Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Valarie Kaur. Valarie is a seasoned civil rights activist and celebrated prophetic voice at the forefront of progressive change. She burst into American consciousness in the wake of the 2016 election when her Watch Night service address went viral with more than 30 million views. As a lawyer, filmmaker and innovator, she has won policy change on multiple fronts: hate crimes, racial profiling, immigration detention and more.
Valarie is the daughter of Sikh farmers in California’s heartland, and earned degrees at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Law School. She’s the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which we’ll hear more about, and the author of the book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.
With Sounds True, Valarie is launching an important new series. It’s called The People’s Inauguration: 10 Days to Activate Revolutionary Love. It’s a free series that begins on January 22nd and runs through January 31st, and it invites we the people to inaugurate ourselves as change makers in the world who are anchored in love. Each day of the 10-day free series, Valarie offers teachings and a practice, and engages in dialogue with some of the leading cultural visionaries and faith leaders of our time, including Baratunde Thurston, America Ferrera, Van Jones, Parker Palmer, Sister Simone Campbell, Reverend angel Kyodo Williams and more.
Please join us for The People’s Inauguration at SoundsTrue.com/People, again, a free 10-day series on how to activate revolutionary love, at SoundsTrue.com/People. Now here’s my conversation with someone I deeply respect and learn so much from, Valarie Kaur.
Valarie, I’ve wanted to have you as a guest on Insights at the Edge for a long time. I’m grateful that time is now. It has come. Welcome.
Valarie Kaur: I am so happy to be with you, Tami.
TS: Well, let’s start at the beginning. For people who are hearing about the Revolutionary Love Project for the very first time and they’re curious about putting together these two words, revolutionary love, these two words, what is revolutionary love?
VK: Revolutionary love is when we are brave enough to look upon anyone around us and say, “You are a part of me I do not yet know. I will let your story into my heart. I will let your grief into my heart, and I will fight for you when you are in harm’s way.”
TS: We’re applying this revolutionary love to absolutely anyone and everyone?
VK: That’s what makes it revolutionary. It’s love without limit, and, really, Tami, this call to love has… It’s ancient. I remember I first heard it when I was a little girl, when my grandfather would tell me stories of my Sikh ancestors. I think about the call to love on the lips of Jesus and Muhammad and Abraham and Guru Nanak. This call to love has always been dangerous. It’s always been radical to open your heart, to let anyone inside of your circle of care, even those you see as your opponents. That has always disrupted institutions and societies. It’s what revolutions, non-violent revolutions, have been built on. I believe that kind of ethic of love, that muscular, resilient ethic of love is what is the call of our times here today.
TS: In talking about having love for our opponents, one of the things you write in your book, See No Stranger, is, “There’s no such thing as monsters out there, only people who do such things out of their own woundedness.” I think a lot of times it’s like, well, there aren’t very many people out there who are monsters, but there are some people who are monsters. Come on, there are monsters. How can you actually say, “No, there are only people who do such things out of their own woundedness”? What’s the woundedness that people act so atrociously out of? What is that wound?
VK: I have, in my life, sat with white supremacists, with prison guards and former soldiers and my own former abusers. Every time I want to hate them, every time I want to see them as monsters because what they have done is monstrous, I try to practice that ethic of, you are a part of me I do not yet know. You have a story that I need to hear. The longer I listen and the deeper I listen, it always happens, Tami. There’s a moment when, beneath the sound bites and the slogans and the atrocious things that I hear, I begin to hear their story, what formed them, what led them to hold those beliefs or to do those actions. I realize that, oh, inside of that story is deep pain, is a sense of woundedness.
Every time that I see my opponents wound, they magically evolve before my eyes. They turn from monsters into frail and wounded human beings, and tending to their wound, understanding their wound is how I become a stronger and more compassionate advocate. You see, my whole life as a civil rights activist and lawyer, every time I have worked to remove bad actors from power, we put people behind bars, and yet that never actually changed the systems of oppression that kept harming people. When we turned our attention to institutions that authorize and radicalize our opponents, that’s when I began to see change, reforming the entire police department or dismantling an entire supermax prison or changing federal hate crimes policy. So, loving my opponents is not just moral; it is strategic. It is pragmatic. It is how we transition the institutions of power in this country to set all of us free, even those who are the other side of the line.
TS: Now, Valarie, if you can give me a specific example… You said that there’s a moment that happens when you actually listen and hear the wound, and you get it. You understand it, that it changes the relationship, and it changes the course of how things are going. Can you give me a specific example of how that’s happened for you?
VK: When I was 20 years old, a man who I saw as an uncle, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was the first person to be killed in a hate crime after 9/11. He wore a turban and beard like my grandfather, as so many men do in the Sikh community. This turban, this beard, these articles of faith were meant to represent our commitment to love and justice, and yet it’s precisely these articles of faith that have turned us into targets for hate violence.
