I believe that books come into my life when I am supposed to read them. Some months ago I found myself going down a rabbit hole after listening to a podcast. I researched the guest and her contemporaries jumping from website to Instagram profile to the library app to download a book that was briefly referenced somewhere along the way. I do this often, and the results vary from enjoyable reading/listening to “return early.”
But this time was different. After listening to the first paragraph, I stopped. I immediately realized that I wanted to read the words from a page in a book, holding them in my hands. I went to the bookstore to purchase a hard copy because I knew I would go back to those words again. The book was See No Stranger by Valarie Kaur.
The author interweaves stories of growing up as a Sikh American with her multigenerational family in California with her justice work advocating for the recognition of hate crimes after 9/11, representing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and comforting victims of mass shootings. She deeply shares personal experiences about her family, tradition, culture, and faith. Her words give you a glimpse of what her life is like fighting for justice while calling you to action to do the work of justice as well.
What really struck me was the way she talked deeply about connection, both to each other and to ourselves – our own beliefs, our own faith, and our own journey of understanding.
“You are a part of me I do not yet know.”
This is a mantra throughout her stories, born from the Sikh traditions taught to her as a child by her grandfather that remain true as she matures into the wider world and becomes a mother.
Richard Rohr often talks about the idea of connectedness, oneness, and belonging. He says, “As we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received.” This is a concept that I am trying to more deeply understand in my own life, but I find that I need reminders. It is so easy to fall into routines of only caring about my family, my community, my circumstances, and my schedule. I am busy, right?
How can I remind myself of what I believe is true about the world, about the people that are hurting, about the people that are different from me? That “you are a part of me I do not yet know.”
Valarie offers many strategies, but the one that really resonates with me is LISTENING.
“The most critical part of listening is asking what is at stake for the other person. I try to understand what matters to them, not what I think matters…When I listen that deeply, it feels like a dance between two poles, between myself and another person, between what is at stake for them and what is at stake for me. I call this the circle of listening…I draw close to them, return, respond, and draw close to listen again, moving in a circle animated by wonder.” (p. 144)
The listening that she talks about takes intention and time. You must be unhurried and undistracted. I find that as I connect with myself through meditation and prayer, it is easier to listen, not just to my own heart, but to those around me. She finds this to be true as well.
“The voices we spend the most time listening to, in the world and inside our own minds, shape the way we see, how we feel, and what we do. When I spend time listening to people who are speaking from their deepest wisdom, I can feel understanding, inspiration, and energy nourish the root of my own wisdom. But I must not lose myself at the feet of others. My most vigilant spiritual practice is finding the seconds of solitude to get quiet enough to hear the Wise Woman in me.” (p. 281)
This is not easy work, listening to others and listening to the Wise Woman in me, but I am starting to see the fruit of consistently carving out quiet. Justice is not only about loudness and rage (though it can be as well). Justice can be care, thoughtfulness, attention, and love, as she says, revolutionary love.
I encourage you to give yourself the gift of this book. It will allow you to practice listening and learn how to make our human experience better for each other and for ourselves.
One last quote that she includes from Thomas Merton (p. 247).
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. 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.”
Kaur, Valarie. See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love First edition., One World, 2020.