The news headlines are filled with stories about migrants struggling to reach safe ground, animals under siege in their own homes, homelessness, violent arrests, seemingly endless wars, and divisive political rhetoric.
People are hungry for concrete solutions that alleviate suffering. But people are exhausted and overwhelmed by the cycle of bad news. Who wouldn’t be – with the constant influx of disturbing images, stories, and pleas for help?
As a physician who works on human rights and animal rights issues, I understand the fatigue.
We struggle with the question of how to help others when there is so much need and there are so many demands on our time. More deeply, we battle with how to find hope and inspiration amid conflict and moments of despair. We are all looking for sanctuary more than ever before.
Lately, I’ve begun to think of sanctuary as spaces where individuals can transition from conflict zones to “Phoenix Zones” – places of physical and emotional rebirth.
After all, sanctuary is what refugees seek during conflict, what soldiers seek after war, what firefighters seek after rushing into burning buildings, what police officers confronting violence seek, and what doctors challenged by death and dying seek. It’s what all of us seek within an uncertain world.
In medicine, the Phoenix Effect is used to describe transformation after severe physical or mental trauma – such as after a heart attack or following a descent into the depths of depression. In Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian mythology, a Phoenix is a magical bird that is cyclically reborn. The Phoenix, whose feathers are the color of fire, achieves a new life by rising from the ashes of her previous form.
But a Phoenix does not rise alone. She rises when her vulnerabilities are cradled and her strengths are nourished. This is what sanctuary offers.
Good sanctuaries can be inspiring places where suffering is eased, where survivors thrive, and where great care is given to creating peace, beauty, and strength for those who have been hurt, demeaned, or degraded. They are places where strength emerges from vulnerability.
Sanctuaries offer lessons for those of us searching to do more – to help build refuges in an unfolding storm. They provide safety, respect, unconditional love, and freedom. Builders and guardians of sanctuary consistently respond with empathy, compassion, and conviction.
Imagine if we all responded with empathy, compassion, and conviction. Gone would be the prisons, the war zones, the factory farms, the laboratories. In their place would be freedom, peace, and nonviolence.
Though we still have a long way to go before the world becomes a sanctuary for all, for now we are left with the question: What can we each do in our own lives and communities to cultivate sanctuary – even in the midst of conflict, uncertainty, and anguish?