So, in the aftermath of Balbir Uncle’s murder, that is what set me on my path as an activist, as a civil rights activist for many, many years. Every time I even tried to think of Balbir Uncle’s killer, my entire body would constrict. I couldn’t even give him my attention. He was a monster to me. He had taken so much from us that I simply focused on my own community, my own people, on laboring for our protection, and that’s what I needed to do.
Fifteen years later, at Balbir Uncle’s memorial, I returned to the gas station where he was killed. At that point, the memorials… There had been so many that they all blurred together, and hate crimes were skyrocketing once again. Balbir Uncle’s younger brother, Rana, turned to me and said, “Nothing has changed.” I asked a question that I had never let myself ask before: Who is the one person we have not yet tried to love?
The next morning, we called Balbir Uncle’s murderer in prison. His name is Frank Roque. At the beginning, we asked him, “Why did you agree to speak with us?” He said, “Well, I’m sorry for what happened to your uncle, but I’m also sorry for the thousands who were killed on 9/11.” He was refusing to take responsibility, and I became angry, almost as if to protect Rana. Perhaps because I was holding that space of protection for Rana, Rana was safe enough to keep listening to Frank, to keep wondering about him. And he could hear what I could not hear. He said, “Frank, this is the first time I have heard you say that you were sorry.”
That single moment changed everything, Tami. That single moment of recognition invited Frank to say, “Yes, I am sorry for what I did to your brother. When I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother. I will hug him, and I will ask for forgiveness.”
And Rana said, “We have already forgiven you.” Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is freedom from hate, freedom from animosity. For me, forgiveness came at the end of 15 years of healing, of grieving, of raging. Enough people had to love me well enough to get to the point where I could wonder about Frank, and enough people had to love Frank well enough behind those prison walls to get him to the point where he could begin to apologize.
Now, Tami, I meet with Frank. Every few weeks I’ve started to read him my book, See No Stranger, the book that his story is featured in. As we sit together and wonder about each other, I began to understand that, oh, white nationalist aggression, his aggression is simply a symptom of unresolved grief. He’s been grieving. They’ve been grieving the notion that this nation ever belonged just to them in the first place. Tending to that grief, helping them bear that grief and transform that grief into a place where they can see that they don’t have to be threatened by us is the work that’s before us here and now in this country.
TS: Now, Valarie, let’s say someone’s listening and they have one foot in the world you’re inviting us into, this world of revolutionary love. They want to see and listen to the wound of someone that they see as just a terrible human being in some way. But they have another foot in a different world that says, “Uh-uh, uh-uh, wrong, uh-uh, can’t do it, won’t do it, not ready to do it.” What would you say to someone who finds themselves listening in that posture?
VK: If you are someone who has a knee on your neck right now, it’s not necessarily your role to look up at your opponent and try to wonder about them or listen to them or love them. Your job is to take the next breath. Your role is to survive, to let enough love in so that you can last. But if you are someone who is safe enough to do that kind of work of listening to opponents, then we need you in that labor. This is where I say revolutionary love must be practiced in community.
All of us have different roles at any given time. I define revolutionary love as the courage to love others, our opponents, and ourselves. Some of us are carrying so much trauma that just loving ourselves… Taking that breath is the revolutionary act. Some of us have to do that work of solidarity, of loving others, standing with others who need them. Yet some others might be ready to do that work of listening and reaching out to our opponents.
So, I think a lot of this process, Tami, is discerning, “What is my role now? What is my body ready for?” When I think of some opponents, I bring them to my mind, and if my entire body constricts and I feel breathless, then that gives me information that there is still some tending of my own wounds to do before I can bring my attention to them. I wasn’t ready to reach out to Balbir Uncle’s killer until 15 years later. It took 15 years of healing and grieving and tending to my own wounds before I could think about his.
But if we get to that place inside of us where there’s a sense of peacefulness, that we’ve healed enough that we can conjure up our opponent and just begin… I say, “Love is labor that begins in wonder.” It doesn’t have to begin with empathy, and it doesn’t have to begin with compassion. Those things can come later. Simply the act of wondering about your opponent is the first step to seeing their humanity, to hearing their story, and then to imagine what it might be to include even them in your circle of care.
TS: In describing revolutionary love, you said it’s dangerous. Tell me what you mean by that. What’s dangerous about revolutionary love?
VK: Oh, Tami, the call to love has always been dangerous, hasn’t it? In every century, in every generation in human history, how many have been killed, have lost everything for being so daring as to lift up this idea that we can love without limit? I think of all of the spiritual teachers and the social reformers throughout history who have given their lives for this ethic. It’s always been dangerous because our society is dominated by institutions that cling to hierarchies of human value, the idea that one group of people deserve more than others, are worth more than others. We tell stories to preserve those institutions. Here on US soil the story of white supremacy is the oldest and most insidious story, tricking us into seeing whiteness as the default, as normal, as better.
