 in just twenty-seven years from 1846 to 1873, making the California genocide the most documented genocide in North America. In the United States, white supremacy is intertwined with Christian supremacy, one an extension of the other. Any theology that teaches that God will torture the people in front of you in the afterlife creates the imaginative space for you to do so yourself on earth. They could concentrate them, enslave them, pillage them, consolidate their resources, and build an empire on their soil in the name of God and country. What if first contact in the Americas had been marked not by violence but by wonder? If the first Europeans who arrived here had looked into the faces of the indigenous people they met and thought not savage but sister and brother, it would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to mount operations of enslavement, theft, rape, and domination.
What does it take to reclaim wonder now after so much trauma and devastation? Who have you not yet let in? If unconscious, pre-conscious, implicit bias infects us all, how do we reclaim wonder as our primary orientation to the world and one another? Seeing no stranger is an act of will. I am retraining my mind to see more and more kinds of people as part of us rather than them. I say in my mind: You are a part of me I do not yet know. I practice orienting to the world with wonder, preparing myself for the possibility of connection. Stories that divide the world into us and them have the singular power to disconnect us. But stories that expand the collective we have the power to return us to one another. Yes, we carry memories of shame, too. We are told that we are not smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, straight enough, or good enough to belong. Only when I could explore my own internal world without shame—the grief and rage I had suppressed—could I begin to love myself.
Osama bin Laden of the terrorist network al-Qaeda – His face: Brown skin. Black beard. Round turban. Our nation’s new enemy looked like my family. On television, President Bush declared that we were a nation united in grief and resolve. Over email and on the phone, we heard that our families were under attack. Half of Muslim students—and nearly seven out of ten turbaned Sikh students—report being bullied in school. It was hard to meet these children knowing that they would not remember a time before 9/11, that hate would be part of their coming of age, that “terrorist” would become their “n-word.” Among them was my uncle Balbir who was murdered at his gas station. Grief is the price of love. Loving someone means that one day, there will be grieving. They will leave you, or you will leave them. The more you love, the more you grieve. Loving someone also means grieving with them. It means letting their pain and loss bleed into your own heart. Grief has no end really. There is no fixing it, only bearing it. The journey is often painful, but suppressing grief is what causes the real damage—depression, loneliness, isolation, addiction, and violence. When we are brave enough to sit with our pain, it deepens our ability to sit with the pain of others. It shows us how to love them. Grieving together, bearing the unbearable, is an act of transformation: It brings survivors into the healing process, creates new relationships. We come to know people when we grieve with them through stories and rituals. It is how we build real solidarity, the kind that shows us the world we want to live in—and our role in fighting for it. As we traveled from city to city, home to home, I was learning how to grieve with people and be present to their stories. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents had survived the 1947 Partition of India, the largest, swiftest, and most violent forced migration in history. Fourteen million were displaced, an estimated two million killed, and as many as one million women were raped. We were a problem that could only be solved with the words “Go home,” or could only be explained as the work of the Devil. White supremacy had always been twinned with Christian supremacy in America—slavery was justified as a Christian mission, indigenous people were forced to convert at the barrel of a gun, “Confucian” and “Hindoo” laborers were barred from citizenship. America did not grieve with us. America did not find our lives worthy of grief or our stories believable.
I went to India to visit the wife of my uncle who had been killed in the 9/11 backlash. She wanted me to thank America for loving her. They were never alone in it, the Sodhi family. After the shooting, hundreds of neighbors spontaneously showed up at the gas station and left cards and flowers and candles burning through the night. There was still a trace of them when I arrived months later. Just one week after the murder, three thousand people came to Balbir Uncle’s memorial for prayers and tears and resolutions against hate, and this outpouring of love was enough to change Joginder Auntie’s experience of the loss. She bore the pain, but she did not bear it alone. She shared it with people she had never met before. The story was enough to turn Balbir Uncle—a brown, bearded, and turbaned man from a different faith—from “one of them” into “one of us.” But what is particular to America is that many who suffered enormous loss and destruction have had to do so alone, had to marshal language to tell the story, only to find that there was no one to hear it because their suffering contradicts the story that the nation keeps telling itself. A nation that cannot see our suffering cannot grieve with us. A nation that cannot grieve with us cannot know us, and therefore cannot love us. America’s greatest social movements—for civil rights, immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, union organizing, queer and trans rights, farmworkers’ rights, indigenous sovereignty, and black lives—were rooted in the solidarity that came from shared grieving. First people grieved together. You grieve with them in order to know them. I left Joginder Auntie’s side that day in India deeply grateful. If the love she received at Balbir Uncle’s memorial made it possible for her to go on, then her love made it possible for me to go on.
