Karen Tse and a Definition of Healing

Hear Dan read this post.

Recent­ly, Siona van Dijk sent me a ref­er­ence to the extra­or­di­nary lead­er­ship work of Karen Tse, direc­tor of Inter­na­tion­al Bridges to Jus­tice (IBJ), a human rights orga­ni­za­tion that trains pub­lic defend­ers in Chi­na, Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia. Karen grew up in LA’s Chi­na­town, went to UCLA and, lat­er, Har­vard Divin­i­ty school, and has worked with both the oppres­sors and the oppressed in Cam­bo­di­an pris­ons and with the Khmer Rouge. Siona high­light­ed these beau­ti­ful words by Tse from a recent arti­cle about her:

If you sit with­in the silence of your soul, and give it the time and the space, I think you know where to go–you know where to lead. You can read a thou­sand books and have a thou­sand peo­ple tell you what the right method­olo­gies are–but to be any­where, you have to start from your cen­ter and your core. It’s from that place of still­ness where you’ll know how to move for­ward and how to move oth­ers with you.

You must seek to find the Christ or the Bud­dha in each per­son. Then you must work with that Christ or Buddha.

Thank you so much, Siona, for shar­ing this sto­ry. It cer­tain­ly does res­onate with my own prin­ci­ples and my sense of what lead­er­ship real­ly is all about. I encour­age read­ers to take a look at the arti­cle before going far­ther with this post. Karen Tse’s sto­ry is tes­ti­mo­ny to the remark­able poten­tials we all hold within.


Her sto­ry empha­sizes the pow­er of “trans­for­ma­tive love” to heal the world and its wrongs, start­ing from heal­ing those who have pow­er to make things bet­ter. The sto­ry of how Tse works with a prison direc­tor in Cam­bo­dia is almost an emblem for all the good work that is pos­si­ble. Her voca­tion does­n’t seem to be about “the law” or “rights,” though these pieces do fig­ure promi­nent­ly, so much as it seems to be about the human paint­brush cre­at­ing new life in the face of an old darkness.

Think­ing of those I regard as good lead­ers, I find myself defin­ing lead­er­ship itself in terms of its offer of heal­ing — heal­ing of com­mu­ni­ties (com­mu­ni­ty broad­ly defined from coun­tries down to fam­i­lies), heal­ing of the earth itself, and of peo­ple as indi­vid­u­als, from which at an inner lev­el, all the trou­ble can be sourced. This is so much dif­fer­ent than the more intel­lec­tu­al views of lead­er­ship that often cir­cu­late, focus­ing as they do on pow­er to accom­plish majes­tic, busi­ness-ori­ent­ed goals. And yet don’t the best lead­ers also know there is noth­ing so impor­tant as the reclaim­ing of what has been lost to us — and how that reclaim­ing best occurs with under­stand­ing, com­pas­sion and inclusion?

The oth­er day I was read­ing a blog declar­ing that it is time for white males to take back their birthright to pow­er and social con­trol. The author seemed deeply con­vinced that once this hap­pened, when women and peo­ple of all oth­er back­grounds final­ly acknowl­edged the supe­ri­or intel­li­gence of white males, all would be right with the world. As I read his words, I felt noth­ing but anger and sad­ness — and fear that some­one with this per­spec­tive might end up in a pow­er­ful role. We can say his words are sim­ply ludi­crous, but that belies the seri­ous­ness of the per­spec­tive and its under­ly­ing vio­lence. Yes­ter­day, I also hap­pened to read about Kathy Sier­ra’s trou­bling per­son­al con­fronta­tion with misog­y­ny and death threats. And it rein­forced the sense I have that unless the heal­ing pow­ers of “trans­for­ma­tive love” play an increas­ing­ly strong role, the dark threads woven into the fab­ric of our cul­ture will cre­ate a very dif­fer­ent soci­ety than the one we have today. We eas­i­ly for­get — in the wash of Peo­ple mag­a­zine, TV game shows, and trips to the mall — that cru­el­ty is not that far off. As my good friend, Joe McCarthy has said to me any num­ber of times, “The inter­net is just a reflec­tion of the world. What­ev­er you want to find there, you can find.” I guess that means con­fu­sion, uncon­scious­ness, and vio­lence, as well as light.

And you see, Karen Tse, is already there, and she leads as a heal­er; she heals as a leader.

I have found myself ask­ing many ques­tions late­ly about this process of “heal­ing.” What is it, real­ly? Per­haps it is just, to use Tse’s words, to find the Christ or Bud­dha in each per­son. And then to believe in that vision of the human spir­it, to know that what­ev­er dark­ness we find in oth­ers and with­in our­selves, what­ev­er wounds, “lost” aware­ness, crip­pled under­stand­ing, there is some­thing else that is more. That beside the loss of what­ev­er whole­ness was our actu­al birthright com­ing into this world and beside what­ev­er vio­lence that has late­ly shaped us, whole­ness is still there in this moment, per­haps in shock or hid­ing but still capa­ble of being found again. What­ev­er has injured us is not final. We hold the stars in our bel­lies, even under the grimmest of con­di­tions. There is crazi­ness; there are tragedies, but the human spir­it at its core is greater than its self-injur­ing parts and will find its way to recov­er, if not as an indi­vid­ual, then as a soci­ety. It must. I hold this truth to be self-evi­dent: that we con­tain nobil­i­ty and courage, and we are emi­nent­ly capa­ble of com­pas­sion — for oth­ers and for our­selves, and this dis­cov­ery — that we can put things right, put our­selves right — this dis­cov­ery is made only through love and is, for what it’s worth, my own, per­son­al def­i­n­i­tion of healing.

