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Brave new year

In the summer of 2012, Susannah Conway published her first book titled This I Know: Notes on Unravelling the Heart. In this memoir, Susannah charts the journey of her grief after her partner’s sudden death, as well as shares her creative process and the ways in which it facilitated her recovery. The book is close to my heart and has jarred me awake in many ways — not least of which is through its title.

When I think about how I would end a sentence that started with “This I know:”, I can rarely get past the colon. This is, presumably, not because of a lack of wisdom; rather, it stems from shyness to unabashedly lay claim to knowledge. As the second semester of graduate school is beginning, one of its primary themes has been the need to tell a compelling story — and to put our full weight behind it. And yet, the more immersed I become in knowledge, the less confident I am of my grip on it.

Over time, I have grown wary of specialists and experts. In an Equals Record column earlier this year, I had written:

“The longer I have worked with women affected by conflict worldwide, the more I have uncovered the boundaries of my knowledge. The universe of concepts I do not understand and of life I cannot make sense of keeps expanding. It would be out of step for the titles and labels to keep narrowing. “Specialist” and “expert” do not fit. Do not even get me started on “guru.”

As such, it is not the prestige of expertise I long for – but the comfort of knowledge and the confidence of laying claim to it. On New Year’s Eve, seated around a table, a number of friends and I were discussing words and concepts that we hoped would define our experiences in 2013.  I kept cycling back to “brave” and its synonyms: courage, bold, dare. There is an ostensible contradiction in the idea of someone who worked in war zones and was steeped in vicarious and immediate trauma up to her collarbones longing for courage and imploring herself to be brave.

Yet, in my mind, this contradiction is falsely constructed. The courage required to show up to work in northern Uganda or Sudan or Guatemala is very different than the one required to click “publish” for a piece you really care about or raise your hand in a classroom — and keep it raised, as Sheryl Sandberg would ask. It is further distinct from the courage required to lay claim to knowledge, to lead with “this I know”, to speak unwaveringly. And, crucially, a lot of my own ‘conflict zone’ courage is manufactured; it is produced, almost at the push of a button, to ensure that I keep showing up, serving, and delivering. As Marianne Elliott writes in Zen Under Fire, her fantastic memoir about her involvement with the UN in Afghanistan,

“It is time to talk honestly about the emotional and psychological impact humanitarian work, especially human rights and protection work, is having on people. The rhetoric of ‘resilience’ needs to be unpicked and stripped of its connotations of toughness. True resilience, in my view, includes the ability to allow our hearts, as Daoud Hari puts it, to supply the emotion for people who have none remaining. And it requires the support to talk, freely and without fear of judgement, about the impact that emotion will inevitably have on our own well-being.”

There is much I cherish about this passage, including its acknowledgement of the role of emotions in service-based work and its nuanced view of courage and resilience. And even though Marianne was speaking of the emotional minefield of humanitarian work, her insight translates nicely into the more personal battles of our lives. When I reflect on some of my goals for the year, there is a consistent theme of keeping my hand raised, pressing publish. Speaking up, fearing less. Claiming what I know. Applying, throwing my name in the hat. All of that requires an amount of courage that seems to have evaporated out of me recently, and which I am determined to seek anew.

I have been living in caveats lately. I am drawn to disclaimers: “I am not an expert in this.” “I am not sure.” “I do not know.” While caveats inspire humility, they are also crippling. I do not wish for the sort of existence that is punctuated by certainty; in many ways, certainty can be the opponent of curiosity. I do not long for the complacency of expertise in knowledge, for it can be the enemy of inquiry.

I do, however, wish for a steadier hand, and a voice that trembles less. Let 2013 be the year of raised hands.

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