Kiri Westby’s book Fortune Favors the Brave tells the story of a woman’s journey of survival as an American activist in Tibet. Kiri is a lifelong human rights activist and a writer who was raised in a small Buddhist community in Colorado. She began formal training in meditation and dharmic arts at a young age and went on to work professionally in human rights advocacy. In this episode, Kiri shares her experience of being arrested and forced to disappear by the Chinese government for exposing ongoing human rights abuses in Tibet. She defines bravery, resiliency, and community involvement in the context of ongoing global issues. Kiri also provides a glimpse into her spiritual traditions and rituals that help her to recharge and take on more of the world.
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Fortune Favors The Brave: Resilience, Bravery and Survival
I am thrilled to have a great guest. I’m lucky because, from my standpoint, all of our guests are quite amazing and interesting. I won’t get into the backstory of how I get introduced to people because not everybody that’s a guest on the show is somebody that I’ve known for years. Sometimes that’s the case and that’s always a joy. Often, it’s this serendipitous leading connection to somebody through someone else. I’m looking at the breadcrumb trail backward. It’s always fun. I happen to know my book agent is the person who connected me and Kiri, who I’m about to introduce you to. This time, it’s wonderful to acknowledge how many wonderful things are happening in a way that we can’t predict or plan.
When we look and when I look, and I’m careful to be conscious of it, I can see all these wonderful serendipities at this time. Especially with many things going on in our world and people in many ways are struggling with the unknown, having maintaining faith and not veering off into fear. It’s a great reminder for me and all of us to be able to see how many everyday miracles or everyday things that you might not call a miracle, but these wonderful serendipities are happening with great ease, grace and don’t require a whole lot of heavy lifting. This is one of those cases. I got introduced to Kiri Westby by my book agent. Kiri is a lifelong human rights activist and a writer, whose unique blogs have been featured on HuffPost and Good Morning America and translated into multiple languages as well.
Kiri was raised in a small Buddhist community in Colorado, where she began formal training in meditation and Dharmic Arts at the age of eight. She started working professionally in human rights advocacy at age 22, transporting money and information across borders for a global feminist network. At age 29, Kiri was arrested and made international headlines for reminding the world in front of the Olympic cameras of ongoing human rights abuses in Tibet. Kiri lives with her husband, Phil, and their two young children in a small fishing village in Mexico. After many years of writing for the international media, Fortune Favors the Brave is her first book, and we’re going to talk about that as well. Kiri, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I’m so excited to be with you. It’s my first show ever and I’m thrilled.
I feel honored that we get to be your first show. It’ll be fun. I promise you. You’ll be released unharmed, relatively unscathed. You have a beautiful bio and a lot’s going on there. We’re going to dig into a bunch of those things but before we do, what’s one thing that’s not included in your introduction there that you’d love for people to know about you?
Something that’s not included in that is I’m an extroverted person. I haven’t spent a lot of time online and this book represents a bit of a plan of coming out of an anonymous identity online to claim my own identity and my own story.
There’s a lot of mystery in that, which is good. We’re going dive into that. Kiri, we were talking a little bit about an alias that you’ve got. I don’t mind diving right into that story. For everybody, I asked Kiri right before we started, I said, “What’s the story with Donna Snowbunny?” Can I make a reference to that name? Is that going to lead us, I don’t know where? I asked that so let’s go after it. Who is Donna Snowbunny?
As an underground or an anonymous human rights activist, I spent a lot of time in my career formulating aliases or other identities that allow me to do my work more easily. In my first book, Fortune Favors the Brave, I tell the story of becoming a global activist through the lens of the bravest I’ve ever been and the scariest experience of my life and that was a non-violent protest at Mount Everest base camp in 2007. China had been awarded the Olympics and we’re coming out on the international stage. Five American activists gathered there at base camp that evening before the big announcement and we staged a small nonviolent protest with a banner in our own ceremony.In Buddhism, good fortune or good karma comes from fearlessness Click To Tweet
In that protest, my alias was Donna Snowbunny and my story was, I traveled separately to Everest base camp with Tibetan Americans and I was a ditzy American that didn’t have much knowledge about the political situation in Tibet or China. I happened to find myself there on a vacation. There was another group of Americans holding up a sign and they needed some help, so we joined in. That was a specific strategy to provide as much protection as possible around the Tibetan-American who was amongst that while others in the protests have different aliases. Some of the others in the protests, I never knew their real name and they didn’t know mine after the experience. In those circles, I’m still referred to as Donna a lot.
