Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

`We Have Seen What We Can Be'


THIRTY-FIVE YEARS ago in Stavanger, Norway, Liv Ullmann accepted her first lead role as the title character in "The Diary of Anne Frank." It was a prophetic beginning for a woman who would become not only an internationally renowned stage and film actress but also, in recent years, a passionate activist for human rights.

When I interviewed Ms. Ullmann for the Home Forum page in the fall of 1979, backstage in a Broadway theater where she was performing, our discussion focused primarily on her insights as an artist. But she also spoke briefly about her growing concern for the boat people fleeing Vietnam, saying with regret, "There's little one can do."

About these ads

Since then she has proven herself wrong, traveling extensively as UNICEF's goodwill ambassador and Vice President-International of the International Rescue Committee, visiting refugees throughout the world and bringing their plight to the attention of society.

Having developed through her acting an intuitive understanding of people and their struggles for dignity and freedom, Ms. Ullmann brings a unique perspective to corners of our world that too often are seen only in political or sociological terms.

I recently spoke with her by telephone in Copenhagen where she was preparing to direct her first feature film, "Sofie," which has now been released in Europe. Her voice carried the emotional depth and nuance that characterize her work as an actress. A moment of silence was not so much an invitation for another question as an opportunity to listen with her as she searched for the word that would crystallize her thought, that would awaken the heart.

David Brooks Andrews: As a widely respected actress, you could have chosen to become involved in any number of activities. Why human rights work?

Liv Ullmann: The older you get, you start to remember what you believed in as a child - that this world is here for everyone. If you're fortunate to read and to listen to other people, maybe travel, maybe have time to think, you start to go back to this childhood feeling that something is very wrong if my life should be so much better than other people's and the laws should benefit me so much more than somebody else. You start to question. Because you're grown up, you know where to go and seek informatio n for this new - or old - awareness. I think this is what happened to me when I became 40. I had the enormous fortune to get involved in certain organizations that enabled me to travel, to see another part of the world, and to see unanswered questions in terms of human rights, meeting people that did not have the human rights that were mine by birth.

What do you want us to see and understand about the refugees that you've visited?

I want people to sense another person. Not only in a refugee camp. Not only in the poorest little place in the world. But also on the street in the big, rich city. And not only the one who is lying on the street and has the awful fortune of being a person who lives on the street. But also somebody who might be walking very upright and still needs you to sense that that person is a person - that it is not in your right to push, to say a nasty comment passing by, to be unaware. Maybe there is a little old man who seems of no importance so you just push past him, because he is in your way. But he in fact might be on his way to something that is much more beautiful, important for life and love than you are.

About these ads

Are you saying there's less difference between us and a "little old man on the street" or people in refugee camps than we might assume?

Of course, there's no difference. I'm not saying that every person is a good person completely and 100 percent, but the possibility, the heart is there beating. Nor am I saying that every person is a bad person completely and 100 percent.

Donne, the poet, he's right. Every bell that tolls, it tolls for us. And every bad guy we see on television that has done unspeakable things that we cannot understand, somehow it is also part of our life, and we have to question what is it in our life that somehow allowed this to happen. We are part of it. If we watch him in horror, if we watch a war in horror, we have to watch ourselves in horror, because it's part of us, too.

What can we learn from people who have far less materially than we do?

I have seen people who have very little show heroic, beautiful, human traits that I certainly don't see when I'm traveling in privilege. I look at the African woman, what she's doing with her life. She's the breadwinner. She goes in the fields. She carries the child. She gets the water. She builds the house. She's doing everything. And still she gathers in the evening if somebody's coming to a community to teach something. Not all of them and not all the time. But the African woman in many, many places, this is her day. This is what she gives to her family.

And then listen to us who have everything. We complain when we have to take the baby ourselves after work because our nanny can't. We are getting to be lazy, we privileged people. We don't consider doing something in life as a privilege. We consider it a burden. Our day should be full of duties that make us expand as human beings, duties that have to do with other people, doing things, interchanging, helping, working, visiting, whatever with other people.

Maybe we need to bring our lives more into line with the way the universe itself is actually structured?

It's hard to see how the universe was structured because we have interfered so tremendously with it. We're living as if it's not interconnected. We know it's interconnected. Even scientists know that - they've proven it. But we live as if things are not interconnected.

If we had left the earth and our surroundings in peace and instead worked on the mind - what it is all about - and truth, and philosophy, and the spiritual, maybe today we would be at a completely different place. Maybe it's too late. I don't know. But in the meantime we can look at the destruction around us, and at least we can protest when we see the world is going to be destroyed more. And we can try to find within ourselves this mystery that we were supposed to be. It's so challenging.

We have had people before us who knew how to verbalize it. We've had artists who knew how to put it into music or paintings. And we have seen a ballet dancer do a leap and stay for seconds longer than is possible in the air. So we have seen what we can be.

Are you saying that our focus needs to shift to something deeper?

