January 2, 2024

Zainab Salbi – Self-Kindness in Humanitarian and Climate Work

Thomas is joined by humanitarian, writer, and social entrepreneur Zainab Salbi. They discuss the difficult nature of working in the humanitarian space to address the many injustices that people, particularly women, face worldwide. Zainab explains how being open and vulnerable about her own traumatic experiences gave her the compassion and inspiration needed to tell women’s stories and work to end oppression, systemic violence, and climate change.

In a line of work that is so emotionally taxing, she’s learned firsthand how crucial it is to resource yourself with the same kindness you show to others and care for your own emotional well-being. As she puts it, “You can’t give out of an empty well.”

Trigger Warning: This episode includes discussion of sexual assault and violence against women. If you anticipate this topic to be too triggering for you to hear about and effectively process on your own, we recommend you choose not to listen.

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“Good people are good people because they act on their goodness, not because they think of themselves as good.”

- Zainab Salbi

Guest Information

Zainab Salbi

Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, a writer and a social entrepreneur who has dedicated her life to women’s rights and freedom. She is the co-founder of Daughters for Earth, a fund and a movement of Daughters rising up worldwide with climate solutions to protect and restore Mother Earth. She has frequently been named as one of the women changing the world by leading publications ranging from Newsweek to The Guardian. Zainab received the Times100 Impact Awards in 2023.

At the age of 23, Zainab founded Women for Women International, a humanitarian organization dedicated to women survivors of wars. She is the author of several books, including the best seller Between Two Worlds : Escape from Tyranny, and her latest, Freedom Is an Inside Job; Owning our Darkness and Our Light to Change Ourselves and the World. She is also the Executive Editor and Host of several shows including Through Her Eyes with Yahoo News, #MeToo, Now What? with PBS, The Zainab Salbi Project with Huffington Post, and The Nida’a Show with TLC Arabia.

She is a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum and serves on the Boards of Vital Voices, International Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP), and Synergos International.

Learn more at zainabsalbi.com.

Notes & Resources

Key points from this episode include:

  • When advocacy work cannot be separated from one’s personal life and story
  • Increasing the potency and truthfulness of advocacy work through engaging in personal healing
  • The importance of being in alignment with our own moral compass and external actions
  • How collective responsibility and shadow work cultivate interdependence

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Welcome back to the Collective Trauma Summit 2022. I’m Thomas Hübl, and I’m the convener of the summit. And I’m so happy to sit here today with Zainab Salbi. Welcome, Zainab. So grateful that you’re here with us.

Zainab Salbi: Pleasure. I am very much looking forward to this conversation, Thomas. Thank you for having me.

Thomas: Oh yes. It’s an honor. And because I always love conversations, because you bring a lot of real-life experience here into our summit, and that’s amazing. And I would love to hear more about it. And also, you did a lot of work, like hands-on work and a lot of work in various sectors. So, I would love to walk with you through some of the areas of your impact in the world. And my first- since we are here, we are looking at collective trauma. And my first question, before we go into collective trauma is basically, what put you on the track to do the work that you do? So some of us have a vocation. We know very early on that that’s what we want to do. Some of us are being put on the track by life circumstances. Some of us, of course, have both. And I’m curious, how did you come to work with so many hundreds of thousands of women, or I don’t know how many women you touched, and then do climate work, journalism. So, what made you be a humanitarian, in many ways?

Zainab: Well, for the longest time I was unconscious about it, the reasons. But I would say it started really at a very young age. And I think those of us who know their purpose in life at a young age are lucky, simply lucky. I happened to know it when I was 16 years old, because up until then, I was just reading books. And my mother told me a lot about women’s rights. And she would buy me books about women’s rights and about injustices around the world, including in America and slavery. And I grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. But here’s a mother was teaching me about all the injustices in the world, but particularly as it applies to women. And I remember at 16, and she was driving in Baghdad, it was sunset. And I turned to her and I said, “Mama, when I grow up, I’m going to help all women around the world.” And she gave me one of the best gifts she has given me, which is to look at me and says, “Honey, you can, and you will.”

Thomas: Wow.

Zainab: That really was a wow, right? Because I think all of us have dreams, it takes one person to believe in us for us to be able to move forward. And in that case, it was my mom. And many things happened at that time. I went to school to study something completely different. I got married, and it ended being up abusive. And I left the marriage and America. And at 22/23, I was in America and found myself stranded. Iraq had already been in war with Kuwait. There was the sanctions and the embargo. I found myself escaping that arranged, abusive marriage with $400 in my pocket and vowing to myself that I will build my life from zero and do something about it.

And during that time, I learned about the war in Bosnia. And it’s a country, frankly. I did not know anything about. I did not know its existence. I did not know much about Yugoslavia, no emotional connection to that country or that part of the world. But I learned and studied that there were women who are gang raped in rape camps. They were given numbers. And when their numbers were called, they were getting raped over and over and over by Serbian soldiers. They were young kids and older women and all range of ages. And something in me just boiled and I was like, I have got to do something about it.

