See No Stranger-Wisdom for a World We’re Building
June 18, 2020
Valarie Kaur’s new book: See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love has come to readers in the midst of a long overdue reckoning around systemic racial injustice. The genesis of the book was a Watchnight service at a church in Washington, D.S. on December 31, 2016, at which Valarie asked a packed sanctuary if perhaps the moment was not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb and encouraged America to breath and push. It is a question that seems as profoundly relevant today as it did almost four years ago. On June 17, Kaur was joined by the actor and writer, Rainn Wilson to talk about the book and the moment into which the book was birthed. The conversation, facilitated by IFYC’s Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, offered insight into the deep spiritual commitments held by Valarie as a Sikh and Rainn as a Baháʼí, and how the teachings of their traditions inspired action in this moment. Undergirding the discussion was what Kaur identifies as Revolutionary Love, a social ethic that mandates just relations in both the personal and systemic ways, and ways that point towards actions of solidarity with Black lives in this birthing moment.
Valarie and Rainn offer a master class in what it means to have an honest, humble and joyful conversation about ourselves, our communities, and the necessary and life-giving work that is calling to all of us in this time. Watch the video and read the transcript below.
I see no stranger. I see no enemy. These are the words of Guru Nanak, the first teacher of the Sikh faith, the first guru, the founder of the Sikh faith. When I was a little girl, my family has been in this country for a century, so I grew up on the farmlands that my grandfather farmed when he first arrived in 1913. So, I grew up with a deep sense of belonging to this Earth, land and country and with the stories and the songs and the scriptures of my Sikh ancestors in my ear. And I remember when I would come home from school for the first time, my first experience with racial slurs. It would be my grandfather, my other grandfather who would scoop me up in his lap and tell me Guru Nanak stories. And oh, I see no stranger. I see no enemy. What does that mean? He would teach me, ‘Oh, my love, [speaks Punjabi],’ that it means it look upon the face of anyone around you and say, ‘you are part of me I do not yet know.’ You are part of me I do not yet know. It is an orientation of wonder and humility. And it is dangerous. Papa Ji used to say, ‘Love is a dangerous business. In America, they say, I love you, I love you, I love you. All talk, no action.’ If you really love someone, that means you choose to love them, you choose to let their grief in your heart and you choose to fight for them even when they are in the face of harm’s way, even in the face of grave injustice.
The imperative for people of faith is to find spiritual tools to help combat today’s injustices. So, that doesn’t mean just like hugging a cop. But it means bringing a deep love to a conversation about social imbalances and understanding that the great imbalances that are happening in the world right now, the great injustices, the broken systems are broken for a much deeper reason than can be fixed with legislation. And with protest. Legislation and protest, super important. Obviously we can’t have Jim Crow laws! We need to have a civil rights movement to overturn them. Super important. But did that fix racism? Did it fix prejudice? Did it fix people’s hearts with that legislation? No. So, we have to work both at the same time. So, most of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching are focused on social justice actually, the elimination of racial prejudice, the equality of women and men, extremes of race and poverty.
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>>PAUL: Let me just say, that I am thrilled to be here with you today and to welcome Valarie Kaur and Rainn Wilson to this conversation that we have titled See No Stranger: How Revolutionary Love Can Build Our New World and I kept on thinking, how I do introduce these two fabulous people. And the word humans and humanitarians kept on coming up for me. Because these are people who are so interested in the welfare of humans and how they have each dedicated themselves to close observation and beautiful excavation of what it means to be human in all the glory and the tragedy and the absurdity that includes.
Both Rainn and especially Valarie with her beautiful new book, have invested the spiritual work it requires to help us think about how to live with ourselves and with others in a community. You’re both so bold and honest and just and we’re just excited for this conversation on how we can all learn to be, maybe it’s revolutionary lovers, if that’s a possibility for a spin on the title.
Their bios are in the chat. Their full bios are going to be in the chat. But I wanted to mention a few things. Rainn Wilson, as most of you know, a wonderful actor, a writer. He is the author of The Bassoon King: My life in Art, Faith and Idiocy, my second favorite title of people on this Zoom call of a book. He cofounded something called Soul Pancake, which is so wonderful. If you get a chance, go on the web and all of the social media to follow Soul Pancake. It is an incredibly spiritually filled digital media company. He also works on the Lidè Foundation. It is educational initiative in rural Haiti that empowers at risk women and girls through the arts.
Valarie Kaur is just such an amazing person. She’s a writer, lawyer, filmmaker, an innovator. She founded Groundswell, Faithful Internet, the Yale Visual Law Project. She has been such a powerful and prophetic voice. Her new book, which we are celebrating today, is called See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. And so, welcome to both of you.
>>VALARIE: Thank you, Paul.
>>PAUL: I’m just so excited for this conversation. So, I wanted to just set the table and invite both of you to speak from your heart and your spirit and your bodies and minds about where you are in this moment in our nation’s history. Where you feel we are as a collective nation. And what sources of strength are you drawing upon. I would love to—Valarie, why don’t you start us off, and then Rainn, and then, we will follow it up. But just to get into this moment that we are all experiencing together.
>>RAINN: Nice light question to kick this off, Paul. Thanks so much.
