IN her eighteen years of parenting and of leading a global women’s rights organization, women’s rights activist Yifat Susskind learned that there is a way to face big crises in the world without feeling overwhelmed and despairing.
It is simple and powerful: to think like a mother.
One doesn’t have to be a woman or a parent to do this. Thinking like a mother is a lens that is available to everybody, said Susskind whose talk was presented at an official TED conference.
“Motherhood is not simply the organic process of giving birth. It is an understanding of the needs of the world,” she said, quoting poet Alexis De Veaux.
She also said it is easy to focus on all of the obstacles to making this the world people want: greed, inequality, violence. “Yes, there is all of that. But there is also the option to plant a seed, a different seed, and cultivate what you want to see grow, even in the midst of a crisis.”
Majid from Iraq, a housepainter by trade who believes deeply in equal rights for women, understands this, she added. When ISIS invaded northern Iraq where he lives, he worked with a local women’s organization to help build an underground railroad, an escape network for women’s rights activists and LGBTIQ folks who were targeted with assassination.
When Susskind asked Majid why he risked his own life to bring people to safety, he said, “If we want a brighter future, we have to build it now in the dark times so that one day we can live in the light.”
That is what social justice work is, and that is what mothers do, Susskind said, adding that people act in the present with an idea of the future that they want to bring about.
According to Susskind, all of the best ideas seem impossible at first. But just in this lifetime, “we have seen the end of apartheid, the affirmation that women’s rights are human rights, marriage equality, the fall of dictators who ruled for decades and so much more.”
All of these things, she said, seemed impossible until people took action to make them happen, and then, like, almost right away, they seemed inevitable.
Growing up, whether they were stuck in traffic or dealing with a family tragedy, her mom would say, “Something good is going to happen, we just don’t know what it is yet.”
Susskind and her brothers made fun of their mom for this, but people ask her all the time how she deals with the suffering that she sees in her work in refugee camps and disaster zones, and she thinks of her mom and that seed of possibility that she planted in her.
“Because, when you believe that something good is coming and you’re part of making it happen, you start seeing beyond the suffering and how things could be.”
Today, Susskind noted there is a new set of necessary ideas that seem impossible but one day will feel inevitable: people could end violence against women, make war a thing of the past, learn to live in balance with nature before it’s too late, and make sure that everybody has what they need to thrive.
She added that being able to picture a future like this is of course not the same thing as knowing what to do to make it come about, but thinking like a mother can help with that, too.
“Thinking like a mother means seeing the whole world through the eyes of those who are responsible for its most vulnerable people,” Susskind said. People, she also said, are not used to thinking of subsistence farmers as philanthropists, but those women were practicing the root meaning of philanthropy: love for humanity.
For Susskind, at the core of thinking like a mother should not be a surprise: it’s love. “Because love is more than just an emotion. It is a capacity, a verb, an endlessly renewable resource – and not just in our private lives.”
People recognize hate in the public sphere but not love. What is love in the public sphere? Cornel West, who is not a mother but thinks like one, says it best: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Susskind said when people remember that every policy is an expression of social values, “love stands out as that superstar value, the one best able to account for the most vulnerable among us.”
When people position love as a leading edge in policy making, she said they get new answers to fundamental social questions.
Thinking like a mother prioritizes the needs of the many and not the whims of the few, and does not build a seawall around beachfront property because that would divert floodwaters to communities that are still exposed.
When one thinks like a mother, she does not try to prosecute someone for leaving water for people crossing the desert. “Because you know that migration, just like mothering, is an act of hope,” she added.
Not every mother thinks like a mother. When presented with a choice, some people have made the wrong one, hiding behind weapons or barbed wire or privilege to deny the rest of the world, thinking they can see their way to safety in some kind of armed lifeboat fueled by racism and xenophobia, she said.
Not every mother is a role model, but all people have a choice. “Are we going to jump on that armed lifeboat or work together to build a mother ship that can carry everyone?,” she asked.
One knows how to build that mother ship, how to repair the world and ease the suffering. “Think like a mother. Thinking like a mother is a tool we can all use to build the world we want,” she said.