Donna, forgive me, this is a neophyte question about that form of activism. I’ve never looked into it greatly and maybe there are people reading that same thing, that never thought too much about how that works. You were arrested. Was that the time when you did get arrested? Was it that particular protest?
Yes, it was. That was the first time I had been arrested. After that point, it was seven years of human rights work, war zones and different areas of armed conflict. Yes, we had an alias that was important in the lead up to the arrest. Once we went into the Chinese system, they had our passports and they had a lot of information. Also, our security strategy was we smuggled in our satellite and we live broadcasted that protest to a computer in New York City. That prevented China from denying what had happened and for days, they denied that they had us. For days, the video of us being arrested repeated over and over again on new stations around the world. That was part of the plan. It was to get arrested to show the lengths that China will go to cover up the truth. The lengths they were going to do that in Tibet, but to pit them against the United States government, who was looking out for our whereabouts.
Although there were days in which we were missing. Our families and no one knew where we were. You were saying you don’t know that much about that underground world of activism. There is a huge underground world of activism that trains people in nonviolent direct action and who does work anonymously or through quiet means and often, the goal is to get in and get out unnoticed. In this case, the goal is to get in and get as noticed as possible and use that to feel the Olympic spotlight that was shining on Beijing. Instead of every headline reading the next day, Beijing Unveiled Its Relay Route, which was to go to the top of Mount Everest, it reads, Beijing Revealed the Torch Route, Five Americans Have Been Arrested, Detained and are Missing for Days. We added our story to that story as a way of peeling back the truth from that propaganda.
How long were you held? Were you kept together or separated?
We were held for 55 hours. Once the Chinese secret police knew and showed up. We were originally held at base camp and a cement jailhouse by the local military, most of whom are ethnically Tibetan. Partially because Tibetans can stay, survive, and thrive longer in higher altitudes, genetically, and have been for generations linked at high altitudes, whereas a lot of Han Chinese get sick when they spend too much time at altitude. A lot of the original people who held us were military, they were armed, but they were pretty friendly and in that general sense of not being too intimidating. About fourteen hours later, the Chinese secret police showed up and everything changed. That was when we were searched for the first time. We were separated. We were each told different stories, lied to, and had different experiences after that. This is my experience. All I can tell was my story here.
In Base camp, was it 14,000 feet?
It was under 18,000. It was hard to even walk across the tent.
It’s remarkable. We were at Lake Tahoe and it was maybe at an altitude of 6,000 or so. You’re above a mile higher. You feel the altitude, dryness, etc. This was three times as high and that was base camp.
You’re also staring at a 10,000-foot peak above you, which is Everest at 29,000, so it was another 10,000 or 11,000 feet up. I had been there before. I was married in Lhasa, Tibet, and I went to Everest base camp on my honeymoon, which is the entire reason I was recruited for this action. Two years earlier, I was a tourist that had done the same route and learned the permitting process and how one gets to the Everest base camp. That was the original recruitment. The others on the team were from Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace and The Ruckus Society. They had been arrested dozens of times and I was the most novice and naive of the group.
Have you ever been arrested before that?
I had never been arrested. No.
These other folks had been.