>>PAUL: Something simple. Something easy, you know? [laughing]
>>VALARIE: How are you is the hardest! [laughing]
>>PAUL: On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you feel? [laughing]
>>VALARIE: So, so I’ve been feeling all the things! All the things. I’m feeling such intense grief. I think George Floyd’s voice is still echoing in my—calling out for his dead mother. Like it’s still echoing in my body. I’ve been feeling intense rage. Like rage so—like fierce, like my veins feel like they are aching. For about a week there I felt a lot of fear. I was telling you all, I live in neighborhood in Los Angeles where the national guard moved in really fast. Guns out. About a week or so after George Floyd’s lynching. When our protests began to rise. And I had to keep my brown children inside more afraid of the militarization of my neighborhood than anything else. I remember when we finally ventured outside. We were driving our car. My 5-year-old was in the back seat. And I was so worried he would see the rifles in front of his preschool and the cafes where I wrote this book. I didn’t know how I would explain it to him. Instead he looked at me with this sense of astonishment. He looked out the window and I was following his eye line. He was seeing how our street was just transformed with pictures, graffiti, of George and Brianna and Trayvon and hearts everywhere. He looked at me and he was like, ‘Mommy, did you do this?’ Because he knows all I talk about is love and justice in our house! I was like, ‘No, Kavi, we did this.’ We did this. In such a dark and hard moment, I never in my life thought I would see millions of people flooding the streets in their grief, in their rage, in their ferocity, saying no more. And not just Black folks. White folks and non-Black people of color, it is a revolutionary moment we are living through. And a moment like this requires revolutionary language. So, I wrote this book for my own survival, Paul. I did not know it would come at a time where I feel like I want to put it in the hand of every person rising up right now. It is how we rise in this moment with love.
>>RAINN: Wow, I can’t top that. That’s amazing Valarie, thank you so much for sharing those thoughts. When I read your book, and I read in advance, months before these events, but it is amazing how relevant, you know, this is, this moment. It was like prescient in its composition. For me, I don’t know, what can I say that hasn’t been said before. I feel like this has been a long slow journey for me, kind of, to witness my own White male privilege and to learn. So, for me, this is a time just about learning. A time to kind of stay small and to stay humble and to listen to voices that I haven’t listened to before. And to try and take in the pain that I always knew was there. I knew up here. Of course, I had never experienced one jot of racism or systemic racism or anything like that. But to just witness the pain and figure out like how can I, how can I support this? To learn from that as well. So, to me, it is a time of learning. And for me, it is, although as much pain as there is, both of you said it, this is a time of great hope. This is kind of like the before and after. It’s almost like a 9/11 kind of event. The world was a very different place before and after 9/11. And the world is a very different place, unfortunately, after the horrific death of George Floyd. And I choose to stay focused on the positive. Because I think if we stay focused on the hope, that can help us fight the horrific injustice that’s happening. Because it gives us a vision of where to go. It is not simply protest. There is protest. There’s legislation. But there’s a eyes-on-the-prize of, you know, diversity, healing, union, collaboration. And, you know, Valarie touches on that in her book.
>>PAUL: What I really, I appreciate that, and I think I’ve also felt like it is really important to approach this moment with humility and being open to real deep listening. Like 9/11, there is no clear outcome that is necessarily going to happen. We have to kind of make it happen. And 9/11 was such an important touch point in your book, Valarie, and so but I want to start with one question. With just the title, See No Stranger. One of the things I just loved about this book is how it introduced me to your religious tradition. In a way that was completely embedded in your life. So, I just wanted to invite you to talk about how that kept on coming up. And you kept on using opportunities to share how faith was functioning for you and it was just wonderful for me as someone who is eager to learn that part of your life and the broader Sikh community. So, can you talk about the title, where it comes from, and then just a little bit more about how it plays in your broader life trajectory?