When we start to lift up the call to love, it is inherently anti-racist and inherently disruptive because it’s saying, “No, all of us have inherent dignity and worth.” Love is not just a feeling; love is labor. It’s fierce. It’s bloody. It’s imperfect. It’s life-giving. It’s a choice we make over and over again. If I am to labor for those who are in harm’s way in this country, then that ignites the work of justice. That’s how it’s dangerous.
TS: Now the symbol for the Revolutionary Love Project is a heart that is connected to a fist in the air. I found this very intriguing. Talk about something to wonder about. I think what made me wonder is often I see images of the heart within spiritual traditions and fists within activist traditions, but this notion of the linkage and bringing them together. I’d like to understand how you see that, that combination, both the fist and the heart.
VK: I’ve spent a lot of my life in the world of interfaith movements and communities centered around spiritual practice. The heart looms large in those spaces, and there’s a sense of meditating and including everyone in our circle of care and praying and holding up this vision of a world where we all belong, and then there’s no teeth. There’s no sword. There’s no fist. Just sitting and praying, and wishing for it to happen, and not reckoning with the ways that you are complicit in institutions of power that perpetuate oppression. That’s just part of the problem.
So, when I’m with those communities, I’m just like, “Oh, but where’s the fist?” Then because I’m a civil rights lawyer, when I’m sitting with civil rights activists who know how to fight, who have been in the trenches, who have challenged the policies and led the marches and held up the blueprints for the solutions that we need, I see how often they get caught up in the othering of their own opponents, the dehumanizing, and how often they start to embody the very dysfunctions that they’re trying to heal out in the world, so this sense of stress and fear and anxiety and scarcity and unbridled rage. I look at them, and I see the fist, but I say, “Oh, my loves, where is the heart? What is grounding you? How can you continue this labor and still last? Are you loving yourself well enough to last? Are you seeing the humanity of your opponent so that you’re not becoming like them? Are you holding up a vision of the world that is rooted in anger and love?”
So, Tami, my whole life has been this walk between these two worlds and this deep recognition that we need both. We need the heart, and we need the fist. I went deep and reached back to my ancestors, and the ideal in the Sikh faith, the ideal that my grandfather taught me when I was a little girl, the ideal of our Sikh ancestors is the Sant Sipahi, the sage warrior, or the warrior sage. The warrior fights; the sage loves. It is a path of revolutionary love. That call to revolutionary love, the idea that we could all become Sant Sipahi is what my life’s work is now.
TS: I love this image from the Sikh faith of the warrior sage. In your work on revolutionary love, you actually embrace the word fighting, yes, fighting. It’s OK to fight for what we believe. So, tell me, how do we fight and make sure that our love is intact, that we’re anchored in love?
VK: It’s all about where you’re pointing your sword. So, I have been part of campaigns that have put corrupt police officers behind bars, and yet I have learned that removing bad actors alone actually doesn’t create lasting change. When I point my sword not toward individual bad actors but toward the institutions that allow them, authorize them, radicalize them to hurt us, to continue to perpetuate harm, then I begin to do the work of lasting transformation.
What does it mean to reimagine, to move from resistance to re-imagining, re-imagining and remaking our criminal justice system, our education system, our health care system, our economy? Not just these big institutions, but every small institution in all the areas of our lives, from our kids’ elementary school to the church on the corner to our own workplace, our own industry. There’s no institution in this country that doesn’t need us to transition it to becoming truly anti-racist, equitable and sustainable. That requires a bit of fight. You have to fight for what you believe, for what is good and worthy and possible to make the world safer for our children. But the way to make sure that your fight is anchored in love is to hold in your heart this idea of, “Am I remaking this institution in such a way that everyone who comes into contact with it is seen and can flourish, even those who I consider my opponents?”
TS: You write, Valarie, that revolutionary love is the call of our times and that, in your view, we are currently at a crossroads as a nation, as America. I’d love to understand more how you see this crossroads that we’re at right now.
VK: I believe that we are in transition, that our nation is in transition and that the human race is in transition. In birthing labor, transition is the most painful stage in labor, the most dangerous. It is a breathless time. It feels like dying, and yet it is precisely in transition that you begin to see glimpses of what is wanting to be born. When I think about the transition that we are in as a nation here in the United States, this transition I see lasting 25 years. Within 25 years, the number of people of color in this country will exceed the number of white people for the first time since colonization.
Yes, we are at a crossroads. Will we continue to teeter on the brink of civil war no matter who is in the White House? Or will we begin to birth a nation that has never been, a nation made up of other nations, a multiracial democracy where everyone is seen and protected, where everyone might live a life where they are safe and free? That vision of the America that could be, birthing that America, that is the work of our lifetime.