I don’t think Tandore was. He is a Tibetan American who we helped get him an entry in. No Tibetans from exile have ever gone back in successfully and launched a protest before him. Part of our role and why we were recruited was to provide cover for him and to help with our American white privilege helped smuggle him, the equipment and everything along the route through fake storytelling and to surprise them out of that moment. It was an incredibly successful action. The year following that, an uprising sparked across Tibet, and a lot of those activists had heard or seen these five of the stories of this Tibetan American, Tandore, who had done this brave act and the stories were all embellished. He had climbed Everest barefoot and placed the Tibetan flag on top and all that. Nonetheless, he became a national hero and a symbol of resistance that year, which was incredible. I tell the story from within Chinese interrogation in my book about how I got there. I go back to my unique upbringing in a Tibetan Buddhist community in Boulder, Colorado. It was the first Buddhist community in the west.
It’s so interesting when you think about that connection to your upbringing. Is that the birthplace of Buddhism?
The Buddhism that I was raised in, for sure. It’s the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism. I started attending Buddhist schools as soon as I could walk and talk. We had summer camps and Tibetan angle to our training that was led by a Tibetan meditation master, who had fled during the occupation of Tibet and led 400 people across those same Himalaya mountain ranges that I was later walking along. I point that out in my book. It doesn’t occur to me until those moments before the protests that I’m chanting a mantra from my youth and that mantra was brought to me by a Tibetan man who had walked the same mountain seeking freedom. Here I was making the choice to bring that wisdom and knowledge back into yet another action and the ongoing cries for freedom that is coming out of that. It’s an interesting cyclical pattern that arises in the book as he learned who I am and how I got there. It was on purpose.
When the Chinese secret service showed up, did they remove you from that location and bring you somewhere else? Did they separate you?
They did. They searched us for the first time I had a hidden telephone up to that point. I’ve done an interview with The Associated Press from the toilet and the military hadn’t known. They searched us, removed everything and all our equipment. They went to the tents we had stayed in and gathered all of our belongings. They put us in five separate vehicles and started driving. They wouldn’t tell us where we were going and it’s desolate. From Everest base camp, you’re looking at 6 to 7 hours down to the main highway that goes in and out of Tibet. That whole original section, that first 6 or 7 hours, I was with a secret service agent who was constantly threatening me in my ear. She went leaning in close and talking about how I was never going to see my family again, how much she enjoys watching me suffer, how nobody in the world cared or knows about what we’ve done and stuff like that.
Another female. I was with two female secret service agents, most of the time, who were speaking flawless English. Seven hours later, we got down to that main crossroads and I had up until that point because I studied diplomacy and world affairs in college and I knew a lot about politics. I am betting in my mind that the Chinese government was going to want to get it out of the country and bury the story as fast as possible. It was only a few more hours to the border of Nepal down off the Tibetan Plateau from there. Everything in my heart and mind was seeing myself in Nepal, a place I know well. I lived in the Kathmandu Valley for a long time. I was talking in detention about, “By tonight, I’m going to have you guys at my favorite pizza restaurant.”Acting in self-interest, individualistically, harms yourself and puts other people at risk. Click To Tweet
I’m holding on to all these visions of what was going to happen and we hit that main highway. We turned right back into the interior for Tibet. My world shattered. I had this earth-shattering moment of realizing and starting to realize everything I thought was going to happen was wrong. I had no idea what was going to happen. The book goes through those but not until the end of the book. It gives you lots of time to get to know me. I walked into my first active war zone at eighteen. I traveled away from my parents across the world and walked into Cambodia against all advice because I had this drive that was maybe born out of my Buddhist upbringing to help people. I couldn’t find satisfaction in western materialism’s way of living and striving.
You live in Mexico.
Which is wonderful, I spent a lot of time here as a child and I learned to speak Spanish at a young age. I live here in this gorgeous little, mainly Mexican neighborhood. My parents lived two blocks away for six months out of the year. They split their time between here and Colorado. My other home is in Boulder.
How long did it take you to write the book? This is your first show, but this is your first book as well.
It’s my first book.
It’s a gorgeous and a striking galley, as we call it, cover. It’s a hardcover book.
It’s hard to even see this these days. My husband, Phil, who you’ll meet through the book and you hear our love story of falling in love. He designed the cover as I was reading him the early pages. He was doing sketches.