>>VALARIE: [Speaks Punjabi] I see no stranger. I see no enemy. These are the words of Guru Nanak, the first teacher of the Sikh faith, the first guru, the founder of the Sikh faith. When I was a little girl, my family has been in this country for a century, so I grew up on the farmlands that my grandfather farmed when he first arrived in 1913. So, I grew up with a deep sense of belonging to this Earth, land and country and with the stories and the songs and the scriptures of my Sikh ancestors in my ear. And I remember when I would come home from school for the first time, my first experience with racial slurs. It would be my grandfather, my other grandfather who would scoop me up in his lap and tell me Guru Nanak stories. And oh, I see no stranger. I see no enemy. What does that mean? He would teach me, ‘Oh, my love, bida,’ that it means it look upon the face of anyone around you and say, ‘you are part of me I do not yet know.’ You are part of me I do not yet know. It is an orientation of wonder and humility. And it is dangerous. Papa Ji use to say, ‘Love is a dangerous business. In America, they say, I love you, I love you, I love you. All talk, no action.’ If you really love someone, that means you choose to love them, you choose to let their grief in your heart and you choose to fight for them even when they are in the face of harm’s way, even in the face of grave injustice. And so, Sikh’s became a warrior people. Love in the Sikh tradition was always daring and dangerous. The , the warrior sage was a Sikh ideal. The warrior fights, the sage loves. So, it was a path of revolutionary love. I think in this country now, we hear—I’m a lawyer, right? I roll my eyes when I hear people say, love is the answer. All I hear is thoughts and prayers and no action, but if we think about our greatest spiritual teachers. I think about the Baháʼí tradition, Rainn, and all the prophets and saints and indigenous leaders and wisdom seekers that you draw upon in your faith tradition. How all of our ancestors before us who had love on the tip of their tongue. All of the social reformers, from Gandhi to King to Mandela, they knew that love was more than a feeling. It was an ethic. It was a form of labor. So, I define revolutionary love in this book as a form of labor. Fierce, bloody, imperfect, life-giving. A choice we make over and over again. And if life is labor, then it is all the emotions. Right? All the emotions I named that I’m feeling right now! Joy, and the joy that I feel just being with you in this moment. Joy is the gift of love. Grief, the kind of grief we are seeing in the streets right now. Grief is the price of love. Rage, the kind of righteous rage. People think that rage is the opposite of love. No, no, no, rage is the force that protects that which is love. It is the shield of love. And so, to be brave enough to allow ourselves to feel all of these emotions is to partake in the labor. And what I loved about what Rainn said about him getting really quiet and listening right now, is that, you know, I’m hearing a lot from my White allies, like, ‘I’m going to be in the street. I’m going to hold the sign and say the words.’ Oh, this is good, this is a start. But the labor for justice is long. And what happens when you go back to your schools and to your workplaces and to the film industry? And to the workplaces—like, all of the place that—all the institutions. There is no institution in this country that doesn’t need us right now to do the work of transitioning it into an anti-racist society. So, I appreciate my brother Rainn for how, with humility, with wonder he is letting himself, I see you, Rainn, letting yourself be changed by this moment. I’m letting myself be changed in this moment. How am I—what have I not yet done to center Black people in my own movement work? That’s what I’m asking myself. All of us I think, this is a moment for us to push and to go deeper and to ask what does revolutionary love look for me now? What is my role in it next?
>>PAUL: Rainn, would you be willing to say just a few words about your Baháʼí experience and your faith. Because I think many of us are not very well acquainted. As I said, one of the great joys of Valarie’s book is just to read a faith embedded in a life. So, I just, I would love for just a few, you know, a few moments for you to talk a little bit about how it is embedded in your life for those of us who aren’t as well acquainted with the Baháʼí tradition.
>>RAINN: Sure. Well, I’m really gratified this conversation is sponsored by such a great interfaith organization. And I think that the role of interfaith needs to be increased exponentially in these times. All of us here participating of various faiths, whatever they are, have deep faith traditions always grounded in love. All faith traditions grounded deeply, deeply in love and a love based in action. Faith without deeds is dead. Not just a love that you sit there a tree and love a mushroom for a certain amount of time. Faith based and love based in action and faith and love of course go hand in hand. But yeah, so in the Baháʼí faith—How do I… How do I answer that? The Baháʼí faith is the newest of all the world’s major religions. It’s even newer than Sikhism. In the 1800s, a man named Bahá’u’lláh is the principal spiritual teacher. His name means the glory of God. Bahá’u’lláh taught that all religions come from the same source. And that they are essentially unfolding chapters of one eternal religion. Going all the way back to Zoroaster and Abraham and the Buddha and Moses and Jesus and Muhammad and, so, as Baháʼí we are learning from all of the different faith traditions, including Sikhism to look, to focus on the universal truths. And a key component of the Baháʼí faith and the mission of the Bahá’u’lláh is to solve today’s problems using spiritual tools. That’s one of the things Valarie has done so well is bring the tools. And this is a question for you, Valarie, so I’m going to wind up my thing and I’m going to toss it right back to you. What are the Sikh tools—well, let me talk a little more and then I’m going to set you up. So, to use, the imperative for people of faith is to find spiritual tools to help combat today’s injustices. So, that doesn’t mean just like hugging a cop. But it means bringing a deep love to a conversation about social imbalances and understanding that the great imbalances that are happening in the world right now, the great injustices, the broken systems are broken for a much deeper reason than can be fixed with legislation. And with protest. Legislation and protest, super important. Obviously we can’t have Jim Crow laws! We need to have a civil rights movement to overturn them. Super important. But did that fix racism? Did it fix prejudice? Did it fix people’s hearts with that legislation? No. So, we have to work both at the same time. So, most of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching are focused on social justice actually, the elimination of racial prejudice, the equality of women and men, extremes of race and poverty. But, Baháʼís don’t get involved in partisanship, but we seek to find spiritual solutions to these issues. So. Valarie, to you, what are the Sikh tools? You mentioned revolutionary love. You mentioned see no stranger. Those are embedded in the title of your book. But what are the spiritual tools that you can call on and you feel that, perhaps, humanity doesn’t all need to become members of the Sikh faith, but that humanity can draw on the tools to help make the world a better place.