And now, connecting the ideological with our personal, I grew up in Iraq seeing injustices in front of me. I grew up close to Saddam Hussein, my father was his pilot, and we socialized with him often. And I knew about injustice. I was not oblivious to the injustices that were happening to women and men in Iraq, but I could not do anything or say anything about it because I also knew, to do anything about it would be to endanger my family. And that’s the fear. You grow up in fear of the dictator.

And at that time, at 23, I was in America. And though I did not have any family or financial resources. I got remarried. But still, my husband and I were both students. I knew that it’s my time. Like, when you see injustice and you can do something about it, you must. This is my value. Because to avoid it is to legitimize it and to corrupt your own values. In other words, we all think of ourselves as good people, but good people are good people because they act on their goodness, not because they think of themselves as good. And so when I saw an injustice, even if it didn’t apply to me, I was safe in America at that time. Even if it had another group of people involved in it, I felt it was my human and personal responsibility to do something about it now that I am living in a country that gave me personal freedom. America is a contentious country right now with a lot of freedom now, but personal freedom in America does exist, the idea, at least for me.

So, that’s how I started my journey, Women for Women International. I said, okay, well, let’s mobilize women, and I was studying women’s rights at that time in school, and I was researching about rape in wars. I started Women for Women International with my husband at that time, Amjad Atallah, with helping 33 women in September 1993. And it evolved, as you mentioned, to helping nearly half a million women. To be exact, 483,000 women, and mobilizing and distributing $146 million, et cetera, et cetera. But, really, it became a big organization. I had 700 staff.

And it’s somewhere in the middle, like 15 years after building the organization and moving from one war to the other, from Bosnia to Kosovo, to Rwanda and Congo and Afghanistan, did I realize, oh my God, this work that I’m doing, helping women stand on their feet, mobilizing them to break their silence, to speak about their rape and the violations that they’ve encountered because when we’re silent, we co-opt ourselves in allowing for the story to keep on going. So break the silence, be strong, be independent. And I would mobilize thousands of women. I mean, I would go to Congo and I would have these thousands of women singing about their power, dancing. And it really took me meeting one woman to realize, oh my God, I am working on my own trauma.

Thomas: Amazing. Amazing.

Zainab: 15 years later, realizing that this… And I tell you the story in a brief way, this woman in Congo was telling me about how she was raped. Her nine-year-old daughter was raped. Her 21, 22-year-old daughters were raped. How the rapists pillaged everything and then burnt their house. And then she looked at me. And these stories are always horrifying, always horrifying. And I welcomed my heart being horrified by them because I always believe that the day my heart stops the pain or it becomes numb is the day I have to worry about it, that it’s the way I have to live, actually, because as long as it feels, it’s okay.

So she tells me, she said, “I’ve never told anybody, but you, my story”. And I’m like, “I’m a storyteller. Let me tell you, I usually take a story like yours, go and tell it to the world so I could raise attention and money to your country and bring it back. Not to you, to other women as well. Should I keep this one a secret?” And she said, “If I can tell the whole world about my story, I will, so other women would not have to go through what I have gone through. But I can’t, you can. You go ahead and tell the story, just not to the neighbors.”

And that’s something about what she said to me really hit me. And here’s how it hit me. Because I drove after the interview with her, from Congo to Rwanda, which is a five-hour drive. And I cried throughout the whole drive. And I cried because I realized that this poor woman in Congo had more courage, it’s not her poverty, she’s illiterate also, had more courage than me, which is a middle-class, educated woman who is helping her. And while she was willing to speak about what happened and connecting the story of one woman to the collective story, if they know what happened to me, maybe they will stop it from happening to other women. Yes, she had that consciousness while I, on the other hand, was hiding my story. The middle-class, educated, proud, feminist, blah, blah, blah was ashamed and embarrassed to tell my story.

And it was a moment in which I realized I can’t ask people to do, and mobilize women to do, what I’m not capable to do myself. So either I take a step forward and go into my fear and my shame of telling this story, which is my trauma, that I was raped, that I knew Saddam Hussein, that I was displaced, that I was in an arranged marriage, that I was with an abusive man. These are all very shameful aspects of me as a feminist women’s rights activist. Either I go and say it and take a leap of faith, and sort of strip myself naked in front of the whole world, like be free and be in honesty to myself, or I leave the job because I am not in integrity with it.

And I decided to do the first one, which is to tell my story in my memoir, Between Two Worlds. And it was perhaps one of the most courageous acts to have done. And that telling my own vulnerability and my own trauma paved the path from my own compassion, to be honest, as I deal and as I mobilize other women. Because I came to realize, we can’t ask people to do what we cannot do in ourselves. And each person should be like a doctor. I’m not saying that doctors should do that actually. But there are doctors who test themselves with their own invention, with their own remedies. Well, I can’t advocate for breaking the silence if I don’t break the silence. I can’t advocate for healing, if I am not healed. I cannot advocate for happiness and good health for everyone if I don’t experience that.