You need to tell Phil that we have lots of compliments and kudos for the book cover.
Thank you, I will. It’s a little bit of a modern feminist angle on a Clockwork Orange, it is what I see. It has the same face.
Even the Phantom of the Opera came up.
I refer a lot in the book to Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, which was a video game. I was a bit obsessed with as a child. It’s this idea of outsmarting people and flying around the world to assume different identities and all that. It captures all of that.
I want to dive in. We gather quickly how brave you are. It’s incredibly brave. What’s the fortune piece of this?
I tell that story in the book a little about it and it has to do with meeting my husband. He was a tattoo artist. I went in to get a memorial tattoo. I lost my grandmother. When I lost her, I was deep in the Democratic Republic of Congo and I was five days from an airport. I wasn’t able to get home for any of the memorials. I get home and my best friend convinces me to get a tattoo as a way of memorializing her role in my life. I go to get the tattoo and I end up strangely falling for the tattoo artist but we still think it’s going to be a momentary overnight thing. I’m leaving in a couple of months for a whole year in Kenya, a year contract. I’m not attached to anyone at this point. I can barely keep the house plant alive.
You are living with that Buddhist principle of impermanence.
Yes. I always had a backpack. I could be in Africa with a few days’ notices and I felt free. I would go anywhere I wanted at a moment’s notice without accountability to anyone other than the mission that I was on. In the months that I’m dating him before I leave for my contract in Kenya, I see this tattoo on the wall from an old sailor flash, and it says, “Fortune favors the brave.” He starts talking about what an old saying is in the tattoo world and that sailors used to get it while they were going off to seek fortune and didn’t know whether the world was flat around are and what they were going to find. They would get this tattooed on them and it’s an old Latin thing from what I understand. It became a model motto between him and I, every time I would leave and I would go on a mission. I’d have to say a surreal goodbye. It’s like, “I’m going and I’m hoping to come back, but I might not.”
That’s a different type of goodbyes than you normally say to somebody and we started saying to each other, “Fortune favors the brave.” In Buddhism, there’s this concept that good fortune or good karma comes from fearlessness. Fearlessness is not the absence of fear. It’s not when you say, “I’m brave.” It’s not that I don’t feel fear, and haven’t felt fear a lot in my life. It’s more of having been trained with how to work with that fear so that it doesn’t cause inaction. It’s how to move through fear and walk with fear. Fear is an important lesson and teacher that’s always with me. It’s fear and death. Those are a huge part of my upbringing. Those are what caused me to do acts that others would see as incredibly brave. It’s because of my deep relationships in working with fear and my own death.If you could make one note every day that adds to the choir of humanity, then you're singing. Click To Tweet
I’d love for us to be present in this moment, not with each other, but present in what’s going on in the world. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the bravery that might be impactful and not something everybody is equated to. When we think of bravery, we easily think of what you did as being brave, certainly. Anytime where we are doing something for a purpose that’s greater than ourselves is a brave act, for sure. There is a tremendous amount of fear that’s in the world at this moment. Given this pandemic situation that we’re in and a lot of the knowns and even more so the unknowns. I’d love to get your take on bravery in the world we’re living in.
Talk about a conscious pivot for 7.5 billion people at the same exact thing. We’re living through interesting times. Even when we booked this show, no one could have imagined we’d be in this situation talking and that’s some of that serendipity that you talked about and pulling out the voices that we need at the time we need them. When you worked and looked at war and suffering as much as I have, you can no longer look away and live in a place of ignorance, apathy, or a ton of self-involvement. Every time you take a glass of water, you think about how far people walked for water. Every time you come into a home, you think about people who are homeless. Every time you pass a border with a passport, you think about people who are stateless and identity-less.