>>VALARIE: I think it’s this—I think too often we think about religion as a set of beliefs that we hold in our mind and Sikhi, we don’t even call it Sikhism, that’s kind of western framing. We call it Sikhi. Sikhi is a way of being in the world. It’s an orientation to life that is personal and political. And I think right now, everyone is like how do I be an anti-racist? I’m going to choose to be an anti-racist. But if we don’t embody that into the rest of us, our emotional body, then it doesn’t become a way of moving. It is a way of seeing no stranger. So, what—how does one see no stranger? What are the tools? Guru Gobind Singh, our tenth Guru, the legend goes that he designed a Dilruba, an instrument that was small enough to put on the backs of his soldiers before they went into battle. And this instrument was supposed to be a way that we kind of played the strings, let the sound reverberate within us and returned to the wisdom of our interconnectedness. That we belong to each other. That, I think of it as a form of breathing. And after the 2016 election, I actually got a physical Dilruba to play every day to center myself, to ground myself. Because in Sikhi, you don’t fight as means to an end. I mean, you hope that you defeat empire by the end of this. But, the fight for justice has gone on long before I was born. It will go on long after I die. How do I make the fight the end itself? How do I make the fight itself joyful? The struggle joyful? And in Sikhi, we have this concept called charhdi kala, ever-rising spirits even in darkness, ever-rising joy even in suffering. So, this struggle for justice is going to take a generation, if it is generational work, how will I last? I want to grow old, Rainn, I want to grow old with all of you. I want us to be old together. I want it to last. And how do I last? I ground my struggle in love. How do I ground my struggle in love? I remember the wisdom of the midwife. You breathe and then push and breath again. You don’t breathe once and push the rest of the way. You breathe and the push and then breathe again. So, just taking out my Dilruba and breathing, and for you it may be yoga or dancing or walking or chanting or reciting or singing—whatever returns you to, [sigh] to this feeling of being one with everything around you and gives you the energy and courage and joyfulness to return to the struggle for justice. I think that’s how we last. That’s how Sikhi is teaching me to be brave enough to see no stranger in a time like this.
>>PAUL: Valarie, I want to commend you just on the deep vulnerability. I just want to make sure that you know we are surrounding you with love at this time. Because you have put yourself out there. You put your life out there. In such a way that most of us never are willing to do. Because we are too—we are afraid of what it will mean to be honest in the world. And I just want to thank you for being like—
>>VALARIE: [laughs] I’m afraid too.
>>PAUL: I know! So, I really want to be clear that like we are surrounding you with love. Because what you did show incredible, honestly, bravery, vulnerability and you are allowing us to realize oh, I could be brave too. And so, I really, first of all, I just want to say that and thank you for that. One of the things I want to get into, into the book for a moment, because, you know, it’s just, it’s so riveting and part of it is because you are really—it is not just about the big societal questions. It is about sometimes the people closest to you. That you have to figure out, how do I love you? How do I not have this—what is happening now between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, or a person and their grandfather or a person and a cousin—and all of these are deep stories that are enmeshed within the learning. So, I just want to invite you, like, what does it mean… talk a little bit about engaging revolutionary love in the act of loving someone close to you. And involved in that is a whole thing around forgiveness and you know, so I just want to invite to you take that wherever you feel it needs to go. But, this is not just a book about macro problems. This is really a book about a human being invested in being a human being. To the best way they can. I just invite you to take that wherever you want to.
>>VALARIE: You know, I think it was chapter 4, and I was in the middle of writing and you know, the book is organized in these like how to love others and our opponents and ourselves in these core practices and chapter 4 is about rage. I had to tell the story about how I discovered that practice of love. And as ways writing it I was like, oh, if I’m really going to be truthful about how I discovered rage, then I have to tell this story and this story and this story. Which I was not planning to tell. I went to my husband and I was like, my love, just tell me, you know, draw the bright line. He’s more private than I am, right? So, draw the bright line. I don’t have to say these lings. I will find a different way. And Sharat looked at me and he’s like, tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. He said write it. And afterwards we will decide what goes in and what stays out. And so, I did. I told the truth. With as much as I could muster. When it was done, I put it in his hands. And he… took nothing out. So, people are saying, this is a brave book. So brave of you to write this book. Actually, no, I think this is the brave moment! [laughs] Where this has been out in the world for 24 hours. People are calling me. Listening to the audiobook, which I recorded in my closet, of course, during the pandemic. And I’m like, ‘have you gotten to chapter 4 yet?’ It is—this is all to say, I thank you for surrounding me in this moment when I feel so tender. I wrote this book with my whole body. I wrote about things you’re not supposed to write about, I wrote about my body. I wrote about sexual assault. I wrote about police brutality. And I wrote about my family. And the reason I discovered, I had to write about those things is that when you are committed to living a life of love and justice, it’s not just about what is out there in the world. The hardest moments to practice that is within your own intimate circle. Your own intimate life. With the people who are closest to you. And I want to tell you that this is why I think of revolutionary love as an orientation to life that is political and personal. That it’s both, it’s a way of moving, right? And it’s imperfect. But in choosing over and over and over again to try to love even those who have hurt me in the deepest ways, I have found my own liberation. I am free in this moment. And I can talk more about specifically what it means to loves one’s opponents in the process, but I wanted to put that out there first.