And for the longest time, my advocacy was very disconnected from my intimate life. Very varied. It was like, outward I’m saying all of this, but inward, I’m not working on it. And until I integrated the two, and realizing they are in a flow, that unless I do that, I cannot be an advocate. The pressure of them, the flow of them became one, and it became easier. And it lost the fierceness of it, to be very honest, but I think it became more potent and more truthful in myself and, I think, as others hear it from me.

Thomas: Wow. That’s amazing. That’s already the most important information, I guess, in a nutshell, that we need to hear, because I think that’s also exactly why we do the summit, is precisely for what you said. Because you also said, one thing that I want to just underline this because I find it very beautiful, is, before it was more fierce and it was out there. Then it became more regulated and it is much more potent because your words and your energy match, and it became one. So that’s really powerful. And I think it’s so true because often, because we speak a lot about the disconnect inside that we mentally know many things, but we can’t walk our talk because it’s disconnected in the body and the emotions. And also, maybe for our conversation later, that the mind is disconnected from nature from our body. And then we can talk all kinds of things where we can’t live it. And I think that’s very, very powerful.

So it’s very beautiful. It touches me when you speak. And also that the emotion comes with it, because that’s also, maybe let’s stay there for a moment. Because I heard two things when you spoke, one was, there was a moment that you realized Serbia, Croatia, that you saw something, but then many people might see things in the world that they feel, wow, this is unjust, or this cannot stay like this, but then we don’t act. And the question is, what makes the difference to turn that into an action? So that’s an interesting question.

And the second question I have is, when I listen to you, because being exposed to, as you said, the women in Congo, when you hear about rape, when we really hear about rape, so we hear it with our bodies. So it’s painful. And how did you resource yourself? Because many people burn out when they do what you do for such a long time. And how did you stay resourced? I mean, one part, you said already, you did your own inner work. But maybe you can speak to these two points. How do we move into action? Because I think many people, especially, you didn’t have billions of dollars, and you did it. So that’s amazing.

Zainab: Well, let me address the first one. Because for me, it is about my integrity. It’s this like being good human. Good humans, we all think of ourselves as good humans. I believe everyone thinks of themselves as good humans. But good humans require action. We can say I’m a good human, but then I am not conscious about how many plastic bottles of water I drink and keep on drinking, and I’m not conscious about my behavior. I say I’m a good human but I see something bad, and I look in the other direction. So it is very personal for me.

And partially because I grew up with no freedom, no freedom. And so when I lived eventually in a land that gave me personal freedom, for me, until today, Thomas, every time I speak freely, it’s like tasting chocolate for the first time. I get excited every time. So I didn’t have that opportunity to be in integrity. And I knew it. And I’m grateful for it because I was not oblivious to the lack of integrity, growing up. I grew up part of the elites, we were the friends of the president. So you can easily forget perspective. You can easily lose perspective and think everyone is living like you, private cars and helicopters and the nicest food and all of that. Or you can be aware and say, oh, not everyone is doing that, and actually a lot of people suffering.

So, for me, I’m lucky to be aware. I was lucky to be aware because not everyone is. And to act is my integrity. I didn’t know any Bosnian or Congolese. They spoke languages I did not know, religions and cultures I had no connections with. But it’s me. It is me acting about this injustice because, again, when I avoid it, I invariably legitimize it and allow for the corruption of my own values as a good human.

Now, having said that, I don’t believe we can act on every injustice around the world, you can’t. So pick your battle. And there is no judgment of what is it. If all your energy goes into the street you’re living in and bringing fairness and justice in that street, that’s great. If your energy goes into the world, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have, as a human, all the capacity to be worked out about every single injustice in the world, but I choose my battle and choose what is personal and ticks my heart, but I always try to. So that’s my advice when people say, “Oh, you did such a big thing. I’m doing small.” I was like, “There’s no judgment. There’s no comparison in here. The judgment is you. Are you in integrity or not? And only you know that. No one can know. That’s it.”

So that, for me, is the issue. It’s a moral compass that I have for myself, no one imposed it on me, as a good human. And I worked, worked, worked, worked, worked, worked, worked, and I would come from any of these trips, like the one I met with the Me Too, as you said, and I would just go to my room and just cry for days until there are no more tears. And then I go back. And I don’t recommend it because what happens is then that I would collapse. And the collapse, the beginning, when I was 26, I started collapsing for the first time. I was like, huh. And I had no idea what happened.

I remember going to the therapist and I was just crying. And she said, “Are you doing well?” I was like, “Yes, everything is okay.” “Your husband’s treating you well?” “Yes. I love him.” “Is work doing well?” “Yes. I just got this big award from the White House?” Is your school, because I was studying and working. “Yes. I just got straight A’s.” She’s like, “So what’s the problem?” I was like, “I don’t know.” And at the end, her recipe was, go to vacation. Go vacation. And it didn’t occur to me. So then I would start like, the more you work and the more you go and succeed, the more the collapse becomes more regular. And frankly, I saw that in myself. I see that in a lot of activists today. You crash, you crash. And the crash sometimes every three months, sometimes every week, then every week. Sometimes physically, you become sick all the time. Whatever it is. But these are crashes.