Fifteen years later at ground zero we would grieve with those who loved them. Grieve with the living. Unresolved grief inside a nation is catastrophic: It releases enormous aggression. In the name of the dead— the U.S. war on terror that began in Afghanistan would come to span at least two decades, three presidencies, and seventy-six countries; cost more than $5.6 trillion; and kill more than one million people. In those first days after the attacks, the world as a whole poured its goodwill into us, despite any grievances with the United States. What if we hadn’t squandered that goodwill? What would have happened if we had used that outpouring of love as a balm for the wound? We had learned that grieving is an act of revolutionary love: Grieving together, we ease each other’s suffering and come to know each other.
A year and a half after 9/11, any evidence justifying the invasion was weak at best and fabricated at worst. But the nation was hungry for a fight, and this desire blotted out the rest of our senses. It allowed our government to shift our focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, successfully exchanging one Muslim target for another. Dr. King had articulated for us the need to fight racism and poverty and war together; perhaps our ancestors pointed us to how. “Ancestral solidarity,” Brynn called it. They showed up for each other—the white lawyer who fought for the Sikh farmer, the Sikh farmer who fought for his Japanese American neighbors, and their descendants now. They fought injustice together. Brynn and I decided that that was how we would fight, too.
Why didn’t America’s blood cool? Our leadership kept the nation in a heightened state of terror. The image of the brown turbaned “Muslim terrorist” seared into Americans on 9/11 was reinforced over and over again by a government that arrested, detained, deported, registered, and surveilled Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and immigrants. under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), nearly eighty-four thousand men from twenty-four Muslim-majority countries had to specially register their presence in the United States. They were fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated. Around three thousand were detained and nearly fourteen thousand deported. Again, none was convicted of terrorism. Over and over again, the government cast a wide net, curtailing civil liberties and terrorizing entire communities in the name of national security, but it did not make the nation any safer. This is what happens when the state profiles people based on their race, religion, or national origin instead of focusing on behavior. It also creates a vicious cycle: Profiling by the government signals to the public whom they should fear, and in turn the public’s fear pressures the government to profile. It doesn’t work. This is why hate crimes remained high and never again fell back to the levels they were at before 9/11. The Bush administration had repurposed the military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to incarcerate prisoners in the war on terror. When a nation collectively condones the stripping of civil and human rights of a group, it has delineated who is acceptable to hate. Deep solidarity was rooted in recognition—I show up for you, because I see you as part of me. Your liberation is bound up in my own. We needed to show up for communities who were subject to state violence, and for the people in the countries our government was about to bomb, and for the soldiers about to be sent into battlefields that did not need to exist. The administration had assured the country that the wars would be short, the casualties minimal—another lie. Even as we watched Iraq descend into chaos, we could not have imagined that nearly two decades later, the wars would continue. The hate violence went on too.
Today Americans are seven times more likely to be killed by a white right-wing extremist than a terrorist who kills in the name of Islam. But I knew enough by the time of my college graduation to believe that we had fought—and failed. We didn’t stop the war. We didn’t stop the policies. We didn’t stop the hate. All that energy and momentum and power of thousands of people in the streets, all that history rushing at our backs as we offered up our bodies and our voices. If you “see no stranger” and choose to love all people, then you must fight for anyone who is suffering from the harm of injustice. This was the path of the warrior-sage: The warrior fights, the sage loves. Revolutionary love. The Forty Liberated Ones, not because they were liberated in death but because they were liberated in life. For the warrior-sage, the fight is not just a means to an end. The fight is a way of being in the world, an ongoing labor of love. It was the only way to keep loving the world, and myself, here and now. We need allies in our lives, and in our movements, who wonder, grieve, and fight with us and for us. We need accomplices who will conspire with us to break rules in order to break chains. I choose to interpret the Sikh warrior tradition in the most expansive, compassionate, nonviolent, and life-enhancing way I can. For the cost of violence is high. To break another’s bones, to take their life, is to forgo wonder: It is to cut off a part of ourselves that we do not yet know.