>>PAUL: Well, I think that was one of the important lessons in the book. And you did it in a non facile way. So, it was messy the whole way. But I do want, I would love for you to talk about your grandfather and someone who you admired so much, who had been so, like, important. And just that process of—with your husband. I don’t know, I think that there was something like that’s where I was sobbing. [laughs] Because I just—it felt so important—and you never gave up. Neither of you gave up, you know? And I don’t want to, like, give away the book. But I just, let me just say—you don’t have to answer that—I’m saying like, read this book! There are so many beautiful moments and hard moments. So, I don’t know if you want to say anything about that, and what it meant to keep persevering.
>>VALARIE: Yes, my grandfather was the world to me. He is the world to me. I say his prayer before I—I said his prayer before coming on with you all! It’s his prayer for bravery. [Speaks Punjabi] His voice, his wisdom is echoing throughout my body and my life all along. It was heart breaking when I chose my love, my partner, Sharat, or Sharat is another way to say his name, and my grandfather did not bless the marriage. Because he was not Sikh. And it was, one of the hardest things I had to write about. Because I had to reckon with my own grief and my own rage. And then find a way to keep listening and sitting by his side and both of us trying in the long hours to love each other when it was so hard and so difficult and felt so impossible. And I think a lot—in the book I talk about how love is not a feeling. Love is an act of wonder. It begins with the act of wonder. That feelings will wax and wane but if you can choose to continue to wonder, I have sat with White supremacists, I’ve sat with prison guards, I’ve sat with the man who murdered a Sikh uncle in our community. And yet the hardest person I’ve had to sit with, the hardest opponent I’ve had to sit with was my own grandfather. [laughs] And when I wanted to leave, in all of these situations, including with him, when I wanted to leave it was the choice and the commitment to wonder about him. Where his ideology, where his beliefs, where his life experience, where all of that was coming from. And the more I wondered about him, the more I could begin to understand him. And he could begin to understand me. It was on his death bed—I didn’t, this could not have happened—he asked for forgiveness, and I said, Papa Ji, you taught me how it be a warrior and you made me so strong, I turned around and fought you! [laughs] And he said—and I said, you’re letting me win! And, he said, oh, my dear, because you are right. I know not everyone gets that kind of reconciliation in this lifetime, but the choice to sit even when it was hard and continue to wonder and listen and love each other, that’s where the gift came.
>>RAINN: You’re muted, Paul. There you go.
>>PAUL: I’m thinking also when you were on the phone with the murderer of your uncle, your Sikh uncle and you wanted to hang up. You were just so angry, and yet the brother, the brother of the uncle wanted—like, kept going. And you kept on the phone. And you kept going. I just think that kind of perseverance is so, was such a lesson and I, you know, and what I liked about it is that it was really hard for you and actually not your first instinct. That’s I think that’s very, like really important.
Rainn, I’m interested in an actor’s perspective on this in the kind of active radical compassion that I think acting can be. I mean, I think that the characters that you have inhabited would not have been wonderful had you known how they were going to be perceived. They were wonderful because they were who they were, in a world, and you had to kind of love that. You know? It wouldn’t have worked if you didn’t, like, love that. So, I’m just wondering, like, are there lessons for compassion? I think the arts in general are one of the best ways we can understand compassion. Valarie is a wonderful filmmaker in addition to a wonderful author and other things. I’m wondering like your own sense of your own craft and act of compassion.
>>RAINN: That’s a terrific question. I’ve never been asked that before. I love to dig into questions like that. I think that yeah, so there is this very strange—acting is a very, very strange art form. Every art form has something unique and beautiful and different about it, but this idea that you are going to get this script, this script with a puppy on the cover, and it’s got a bunch of words and it’s got like, you are playing the role of Gary and then there’s all these words. And here’s the lines that Gary says. Then, you look in this script and you kind of realize what Gary’s back story might be. Then you have some thoughts about what Gary might look like or how Gary might hold himself and be in the world. And then do you this several-week long or several-month long or several-day long investigation of who Gary is. How Gary sees the world. What it’s like to be in Gary’s shoes, uh, to walk a mile in Gary’s shoes. To get yourself in such a state that when those words come out of your mouth, they are motivated, and they feel part and parcel with how Gary would be in the world. Like, it is an incredible process of transformation. I’m not trying to say, like, oh, I’m so special as an actor. I’s just being a child. It’s just being a kid. That’s what you do on the playground. You’re just kind of like, I’m an alien. I’m a cowboy. You know? You just leap in. And it is not a cerebral—it is part cerebral, part heart and a big part body. You know? The actors, I always joke because Brad Pitt once did an interview and he said, I always start with my characters, I create my characters through their hair. [laughs] But in a way, I kind of get it. And he is a brilliant actor, by the way, because these physical indicators, you know, lead us in a certain direction.
But, going really directly to your question, there has to be a deep compassion and empathy for the character that you are playing when you are seeing the world through your eyes. You can always tell when an actor is a little outside of it and kind of commenting on the character or the actor has a judgment on the character. So, it’s—and that’s one of the great—I think one of the things you will find in actors and in myself as well is a great dissatisfaction with being Rainn Wilson that started as a child. Like a discomfort of being in my own skin. So, you’re just longing for that opportunity to go be in someone else’s skin. When you are in someone else’s skin, you don’t have to be awkward and alienated and self-hating and all that stuff. You get to let that go. You get a respite. There is an act in acting that is a transformation into a character different from yourself and, whether you’re playing a serial killer or a racist or someone that has really horrific qualities, you have to kind of learn to try and understand them. That’s a fascinating road to walk down.