When we think about climate change… And we know that the stakes are existential, that if we don’t start solving the climate crisis within the next 25 years, starting now, there may not be a world at all for our children or their children. So, is this the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb? In transition, the midwife tells us to “Breathe and to push, my love, to breathe again, and then to push.” There’s a wisdom in sustaining that kind of long labor. I believe that every single one of us has a role in that labor, and I believe that we can last in that labor if we are anchoring ourselves in love every day.
TS: Valarie, you use, very powerfully, these birthing metaphors in describing revolutionary love. You described it as labor, and I’ve heard you describe it as sweet labor. Now you’re talking about the connection between the tomb, the dying process, and then here the birthing process, the labor we’re in. I want to hear more about that, because it seems to me that there’s many things that are dying right now or need to die, as things that are coming into birth and emerging. And that there’s actually a connection here between what we need to say goodbye to and put in the past, as well as what we need to reimagine and birth into future.
VK: That’s right. I am holding both in my heart. Oh, Tami, given all that we have lost in the last few years, I mean, just the death toll alone from this pandemic is inconceivable. Then layer that on top of how much this pandemic has taken the lives disproportionately of people of color who have long struggled to survive in the face of white supremacist forces. Then you layer that on top of all the assaults that we have seen on our democracy.
The dying is both very real, very tangible as we think about the people we have lost, the ways of being we have lost. It’s also metaphoric. I think people are grappling with the death of a story that we’ve told ourselves about what America is, a city on the hill, the story of exceptionalism. I think the dying of that story is healthy. It’s painful, but it’s healthy, because then breaks open the opportunity to tell a new story, the idea that our America is not dead, but it’s a nation that’s still waiting to be born. That the story of America is one long labor, and that our ancestors have labored for that story, and our job is to labor for that story now, even when it is hard, even when it is long.
So much of revolutionary love is about looking at how they labored, how they lasted. How did they grieve? How did they rage? How did they fight? How did they breathe? How did they push? See No Stranger and so much of this work is about recovering those knowledges, that wisdom, and applying it for this era of transition that we find ourselves in now.
TS: Right now, in this era, you had the inspiration, the vision to create something called The People’s Inauguration, an actual inaugural ceremony for us, the people, to be followed by 10 days where we deepen and activate and learn more about revolutionary love. Tell me the vision behind The People’s Inauguration.
VK: I got really quiet during the election season and after the election. I got really quiet, and I could feel in my bones and in my body just how tired we all are, how traumatized, how much accumulated grief has gathered in our bones. I began to look ahead to January 20th, that day where the President will make a vow to protect and serve this country. I kept thinking that, if only one leader makes a commitment, we’re not going to get very far. But we, the people, need to be inaugurated into the labor of healing and transitioning America.
We know we need sound government. We know we need strong policies, but policies alone are not sufficient. What we need is cultural transformation, cultural renewal, a shift in consciousness, a revolution of the heart. This idea of being able to see and affirm and protect the worth of every human being, that comes from inside out. It requires us to do that work, block by block, heart to heart.
That energetic shift that’s required… Wisdom traditions, religious traditions have long known the power of ritual. Even the Presidential inauguration, it’s a public ritual of the transitioning from one state of being into another, while we’re watching both a transition of power, but also a President step into a role and make a commitment. So, what if we could recommit to our core values as a nation? What if we could recommit to one another, recommit to ourselves?
I went back to the Constitution, and I looked at the words that the President says. I reworked those words into a people’s oath, and we are inviting everyone on January 21st, the day after the Presidential inauguration, to join in The People’s Inauguration to take this oath with us, with each other, with your families. Imagine around the table family ceremonies with children. Imagine educators doing this with their students. Imagine artists and musicians and activists. Imagine faith leaders doing this with congregations. We’re inviting everyone to take a moment and to imagine what you are moving away from after these last few years of trauma and what you are ready to move into, what you’re ready to claim, the role that you’re ready to play in the new era to come.
TS: You mentioned that rituals are part of every faith tradition, a part of faith traditions. What’s always interesting to me is what makes a ritual meaningful versus a ritual that’s kind of at the surface, that’s lost its meaning, that’s somewhat hollow. What would make taking such an oath, a people’s inauguration, what would make that act really meaningful in your view?
VK: It begins with searching within your own self. How is it that you have been these last few years? How have you carried yourself? What have been the dominant energies in your body? What has been your relationship with fear, with anxiety, with rage, with grief? How have you been brave with those emotions, and how perhaps have you been protecting yourself by disassociating from those emotions? How have you shown up to labor for the people around you and also care for yourself?
I think it begins with a level of introspection, Tami, about how you’ve been and what parts that you might want to carry into the new era and what parts you’re ready to release. When you imagine, “OK, there’s a window of opportunity that’s opening up now, a breath that’s opening up now, a time when we can transition as a nation, imagine the nation that we could be. What is my part? What is my role in healing the people around me, in rebuilding the country in my own sphere of influence?” It’s that level of introspection that makes such a ritual carry meaning and carry weight.