And at the beginning, I didn’t know. At the beginning I would go to retreats, four or five days retreats to work on myself and come back. And they will last me for a few months until I crash again. So I experimented with a lot of scenarios. I go to retreat, but they all entailed working on myself, all of them. Some of it were retreats. Some of it having a therapist, some of it having a life coach. I mean, everything. I tried everything. All of them ultimately taught me about being in alignment in myself, and integrity in myself, between my inner values and my outer values, and realizing ultimately that if I am giving out of an empty well, emptiness, right? I’m exhausted the whole time. And I even become resentful, to be very honest.

Thomas: Exactly. Exactly.

Zainab: But if I am giving from a full well, if my well is full and has plenty of water, honestly, it doesn’t bother me whoever wants to take some of the water. Like, oh, sure. Here. But I am full. So it took me a very, very, very long time to realize that self-love and self-kindness is essential and integrated part of being a humanitarian and an activist.

And it took me, and I’ll tell you this story. Three years ago, around this time, really, I was rushed to the hospital and I thought I was dying in a moment where I was grabbing from my last breath. I couldn’t breathe. The doctors were around me. My body was moving on its own like someone is like pushing me under the water. And with a lot of intervention and all of these things, finally they were able to get control and put oxygen. And in that moment, just before that moment where I thought I am taking my last breath, the thought that came to me was not, “Did I accomplish enough?” At all. Was not, “Did I do enough? Did I help enough people?” The thought that came to me in that intimate moment between me and my heart was kindness. And the question became, did I live my life in kindness to myself and to others? Did I live my life in love to myself and to others?

And the truth is, it took me a year and a half to process these questions. I’m still processing them, is that I have lived in kindness and in love to the outside others, the far, far, far, far others, right? But I did not know what it meant to live in kindness and in love to myself, and sometimes, I would lie to you if I didn’t say it, to my immediate others. The people we love the most, we take them for granted and we express all our frustration on them. And so, it took me a long time to realize that the two are interconnected.

Now, I came to realize, I thought self-love was getting a massage and having a manicure and pedicure. Not at all. Self-love, for me, is a connection. I don’t know how to express it, but visually, where my heart spreads its arms to me, and our hands lock in with each other, and hearing my heart saying, “Don’t leave me again.” So it’s a connection to the heart. I think of my heart as a temple that I have to visit every day and that I have an appointment with it every day. And I get to rest there. I get to connect with it there. I get to hear it there. And I get to understand my heart’s language. And then eventually, that led me to respect the fact that this soul inside me is my responsibility to take care of it, that I was abusing it, for good reason, humanitarian work, all of that. But nevertheless, I was not honoring it, honoring that this is God’s gift to me. And I was taking advantage, not seeing it, not talking to it. I was abusing that soul of mine.

And self-love, for me, is that connection with ourselves in a way that is intimate. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m happy. Ask more if you want. But once I learned that, the giving became not about absolutely giving everything in me, like I’m a piece of cloth where you squeeze every drop of it. The giving becomes a flow between you and I, the people I’m helping and myself. It’s a flow. So it took me a very long time. Many crashes, nervous breakdowns, depression, quitting from Women for Women, saying, “I can’t do it anymore. I have nothing left in me to give,” going into self-doubt. Who am I? Am I failure? Am I successful? Am I blah? Who am I? Who am I? Until I came to the conclusion, how dare you ask, who am I? I am. I am.

Thomas: I think you’re speaking also to the lives of many people doing activist or humanitarian work in the world, with their crashes. That’s also why I ask you how you how you experienced it. And it’s so lovely to listen to your self-honesty. You are transmitting also the arc of your journey while you speak. And I think it’s so important that all those stages of your own journey were important, that all the learnings were important. And you spoke to that also, I think, want to underline is the squeezing oneself versus like a circuit of flow between us and the world. And that’s actually like action out of alignment or in alignment. So those where beautiful, beautiful descriptions of your own spiritual path, with many kind of archetypal stations in it. So that’s really beautiful.

And so maybe, since we talked about this already, maybe you can speak a little bit. Because I think what we all go through in one way or the other is some kind of integration of our own traumatization, like our personal traumatization, that’s connected to our collective trauma that we were born into. And then maybe you gave some hints about your own spiritual journey, your soul and your spiritual journey. Maybe you can speak a little bit how that worked for you, because these two elements, I think, are important, like a grounded spirituality that doesn’t avoid the worldly difficulties, but really looks at them deeper and turns them into kind of the food for our growth. Because sometimes spirituality is being used to get out of life. And what you spoke about, it’s getting into life and kind of fertilizing our journey through our difficulties. And I think that’s what I heard from you. Maybe you can speak a bit to embody its spiritual practices, since you lived it, or you’re living it yourself.