>>VALARIE: Rainn, this is my question for you then. If you have to, if you feel like you have to have empathy and compassion for the role that you play—do you feel like you could play anybody?
>>RAINN: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I would play anybody, if I felt, and then you go to—what’s the message? You know what I mean? Would I play a racist or a Nazi or a child molester if the message wasn’t ultimately positive? Because that’s what the audience leaving the theater or turning off the TV or leaving the actual theater itself, the live theater itself, with—what are they walking away with? Not that we have to have message films that oh, I learned x, y and z by seeing this story. We are just witnessing story telling at its most primal. But yeah, would I play hateful, grotesque characters to be a part of a great and human story that touched hearts? Absolutely.
>>VALARIE: I’ve been thinking about how love is only revolutionary if it doesn’t have a limit and people have asked me, like, how could you think about this President or his supporters or the White supremacists in the street? And I tell them that I choose to love them when it is really hard. Not just because it’s moral. But it’s pragmatic. It’s strategic. There are no such things as monsters in this world. There are only human beings who are complex and wounded and frail and motivated by their own insecurities or greed or wounds, whatever they are. And I guess the same kind of leap of imagination that allows you to inhabit any person’s skin as an actor. I think is very similar to the leap of imagination that I feel like I have to make when I’m sitting down with someone who I want it run away from.
>>RAINN: So, the, um, you know, the spiritual traditions, go into this. And you know, it’s going all the way back to, you know, to the Vedas and Upanishads, 5,000, 10,000 years ago. We don’t even know how long. But this idea that, you know, love starts with like, oh, I love who’s in my family. I love my wife, I love my son, I love my cousin. Then you expand your family a little bit. Oh, my family includes my neighbors and my coworkers. Then, gradually you expand it to like one human family. Then you see, oh, we are so connected, or we are so similar, then you love because have you a sympathy and empathy and compassion, like we are similar going through the same experience. Then, you love because, oh, we are all connected. We are connected, we all need each other. Oh, I see the divine in you. I see God in you. And I love you. I love everyone. I even love racists because there is some divine spark in those people. But then the final level, and this is really in almost all faith traditions, is realizing that we are all, in fact, just all one. We are all one. There’s not any difference between us three here on the screen. And the God, whatever that means, the divine presence, unknowable essence and that God, Paul, Valarie, Rainn, we are simply all one. These distinctions of identity have kept us separate for centuries and so there’s kind of an evolution, spiritually speaking, an evolution in revolutionary love towards that end. Would you agree, Valarie?
>>VALARIE: I would. It is loving beyond what evolution requires. And perhaps it is actually what evolution requires if we are going to survive as a human race. The only thing I will add is that often times when people say we are one, they mistake that as like Kumbaya sameness. And I say no, if we are taking seriously Ik Onkar, which is the foundation of the Sikh faith, we are one, we belong to each other, it’s this being willing to look upon the face of each other as you are part of me. I do not yet know. So, it’s humility and it’s embrace of what it is like to be in my body. What my lived experience is like. What it is like to be in your body. What your lived experience is like. And I think if we are brave enough to see that we—if we are really brave enough to see that we are one, then we open ourselves to be changed by each other. And struggles for liberation don’t leave anyone out. Not even the ones we want to leave out.
>>PAUL: This is really rich. And actually, we have several questions that I’m going to try to do a round so that at least we give voice to some questions and then we will see, for both of you, where you want to go with this. But Anna writes about, what does it mean to be debilitated by guilt right now as a White person? Timothy asks about, engaging more conservative factions, in fact that goes to some ways to what we were just talking about, so, how do we engage more conservative, particularly Christians, in this moment? How do we counteract some of the more, um, some of the ways that faith can be weaponized towards—against—equality? And, how do we respond from our own faith tradition?
>>RAINN: That’s a lot of questions, Paul. I’m going to jump in on one.
>>PAUL: And Rainn, I want you to—I hope you are taking notes. We will be here until midnight.
>>RAINN: Oh, perfect.
>>PAUL: Get a snack! [laughs]
>>RAINN: I will jump in on the White guilt thing. As pretty much the whitest person among all of the participants here. I feel uniquely qualified to answer. I need to look up where I read this. It was in a really beautiful essay. And it’s probably my own dumb White privilege that I didn’t really note who the author was. But they were talking about how White guilt is a racist act because guilt keeps us from acting. So, it’s ultimately selfish and perpetrating White supremacy to have White guilt. And we just need White action and White learning and White humility and White allyship. And there’s just not time for White guilt. I thought that was beautifully said. Something I’ve been trying to process.