All last night I dreamt of fright­en­ing wars and inva­sions and I lit­er­al­ly awoke this morn­ing to a radio report say­ing that prob­a­bly 400,000 peo­ple have been killed in Dar­fur in the last four years. We wound our­selves so deeply, so per­sis­tent­ly and fero­cious­ly, with such fer­vent self-destruc­tive­ness and spell­bound revenge, and yet one per­son, a sin­gle exam­ple, work­ing with the direc­tor of a prison in Cam­bo­dia shows how rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent it all can be. The demons we har­bor with­in us run for the shad­ows in the face of such an immense light.

We know, even as any war begins, that we are greater, and yet — and this is the wound­ing — we seem not able to claim our nobil­i­ty with­out the suf­fer­ing, with­out the loss of our inno­cence and our self-betray­al [this is the only poem I know by heart]…

Nev­er until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Father­ing and all hum­bling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tum­bling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the syn­a­gogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shad­ow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least val­ley of sack­cloth to mourn

The majesty and burn­ing of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blas­pheme down the sta­tions of the breath
With any further
Ele­gy of inno­cence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies Lon­don’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourn­ing water
Of the rid­ing Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Dylan Thomas,A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

It seems that our real sto­ries always begin with a loss, begin in a dark time. Our real sto­ries begin with a scar. And we then nec­es­sar­i­ly become searchers for the essen­tial thing that has been tak­en away from us. We must make the jour­ney through the under­world. It seems as a race we must touch anger and revenge.

If we look for them, we find teach­ers. But as part of the cos­mic sleight of hand, we also dis­cov­er at some point that we were genius­es and yet nev­er knew at all what we thought we were look­ing for. And what is this loss, and what is to be found? It real­ly has no name oth­er than our own, and once we find this “object of the search,” we are giv­en back a cher­ished trea­sure, the capac­i­ty to love our­selves and one another.

It is the first of April, the day of fools. Siona also remind­ed me of how impor­tant it is to remem­ber the pow­er and impor­tance of the fool, one of our most impor­tant affir­ma­tions. From Bel­laOn­line she shares a bit of Tarot:

The Fool rep­re­sents the ‘everyper­son’ — the essence of us all embark­ing on the jour­ney of life, self-dis­cov­ery and mas­tery. He is the inno­cent, the whim­si­cal, the ‘inner child’ mixed with the ‘inner sage’ that lives down deep inside of us all. He faces life and his jour­ney unafraid, trust­ing, the per­fect exam­ple of total and utter faith that all will be well, that every expe­ri­ence has a deep essen­tial mean­ing. He traipses along the crags of life, regard­less of any hid­den per­il or dis­ap­point­ment, his eyes are turned to the heav­ens and he knows that he will be kept safe and whole along his trav­els. Key words asso­ci­at­ed with the Fool are new begin­nings, impor­tant deci­sions and optimism.

Ah, such faith! We start and end our jour­neys the same. We lose our inno­cence in order, with wis­dom, to win it back once again. In doing so, we are healed and able at last to leave a prison of our own making.

When we let Spirit
Lead us
It is impossible
To know
We are being led.
All we know
All we can believe
All we can hope
Is that
We are going
That wherever
Takes us
Is where

Alice Walk­er, When We Let Spir­it Lead Us


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  • Dan: you’ve woven a rich tapes­try of threads of dark­ness and light, injury and heal­ing, anger and com­pas­sion, cru­el­ty and kind­ness. Tak­ing the larg­er view that encom­pass­es Chi­na, Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia and Dar­fur, it seems to make the unfold­ing of recent blo­gos­pher­ic events less impor­tant … and yet, as I write this, I can hear the voice of Dan say­ing “No, actu­al­ly, these threads are impor­tant wher­ev­er they man­i­fest them­selves, as we are all connected.”

    In any case, the recent “coor­di­nat­ed” state­ment by Kathy Sier­ra and Chris Locke man­i­fests many of these threads — both the dark and the light — and gives [me] hope in the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of love. I’m remind­ed of a quote by Grover Wash­ing­ton Carv­er that I first encoun­tered on Jane McGo­ni­gal’s home page: “Any­thing will give up its secrets if you love it enough”. Let’s hope so…

  • Yes, I believe that’s right, Joe — the threads are connected…violence is vio­lence, threat is threat. Krish­na­mur­ti said it this way in Free­dom from the Known (see right sidebar):

    …let us ask our­selves, can this soci­ety, based on com­pe­ti­tion, bru­tal­i­ty and fear, come to an end? Not as an intel­lec­tu­al con­cep­tion, not as a hope, but as an actu­al fact, so that the mind is made fresh, new and inno­cent and can bring about a dif­fer­ent world alto­geth­er? It can only hap­pen, I think, if each one of us rec­og­nizes the cen­tral fact that we, as indi­vid­u­als, as human beings, in what­ev­er part of the world we hap­pen to live or what­ev­er cul­ture we hap­pen to belong to, are total­ly respon­si­ble for the whole state of the world.”

    Sure­ly there are degrees…but the struc­ture of threat and of vio­lence is large­ly the same wher­ev­er it exists…and that means to me that sin­gle exam­ples, such as Kathy Sier­ra’s recent sit­u­a­tion, are frac­tals of the larg­er scene. Which is more impor­tant, a leaf or the larg­er tree? The point is that the leaf is the tree.

  • I’ve met Karen in per­son once, at a con­fer­ence. She’s pret­ty amaz­ing. 🙂 She’s very down to earth and mat­ter of fact about big, emo­tion­al issues. Very inspirational.

  • John

    It looks like you are doing fab­u­lous work at Project VIEW. Many bless­ings to you.

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