Updated: May 11, 2022
By Sarah Dekker
I grew up and lived in various countries in Africa and Europe. I called many places home, but I was always a bit of an outsider wherever I went. As a white middle-class European girl of Judeo-Christian heritage, I found myself from a very young age, trying to bridge many socio-cultural gaps.
I have learned to connect with people from all walks of life: Singing and clapping around the fire with bushman friends under the starlit Kalahari sky; having tea with HIV patients in their humble homes in Mozambique; hanging out with fellow students from all corners of this planet; visiting a refugee camp; sitting at lavish dinner tables in mansions with diplomats and ex-pats; babysitting children or taking time to be with my partner’s elderly grandparents in the final stages of their life…
Sometimes people seemed so different to me on the surface. We looked different, having more wrinkly or darker skin or distinctly different hair types. We had such varying cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. I often found myself in unfamiliar spaces, feeling uncertain, small, nervous. And, as I frantically looked for familiarity among strangers, I found comfort when I discovered that if I looked a little closer, we were not so different after all. I experienced a sense of shared humanity. When I looked into people’s eyes, I saw a longing in each person to love and be loved. Although our tastes might have differed, we all enjoyed good food, music, companionship, and laughter. We all felt sad sometimes, overwhelmed, lonely or angry. If only we could see beyond our constructs or stories about each other, I thought, we would all realise that we had even more in common!
There were also many painful moments in which I experienced a sense of alienation, in which the people I reached out to gave me the cold shoulder. They focused on our differences and perhaps felt nervous, shy, or resentful, having some preconceived idea about who I was. This hurt so much. I longed for heart-to-heart connection, to be truly seen and met in the moment, in my innocence. I wished I would just be accepted as me, seen as a fellow sentient being, and not labelled as ‘white’, ‘a girl’, ‘a teacher’s pet’, ‘an oppressor’, ‘an opportunity for arousal’ or ‘a cash-cow''. I longed for a world in which I and everyone else were welcome just the way they were, no matter what the colour of their skin, their gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, or age.
When I got the opportunity to study, I chose Gender and conflict studies. I had a desire to grasp the social power dynamics and identity constructs to understand how we might unravel our painful stories of separation. How could we take off the masks we wear and begin to show each other our true authentic selves? Might we dismantle the divisive narratives and meet each other beyond our appearances, beyond right and wrong thinking, beyond power and privilege?
However, working to shift the strategic es and policies towards a more just and equitably structured society was but one step. A missing puzzle piece for me in the academic arena was figuring out new ways to relate to each other as fellow humans in the felt sense. How could we shift our daily conversations to establish true understanding and mutual trust? How could we begin to see each other for who we truly were? Noticing structural injustices that contribute to social suffering and changing policies and legislations are like removing a thorn from the camel’s back. And yet society will only change when we heal our hurts, make space to listen and understand each other and begin to truly celebrate everyone.
All faith traditions point to this. “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself.” (words of the Prophet Muhammad in the Holy Qur’an). “Love thy neighbour as thyself” ( second commandment in the Holy Bible). A practical approach to this came to me in the form of Nonviolent Communication. This methodology or way of life developed by Marshall Rosenberg, and inspired by the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, offers the insight that everything we do is motivated by our longing to meet universal human needs. When we realise which needs motivated us or others to say certain things or act a certain way, understanding and connection emerge. Judgments, criticism, and blame make way for mutuality, shared reality, and love. Eureka! You can imagine I was very excited to begin integrating this approach into my life!
Only over the past few years have I fully begun to understand how scared we are of each other. Most of us are so terrified of not being welcome as we are, that we spend most of our time and energy ensuring that we don’t get into trouble or upset anyone and do our very best to impress. We work hard to gain approval from our friends, family, and colleagues. We spend hours finding the right profile photo for social media, checking the mirror, doing up our home, making sure to respond to all our e-mails. Or we numb ourselves with cigarettes, alcohol or endless hours scrolling on our phones. Or we pretend that we don’t care. We pray that nobody discovers that in fact, we are a fraud, that we are not as wonderful as we’ve hopefully conned everyone into thinking we are. Many of us experience a deep sense of loneliness and alienation, and secretly believe that we are inherently flawed and different to everyone else. We have come to believe in this story of separation because there were so many instances in the past when we felt hurt. There were so many moments when we imagined that we were all alone, that we were not loved.
It slowly began to dawn on me that life had been quite uncomfortable so far and that for most of life I’d simply been going through the motions of each day. I was missing a sense of purpose and sensed that many people around me were probably experiencing something similar. And while through Nonviolent Communication practice I was having many fulfilling conversations with people and experiencing a growing sense of community and belonging in the world, there was still intense loneliness within.
I discovered that to shift our social ills, transform our reactivity and begin meeting each other with an open heart, I first needed to begin opening my heart to myself. I needed to matter to myself, to begin healing the separation between the parts of me that are in disharmony and pain. I needed to become the loving presence to myself that parts of me had always longed for. And while I explored many valuable trauma healing modalities, self-development tools and forms of meditation, the three elements that were truly life-changing on this path have been and continue to be working with plant medicine, Internal Family Systems therapy, and Dyad meditation practice. As I welcome myself more fully into this life, I can welcome those around me too. As I am no longer making it through my day, surviving, I am filled with more and more awe and love for Life and deep gratitude for the privilege to be a participant in this colourful existence. Parts of me still get scared, tense, but I am learning to hold space for them and for the parts of others that might be judging, blaming, or criticizing me. I no longer feel so lost. I am realising that I am home.
PS. You might be interested in joining our "Coming Home to Yourself" 12-week journey in which we combine Nonviolent Communication, Internal Family Systems and Dyad meditation. Have a look at our Events page to find the next available start dates.