Part II – Tend the wound; loving opponents
Only when our rage was subdued could we unlock our human potential to love others, even our opponents. The opposite of love is not rage. The opposite of love is indifference. Love engages all our emotions: Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger is the force that protects that which is loved. We cannot access the depth of loving ourselves or others without our rage. Due to a “sexual assault early in life,” I had vaginismus. The cousin who committed the assault came at me in a park with a gun. The gun was spinning in the sunlight, round and round, pointing at him, at me, at him, at me. No, this was not how it was going to end. I said, “You have no control over me anymore,” and I left. On Tuesday, August 31, 2004, I showed up alone on a street corner in the Financial District of New York City, video camera in hand, wearing a green badge that read LEGAL OBSERVER—NATIONAL LAWYERS GUILD. I was arrested and mistreated. I thought of Arendt’s analysis that we each have the potential to be the prisoner and the guard, to bear the violence and commit the violence. But my right arm now hung like a dead limb by my side, unable to lift a pen or turn a doorknob. My body had become a map of injuries from physical assault and sexual assault—thigh to vagina, wrist to neck. So I deferred law school for a year, then another, and lived with Sharat, my boyfriend, in Venice Beach. For two years, Sharat cooked our meals, washed my hair, drove me to appointments, and held me when I woke from nightmares. Sometimes the monster in my dreams was the relative, other times the lieutenant; every time, the monster won.
The first step to loving our opponents is rage. I saw anew the lieutenant that had physically hurt me. There stood a frail man, a naked and anxious man, a white man who did not know what else to do with his anxiety but rage at the women of color in proximity to him. He was the product of a system that sanctioned routine violence as the outlet for rage, whether at a detention center in New York City or at a prison in Abu Ghraib. I saw anew my cousin who sexually assaulted me. There stood a boy, a fragile brown boy who had watched his alcoholic father beat a mother who would not leave him, a boy who was taught that women were vessels of honor to be revered and defended and if necessary dominated, a young man who came of age in post-9/11 America where he couldn’t walk down the street without hearing “Osama!” Roshan had come to believe that the Sikh community’s very survival in America depended on who his sisters married. He did not know what to do with his insecurity other than to hurt me. My mind had turned them into monsters—bad guys with infinite power over me. But there is no such thing as monsters in this world. There are only human beings who are wounded. These men had hurt me out of their own suffering. When we cannot see that evil is driven by a person’s wounds, not their innate nature, we become terrified of each other. But the moment we see their wounds, they no longer have absolute power over us. I could not see the wound in them until I tended to the wound inside me. And that required me to access my rage. For mothers, rage is part of love: It is the biological force that protects that which is loved. My mother couldn’t access it for herself. But she could access it for me. Now I was learning how to access it for myself. The body had to find a way to unleash all of its mighty ferocity to protect itself in order to know itself to be alive. My assailants no longer had psychological power over me, because I had reclaimed the sovereignty of my body. Rage is a healthy, normal, and necessary response to trauma. It is a rightful response to the social traumas of patriarchy, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and poverty. Repressing anger comes at a cost to our health. It results in high rates of autoimmune diseases. It amplifies our perception of physical pain. For women and girls, it is more likely to explode internally as self-hatred or stress or illness. For men and boys, it is more likely to erupt as violence against others. The solution is not to suppress our rage or let it explode, but to process our rage in safe containers—emotional spaces safe enough to express our body’s impulses without shame and without harming ourselves or others. Now I see instances of divine rage everywhere. Divine rage can make people uncomfortable: It can feel disruptive, frightening, and unpredictable. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. Step away to rage, return to listen, and reimagine the solutions together. The way of the warrior-sage is not only loving-kindness but loving-revolution, or revolutionary love.