You also need a commitment and a way to uphold that oath, and that is why we’re holding this 10-day teaching series together, Tami, these 10 days to activate revolutionary love. So, you made this oath on the 21st. How do you fulfill it? We’re inviting people to journey with us and learn the tools and the practices and explore how it might be that they can show up and fulfill that oath in their lives. Then for those who are with us for those 10 days, we’ll be carrying forth on a yearlong journey, where we’ll continue to support you with artwork and tools and virtual events and a sense of community, that you are held, that we’re doing this together.
TS: Now Valarie, I want to go into two words that you mentioned a little bit more. You talked about the importance of us being introspective about our rage and our grief, and I want to talk about both of those things. We’ll start with our rage. You don’t hear rage being part of love, which is what you teach in the practices and teachings of revolutionary love, that we actually need to honor our rage.
You write, “Rage is the biological force that protects that which is loved,” and I wanted to really underscore this because it’s not only that a raised fist isn’t often found in spiritual circles. Rage is certainly not welcome to the table. “No, that’s destructive. That causes harm. Leave your rage…” I don’t know where we’re supposed to leave it, someplace underground or something, but it’s not welcome in the spiritual pursuit. Yet you approach this differently. I think it’s really important.
VK: Growing up as a South Asian American woman, I was always taught that I was only as good as my ability to suppress my rage, that I had to bury my rage down deep in order to show up to be polite and loving and spiritual. It wasn’t until the moment when–and I tell this story in full in the book–I broke my silence around a sexual assault. And in a room full of family members, there were those who said that I needed to stay silent. It was my mother who stood between me and the rest of that room and said, “No, not my daughter. She will be free.” There was rage roaring inside of her. I had never seen that much rage in my mother’s eyes, and it was the first time I was reckoning with the fact that her rage was a testament to how deeply she loved me, that she was there to protect me and that she was showing me that I was worthy of protecting myself, that I could un-tap that rage to protect my own body, my own dignity as a human being, as a woman, as her daughter.
Tami, I went back into the science, and I discovered that oxytocin is considered the love hormone. The more oxytocin in a mother’s body, the less aggression she exhibits with one exception. When her young are threatened, then oxytocin actually increases aggression in a mother’s body. So, rage, that kind of protective aggression, is actually the biological force that protects that which we love. So, as I sat with my mother’s story and as I sat with the science, I thought, “All right, well, what do we do with our rage now?”
I’ve come to understand that women and girls are too often taught you suppress their rage, while men and boys are too often taught to let it explode in acts of violence or aggression, that that’s a sign of their strength. The solution is not to suppress or to let it explode, but the solution is to start to process our rage in safe containers.
Our indigenous ancestors knew this. If we go back to our ancestors, the rituals around drumming and wailing and dancing and bathing and plunging and burning, all of these rituals that were containers for our most intense emotions, including our rage. Once we’re in relationship with our rage, once it’s on the outside of us, then we can ask ourselves, “Oh, what information is this rage carrying? What is it telling me about what is important to me? How might I choose to harness that rage for creative, nonviolent action in the world?”
That harnessed rage, Tami, is what I call divine rage. It’s focused rage. It’s moral outrage. It’s the rage in Jesus’ eyes when he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. It’s the rage of the goddess Kali who’s revered as a divine mother, even though she is ferocious. But she’s harnessing that rage to protect us. So, I think about the ways we can harness and exhibit our divine rage now, for the aim of divine rage is not vengeance. The aim of divine rage is to reorder the world.
TS: Can you share with me, Valarie, right now, in current time, how you’re harnessing some element of rage inside of you towards some good revolutionary love end?
VK: Oh, Tami, it’s like a daily practice these days. I’ll read the news. I’ll see a press briefing, and I’m taking into account everything that’s happening in our country at the highest levels and all the immense suffering that has been caused because of it. I can feel my fists clench, and I can feel my belly tighten and my jaw get strong. Whereas before I would immediately try to suppress or bury or undo that, I was like, “No, I know now that I need to give this rage an expression.” So, I will scream. I will go into the closet, and I will curse. I will physically throw pillows to the ground.
What’s funny is that I do this sometimes with my own children, where my son is throwing a tantrum. Before I would get so mad at him. I would be like, “Oh, goodness, am I a bad mother?” I would feel so guilty. Now I know, “No, I simply must express this rage. I must give it a safe container,” and now my son knows how to do that for his own rage. So, we use the language of safe containers in our home all the time. Once we do that… Oftentimes we do it with each other. We’ll throw the pillows down or we’ll scream or we’ll do… And then we’ll take a bath, and we’ll notice how that energy has moved through our body. It’s found expression. We’ll ask ourselves. We’re like, “Oh, what matters to me? I can still feel the surge in my body. So how do I want to then direct that energy into the world? What do we need to do next?”
