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.