Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was asked to lead her Life, Death and Transition workshops all over the world. I’ve been thinking about two of those workshops recently. (I trained with, staffed with and became friends with her former staff, and they shared these stories with me.)
One was in South Africa in the days of apartheid. Elisabeth agreed to come, but only on the condition that both white and black women be allowed to attend together (it was a women’s only workshop.) The organizers agreed, but the participants were unaware of this provision.
Whites and blacks lived in two completely different worlds but for these days they were going to be asked to eat together and to sleep together in one large room. My friend said that at the beginning the tension was unbearable, and some of the staff worried that the workshop may blow up in their face.
But then the women started to do their work. White women bore witness as black women told stories of rape and incest, and black women bore witness as white women also told stories of rape and incest.
On the last evening there was a talent show. The women, black and white together, came in doing a tribal dance. The tension was gone. They’d spoken the truth of their lives and been heard. They’d heard the truth of other lives. Where color once divided them shared suffering and healing brought them together.
The second workshop was held in a maximum security prison in Ireland. Elisabeth had been asked to do a workshop with the inmates, prisoners guilty of the most heinous crimes. She agreed, but only on the condition that the guards participate as well. So, while some of the guards kept watch, others joined the prisoners in sharing their own losses. After a while, my friend said, it was hard to tell who was guard and who was prisoner. In speaking and hearing one another’s deep pain and hidden shame, they found a common language and a common humanity.
Elisabeth used to say that there is within each of us a Mother Teresa and a Hitler. We can react out of our deep pains and fears and unhealed wounds and create more pain for ourselves and others. Or we can do the hard work of healing and risk having our hearts opened to others as they are healed.
In the last couple of days I’ve thought about those workshops a lot. Without a doubt, there are systemic issues in our country that need to be addressed. But there is also the responsibility of each of us to look deeply into our own lives. Where do our own wounds shape our vision? Where do our own fears of the unfamiliar determine our actions? When does our past shape the assumptions we make about the present?
It is hard work, but necessary work. Only as we step out of our own places of fear and shame can we make a space of hospitality in which we begin to try to understand the fears and shame and hopes and dreams of our neighbor.
And only as we create those places do we move from the destruction of violence to the creative power of love.