In the case of my son, sometimes it’s just like I get to wonder about him. Why did he throw the tantrum? Did the bedtime change? Did he miss a snack? Then I move through the process of wondering about him, listening to him, and then re-imagining the culture of our home or the context of our home or the schedule so that it doesn’t continue to perpetuate that behavior. It doesn’t always work, but it’s become a common practice in our home. So, too, out in the world, once I process that rage, then I get to the point where I can think about my political opponents. I see them not as monsters, but as human beings who are doing what they’re doing for reasons, even if I don’t agree with them.
Once I understand those reasons, once I understand the narratives that they’re clinging to and the sources of power out there that allow them to do what they do, then I get smarter about what I need to do next in the world. So, is it calling Georgia voters? Is it crafting an inauguration experience that might give us an option or open our imagination to reach out to those who we consider our opponents? What might I do with that energy?
Really, black women in this country, Tami, have long understood this. Audre Lorde talks about listening to our rage like it’s a symphony, dancing with our rage. That’s what it feels like in my life right now. I feel like I release my rage in safe containers, and then I dance out of it and imagine, “OK, how do I use this for what I need to do now and next?”
TS: Very helpful. I also want to talk about grief and grieving as part of the practice of revolutionary love. Just very briefly, Valarie, I’m going to share with you that, at Sounds True, I’m part of a leadership team of 13 people. We meet once a week. There was so much time in 2020 where I would listen to people check in at the beginning of the meeting. At the beginning, each person spends a minute or two just sharing their weather report, how they’re doing. I thought to myself, “Oh, my gosh, this group of people, we need to do some serious grieving. How can I help our team grieve?” There’s so much grief here in this space, and yet we’re at Sounds True working. We have a whole list of… an agenda and tasks. It made me realize that we don’t, as a community, at work at least, know how to process our grief, and it’s so important. So, I really want to hear what you have to say about this.
VK: Tami, you are already doing it simply by creating that space. There’s no fixing grief.There’s only bearing it, and bearing it together.. So, I think about, oh, my goodness, the immense grief that we are carrying as a people, as a collective, and in our own individual bodies, and the necessity for seeding those kinds of spaces where we can grieve together, in all the areas of our lives, even our workplaces. I honor you just for creating and opening that space, knowing that grieving is not something that comes in clean stages. I think of it more like a river. It carries us forth, and it twists and turns. Some days we feel like crying and feeling the acute pain, and other days we feel like we need to go numb and dissociate. Then other days still we need to feel like we need other people just to hear how we are doing, until there comes a time when the emotional terrains start to change around us, and we realize that our grief has delivered us into new, deeper understandings of ourselves and the world around us.
For me, I really learned how to grieve when my grandfather died. He was the pillar of wisdom in my life, and when he first died, I was so angry that he had left without teaching me all of his wisdom, how to be a warrior like him. It took a long time of me wandering the cemeteries and wailing in the streets. I was so dramatic. He said that he was going to be with me and stay with me, that I could summon him, but I could not feel him, until a very wise friend said, “Once you stop searching for him, once you just get still, then you’ll realize. You’ll feel him right next to you.”
Tami, that’s what happened. I sat on a bench by a lake, and once I just said, “Papa Ji, you are already here,” I could feel his hand in mine. I realized that, if I just got quiet enough, I could summon his voice, and I could feel his love inside of me, like as a force inside of me. I came to understand that, “Oh, love outlasts life.” It outlasts life. So, the process of grieving is just getting more and more intimacy with that which we have loved and learning how to be in a different relationship with it.
TS: You write that we need to be brave with our grief. Tell me more about that and how grieving can actually be part of this process of revolutionary love, how it’s intrinsic to activating revolutionary love.
VK: Being brave with our grief is turning our attention to how grief is living in our bodies now, today in this moment. What qualities does it take? What is it calling you to do? What do you need to be able to process it, to move with it, to breathe through it? Then breathing and being and being brave with your own grief also builds your capacity to be brave with the grief of others. This is the act of revolutionary love, to be brave with the grief of others who we may not have reached out to before.
We saw it, Tami, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the way that that video has been ingrained in our psyches, him calling out for his dead mother. So many people who were blind or deaf to the longstanding grief of black people in this country were suddenly broken open to it, and we saw the courage that so many people had in taking that grief and moving with it, showing up in the streets, marching with the signs, sitting with their children and teaching them about Black Lives Matter, having the hard conversations, in workplaces, in industries, in churches, in homes all across the country, around, “How we can center black lives in a way that we as a nation have not before?”
I mean, seeing images of white people standing in front of black people, kneeling in the street in front of an army of police officers, we’ve never seen those images before. Black people in this country have never seen those images before. So even though for so many of them it felt like 1968, it felt like 1993, there’s been a real understanding that this is different. Because people were brave with their grief.