We never think of those things again. Part of my challenge is that I was one of the people who would be in war zones every other month and be back in Boulder, Colorado, which is the height of having everything you need. In that space of having everything you need, there’s an incredible ability not to look away and not see what interconnectedness that we have to not see the suffering that went into our comfort and to look away from it. I often would try to bring it up and was told over and over again to stop killing the bugs at the party or stop talking about war, and we’re all here together. It was hard to balance those two worlds for much of my life, but it is that view into war and suffering that has led me to so much gratitude for my life on a daily basis.
In that space of gratitude, I don’t need as much as other people think they need. I don’t need to pad myself with stuff to feel a sense of happiness. You see what I would take if I had twenty minutes to decide, and you would take the people. Probably, there’s people who have a lot of things and not a lot of people. People need people. That war is never something many people choose. It comes to them to act as this virus is coming into our life uninvited. It’s not a choice that we’ve made, and yet we’re being forced to look at, acknowledge, and understand our interconnectedness. Even down to how much my breath may affect your breath. My space may affect your space in a whole new way than anybody’s been wanting to look at it and we don’t have a choice. That’s because death and suffering are coming with it. Unfortunately, for so many and it’s random.
Two things are important. One, in a warzone, the first thing that happens that I’ve seen is that the people forget or are expecting some government or an outside body to come in and take care of themselves. They start community organizing and building systems that work. They adopt children that are orphans, making food for everybody, not themselves, they share what they have. I’m seeing so much of that in activist circles online, creating community care databases that take account of all the elderly and the immunocompromised in their communities, and start to build systems. Part of that is because they’re looking at the government and they’re not seeing the save your model they thought was coming. They’re waking up to our ability.
In war, what you see is rising to the occasion. You don’t look at someone who’s in war and you say, “You’re brave,” and they say, “What choice did I have? It was bravery or free.” I froze for a while. I got moving and I almost felt that. I had so much I wanted to accomplish. I sat frozen. I had to acknowledge that I was in a fight or flight space around this pandemic. I woke up and I felt the action within me. I felt rising to the occasion and they’re reaching out in any way that I could with what I have. In my direct community here, a lot of that is in speaking Spanish to people about the pandemic, explaining to people who don’t have access to international news, what’s coming, and how to keep their families safe. Here, it’s not hand sanitizers. It’s soap and running water that is in short supply. Bars of soap are $0.30 a bar, so I’m buying soap and handing those out to communities that, otherwise, wouldn’t think to go because soap is so necessary.
By all predictions, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better in terms of the level of suffering we’re going to see globally. At the same time, if we could count the number of infected that we have on these screens and we can balance it with the number of people who are doing something they’ve never done before rising to the occasion to meet the needs of their families or their communities. We would also see there’s that opposite reaction if people will paradigmatically shift and wake up as they are called to as this virus comes into their communities and it’s not a choice. I see a lot of Americans in the news program, saying, “I’m not going to let coronavirus ruin my day or waste my time.” This isn’t a choice. Coronavirus isn’t asking.
The interesting message I’m feeling is if you act in self-interest and individualistically, you harm yourself and you put other people at risk. The community started to call people out locally for doing that in a different way. If you act community-minded, empathetically, and you see this as one human species, you may be spared from this. There’s even a bigger message to this virus which is, we all are going to be called to our greatest and bravest selves and to rise to occasions we never thought possible and we will not come out of that the same. There’s no way that we come out of that, still thinking in the same way we were thinking. It is a major shift of consciousness and we’re all being asked to decide how we’re going to respond.
Indeed. Self-responsibility is a big component of all this that we will and do have a choice and how we put our own self-interest in the mix and thinking about how we impact many other people without even knowing it. There will be a lot of suffering, there already has been but the bulk of the masses will come through this. It may well be that along the way, based on your actions, you’ve either harmed someone or help them. Making that conscious choice, even at this moment, my goal is to help not to harm is a simple enough mantra or question to ask before you choose to take a certain action.
What I’m blown away by is the level of creativity. We were talking to our kids about this. With businesses being changed and disrupted in ways that we could have predicted I suppose, but it wasn’t on anybody’s radar with how things could shut down globally and yet, the creative response to all this from many different corners of the communities online, at least in what I see is remarkable. The amount of giving that’s going on and the ways in which people are reinventing their models on a dime and in the moment, which is a part of it.
