Getting in over my head

December 3rd, 2009

Marianne Elliott is a writer, yoga teacher, former UN peacekeeper and recovering human rights lawyer. After a decade spent rushing about trying to make things better in the world’s most infamous hot spots (think Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip) she is finally learning to sit still. She offers today’s guest blog.

I’m writing a memoir about my life and work as a human rights officer in Afghanistan. Recently I’ve been sharing draft chapters of the book with selected readers to get feedback before I start submitting them to publishers.

It is a story about me getting in over my head. After interviewing the mothers of children killed in tribal fighting that my office had tried, and failed, to prevent, I began to have trouble sleeping. I was tormented by the idea that I had also failed these women. Slowly but surely my world fell apart. The story goes on from there, and eventually I learn the peace of not trying to do anything except be exactly where I am, but for now I am getting feedback on just those first three chapters.

Last night I heard from the last of my readers. She gave me lots of really useful, detailed feedback on the draft, but at one point she said something that made me recoil.

“I think it would be good,” she said, “if you explained more of the drama and urgency of the situation. Then I would understand why you are so upset.”

That is what she actually said. But what I heard, and what made me cringe, was “What is your problem? Why are you making such a big deal out of this?”

She had put her finger on my deepest fear about this book. I’m afraid that people will read it and ask, “What is her problem?” I’m afraid that my colleagues, the resilient heroes of the humanitarian world, will read it and wonder “Why doesn’t she just pull herself together like the rest of us?” I’m afraid that, as my sister did throughout my childhood, people will accuse me of being a drama queen.

The point of my book, if there is one, is that it is possible to do the work of being fully present in the company of terrible suffering. It is a story about how one sensitive and empathetic soul learned to live and work in a war-zone and it is a story about how all of us can learn to practice peace in the midst of war.

The way I reacted to those women’s stories was the seed that grew into my meditation practice, my unique way of working in Afghanistan and my own story. I wouldn’t change it for anything. Now, though, it’s time to accept that there will be readers who won’t see what I saw and who will wonder just what my problem really was. Now it is time to get back on my cushion, to make peace with myself – drama and all – and start from there.

Come join me at my blog, Zen & The Art of Peacekeeping, or follow me on Twitter where we can drink tea together and chat.

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9 Comments »

  1. Your journey – every single step of it – is inspiring in its raw honesty. Not everyone will get this, but that is OK, there are plenty of us who will.

    Comment by Swirly — December 3, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

  2. Fear is wisdom's way of leading us where we'd least like to go!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — December 3, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

  3. i think we all have pivotal experiences in our lives that change us. experiences that we don't give voice to, or even allow ourselves to acknowledge as such for exactly the fears you speak.

    you are not only giving voice to the incredible story you will tell in your book. by giving voice to the whole process of the telling, you are offering a voice to countless others with stories that are worthy.

    you inspire me to do the same.

    Comment by doorways traveler — December 3, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

  4. "it is possible to do the work of being fully present in the company of terrible suffering."

    I've been asking that question for years, maybe my whole life. Your story gives me unspeakable hope.

    Comment by Jen Lee — December 3, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  5. You need to tell your story. Yes, there will be people who won't get it. But there will be just as many if not more with whom your story will resonate. To be surrounded by such horror and reemerge more aware and centered is a story that can not only help those in the humanitarian arena, but anyone who has been surrounded by violence or misfortune. Continue to write and finish this book. I look forward to reading it.

    Comment by Alison — December 4, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

  6. this line alone makes me want to read your book ~
    "a story about how all of us can learn to practice peace in the midst of war"

    i already sense you will be writing and exploring that on so many levels; and your book will touch the heart of many, many, MANY, people (far more than those who don't get it)

    Comment by pen* — December 4, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

  7. Pulling my proverbial cushion next to yours, making peace with it all, with you, with myself. I raise my teacup to you.

    Comment by Jennifer/The Word Cellar — December 9, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

  8. I have a dear friend who served a peace keeping mission in afganistan as a military nurse. she came back emotionally bruised and broken. Your story is one that needs to be shared. The lives of the women, children, families, and aid workers who try to live and help against such odd is one the world needs to hear. Take her comments, mull them over, see if you can clarify your voice and then sing it long and loud while you sit on your cushion.

    Comment by Donna — December 10, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  9. The point of my book, if there is one, is that it is possible to do the work of being fully present in the company of terrible suffering. It is a story about how one sensitive and empathetic soul learned to live and work in a war-zone and it is a story about how all of us can learn to practice peace in the midst of war.

    This paragraph was so incredibly meaningful to me. I simply cannot wait to read your book. I am sitting here thinking, "It can't get published fast enough!"

    Thank you for who you are. Thank you for doing what you do. Thank you for writing this book. Thank you for using your voice to speak the things you speak.

    Comment by christianne — December 18, 2009 @ 8:33 am

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