Who you grieve with determines who you organize with and who you fight for. Any time in the history of this country, whenever people who had no obvious reason to love each other have come together to grieve, they give rise to movements, even revolutions. This is the ongoing nonviolent revolution that we are in as a nation, and even though it is fractured and there’s debate about the right solutions–Do we defund the police? Do we abolish? Do we reform?
That’s all healthy because it’s showing that there are enough people–there’s a critical mass of people–now willing to do the work of re-imagining and remaking a country where we are all safe. That’s only because we have touched the depth of our grief.
TS: I just want to make something really explicit for people. In terms of the oath that there’s this invitation to take as part of The People’s Inauguration, the day after our elected officials are inaugurated, we, the people, can take this oath. How is the harnessing of my rage and the processing of the grief I feel about what’s happening in the world… How will that inform the oath I take?
VK: My oath is going to be around longevity. There have been moments in my life as a woman of color who has wrestled with sexual assault and the aftermath of that and reconciled violence and the aftermath of that, and police brutality and the aftermath… There have been moments where I have felt like I was at risk of taking my own life, or letting others take my life, or getting sick or burning out or breaking down. Now that I know, now that I’ve spent time recovering… If love is labor, then love can be modeled. Love can be practiced. Now that I understand the core practices of how to love myself well and how to love others well, I feel like I have found a way to make an oath, make a commitment around longevity, that if this transition is going to last 25 years, then my commitment to you, Tami, and to everyone in my life is to last for 25 years and to play my particular role in protecting, defending dignity and justice and joy for all of us, including myself.
I think that the only way that we can keep the oaths that each of us will be making is if we can build the emotional resilience that’s needed to stay in the labor. That’s what the 10-day series is about, how to be brave with our grief, how to harness our rage, how to listen to our opponents, how to breathe, my love, and then how to push, and how to let joy in, in the process.
That’s been the miraculous thing I’ve discovered, Tami. Now that revolutionary love has become a way of being in the world for me and for so many who have touched it, I have discovered that the meaning of life is to labor for justice with joy. When I’m laboring with love, then I have learned how to let joy in, even in the hardest moments. That joy gives me the energy in order to last as long as I want to last.
TS: A couple things, Valarie. One, I notice when you stand, that’s how it feels to me, and you speak your own oath, I want to stand with you. I do stand with you. I mean, it just creates that energy in the conversation. Of course, I am going to make my oath too. The People’s Inauguration, I feel that, it’s so powerful to listen to you, to hear each other.
VK: May it spread. May it be something that we do for ourselves. Then other people watch us do it and then want to do it themselves. When I think about how social change takes place, there’s all this amazing data now about how when 3.5% of a population engages in a nonviolent action, it creates a seismic change throughout an entire society. So, we’ve got our marching orders, Tami. If we could catalyze 11 million people in the United States to make a commitment to each other, to themselves, to show up with love, to build just and caring communities where they are, might that be the cultural transformation that we need to cross this threshold in front of us?
TS: It’s an achievable goal. Now the other thing I wanted to point out is you talked about joy. You write, “Letting joy in is our greatest act of moral resistance.” Just, Valarie, in that short confessional moment here, I’ve never been someone I think that people would say, “Oh, my God, she’s so unbelievably bubbly or joyful,” it’s just kind of not something that I would naturally relate to. However, the way you describe joy in this series, 10 Days to Activate Revolutionary Love, it’s the last part of the 10-day journey is when you share these teachings and practices of joy. You talk about it like this rising, this upwelling… That would be my word, but this rising of spirit in us like a current. I thought, “Oh, I know what that is. I love feeling that. I feel that all the time. I never knew that was joy.” I want to hear you talk about that and point that out for our listeners.
VK: That’s right. I think too often we conflate joy with that bubbly giddiness or even happiness, those bursts of happiness. No, I actually went back to my Sikh faith. There is a concept in Sikhi called Chardi Kala. I grew up with it all the time. “Are you in Chardi Kala? Stay in Chardi Kala.” It was almost like a sign off, like a greeting that we give to each other.
I didn’t really understand it fully until I was in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012. It was the site of a white supremacist mass shooting, and six community members were murdered, and yet the young people, the sons and daughters who had lost their parents, their elders, in this act of bloodshed, an atrocity, they were the ones who returned to the gurdwara the next few days. They put on the prayers, and they rolled up their sleeves, and they began to rebuild the gurdwara before our eyes. They ripped out the bloodstained carpets, and they repaired the windows. They left one label on the entry to the diwan hall, the prayer hall, “We are one.”