Zainab: Well, it’s a very good point, Thomas. Because first of all, part of me is a seeker, I am in love with the divine. I really am. And that, you either have it or I don’t know. I don’t know how to acquire that, I’ve had it since I was a child. I grew up in a very secular family, and my mother used to tell me, “Never think of God as one thing, God is in the air. God is in the trees, in the flower, in the cat, in the ground, in the sand. God is everywhere.” And I’m so grateful for that because I never attach a concept to the divine. I really don’t care what the divine is. I mean, people define God and divine and different things. I have no judgment. But I have that love, and I don’t know what it is, but it made me seek different aspects of spirituality.

I rejected the religion. Not rejected, I avoided the religion I grew up with, which is Islam, avoided it. And I was very angry at God and at the restrictions. And I ended up thinking that I can find spirituality in other traditions. So I studied Buddhism and I went with Indigenous tribe in North America. And I learned a lot from them, and embraced me, and we did the sweat lodges and all of these things. And then I went to Shamanic traditions in South America and learned a lot from Shamanic traditions in South America. And then I went and I had a life coach from the Shamans of the Basque region, and there was a lot.

And I just kept on exploring until two things. Until one day, I was speaking in Saudi Arabia many years ago and I realized Mecca was only one hour away. So I’m just like saying, oh, it’s an hour away. Sure, let me go. And a princess arranged a trip for me. I was like, “Okay, sure. I’ll go.” And I realized, here I am rejecting the tradition that I grew up with and going and traveling the world to explore all kinds of different religions and spiritualties and da, da, da. And going back to Mecca with that perspective, it wasn’t a religious pilgrimage, I just did it because I was an hour away.

And it ended up being the most profound experience for me for many reasons. But one is realizing they’re all saying the same, they’re all saying the same. Like, oh God, the traditions I learned with from my indigenous Anishinaabe tribe in Canada was actually very similar to what I’m doing in the pilgrimage traditions in Mecca. I was like, oh my God. And that night that I visited Mecca, I dreamt. And I don’t want to go into the details. I wrote about it in my last book, Freedom Is an Inside Job. But I dreamt that night. I said that I asked God, “God, were you there?” Because Mecca is about the house of God. And I was like, “Were you there?” And what I heard in the dream, like, “No, that was not about me. That was about bringing you all just in one place so you may see each other. So you may see each other.”

And I realized, at the end of the day, all what we need, and as part of our healing, is to see each other. Exactly. But because when we are dividing each other bad, good, he, she, we are not seeing the humanity, the souls of each other. We’re so stuck in our anger and in our division, and you did this to me, does it hurt me? And I’m telling you that, as a woman of color, as from the third world, developing world, who had been colonized. And frankly, my country Iraq had been absolutely destroyed, destroyed. So I have a choice of either being stuck in that narrative that I come from a victimized part of the world, with colonization and then invasion, and then destruction of the country, and as a woman of color with a white man, and then all that they did. And I would lie to you if I tell you I don’t have that anger, I would lie to you. Of course, I do. It breaks my heart over and over and over again to witness that story in myself and in my people, and my country and all of that.

But I have a choice of staying in that anger. And every time I’m angry, I’m building a thicker, thicker, thicker wall. Or shifting it to the seeing of each other as also humans, as good humans, and with compassion. Now, the other side, if they meet me with that compassion, then a third route opens up for healing. And if they don’t meet me with compassion, then thank you very much. I’m moving forward. But I will not be stuck in my anger because it’s only separating us rather than bringing us together, and to see each other.

Thomas: Oh, that’s so beautiful. Yeah, it’s very touching. You’re saying many, many beautiful things. What you said about seeing, because I totally agree. For me, it’s the same, seeing is presence. And when you said for you to see each other, I think that’s exactly the healing also of collective trauma is that we can slowly open up the veils or liquefy those veils to see each other again. And I think that’s so important, to see each other in our souls. And that’s basically also the healing movement for the world, I think, that we learn how to see each other again and not stay stuck in these kind of veils that we carry from the past, but also to respect it and let that be conscious. So that’s very powerful, what you’re saying?

Zainab: Oh, I want to add, because that’s what I worked on in my last book. My last book is called Freedom Is an inside Job, but it’s really about owning our shadow and our light as a way to transform ourselves and the world. So allow me to, I can tell you, I’m a woman of color from Iraq, been colonized, blah, blah. No, I don’t mean blah, blah, blah. All the things that happened to me, and I stick to, I am entitled to my anger, righteous anger. And you are a white man who comes from the lineage of doing this and this and this. And so I’m angry at you.

But if I’m asking everyone to go. I ask myself, let’s say, to go deeper and say, where am I in alignment to my values, and where am I not in alignment to my values? Because I can say, “I’m good and you’re bad.” And that’s the conversation. But if I really, really address my alignment and fine-tune it beside I’m good and bad, there are good people and there are bad people. I’m not constantly good at all. I have as much of a shadow in me as I have light in me. And rather than ignore the shadow and dump it under the rug and ignore it, which then makes the other side see it. It’s obvious, our shadow is always clear to other people. So rather than ignore it, and pretend that do, do, do, do, do, it doesn’t exist. But here I am. I just gave you an anger fit in here, but it’s not my shadow. You just hide it. Or to say, oh, I have anger issues. Let me address it. It’s my shadow. I need to work on it. I am working on it.