>>VALARIE: And I want to say, my love, if you feel guilty, it’s okay. [laughs] That your guilt contains some information about how you might want to show up. And so, yes, it is not useful if you stay in it. I think Rainn is absolutely right. But there is a process, someone is going to be able to help you breathe through it and move through it to the other side of it. And I feel this is a time White people in my life are trying to do everything right and that sometimes means being quiet and stepping to the side. And I’m like, actually! [laughs] Yes, center the Black voices, yes, center the voices of women of color in this moment, yes… but you also have a role that none of us can play. It is time to not think about White people just being allies but being accomplices and I take this from the indigenous community. They’re calling for accomplices. People who conspire with us to break these chains of oppression and there is a role that you can play as a White person that I cannot play. I actually cannot sit with trump supporters in this moment. I am just trying to keep my family alive, my community alive, my people. Trying to love ourselves. Trying to love others well. But I can’t really—I don’t have the ability emotionally or otherwise to reach out to my opponents in this moment. But maybe you can. Maybe you can call the neighbor or the uncle. And sit when it’s long and it’s hard and it’s tiring and try to listen. Beneath the slogans and the soundbites maybe you’ll hear their story and their pain and maybe you’ll be able to try to engage with it and work with it, in a tender way. We need you. We need you in the work. We need you in the accomplice-ship. Everybody has a role in the labor of transitioning this country. And White people more than ever, more than ever, we need to you to be accomplices wherever you are.
>>PAUL: Rainn, are you ready for a couple more?
>>RAINN: Hit me. Hit me, babe.
>>PAUL: So, one question, from Matt, is about just this moment of reckoning and moving out of our comfort and we talked, we talked a little bit about this. But I want to actually invite Valarie to think about, like, a lot of your book is about you moving, just placing yourself or being placed in moments that are not comfortable. You did not stay on the farm. Or you went to Stanford. And then you went to Harvard. And then you went to Yale. Each of those were like new moments. Then on the streets. What does it mean to step out of our comfort—and what does it mean now? Even for you, or for both— I mean, we talked about this—but what does it mean to say, okay, we are always moving forward. Always are trying to figure. And I’m just curious, what does it mean to be in solidarity right now? What does it mean to do things that we weren’t doing 5 weeks ago?
>>VALARIE: Discomfort is the beginning of transformation. That first instinct: I want to run. I want to run from the situation. I want to retreat, I want to hide, I want to go under. And to be brave enough to sit in that discomfort, honestly, I really learned this on the birthing table. In birthing labor, there is a final stage in labor that is the most uncomfortable stage. The most painful stage. It feels like dying. It is called transition. The contractions come so fast. There’s no time to breath. It’s the moment where I turned to my mother and I said, I can’t. I can’t. And that’s when my mother, she gave me my grandfather’s prayers. [Speaks Punjabi]
And I began to imagine all of my grandmothers standing behind my mother. Her mother and her mother and her mother before her. And how they all had this moment where they push through the fire in order to birth new life. I pushed; my son was born. That ‘I can’t’ moment I feel like I’ve had over and over again. I had it on election night. I had it when COVID was upon us. I had it the night I watched George Floyd’s murder. The ‘I can’t.’ This is too uncomfortable. I can’t sit in the fire. I can’t be here in the fire. You can’t alone. I couldn’t give birth alone. You don’t go to battle alone. You don’t give birth alone. You need to have your midwives next to you.
This is why I love IFYC. In all of my years of travelling from campus to campus to campus. When I sit with IFYC students or alum, they are not just students. They are friends. They are sisters and brothers and sibling, who are building community with one another and who stay in touch with each other, hold fast with each other long after they graduate to help each other be brave in those dark impossible ‘I can’t’ moments. And so, I want to say to you, if you feel like, you are—I can’t, like, I can’t even read the news today. Like, I can’t face, like, it is okay. Your breathlessness is a sign of your bravery. It means that you are awake to what’s happening right now. This is an unprecedented moment in history. We are in a massive transition as a human race. So, who are your midwives? Who are your ancestors you can summon at your back? Who are those can you call and say, ‘I just need to breathe. Help me breathe. And, OK, now how do we push? Will you help me push? Wil you help me figure out?’ This is going to be one long labor and we need to be breathing and pushing together.
>>PAUL: Hannah asked a really interesting question about recognizing our own potential for darkness, for, I don’t know if darkness is the right word, for potential for doing harm, being, you know, and if that might be part of what it means to be, to recognize our oneness is that if we recognize we are also, we are also capable of great harm, then we might be able to understand when others do harm. It’s an interesting…
>>RAINN: That connects to the acting situation that we were talking about, too. I’ve done incredibly selfish acts in my life, you know? I’ve betrayed friends. And I’ve told lies. And I’ve been narcissistic. And I’ve been belittling. And, so, again, that goes back it that universal oneness idea. That, you know, so there are these levels of being and the ultimate being is that we are all little pieces of the divine inhabiting meat suites for 80 years and then going on in an infinite journey towards knowledge to the presence of God, that’s our fundamental identity that trumps all other identities. Then we have our secondary identity, which is race, class, gender, sexual preference, you know, background et cetera like that. But, part of our universal experience is that we have all done bad things, we’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all been cruel and—I think, maybe Valarie hasn’t, but she might be the exception. But, so that is way to help, you know, I see no stranger. Because there by the grace of God go I. Listen. I happen to have some hippie parents. I took some classes. I read A People’s History of the United States at the exact right time at 19 and started to shift my thinking. And I read Soul on Ice and a bunch of books that really opened my eyes in a lot of ways. But, if I had been born in Oklahoma and my dad was a machinist, you know, I could very well be in an ‘All Lives Matter,’ pro-Trump kind of mind frame. I’m just that far away from that. So, I think that goes hand in hand with seeing no stranger.
