“In the course of your lives, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it.”
Two years ago, I said that to the graduating class at Stanford University. When Bill and I were invited to give the commencement address in 2014, I spent a long time thinking about what to say. (Passing on wisdom to a few thousand young adults is a lot of responsibility!) My advice to “let your heart break” was based on the years I’ve spent working in very poor communities. Sometimes, the things you see are so sad, and the solutions so far away, that you have to resist trying to fix things, admit that life can be unfair, and feel the pain of it. This is one way to build empathy, I told the students, and empathy ultimately leads to action and progress.
I still have to remind myself to turn toward suffering every time I see it. It’s not a natural thing to do, and no one enjoys it. But letting myself feel sorrow has made me a better advocate and philanthropist — and probably a better human being.
Last week, at a Moth event in New York that coincided with the UN General Assembly, writer and activist Sisonke Msimang told a story that added a new dimension to the notion of letting your heart break. I encourage you to devote 11 minutes to Sisonke’s story. Sometimes, letting your heart break, or as she says, “bearing witness,” doesn’t just help us build empathy. It also helps heal the suffering of others. It is, in Sisonke’s words, a way “to fix everything within us that is broken,” a way to “change the world.”
“Bearing witness is a form of action — sometimes the single most important thing we can do in order to fix everything within us that is broken. And I realized that you can’t do anything — you certainly can’t change the world — unless you’ve learned how to sit, how to be with people, in silence.” — Sisonke Msimang