But the minute you acknowledge it, you put the reign on it, first of all, for your life. But then, it made me more compassionate to the very people that I thought are bad, and I want to try to convince them to do otherwise. What I’m trying to say is that, if we keep on preaching to each other, we are hitting each other. If we reverse the process and ask ourselves, am I in alignment to my values? No, I’m not. It’s very hard to be in alignment with your values all the time. You try, but it’s truly very, very, very hard. It’s expensive when it comes to climate change, and it’s vulnerable when it comes to relationships because to acknowledge to someone that you have done something bad is to also acknowledge that your vision of yourself is not exactly the same.

So it is not easy to be in consistence with a concept, but it’s worth the try because the more you try to be polishing yourself and to be in consistence, and you acknowledge the shadow side of you, and then you put the reign on both horses, the dark horse, and the light horse. The more you become compassionate to the very others that I’m scared of, the fundamentalist, the popularist, the rightwinger, all of these things that I’m scared of, I become more compassionate, because then I find a language that is not preaching, that can be heard, I believe, from my honesty and my truth. May be heard, maybe not. Not everyone hears it. But at least there’s a better chance of being heard if you’re actually speaking of saying, I suffer with this. I suffer with prejudice on this issue. I do, by the way, on this and this issue. You talk about your own prejudice as opposed to thinking of yourself as absolutely a good human, which is impossible for any of us to be.

Thomas: Exactly. It’s so beautiful, what you said, the preaching is the disowned speech. And speaking from your vulnerabilities, it’s your owned process. And that’s very powerful. It’s very beautiful. Yeah. I totally agree. It’s very beautiful to listen to you. It reaches me a lot, what you’re saying. It’s very beautiful. And also, I love the honesty that you transmit in your own inner work, it’s very much to feel when you speak, like how you go through your own inner process. It’s very beautiful.

Zainab: Thank you.

Thomas: Lovely.

Zainab: Thank you. It’s so interesting because people think it’s vulnerable when I speak. And it is vulnerable, but it is vulnerable after processing it.

Thomas: Exactly. Exactly.

Zainab: So it may sound vulnerable that I’m speaking about my shadow or putting myself out there in the world in all my writings. But honestly, for me, it’s not vulnerable. I processed it. I know it. It’s clear in me. This is my shadow. This is my light. I know it. Before, it was vulnerable. When we don’t own our shadow, that’s vulnerable because you can say you have anger issue. And you’re like, “I don’t have it.” And you become different.

Thomas: Right. Right.

Zainab: But now you say, “Yes, of course I do. I’m working on it.” And so, you do that. And I’m using anger as an example, but whatever. So then, it is your owning it and it becomes less vulnerable because you own it, and you’re processing it, and you’re talking about it. And so it dissolved from the potency of it, and the tension and the pretense that I am all- have it together. I mean, in the world of social media and all of that, where we’re all projecting the best of us, the truth is, we’re all a messy experience that’s trying to figure it out.

Thomas: That’s right. That’s right. That’s so beautiful. Yeah. That’s what I meant also before, the transmission. Because I think we can feel it. If somebody did some work inside, we can feel that it’s transmitted with the words. The body says the same thing as the words. And I think that’s also really trustworthy and it’s beautiful. And when you spoke about, now, you transitioned a bit to social media, when we go for a moment, because I think what you said is also very true on the collective level media.

And since you also were into journalism, or are, into writing and publishing. So when we inform the collective body, I think we see the same thing. The disowned information has one impact, or I would call this that non-trauma-informed journalism. And a more trauma-informed journalism that comes from a more owned place inside has a different impact, in my understanding. And I would love, since you worked in this domain also, or working, so maybe you can speak a little bit to how you think the same thing can be applied to the collective body. When we say we are a collective, and there’s a collective information system either informs. I like the word “in-formed.”

Zainab: I love.

Thomas: You know, I have a form of you inside of me, so there’s intimacy, or I’m not getting, or I’m only partly getting informed. So our phones, it seems like we are so informed, but actually we don’t feel much of what we read because it gets stuck here. It doesn’t inform us, it doesn’t create a form in the body of what we read. So I would like to hear your thoughts on that a little bit.

Zainab: Well, I’ll start with the journalism part of it because I do feel it is a sector that needs a reflection on itself and its teaching. Because the premise of journalism, I have not studied to be a journalist. I did 10 years of journalism after I left Women for Women, but not as a professional journalist, but more about how do we use stories as a tool to inspire and to make us think about other perspective. For me, it’s a woman’s perspective. And then I came to realize that the standard teaching of journalism is that I am an objective figure, talking about objective truth. Truth, first of all, can be objective if it’s truly being conveyed from 360 degrees. You are in the room in the center, and truth has this angle and this angle in each corner, that’s the truth. It’s all of it.

