In Challenging Times, Valarie Kaur Urges a Hollins Audience to Embrace “Revolutionary Love”

Valarie Kaur in Talmadge

In an unprecedented time that has witnessed the COVID-19 pandemic, the January 6 insurrection, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and other crises, Valarie Kaur understands why words such as “discontinuity” and even “apocalypse” have been used by thought leaders to describe this period of history. The civil rights activist, lawyer, award-winning filmmaker, educator, and innovator is convinced that in order for the world to persevere, “revolutionary love is the call for our times.”

Kaur explored how the idea might be put into practice during an address before Hollins students, faculty, and staff and members of the community at large in Talmadge Recital Hall on Wednesday, April 20. Her lecture was presented by the university’s Distinguished Speakers Series and helped kick off Hollins’ celebration of Dr. Mary Dana Hinton’s inauguration as the university’s 13th president.

According to Kaur, revolutionary love is “a revolution of the heart. Now, what is love in the face of what we are up against? The problem is not with love, it’s with the way we talk about it. We tend to think of love as this rush of emotions, but it’s more than that. I define revolutionary love as a choice to love beyond what evolution requires. What happens when we love others we do not know? What happens when we show up with that kind of love, even for our opponents? When we love ourselves, whom we too often neglect? When we lead with love, we learn joy, and joy returns us to everything that is good, beautiful, and worth fighting for. Joy is the energy that keeps us laboring, and revolutionary love is the choice to enter into that labor for others, for our times, and for ourselves.”

While revolutionary love has never been more vital, Kaur emphasized that it’s actually an ancient concept. “For 2,000 years, we’ve had spiritual leaders, social reformers, and Indigenous healers call us with that song of love. In every culture around the world, we’ve had prophetic voices ask us to expand our hearts beyond what we thought was possible, because we are connected. And, scientists are confirming evidence of that. We know now that we share a common ancestry with every living being. We know we are breathing in air that contains atoms that circulated in the lungs of our ancestors. We know that we are made of compounds that first formed in long-distance stars. We can look upon the face of anyone and say, ‘You are a part of me.'”

Kaur Book Signing
During a signing event for her best-selling book “See No Stranger,” activist and author Valarie Kaur chats with a Hollins student.

A key tenet of revolutionary love is an orientation Kaur called “Seeing No Stranger,” which is also the title of her best-selling book. “The choice to labor for others begins with wonder and the need to feel for another and compassion to feel as another. Those are tools that come and go, ebb and flow, but that first primal act is to wonder about others and to see others as a part of yourself. When we train our eyes to see that way, we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of being changed by their story, their interaction, and possibility their pain, which brings us to a second practice of grieving with others. You don’t have to know people in order to grieve with them. And in grieving with others in harm’s way, you get information for how to fight for them. Each of us has the ability to do the one thing for our communities for those who most need us.”

Wondering, grieving with one another, and fighting for one another are all components of what Kaur describes as “deep solidarity. What if we could take that kind of love and make it the way we are with each other? What if we could build communities so that every classroom, every campus, every workplace, every neighborhood is where that kind of recognition can transform the world around us?”

A healthy practice of revolutionary love in the face of conflict, Kaur said, necessitates a reassessment of one’s adversaries. “I don’t use the word ‘enemy.’ An enemy is a fixed and permanent identity.” Instead, she prefers “opponent” because it’s more fluid. “An opponent is anyone whose words, ideas, or actions are not what I stand for, but I listen to their stories and I see their wounds. I’ve come to understand that there are no such things as monsters in the world. There are only human beings who are wounded from fear, insecurity, greed, or blindness. When we see their wounds, they lose their power over us. What are the contexts, the cultures, the institutions that I can change that would stop them from being this way again and again?” Showing love even to opponents is termed “Tend the Wound” by Kaur, but the practice “depends on tending to our own world first. The solution is not to suppress your rage or to let it explode, but to process it in ‘safe containers’ such as singing, dancing, or wailing. I call that harnessed rage ‘divine rage.'”

Kaur uses the experience of childbirth “and all the ferocity of mothering inside me” as the basis for describing this current era as “The Great Transition.”

“Transition is the final and most painful stage of labor,” she explained. “You’re trying to catch your breath from contraction after contraction. It feels like dying. And yet, this is the stage that precedes the birth of new life. It is convulsive and yet pregnant with possibility.” Kaur added that in The Great Transition, “we realize that separateness is an illusion. The only way we can stand is with one another. The only way we will find longevity and resilience is if we do so in community.”

Kaur cautioned the audience that “this era of transition will last our lifetime. We may not live to see the world that is longing to be born. So our labor can’t just be a means to an end, it has to be an end unto itself. This is where we find the meaning of life. And what [our descendants] will inherit from this time will not be our trauma, but our bravery and even our joy.”

Hollins’ Distinguished Speakers Series was launched in 2001 when the university received an anonymous gift to support bringing to campus leading national and international experts from a variety of fields. The goal of the series is to enlighten students, faculty, and the community at large, whether their interests lie in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, or fine arts.