I wish that I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. This tiny poem, written by the 14th century Persian Sufi poet Hafiz has been swirling through me for months now. I hold it as a salve, a prayer, a blessing I want to offer people in these divided days.
Yesterday morning we had an all-hands call at Acumen. For us, that means (finally!) benefitting from technology that allows us to see each other on our conference calls. There I sat with the NYC team engaging with the beautiful faces of teammates from Pakistan and India, East and West Africa, Latin America, London and the US for we now have a San Francisco team tackling poverty in America. At times, my heart felt like it would burst as we talked about holding the values of listening and leading in tension. It felt like it would burst as I saw the faces of teammates who’ve written me notes to share fears that their infants might one day get hurt growing up as Muslims in an America they deeply love.
Like all leaders, I want my team to feel not only safe in their lives but whole. This is the world my teammates have signed up to help create.
I wish that I could show you the astonishing light of your own being.
I thought of conversations with American friends who feel safer now because of the Muslim ban. These are people who care about their neighbors and give charity to the poor, people who — like all of us — yearn to be good. I asked a woman her reasons. She fears terror attacks. I said that you are much more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist. She said she heard that but it doesn’t matter. Now she feels better though she acknowledged that other people might not feel as safe now.
I asked about the justice of some people feeling safer at other’s expense. She didn’t have an answer.
She asked me about my work in Pakistan. “Do you feel frightened to go there?”
To the contrary, I love being there for a thousand reasons. People in Pakistan have taught me to be more generous in more ways than I can describe. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth with an extraordinary richness of people and geographies. I have found many similarities in Muslim families to the big Catholic family in which I grew up — an expectation that you show up for one another, that you are truthful and kind, that there is always room at the table for one — or ten — more.
“But isn’t their religion so different?” she asked. I’m still not exactly sure what she meant but answered as best I could. Aren’t all religions, at their essence, about loving one another? Aren’t they about entreating us to be more patient and kind, more giving — to do unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves?
There is so much beauty to be found in traditions of Islam, as there is much beauty in traditions of Christianity. I wish that we could open ourselves to sharing with one another the feelings of celebrating Christmas with family, the feelings of breaking fast with family during Ramadan. We don’t have to claim any religion at all to gain from the spiritual wisdom of the past. If we keep out the possibility of knowing one another, we lose the chance to become bigger, to let that astonishing light inside of ourselves shine.
My life’s work is to do whatever I can to help build a world where we can all have dignity. My dream is a world in which we are bound to one another not because of nationality or race or ethnicity or religion or class, but by shared values. America at its best is this dream made manifest. It is a dream that needs to be forever renewed, and it is a dream worth living for.