An individual journalist is hardly, for me, or can be, as a human, objective because we come with our stories of pain and prejudice and fears and worry and misunderstanding and all of it. So it’s applying the concept of objectivity in storytelling, not in math. I’m not mathematician, but math is one plus one, it’s two. Or science. But we’re applying the story of objectivity or the value of objectivity in stories of human emotions, which is mostly not possible, in my opinion. It’s sort of, because you are not conveying the full story. There’s act. You can say, this person burnt this field, for example. That’s an act. But why, and how, and all of that, that’s a subjective thing. And there’s a Talmudic saying, it says, “We see things as we are. We do not see things as they are.” And it’s hard to see things as they are, because you actually have to catch yourself in the act of being biased, acknowledge your own bias, putting it on the side and being able to go empathetically to listen to the other person. My favorite, I mean, it is hard because it takes you.

My proudest story, to be honest, and it’s a very awkward story to talk about, is interviewing the family of one of the terrorists who killed 150 people in France in 2015, because I was afraid of them. I was very afraid of them, they are the family of a terrorist. And they are of me, I am the journalist. And over many days of convincing them to try to talk with me, I mean, it’s already out there. But all what I can say is, seeing the story either they are terrorists, thus they are 100% fully bad, the family of the terrorist, or to see their story, still understanding it does not justify the horrible terrorist act their son did. But looking at the story, at their emotions, at the complexities of his mother’s emotion of loving her son, but hating her son for what he did.

That opens up a whole new reality, a reality that does not center the story of this individual, it centers the story of our collective stability, of how, as a society, we have come to create this reality, how did we all do it? So, it’s not to take the crime away from him because what he did was criminal. But it is also to say, I can either say, it’s all him. Or to say, what have we done, and what can we do to address the larger symptoms, the undertone that we need to address so that does not happen again? Easier to say, “This guy is bad.” It’s harder to say, “Where are the parts where we are complicit and complacent in creating a reality that generated this guy?” And when you look at it, and it doesn’t take away from his responsibility, it doesn’t take away from his crime, it doesn’t take away anything from his story, but it gives us another perspective to address the same story with another light, a light that we can perhaps heal from, perhaps move forward from, rather than be stuck.

So I don’t know if I answered your question, but I do think that honesty in the sector of journalism to say, “I come with this bias and prejudice.” You don’t have to declare it, but at least understand it in yourself. And understand that it’s hard to be objective, for one person to tell the full story in an objective way. We are all ultimately telling our opinions, but the collective of this truth makes the truth the absolute truth. So I don’t know if I answered your question or not with my attempt. It’s my understanding of it.

Thomas: Yeah, you answered it beautifully. And you spoke also to something I anyway wanted to ask you. And your example illustrates this beautifully, is the interdependence of the individual. I also speak often about this interdependence, how we as society pull ourselves out and say, “Oh, this is the bad guy. And I’m the clean person. And so it’s all over there.” Instead of “Where have we been? So how does this relate to us?” And I think that’s such an important question that you brought in, and I think that’s a very powerful answer. So thank you for that. I very much resonate with what you’re saying.

Zainab: Thank you. Not many people like it, to be honest. Because you take any crisis, racism, the Me Too Movement, terrorism, in all of it, I believe all of us have our role in being complacent and complicit in it. Me Too, but you can say Harvey Weinstein is the exclusive bad guy. He’s always a bad guy. He should go to prison. But how we all collaborated in a system that allowed for men like that to do whatever they wanted to. And we all looked the other direction, and we all commercialized sex in our media and all of that. That is part of our collective responsibility. And you know, it’s easiest to put all the guilt on one person. I’m not a Christian, so I don’t want to cross that line. But like what Jesus took all our sins. No. We all have our sins and we need to own our sins. Not to punish ourselves, but to develop and to evolve as a society and as a collective.

Thomas: Yeah. Right. Like to take our shares out of the collective shadow world and to re-own it and turn them into light. It’s so powerful. And I actually think it’s very important to say that even if it’s not sometimes so popular. But I think it’s so important that we see the collective shadow. There is a collective dimension to trauma and shadow, and that we are all part of that. And it’s not only somewhere. Actually, I think that’s the collective healing movement, is exactly what you described, that we do that. And also, how often we might ignore in daily life, because you said we are complicit. Like, how often we might meet people where we don’t listen to our own intuition, that something is strange. I saw this already two times in my neighborhood. I looked away because I didn’t want. And then things happen that there is a whole line of events that lead up to a school shooting, that led up to a school shooting.

And I think that’s very important that we don’t see this separate. Actually, why we do this collective trauma work also is to look at what are collective symptoms. And I think one collective symptom is absence, and is indifference and is separation. And that we learn to think in separation units, instead of that we are all life, we are all the society. The society is not around us. It’s all over. It’s through us. But our subjective experience might give us this sense that, oh, I look at nature around me, but I’m also nature. It’s everywhere. You are nature. So we are all nature. And maybe this brings us to, I see our time. It’s so interesting to talk to you, time flies. I need to also take care a bit of the time.

