How do we talk about difficult subjects, loaded topics, and sensitive personal matters in a way that connects rather than divides and polarizes?
In her new book, Freedom Is an Inside Job, Zainab Salbi explores pivotal stories from her life — and from the lives of the women she has helped through Women for Women International, an organization she founded. As the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot, she witnessed the effects of tyranny firsthand, then moved to the United States and became a celebrated humanitarian and activist. By telling our stories, Zainab says, and shining a light on on our conflicts within, we find the path to freedom.
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 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. Now is the time. 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, speaking truth to power like Wonder Woman or Spider-Man. 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 way to think about this broken time. We need a new language in order to connect with those we consider “other,” different from us, and whose actions we find hard to comprehend. We need to harness our desire to do good and put it to its best use. 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, and 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. That means owning the good and the bad and the ugly in ourselves — as well as what makes us beautiful. It means owning the complexity of our emotions and dreams, as well as the discomfort of our missteps and misfortunes. It means being deliberate and aware of our actions. Then we are not intellectualizing our lives. We are not operating from the narrow simplicity of merely thinking about things or reacting to them. Then, we are talking from the depths of our known selves. 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.
It is scary, at times, to share what I and others have grappled with, but it is the only way I know to be authentic to myself, to you, and to the world we are living in. It’s a journey inward, a journey of the brave, a journey of transformation. I won’t lie it is indeed a bumpy road. But its very much worth traveling for the ultimate freedom we gain personally and for what we contribute to the well-being of the collective.
From the Introduction to Freedom Is an Inside Job (Sounds True, 2018); reprinted with permission.
Zainab Salbi was one of our presenters for Women Together: Freedom Is an Inside Job, on January 12, 2018.