>>PAUL: Valarie, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, in the book, it is very personal, but also throughout it, you are working in various ways for systemic change and—what are important elements of that? I’m sorry to ask to you distill a gorgeous book, but I’m just wondering, like, what are some of the spiritual messages of the need to work also for systemic change? Part of it is of course our internal work that we need to do. We need to do that work. But, there’s also, like, real systemic change and that is part of what we’re seeing right now is this, saying no, this is not just because of who I am, it’s because the system is rigged in this way. And, so, you have, you certainly recognize that in your book. And I’m just curious how you would suggest us, addressing that part of the question right now.
>>VALARIE: This is what is exciting to me about this moment. That for a long time—you know, shortly after this President took power, it was all about the resistance, that we are the resistance—and we know that resisting oppression is important for our survival but if all we are doing is resisting, we are not actually transforming the world. Our greatest social reformers knew this. What I’m excited about this moment is that we are seeing people moving from resistance to reimagining the world. And so, I’m going to read just from chapter 6, which is called ‘Reimagine.’
“The greatest social reformers in history did not only resist oppressors—they held up a vision of what the world ought to be. Nanak sang it. Muhammad led it. Jesus taught it. Buddha envisioned it. King dreamed it. Dorothy Day labored for it. Mandela lived it. Gandhi died for it. Grace Lee Boggs fought for it for seven decades. They called for us not only to unseat bad actors but to reimagine the institutions of power that ordered the world.”
I am invested in removing this President from power in November. I am more invested in changing the conditions that put him in power in the first place. And I think about that as the frame for all of the institutions that we are trying to change right now. I want to put the worst bad acting police officers, I want them—I want justice to be done. But I think it is more important to see how we are transforming policing and public safety and criminal justice in America as we know and that is revolutionary love. Because it requires us to see the prison guard, or the political opponent, or the police officer, not as a monster, but as frail human being that could have been us.
When we do that, we begin to imagine how do we liberate everybody in the system, all of us. And that’s what I see happening right now with Minneapolis dismantling its police department. With Los Angeles and cities around the country shifting money into Black and brown and indigenous communities. And I think there is a role for faith leaders to create spaces with communities who have been most oppressed to do that imaginative work. I tell a story in chapter 6 about doing the work with the Latinx community terrorized by a racist police department and how they sat in a church basement and reimagined what policing might look like in their town. And we launched a full-throated campaign. As a lawyer, I labored next to them. And we won.
I mean, police officers today in East Haven are marching alongside Black Lives Matter activists. We have stories, recent stories like this one and stories all throughout our history about people who had no obvious reason, people who had no obvious reason to love each other, coming together to grieve together in solidarity. Giving birth to new relationships, and revolutions and reimagining together. When I see White people and non-Black people of color and Black people in the street grieving together, they have no other reason to love each other, but they just decided, as an act of will to wonder, to let their story into their heart, to bleed with each other, to weep with each other and, now, to reimagine together, I just want everyone to keep, to last, to last because it is not go over in a month. It’s not going to be over in November. This is generational work. So, I wrote this book so that people would have some tools to last, to love and last.
>>RAINN: I just want to dip in on that real quick. I think it’s crucial that we understand, and I hinted at this, I said it earlier, but we live in a culture and, it’s not just North American or White, western culture or White supremacist culture, but a world culture based on conflict, contests, argument, one-upmanship, selfishness, asserting oneself over another person. And, you know, as long as protest is a part of conflict, contention, assertion, one-upmanship, um, it has to be to a certain extent, but it is much more difficult to build something than it is to protest something. That’s why I hope this moment in history has some real resonance and long-term after effects which is, this is not just another innocent African American male brutally slaughtered by a corrupt racist system and then we go back to normal and 6 months later, we do the same thing and 8 months later, we do the same thing. But to see like, how do we build? And tearing down is easier than building. Building is hard. Consultation. People with different opinions. You have to consult and work together. There is mistrust and difficulty. And this is why I think faith traditions can help with us. If, like at IFYC, if faith traditions can come together and work together, they have experience in building positive human systems. And, so, it’s a rebuilding process that I hope waits around the corner.
>>PAUL: I think these two last comments are a great place to end. One thing that I just do want to say before we complete is, this book is a story about a life, about ideas, but it is also about a body and your body, Valarie, and I just want to end with this comment that our bodies are precious. Our bodies are holy. I just want to surround your body, Valarie, with love right now and all of our bodies with love. And recognize that our bodies, you know, are enduring so much right now. You are holding so much stress. And with Covid-19. And there’s so much. So, just to honor ourselves, honor our spirits, honor our bodies, and honor the Black bodies that right now we are recognizing are specifically under attack. I want to thank you, Rainn, for this time. I want to thank you, Valarie, for this wonderful book. And bless everyone who is on this call and thank you all for being part of this important conversation. And please go, do yourself favor, and buy that book, See No Stranger. So, with that, I say, I say farewell and be well.
>>VALARIE: Thank you, everybody. Thank you, Rainn. Thank you, Paul.
>>RAINN: Good luck with your book release, Valarie. Congratulations. Paul, thank you for having me.