But when we talk about nature for a moment, when you look at, your work led you to do a lot of climate work right now. And maybe we can apply some of the trauma principles or shadow principles. What’s important now? What do you think is important for us to see that we are going into a more and more of a crisis? And how does our inner world and our collective world work together either to solve it or make it worse?

Zainab: Well, for me, the first step is to make it personal. Because as long as we think of climate change as an intellectual issue, we’re not connecting to it. And sometimes I say, honestly, if Earth was a lover, she would have broken up with us long time ago for being the most selfish, narcissist, controlling, greedy, taking her for granted kind of lover. We all are that. We are all bad, but everyone will understand the lover part because we all have this experience with a bad lover, or a boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever it is. So personalize it.

And for me, the personalization happened in my new life, to be honest. I told you I almost died. It took me a year and a half to recover. And in that time, I had had my list of happiness, which is always career, career, career, career, career. Then you go into, you have, of course, your family around you. Then financial security and vacations and nice clothes and whatever, like the material things, mostly. I almost died. And then I became very vulnerable with my illness. And I had a severe case of Lyme disease. And I promise you, when all my intellectual tools were taken away, what was left in me is humility. And the only time I was able to recover was being in nature. And in that humble moment where I could barely walk and barely breathe, I felt each tree was telling me like a cheerleader, “You can do it, you can do it.” Each leaf was a cheerleader giving me it’s oxygen. Literally, it became very intimate experience for me and very personal experience for me.

And I came out of this experience with a few things. First, my own list for a happy day right now, which has nothing, used to be very career oriented. Right now, it is a walk in nature, an appointment with my heart, as I talked to you about, drink a lot of water, eat healthy food, connect with family or friends, do something in the arts. That’s very, very important. The soul needs art, in my opinion. My soul does. And live your purpose, whatever that is, live your purpose. So only one of them had purpose. And the other, before, it was all work, work, work, work.

But I came also out of it with feeling a personal responsibility, because everyone who’s been sick or has someone who’s sick, knows that Earth helps them, knows that basic oxygen, basic good food, basic good water heals them. Basic. And then we disconnect from that and we go into the speed of our lives and not connect personally to earth. So first of all, I feel, for me, my call out to others is to personalize it. It’s a personal issue. Where’s your connection? Spend time, if you can, in any shape or form, in nature. It’s like nature became my teacher. I’m learning gardening right now, it’s my teacher. So that’s one, personalize it.

And then the second is, the solutions to climate change is not outrageous, to be honest. I know the way the media is covering it is outrageous. It’s very expensive, it’s technology. And the truth is, we need to do three things for climate change. Two of them are doable, and we can do it today, which is to protect and preserve 50% of Earth. This is scientifically backed. I’m just saying it in a tone that is not scientifically oriented. But to protect and preserve 50% of Earth, that 50% is already mapped. People know where it is. There is a connection of the corridor where, if we protect that, the wild animals and wildlife can come back. That’s doable. We can coexist with that part of Earth. We just need to be kinder to it.

The second is to shift to regenerative agriculture, doable, not impossible. We don’t need technology to shift. We can do it today. And it doesn’t have to- we don’t have to wait for our government or a corporation to do it, we can do it in our lives. We do it in the small way. And the third one is renewable energy. And yes, you are right. This is technology and big industrialized solution. But what I’m trying to say is, personalize it and do what you can do right now.

One of my favorite poems is by David Whyte. And he says, “Take the first step. Not the second, not the third. The step you call your own.” And it’s just the intimate one. We’re constantly thinking, what’s going to happen in 20 years? What’s going to happen in 30 years? Oh, my God. Well, let’s take the first step. And the first step is something all of us can do, today, in baby steps. So if you just end up doing, buy this vegetable and not that vegetable or from that farmer and not this farm. These are baby steps, and they’re all good steps. They’re all valuable steps. Don’t judge yourself, but start the baby steps. Don’t go and think about the second and the third and the fourth. Start with the one underneath your feet. The one you can call your own.

I co-founded a group called Daughters for Earth with Jody Allen, and partnered with One Earth, which to ask all daughters and, honestly, their parents and their siblings and their children to join in basically making these two solutions happen, which is finding all these groups around the world who are doing this, mostly women-led efforts who are doing this and putting more money behind them, putting more awareness behind them, but ultimately changing our personal behaviors in baby steps.

Thomas: Oh, that’s beautiful, Zainab. Lao Tzu said, in the Tao Te Ching, “A journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet.” And that’s exactly what you said. So we will listen to thousands of years of wisdom spoken by you. It’s very beautiful. Thank you very much. I would love to continue the conversation somehow in other ways, it’s really refreshing. And I really honor your honesty and your authenticity and how you do your own work. This sounds to me very trustworthy and beautiful. So thank you. Thank you, for that.

Zainab: Thanks so much. Honestly, it is I who thank you, A, for the opportunity, but also for seeing me. And I appreciate it. And I see you as well. So, grateful for the opportunity. And best of luck to you and to all the work, the important work that you’re doing. And I hope people hear it, that the cause we are working on, whatever it is, does not require us to self-sacrifice. It does not require us to self-sacrifice.