I have learned that we do not need to feel anything for our opponents at all in order to practice love. Love is labor that returns us to wonder—it is seeing another person’s humanity, even if they deny our own. We just have to choose to wonder about them. The more I listen, the less I hate. The less I hate, the more I am free to choose actions that are controlled not by animosity but by wisdom. I am persuaded that there is no such thing as monsters in this world, only human beings who are wounded. When can I take on the labor of listening when others are not safe to do so? At any given time, there are some opponents I cannot wonder about—I need others to do that labor for me as I tend to the wounds they inflict. I could no longer be the activist who labored only for her own people. I had to listen to other communities’ stories with the same wonder and humility with which they were listening to mine.
Deep listening is an act of surrender. We risk being changed by what we hear. When I really want to hear another person’s story, I try to leave my preconceptions at the door and draw close to their telling. I am always partially listening to the thoughts in my own head when others are speaking, so I consciously quiet my thoughts and begin to listen with my senses. Empathy is to inhabit another person’s view of the world, to feel the world with them. The purpose of listening across lines of difference is not agreement or compromise. It is understanding.
In the United States, this means confronting the reality of white supremacy. This single idea of white supremacy motivated the rape, pillage, conquest, concentration, incarceration, and slaughter of indigenous, black, and brown peoples throughout U.S. history. White supremacy forces an ordering of human value. And from that ordering comes every other form of inequality in the United States. It is why our nation’s policies on immigration, criminal justice, and national security continue to criminalize communities of color, maintaining the climate in which hate crimes keep happening. In Barack Obama, I heard my generation’s longing to form a more perfect union that transcended the cruelties of our racial past. Obama’s personhood alone ignited our imagination—a white mother, an African father, a childhood spent partly in Asia, an immigrant past, and life as a black man whose encounters with racism did not deter his faith in the nation’s promise. He would be not only the first black president but also the first who carried our diversity in his being and breath. He held up a sparkling vision of a nation that had never been, but could be. On Inauguration Day to watch our man sworn in as president of the United States in the far distance, people of all colors on all sides of us, jubilation in the air, as if the birth of a new America was imminent. What if people had the support to keep listening to each other, even when it got hard, until we could anchor our solidarity in real understanding?
Deep listening is about drawing close to someone’s story. It turns out it is extremely difficult to draw close to someone you find absolutely abhorrent. How do we listen to someone when their beliefs are disgusting? Or enraging? Or terrifying? An invisible wall forms between us and them, a chasm that seems impossible to cross. We don’t even know why we should try to cross it. Our goal is to understand them. To find a way to overcome our own emotional resistance and choose to ask questions about them. Trying to understand the perspective and pain of people we are inclined to hate is a dramatic cognitive challenge. Listening does not grant the other side legitimacy. It grants them humanity—and preserves our own. Anti black racism inhabits a world filled not with people but with subhumans who threatened them. I no longer saw white nationalists as simple, homogenous, or evil. I saw them as deeply human, deeply complex, and deeply wounded. Every time I am tempted to hate, I hear Van Jones’ voice: “When it gets hard to love, love harder.” I retreat. I rage. Then I return again to labor in love—and try to listen. Sometimes the hardest people to listen to are the ones closest to us. But our closeness can give us resilience so we can listen longer.
In my early life as an activist, I used the language of resistance. We needed to do more than resist. We needed to reimagine the world. The greatest social reformers in history did not only resist oppressors—they held up a vision of what the world ought to be. Nanak sang it. Muhammad led it. Jesus taught it. Buddha envisioned it. King dreamed it. Dorothy Day labored for it. Mandela lived it. Gandhi died for it.
Soon my little apartment on Lynwood Place became a meeting space outside the law school, a place to rage and listen and reimagine the law and ourselves in it. Before you know it, you will not be resisting anymore. You will be embodying a different set of norms. From here, you can see the institution with new eyes and find opportunities for intervention. But isn’t that how social change works? A thousand small acts that don’t seem to make a difference, until a critical mass bursts into public consciousness. I immersed myself in the study of Constitutional Law. The founders crafted the U.S. Constitution to consolidate power for white Christian men of an elite class. The rest of us were not counted in “we the people.” The law was designed to colonize and control the rest of us, not set us free.