It’s a DNA thing. It’s genetically a part of who we are as a species to adapt. That’s how we exist. That’s how we’ve managed to continue with all the god awful mistakes that the human race has made over time. They’ve been one serious, massive blunder after another and yet, we’re still around. We’re still here. That’s a credit to that. We are resilient by nature, and I’d love to get your take on resilience on the term. What is it? What does it mean to you? How do you define it? Would that be a word that you would use in connection with how we move through this? There will be this fear. There is this prevalence of fear and it’s a question of, how do we move through this? What’s your take on resilience?
I wanted to talk about creativity. We’re seeing that in our world as well. Beautifully out of even in history out of the dark ages came the Renaissance. Humanity has been resisting figuring out a way to adapt to how many of us are on this planet and say, “I could never commute, work from home, and I could never figure that out.” Entire industries are figuring that out and maybe we’re realizing we don’t have to drive in our cars singly to a location. That model doesn’t work for 7.5 billion of us. There’s so much of that coming out of it. People have been reading my book. I was lucky that I had my book launch on International Women’s Day in Oakland on March 8th, 2020. It was the last day that public events were allowed in the Bay Area.
About 40 people bought my book that day and I flew back home. They’re handing out hand sanitizer with every book sold and people are reading it. They’re saying, “I haven’t had time to read. I used to commute for 2 to 3 hours a day in my car. I haven’t picked up a book in the longest time.” The space for creativity, the space for outlets with literature and art are being opened in our lives because we’re not moving so much. Our minds are standing into that. It’s beautiful to see the creativity blooming at the same time out of this major interruption in every single human’s life and we needed a major interruption that urged in a matter of weeks. It’s fear that made it happen.
It’s interesting that we look at fear as an enemy. We think everyone’s afraid. There is a moment with fear that you pause, and there’s a time when you find your resiliency and you get moving. It’s the fear that it’s causing us all to stay home. It’s causing all kinds of beautiful renewal to the planet to happen and to animals to have a break from our relentless interruption into the world. In that fear, if you can stop resisting it, you can befriend it and realize that fear is causing me to make major changes in my life to the way I work, the way I relate to people, and how I live. It’s time to stop being afraid and to start moving into action and to creation, which is the human condition.
We have this ability to ingeniously adapt and to create better ways for ourselves to exist. A lot of that has come out of pandemics, plagues or world wars that come to us, in a way that we’re not ready for. We didn’t want and they disrupt our lives. It’s not pretty, but out of it blooms something brand new. I think about that a lot and about this metaphor that we use sometimes in the activist world, which is, if one person starts screaming out, they can only go for so long. If we yell as a chorus or we create a chorus, I can yell for a while, while you rest. You can sing for a while, while I rest and someone else can come in with another tune.
That note can be carried out forever, for as long as there are people to continue to spell each other and come into it. We tend in the West, in America to see ourselves as saviors and how am I going to save this situation. The thing is, it’s not I, it’s we. The only way forward has always been we. We can look to not only women, but activists on the ground who survived the war and have done so by community organizing and by stepping back from that savior position and creating a we and that’s how we move forward. That’s where I find my resilience. It’s in the we and working with an entire plethora of talents, skills, and moving everyone forward.Fearlessness is not the absence of fear. It is more of being trained with how to work with that fear, so it doesn't cause inaction. Click To Tweet
Something that you said hit home for me in talking about how we capture our resiliency or what does it even mean is this idea of spelling each other. My belief and experience are resilience is, in many ways, about how we recharge as much as it is about how we charge as much as it is how we charge forward in things in life and how we recharge. Without the recharging, in the example that you gave of a chorus and a person screaming as long as they could possibly scream at some point, they run out of everything. They run out of energy, breath, and voice. At some point, they become exhausted. I feel that our world has been exhausted for a long time. We’re exhausting resources, but we’re exhausting ourselves first and foremost. That is a pandemic of its own.
