On activism and climbing mountains

I took a mental health half daybreak today after my dear friend and CanDo's Chief Fun Officer, Mary, reminded me of the words of Audre Lord: "caring for myself is not self-indulgence….it is an act of political warfare".

The last few weeks have taken a heavy toll on me - the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the war in Syria, the transmission of "Syria's Schools Under Attack" documentary and subsequent "Save Syria's schools" campaign launch - and I needed a little time out.


I find nature healing; it's like surrounding myself with nurturing, nourishing, divine love. As I walked amongst the trees, I noticed a forested hill up ahead. I started to reminisce about the various mountains I'd climbed across the globe, from India to Chile, Peru to France, Ecuador to Uganda. I reached the very high altitude of 5,500 meters in Ladakh, the Indian western range of the majestic Himalayan mountains, an awe-inspiring sight that takes your breath away. 


I stopped for a minute to take in my climb and soon started to think about how activism is synonymous with climbing a mountain.


You set an intention, prepare yourself and have the summit in mind. You imagine how great you'll feel when you have accomplished your goal to climb the mountain and see the incredible views. You set off with enthusiasm and energy. Perhaps you're alone with your thoughts or music, or you're more meditative listening to the sounds of nature. Perhaps you're with a group, and you chat with your friends as you share this wonderful experience. At some point, you might stop to catch your breath, to take a sip of water. You keep going, you keep climbing. You have a mountain to climb, a summit to reach. At some point, you get tired, you stop to rest, to eat, to nourish yourself. You might look back and think, "Oh, wow, I've already come a long way - look how tiny that village where we started looks now." You feel encouraged. You're bossing it. But then you get a blister or pull or muscle, and oh shit. Now you have to keep going but in pain. It's not quite as enjoyable as it was. You notice every step, every breath. But you keep going. You motivate yourself, or your mates laugh and encourage you along. You keep going. 


Then you get lost. Bugger. 'Which way is it? Oh god, why am I doing this? My mum is right! Why do I always make life harder for myself? I should have just sat on a beach for ten days. Why have I travelled for 48 hours on a rickety back-breaking bus to reach this middle of nowhere bloody mountain range AND there is no phone signal?' You're very tired. But you know you have to keep going. Maybe you pitch camp and rest for the rest of the day. Maybe you put on your "eye of the tiger" battle song and haul your sorry, lost ass along, maybe you have a big cry, maybe you doubt your ability, maybe you have some serious words with yourself. You remind yourself that you've been here before, you've struggled before, you've lost your way, you've lost your confidence, BUT - you still made it, and you will this time too.


You keep going. You keep climbing. 


And then - through sheer grit, determination and possibly a miracle or two along the way- you frigging do it. You reach the summit, and it is everything you hoped for, in fact, more because you climbed that mountain - with all your mind, body and soul. And what a view. It's all been worth it.


At the summit, you learn one of the biggest lessons of your life; that it was never about the summit, it was about the journey to get there. On that journey, you grew, expanded, became elevated. The person going back down is not the same one who went up.


Sometimes, however, we don't reach the summit. Despite our preparation, effort, intention, will or ability, things don't go according to plan. The weather closes in; you have a serious injury, your teammate gets seriously ill - so many things can happen to ruin your best-laid plans. And that's how you learn another ridiculously important life lesson: 


Things don't always go according to your plans. We must let go of the illusion of control and surrender to the outcome. 


As long as the summit is your goal, anything else will feel like a failure. You will miss the tiny beautiful wildflowers, the gazelle hopping across the forest, the fresh snow falling on your nose, how extra delicious porridge tastes at 5 am when it's fucking freezing cold, and you spent the night breathless every time you turned in your sleeping bag. Sometimes, for reasons we can't comprehend, we don't achieve what we set out to do. The trick is to notice how much you grew regardless, how you will be better prepared to climb the next mountain you attempt because you now have a mountain of experience to bring to your next climb. 


Being a Syrian humanitarian and campaigner has more often felt more like a Sisyphean task than merely climbing an enormous mountain. But, today, I am reminded about the importance of the journey rather than the destination. Today I am elated by the 60,000 people who signed my petition calling on the British government to fund installing early warning systems in schools at risk of bombardment, I am even more elated to discover hundreds of comments for the signatories in what I can only describe as a profound display of the best of humanity - 


'It has been heartbreaking watching what is happening in Syria and feeling helpless. Over the past ten years, I have given money, but it seemed insignificant. CanDo Action seems to go further and is passionate about making change globally. Thank you so much for making it possible for people to help make a difference in Syria – I applaud your dedication and your mission.'



Today I remember the awesome Amanda Palmer and her team who have helped us raise thousands through our podcast conversation; the dozens of messages I and my teammates have received from supporters who watched the documentary and told us that despite the tragedy, in fact, because of it, how important our climb is. 


To make our world the peaceful, joyful and just place we all crave, we must all climb the mountain. We just need to remember to stop, rest, take in the beauty around us and celebrate how far we have travelled.  




About Dr Rola Hallam

CanDo's Founder & CEO. A consultant anaesthetist who has worked for 14 years in global health. Loves the diversity of humankind and has a deep sense of interconnectedness - with that rare ability to connect with, and accept all people.

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