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The empty chair: Bringing love into the room
Note: In May of 2013, three AFSC staff including Aarati Kasturirangan, Program Officer for Integration and Impact, went to the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshop held at Stony Run Friends Meeting in Baltimore. Aarati attended the workshop to understand firsthand the HROC work she had heard of from AFSC program staff in Burundi. She went to find out if she thought HROC could be useful for other AFSC programs around the world. - Lucy
I attended the workshop because HROC sounded miraculous to me. I went because it sounded impossible. I went to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears. I didn’t realize I also went to heal with my own heart.
On day two of this workshop, we all sat in a circle (Read Lucy Duncan’s blog post here for a beautiful description of a lesson from day one). Amy Rakusin, one of our facilitators, said, “I want you to think of someone who loves you or someone who has loved you. If you are lucky enough to have more than one person, think of whoever is most present for you right now.”
An image of my little sister leapt to mind. “Now think about why that person loves you.”
Think about why that person loves you. Not why you love them, or why you are so close. Why does she love me? It was a simple assignment that, for me, produced immediate, unexpected feeling. Why - does she - love me?
Amy continues, “Now I want you to stand behind your chair. Imagine you are that loved one. Be that person telling you why they love you.” When it was my turn, I stood already choked with tears I could not quite understand:
“Aarati, I love you because you were my first friend, another mom. You loved me unconditionally when I felt angry, when mom and dad did not know what to do. You have been there for me whenever I needed you. You are my best friend, and for a long time you were the most important person in my world. When things got bad at home I knew you were with me.”
I spoke these words to myself and felt a flood of love from my sister, pain in remembering those hard times she would have spoken of, anger that love is so often forged in the crucible of shared hardships, and a longing to see her because she now lives thousands of miles away.
This was the empty chair exercise. And one by one, each person embodied the one who loved them, and spoke of why they themselves were loved. Each of us reached into our own pasts to see with someone else’s eyes how our words, our acts, our mere presence had eased another’s sorrows, brought laughter into dark spaces, created safety in strange times.
As individuals, we each had our own reaction to the empty chair in front of us. So often, as someone recounted a story of love, it was coupled with pain, loss, grief, or anger. In some cases, hearing others’ stories gave us new eyes to see our own with.
We could also see how even someone who had done horrible things could have experienced love in their lives, love that could lead to recognition, remorse, redemption, and peace. And we could see how recognizing that person’s experience of love, we might be able to forgive past wrongs, rebuild connection, and move forward in community with those who had done us harm.
Together in that circle, we witnessed the powerful presence of love in the lives of 25 people, mostly strangers, but now somehow closer to us, part of our own connection to the human experience of love.
About the author: Aarati Kasturirangan is a program officer for the Integration and Impact Unit of AFSC. Her name is pronounced Arthi Kus-thu-ree-run-gun. She was born in New Delhi, India; raised in Wilmington, Del.; became an activist, wife, Ph.D., and mother in Chicago; stayed home with her kids in D.C.; and has now settled in Philladelphia. She blogs about identity (aaratikasturirangan.wordpress.com), sings as much as possible, and tells dumb jokes with her kids.