This other pandemic is causing us to reset. It’s causing us to have the needed space and even time to recharge ourselves. It’s similar to the way you described in that chorus that one person spells the other. It gives them that time to rest and recover so that their voice can then be strong again when it’s their turn to pick it up. There’s a beauty in all of that as well that we are relearning something that we probably have forgotten anyway. I’m not certain it’s everywhere in the world because clearly, people from Europe are reading this, they weren’t living as exhausted in existence as people from North America, in particular people in the United States.
I was in Japan in December and it’s between Japan and Singapore, which are the two most sleep-deprived countries in the world. This idea of go and go, and constantly producing and working has been its disease long before we were talking about coronavirus. For me, to maintain my resiliency, I’ve got to do things consciously. I have to set it out. It’s going to be part of my plan on a daily basis to want to take care of myself. That’s going to be another one of the things that come out of this is that people are not only spending time at home with their families, time to read and in time to think or sit still or what have you. New rituals will be born out of this forced reset that will change people’s lives.
They’ll once again have some appreciation for how different life can be when you do slow down or have the ability to rest. Assuming they’re not being driven each day by fear, they can embrace this opportunity. That is a big part of being resilient is being able to see creative opportunities in situations that might otherwise have you in that fight or flight mode. I would love to know, I know you’ve got a spiritual practice from the time of childhood, is that the most significant ritual that you have at this point to help you to reset or to recharge yourself? Are there some other things that you might share with our audience that you do, whether that’s daily or otherwise to more consciously recharge your battery?
I do a lot of things pretty consciously. I have my own spiritual traditions that maybe are born out of my spirituality. One of those is when I lay myself down at night and I put my head on the pillow, I do a quick assessment of my day. I look at my whole day and how much of it I was present and how much of it I was on autopilot. I try to do something generous, that requires my giving up every day. Oftentimes, I do it with my children or with my partner, but I have to try to do something. One simple act outside of myself from my self-benefit and not necessarily benefit my family or my home, but something that benefits somebody else.
I don’t always succeed, but every night I remind myself that for me, generosity is the seed to feeling better and to a sense of accomplishment or for goodness or happiness even. Out of a sense of self-preservation, we’ve been taught to hoard, but as soon as you hoard it, you feel terrible about the fact that you’ve taken it from somebody else and you have to fit in that space of greed versus self-preservation. The simple antidote or kryptonite to that is to be generous. It can be small. Lately, I’ve seen anybody that posts on their Facebook that they’re freaked out because they’re a hairdresser, therapist, or someone who sees people face to face and they are struggling with how they’re going to feed their families.
I also have a family restaurant. It’s struggling. I’ve been ordering them, “We’re ordering you guys take out tonight from our family restaurant. It’s not asked for.” That’s been my practice all week and saying, “I don’t have enough to give to everybody.” The suffering is a mess and I can take care of my community, but I can also do one small thing that I didn’t need to do. Once I do it, the feeling afterward of having done it is the feeling I’ve been searching for all day. It’s this feeling of being useful to somebody of being needed or being in that chorus. That is my note.
Maybe the tiny note that I can do for humanity is ordering food for somebody or sharing food. If I’m not having any notes, I end up feeling I’m not useful to the choir. You don’t have to scream or bang your head against the wall all day long, but if you could do one note every day that added to the choir of humanity, you’re singing. There’s a physical feeling that happens when you do that and it’s nice to lay down at night and note it and say, “I did that one thing.” It becomes unconscious or sometimes I lay down at night and I say, “I was unpleasant and I was super selfish. I did a lot of things that were not correct. The next day, I have the opportunity to double down a little bit.”