In the world as it ought to be, the police are here to serve and protect you, not terrorize you. But in East Haven their stories and tears were invoking the right to equal protection under the law guaranteed in the Constitution. The Police Department had engaged in a pattern or practice of racial profiling that deprives Latinos in East Haven of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution. Tafari and I worked the case through law school—it defined our legal education. And we won. The Justice Department released the results of their investigation in December 2011, almost three years after we launched the case. It found that the Police Department had engaged in widespread “biased policing, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and the use of excessive force.” Two officers pled guilty, and the two others went to trial and were convicted on all counts. All four officers, along with the longtime chief of police, left the department—nearly 10 percent of the entire force. The community had ended the police’s reign of terror—and then remade the department. This was transformation.
On October 5, 2009, I flew to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with a few dozen military personnel, lawyers, and reporters. I clutched a three-hundred-page binder I had assembled for this trip. It was filled with newspaper stories, human rights reports, and law review articles on atrocities that had taken place here: beatings, sleep deprivation, stress positions, force-feedings, waterboarding, and other forms of torture, as well as solitary confinement, suicides, and homicides. The Bush administration had used Guantánamo to hold prisoners in the war on terror—nearly eight hundred prisoners, all Muslim, most without charge or trial. President Bush chose Guantánamo as the destination for terrorism suspects after 9/11 precisely so that the detainees would not have the constitutional right to contest their detention. He declared that detainees in the war on terror were not “prisoners of war” protected under the Geneva Conventions but “unlawful enemy combatants” who had no rights at all. And the American public let it happen. The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the history of the world. In the past thirty years, our prison population increased from around three hundred thousand to more than two million, the majority of the increase attributed to nonviolent drug offenses. The launch of the War on Drugs in 1982 led to a dramatic overhaul in criminal law and sentencing policies, resulting in the rapid mass incarceration of black and brown people, virtually all of them from poor communities. We will not be free of Guantánamos until we reimagine a world in which the quarantine of bodies is no longer required to make us believe that we are safe. In interviewing prison guards I did not see a monster. I saw in their hardened faces the cost of participating in oppression—the shrunken capacity to love.
I returned to law school and couldn’t stop thinking about Guantánamo. I had seen the power of the law, and its limits. Guantánamo was defined by total control, exclusion, and isolation. Solitary confinement has been practiced in U.S. prisons for more than a century. But supermax prisons—entire institutions solely designed to hold inmates in isolation—only emerged as a response to Black Power and other movements in the 1970s. “The way we make change is just as important as the change we make!” What would it take to free all of us—victims, oppressors, and witnesses—from institutions that organize violence? The average cost of incarcerating an inmate at Northern exceeded $100,000 per year, more than twice the cost of housing an inmate in any other facility in Connecticut, or, for that matter, paying tuition at Yale. This is our moment to declare what is obsolete, what can be reformed, and what must be reimagined. I had come a long way in learning how to love others and even my opponents, but I had not yet learned how to love myself.
Part III – Breathe and Push loving ourselves
When the perpetrator was Muslim, he was called a terrorist. When he was white, he was called a lone wolf or mentally ill. The label signified whose security was a priority. In the wake the Oak Creek massacre of 2012 the Police Chief John Edwards told me. “I see a lot of victims. I am used to seeing people want revenge. Meeting this group of people changed me. All I’ve seen is compassion and love and support—not only for us but for the entire city. For Wade Michael Page, too. It’s changed a lot of people.” The list of mass shootings would only grow— Sandy Hook Elementary School, a queer nightclub in Orlando, a concert in Las Vegas, a high school in Florida, a store in El Paso, among hundreds of others.
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork…. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” —Thomas Merton.
I realized what was stopping me: an inflated sense of self-importance. I was acting as though things would fall apart without me, that others could not do the work as well as I could. But, really, I was just terrified that I would no longer have worth if I shifted from doing to being. We need to learn to stop and breathe.