Yes. What finally makes us happy is when you look into somebody's eyes, whosever they are, and you suddenly recognize and understand something that you hadn't before. Nothing comes up to that. No jewel, no palace, no travel, nothing comes up to the enormous joy of suddenly recognizing something about somebody else or having something inside of you recognized. Can you imagine if that had been emphasized instead of what is emphasized now - the wars, the Sputniks, aerobics, and the way we look?

Listening has always been so important to your work in the theater. What role does listening play in human rights work, in the future of civilization?

Oh, I think everything, because we are forgetting how to listen. Very few people are encouraged to listen or even know how to listen.

If we learned the ability to listen, we'd be far on our way. Listen to the words that are said, to the undertext, what is behind the words, or what a person might be trying to say. Give a person time to say it, even inadequately. And then don't try to explain to the person what he or she really means to say. Let the person say it the way the person is saying it. And let the pause come after. Probably the person is going to try to elaborate a little more on what he or she was trying to say, and suddenly y ou'll hear something you didn't expect.

Does our lack of ability to listen to one another make it difficult for us to hear God?

I'm sure. How could we hear God who talks to us in such different, and secret, and profound ways - and actually, I'm sure if we listen, very clear ways, too - if we don't even feel somebody at our side. I think this is the greatest mistake we make.

I mourn that there are not more spokesmen for God - not merely the priests in their frocks and their splendor - but spokespersons for God in every school, and media, and even factories where they teach young geniuses how to make atomic weapons.

What does it take to be a spokesperson for God, whatever field we're in?

Humbleness, and love, and enjoyment, and humor, and humbleness again. You're not God. You're not above the people you talk to, just because you have something you'd like to tell and you somehow have been ordained to have the pleasure and wonder of telling.

You have a beautiful privilege to share, but you're certainly not more important than the lowest person, in your eyes, whom you're talking to. And you're not more blessed or more loved by God. You might be talking to somebody whose sealed orders are much more profound than yours, so you should be pretty careful and sweet.

Sealed orders?

Soren Kierkegaard said - it's my favorite thing - "we come to the world with sealed orders."

Tell me more about the sealed orders. How do you go about opening them?

You don't - that's the point. You have to live as if you have orders that are sealed. So you're not going to know what they are. So you shouldn't spend your life trying to find out "God, what's the meaning with why I am here." You should just live as if it has tremendous meaning that you, specifically you, are here on Earth - and that should go for everybody. There's a reason we are here, and we can't throw away that reason. If we throw away our life, we've lost our orders. And they might be tremendously

important, even if they were just to do on that one Thursday, that one, for most people, insignificant thing. That's what we did. But in the whole connection, nothing would have been the same if that one "insignificant" thing hadn't happened.

What have you learned from people who are involved in human rights work?

Something about unselfishness. They are not even aware of doing good because to them it is integrated. They don't even think what they're doing is special, because they just find it part of what it is to be human. They've picked up that cue from birth. They spend a lot of time thinking about and caring for other people. And they do not act like what they're doing for others is something extraordinary, or wonderful, or something to be admired. They really think it's just part of what it is to live. That's

what impresses me most. The casualness they have about being really good people.

How have you maintained your resiliency and your love of people in the face of some of the terrible things that you have seen?

By seeing that there are people around who are just. The Jewish talk about 30 just people, or however many become martyrs for the rest. I don't think there are 30 just people who will make it up for the rest of us. But I think we can keep faith because we do meet on the road really, truly just people. And if they are from the same loins as we came, you have hope. But it's often very difficult, I must say. It's easier to believe in good and good people far away from our big cities, and our politicians, an d our media. It's easier to believe in good people in far away places among nomads and people where the so-called civilization has not come so far.

Can any one of us really make a difference?

You and I just by talking now can make a change. Only God knows what kind of change it will be. People should believe more that it is important what we do. If politicians don't always understand the effect of what they do, we should understand the effect of what we do or say, even on an ordinary Sunday like this. And maybe in the end it has as much effect, you never know.

So even the little things that we do - whether it's the way we look at someone, or talk to someone, or listen to them - are more important than we may realize?

Yes, it's of utmost importance. I have a story of a little girl, a street child, in Calcutta. We couldn't speak each other's language. She was touching my hair; I was touching hers. She was as poor as they come. Seven or eight years old. And she had a ring with a red glass stone. I was touching it to show her how beautiful it was. She took it off and just gave it to me. I told that story in Washington to some rich children. Afterwards one of these little girls came up with a ring with a silver heart on i t. And she said, "If you ever meet some little girl like that, will you give it to her?"

I told those two stories to some Quakers in New York, and they were very moved by it. They started a campaign where they sent out letters to a lot of people sharing the story. They called it "the ring campaign." And they collected many, many thousands of dollars. As I have told this story through the years, it has raised hundreds upon thousands of dollars for deprived children. Obviously that little girl in Calcutta just gave me her ring because that's how she felt, how human beings do feel, when they ar e unselfconscious and just good. "Oh, that woman seemed to like it - here it is." It's the only thing she had. I don't even know where she is. Maybe she's not alive. But she raised through that one little - although tremendous - gesture so much money and maybe even more awareness.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.