It’s selfish in the sense that it brings me happiness than it is the cause and the root of my feeling good about myself and all that I have. In the US context, I may be middle to lower class. I’m a writer and my husband’s an artist, but in the global context, I am 10% of people who can count on hot water coming out of their faucet, having food and having a refrigerator. Sixty percent of Mexico doesn’t have refrigerators, so how are people here going to prepare for weeks of social isolation if they can’t refrigerate food? There are those things I’m aware of. The antidote to the fear or anxiety is generosity. Small acts of generosity, whatever it is. You help someone across the street, you buy two oranges and leave one to your neighbor’s door. It doesn’t have to be major, but if you do it every day, I guarantee you’ll feel better you’ll feel that you are part of humanity and that will lead to depression, cutoff-ness, and isolation that people are feeling.
I love the spectrum that we’ve been able to cover in this conversation because there are people that would look at you and think what a great model you are and somebody they completely respect. Maybe even have some envy of the fact that you’ve taken chunks of your life and devoted them in the way that we respect and honor when we see it. That doesn’t mean people are going to get on a plane and go perform an act of activism and end up in the situation that you talked about in the book. I want people to go out and get that book so they can find out how. They know it from here. That’s the good news because you’re around and there are a lot of probably captivating details that we’ve left out and that people want to read about that.
There’s a tendency sometimes we see someone like yourself and they go, “They’re cut from a little bit of a different cloth than I am.” I put on her and I support people like that every day, but I haven’t lived that courageous life. We put ourselves in that other bucket somehow that it’s an all or nothing. Generosity and gratitude are not an all or nothing. The drop in the bucket is as significant as possibly some bigger acts or bigger pour. That drop is significant. We stick with that analogy you gave us of the chorus in that one note that adds to the entire thing. As a ritual, no one on this show, and 170 episodes or something has ever struck that particular chord or sung that note, the way you did in terms of a ritual to build us up and our resilience in small acts of kindness.
To speak to what you said, I try to say I started my book launch speech saying that this is not a hero’s story, even though it’s packaged in a way we are used to seeing a hero’s story package. In many ways, it’s a slaying of the internal hero that I set out as at eighteen years old with a lot of bravado, ignorance and well-meaning wanting to help with the mistakes that I made. In the story, I talked a lot about the mistakes I made and the activists who folded me in even despite my ignorance and mistakes. They said, “We understand that you came here to save the world and you think you’re helping us, but let us help you understand the role you have to play in this movement of millions.” Through my story, I’m trying to tell the story of many women on the front line who have been fighting for their entire lives for a scrap of the freedom that I was born into.
Through my ignorance and making mistakes and the gentle patience of these activists, I became more aware of what it was I had to offer the chorus and how to offer it in a way that was helpful and non-disruptive. I hope that in reading my story, other people can see that, but also see themselves and see that I am you. I am an average American who knew nothing when I started with nothing but a big heart and through a lot of missteps, I became the activist that I am. In reading my story, I hope that it brings people a sense of courage that people feel braver afterward and rise to this occasion, we all find ourselves in together.
Yes. What a perfect place for us to conclude Kiri. This is beautiful, Donna Snowbunny.
Thank you for having me.
It’s such a wonderful conversation. I’ll remind myself and all of us that if we’re lucky every day, we get the opportunity to reset ourselves and begin from zero hours and there’s no guarantee of that. For me, my waking ritual is always the same every morning. I’m lucky enough to wake up. I spend a moment appreciating that this is something worth appreciating. That whole process takes 10 or 15 seconds. It doesn’t have to take a whole lot of time and I declare out loud these four simple words, “I love my life.” I get to ask you Kiri, do you love your life?
I do. I love my life. I would add to those words, “How can I help?” Those would be my next four words. If you’re resourceful enough to love your life, keep doing what you do and keep putting the message out there. Keep tiny acts of generosity in your mind and it is time for us to take that knowledge and keep expanding it outwards. The world needs us.
Yes. One voice one note at a time together.
That’s beautiful. Kiri, thank you again.
Thank you so much for having me. This was great.
About Kiri Westby
Human rights activist and writer, Kiri Westby, shares the story behind her book Fortune Favors the Brave and imparts some wisdom on resilience and bravery.