After five years at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission – with a new foundation of family and friendship to keep my feet on the ground, and bind me to this place no matter how far I travelled – I left for Afghanistan.
I had met the Afghan Chief Human Rights Commissioner when she visited New Zealand, and been deeply impressed by her courage. So when an opportunity came up to work with her and other human rights advocates in Kabul, I leapt.
That leap eventually led me to a remote UN office in the Hindu Kush mountains where my job involved, among other things, meeting and interviewing women whose husbands and children whose husbands had been killed in tribal fighting. Fighting which had broken out while was acting as the ‘Officer in Charge’ of the UN Mission in Western Afghanistan.
Before I went to meet the women, I was filled with guilt and frustration that neither all the power of the UN, nor all the money and resources spent on the international military presence in Afghanistan had been of any protection at all to these women and their families.
But I hoped that by meeting them, by hearing and then relaying their stories and their views to the people charged with building some kind of peace accord between the warring tribes, I could serve them in some meaningful way. I was looking for a reason to believe my work, my presence, in Afghanistan was of some use to these women.
In the interview process I asked the women to revisit the traumas they had experienced, to tell me in some details how their loved ones had been killed, and at whose hands. My justification for this was the desire to see justice be done. But even as I did it I harboured doubts whether the end justified the means.
And when my reports appeared to be ignored, when the men in charge of ‘peace building’ seemed to place no importance at all on the views, the desires and the experiences of these women, my guilt only deepened. I’d subjected them to the pain of retelling their stories, to no end.
In the wake of those interviews, I began to unravel. And in the unravelling, I learned that like most people who get into this kind of work, my compulsion to save was fueled by private insecurities as much as by compassion.
It’s not the only thing that compels us to do this work, our motivations in this – as in all things in life – are mixed. Part of the desire to act came from a very genuine sense that the world could be improved, that people’s lives could be better, that we could do something about it.
But what unravelled for me in Afghanistan was the extent to which my sense of worthiness, my own identity, was stacked on this idea that I was doing something good in the world. When you took that away, if you said to me, well actually maybe what you are doing in Afghanistan isn’t doing nearly as much good as you think – and maybe even doing some harm – then where does your sense of worthiness come from?
So in this, my third falling apart I turned inwards, I trusted myself, and I sat still.
Agonisingly still, for minutes at a time, as I slowly but surely made friends with my unruly mind and my big, messy heart.
More soon. If you have some stories you need to tell, but you are scared to tell them – consider joining Laurie Wagner and I in Alameda October 3-4 for: Forbidden Territory: Telling stories that could change the world