The spirit that I felt as they were working with their hands and singing the prayers, oh, it was Chardi Kala. It was this ever-rising joy, even in the midst of suffering, ever-rising spirits even in the darkness of labor, even in the face of the abyss. That is how I learned that, oh, the fight for justice has gone on long before we were born. Even if we take America across this threshold, humanity across this transition, the labor for justice will continue long after we die, right? So, what does it mean to think about showing up each day as an end in and of itself, that everything that we do, every email that we write, every protest we go to, every speech that we make, every counseling that we do for our children …
What if everything in itself was it, was the meaning of life, was the labor? What if the labor was it? Breathing between the pushing, letting ourselves get present, get quiet, feeling our connection with everything around us, no matter how dark, how difficult the day is, letting that joy in, that ever-rising surge inside of our bodies, oh, that’s what makes a good life.
TS: Valarie, when you ask yourself that question, “Are you in Chardi Kala?” I don’t know if I’m saying that exactly correctly, but it’s a word I’d like to learn how to say correctly. “Are you in Chardi Kala?” and the answer’s no, what do you do?
VK: It’s been quite a lot of times in my life. “Are you in Chardi Kala?” “No.” That’s when I know that I need my people. I need my people. I need to rage with someone. I need to cry and grieve with someone. I need to rest and breathe with someone. I need others to help me process whatever difficult, big thing that’s happening inside of me. Then the processing will go on, but inevitably it happens. There’s a few seconds when I’m with someone, where they’ll make a joke on the birthing table.
Or I remember sitting with my friend Joyce as she was dying. I said, “Look, Joyce, the angel is next to you,” this angel I had gotten her from Turkey, from Istanbul. She said, “No, it’s a Seraphim.” Like, she was correcting me in her last days, in her last hours of being alive on this Earth. And we laughed. She laughed, and I laughed, just like my husband was making me laugh between the contractions before my daughter was born. I mean, even when we’re in the midst of processing something really, really big– the labor of birthing, the labor of dying, the labor of living– when there are seconds between where we are with each other, when we just sit inside the wonder of being here now, that’s what I think creates the conditions for joy to find us.
TS: I want to end our conversation by talking more about your ancestors, and the reason is, I notice just hearing anytime you talk about your ancestors, what I feel… and whether you’re talking about your grandfather or your Sikh ancestors, I notice I feel this tremendous heart melting inside of me, some quality of love and devotion and you offering yourself to this ancestral lineage. I want to understand more about how that lives in you.
VK: I am closing my eyes as you said that, Tami, and just summoned Papa Ji, and I could feel him behind me. I could feel his love in my chest. I think about how summoning him like that has become easy now, but only because it was so difficult in the beginning, and I had to keep practicing it, practicing summoning them. I think all of us have ancestors who, when we think of them, make us brave. They may be in your ancestral line, your family line, or they may be people who belong to us as a country. I think of, what does it mean to summon John Lewis? What does it mean to summon RBG? What does it mean to summon Grace Lee Boggs? Who is it for you who, when you hear them, when you read their words, when you think about their life, oh, they make you brave?
For some of us, it might be just feeling the Earth beneath our feet and imagining the indigenous ancestors of this land, their struggle, their survival, their resilience ongoing today, saying their names and imagining what might it be to start making right by them.
I have discovered that when we summon our ancestors and we choose to take in their strength and their bravery and we lead with love, it’s also like sending that healing energy back down the line, even as we’re sending it forward through the lines to come. It calls our attention to the fact that we’re just a bridge between the past and the future, that we will be someone’s ancestor someday, and they will summon us. They will summon you. How can I live my life in such a way that, when they summon me, they will feel love in their hearts and it will make them brave?
TS: Valarie, that teaching that you just shared, “You will be someone’s ancestor someday,” that’s so profound. I have to admit, I’d never really thought about it before. How do I live in such a way that, when I’m someone’s ancestor, that they can summon me and there’ll be such a force of benevolence for them?
I want to invite everyone to stand with us and be part of The People’s Inauguration and then, following that, 10 days of teachings, along with dialogues that Valarie Kaur is leading with people such as Baratunde Thurston, America Ferrera, Van Jones, Sister Simone Campbell, Parker Palmer, and others. It’s a free 10-day series. It starts with The People’s Inauguration on January 22nd. It runs through the 31st. You can learn more and join us at SoundsTrue.com/People. Again, that’s SoundsTrue.com/People. Join us for The People’s Inauguration: 10 Days to Activate Revolutionary Love.
Valarie, share with us this vision: What do you think could come from The People’s Inauguration? What could the ripple effect be?
VK: An awakening, a revival, a seismic shift in our homes, our communities, our hearts, a kind of surge of bravery to reckon with all that we have lost and to say, “No, I’m going to show up. I’m going to show up to the labor in front of me, and I’m going to do it with love, and I’m going to do it with you.”
TS: Come join us for The People’s Inauguration, SoundsTrue.com/People. Valarie, thank you so much. I love talking with you. You lift me up. Thank you.
VK: Thank you, Tami.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/Podcast. If you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe, we can create a kinder and wiser world, SoundsTrue.com, waking up the world.