When I was finally ready to love myself, I had to learn how to breathe and push through my grief, rage, and trauma. On the other side, I found what seemed utterly impossible before: healing, forgiveness, and even reconciliation. Perhaps what was truly new and revolutionary on the face of the planet was the notion of universal human dignity, that each person has inherent and equal worth. Even as we are primed to see the world in terms of “us and them,” we are also able to tap the depths of that wellspring of love within us—and choose to love beyond our own kin. Forgiveness is freedom from hate. Family members chose to forgive as a declaration of their own autonomy, as if to say no matter what you do to us, we will not allow you to make us hate you. It reframed justice not as retribution but as cultural and institutional transformation. Sometimes forgiveness opens up the previously unimaginable possibility of reconciliation.
Reconciliation rests on accountability. It requires perpetrators to accept full responsibility for their actions. Two years later, the #metoo movement swept the nation, holding powerful men accountable for sexual harassment and abuse in a public reckoning. Millions of women were breaking their silence for the first time. I learned that the #metoo movement began more than a decade ago, the phrase coined by civil rights activist Tarana Burke, who works primarily with poor women and black and brown girls who have survived sexual violence. We were practicing revolutionary love for one another publicly and privately on a mass scale—wondering about one another’s stories, grieving together. Our society’s dominant response to violence was punishment, but I found myself hungering for something else. Part of our work is teaching people how to dream about another world while actively being safe in this world. I began to wonder: Could we protect spaces for women to rage and heal and find justice, and also for men to claim their own process of accountability, apology, and transformation to earn a pathway back to community? Those who have forsaken wrongdoing can become some of our greatest allies and accomplices in the work of social change. We evolve our pursuit of justice from retribution—an eye for an eye—to collective liberation. America needs to reconcile with itself and do the work of apology: To say to indigenous, black, and brown people, we take full ownership for what we did. To say, we owe you everything. It’s an America longing to be born, a nation we can only realize by doing the labor: and letting those who have been most harmed be the ones to lead us through the transition.
The final stage of birthing labor is the most dangerous stage, and the most painful. As the cervix stretches to ten centimeters, contractions are less than a minute apart, and there is barely time to breathe. The medical term is “transition.” Transition feels like dying. But inside searing pain and encroaching numbness, we might also find the depths of our courage, hear our deepest wisdom, and transition to the other side. There was a voice in me that said, “I can’t.” But there was also the voice in me whispering, “Breathe. You are brave.”
I thought about terminating the Little Critic as a birthday gift to myself, but Wise Woman talked me down. “No,” she said. “We need this little guy. He is a part of you. We just don’t need him in charge.” After two years of practice writing in my Wise Woman journal each day, I wanted to invite Wise Woman to take her rightful place on the throne of my mind. No more power struggle. I wanted her to lead me the rest of my days. The Little Critic is not in charge anymore. He knows that he has no business near the throne, unless Wise Woman scoops him up to soothe him. Wise Woman sits on the throne. When we labor in love, we not only make future victories possible. We also begin to transform the world within us and around us, here and now. Imagine the stories we will tell, when we affirm that every person is a person. Imagine the world we will birth when we see no stranger.
- Epilogue. Joy.
Joy is possible even amid great labors—the labor of dying, the labor of birthing, and the labors between. We cannot force it. Joy returns us to everything good and beautiful and worth fighting for. Joy gives us energy for the long labor.
Out in the world practice seeing each of them as a sister or brother or family member, I say in my mind: You are a part of me I do not yet know. Through conscious repetition, I am practicing orienting to the world with wonder and preparing myself for the possibility of connection. When the person in front of me becomes an opponent, and my impulse is to push them away or shake them, I find ways to tend the wound. I practice this a lot with my small children! I remember that I do not need to feel empathy or compassion for my opponents in order to practice loving them. Love is labor that begins in wonder. So, I wonder about them. Beneath the slogans and sound bites, I begin to hear their pain and understand the wounds behind their words. I see their humanity—I see no stranger. Loving our opponents is hard. If we cannot summon love for all of our opponents in every moment, we have not failed. The aspiration to love our opponents is itself revolutionary. Laboring in love is how we birth the world to come. Going through uncomfortable emotions, sensations, or situations is how change happens.