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Early yesterday morning, America lost its first journalist to the Russia-Ukraine war, and my husband awoke to the news of his best friend’s death.
Brent Renaud was killed in Ukraine, shot in the neck by Russian troops at a checkpoint in Irpin, just outside the capital city of Kyiv. He was filming refugees fleeing from Kyiv to Poland as part of a project documenting the experiences of refugees and migrants in 10 countries around the world fleeing violence, war, and climate change. He had been working on the film for over a year, filming across Africa, Europe, and South America.
When Brent left the world, America lost one of its most brilliant and prolific documentary filmmakers, and Christof, my husband, lost a beloved producer and partner-in-crime. For 15 years, they had traveled the world together telling stories, putting a face to global conflicts and disasters, and winning some of the most prestigious awards in the profession for their work.
When speaking of Brent, as he often does, Christof describes his rare and rather puzzling gift: a chameleon-like ability to blend into any location in any corner of the world, with any kind of person. He could morph into one of the locals, immediately and instinctively being accepted by others as one of their own. In Baghdad, people thought he was Iraqi. In Cairo, they thought he was Egyptian. In Kyiv, they assumed he was Ukrainian. He could pass through any checkpoint—in Egypt, Somalia, Juárez, Mexico—without so much as a passing glance from guards armed with AK-47s.
In the hours since we received the gut-wrenching news of his death, I’ve been asking myself what exactly it was in Brent that allowed him to do that. Where did this strange gift come from? And I realized that it was because Brent had virtually no ego. Because of this, he was permeable. Absent of the obsessive self-focus that preoccupies most of us, most of the time, Brent was free to literally become the other. The depth of his empathy allowed him to become a shape-shifter and a border-crosser. One who sees in the dark and walks between worlds. He could journey a thousand miles in someone else’s shoes, whether that person was a refugee, a terrorist, a heroin addict, a murderer, or a child soldier.
I always appreciated Brent’s air of mystery; he seemed to me as if he belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time. With his mischievous smile and penetrating gaze, he often had a look on his face that suggested that he knew something that you didn’t.
As it turns out, he did.
Yesterday I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the Heart Sutra, a classic Buddhist text that describes the Buddha’s core teaching on emptiness and compassion.
In Buddhism, emptiness does not mean nothingness, as is commonly misunderstood. Instead, it means emptiness of a separate self. It means that we cannot exist on our own because we inter-exist with every other living thing, flowing as one within the great river of life. This awareness of emptiness is the “insight that brings us to the other shore,” awakening us to our interdependence and giving rise to boundless compassion.
That was Brent’s rare gift; his great understanding. He truly embodied the paradox of emptiness and compassion. Because he could become empty of himself, he could become full of the world. That’s what made him such a talented journalist—he didn’t just look on as an outsider, he went inside, into the conflict, the darkness, the suffering, the beauty, the ugliness, the humanity.
“When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it,” Nhat Hanh writes. “We have to enter deeply into it and become one with it in order to really understand. If we want to understand a person, we have to feel their feelings, suffer their suffering, and rejoice in their joy.”
He adds, “If we want peace and we want to understand another country… We have to be one with the citizens of that country.”
Brent not only lived this truth but also shared it with the world. He was, in the language of the dharma, a bodhisattva—one who hears the cries of the world and works tirelessly to relieve the suffering of all beings.
Brent spent his life observing the pain of humanity, never once turning away. But more importantly, he understood. And he helped the rest of us understand, too.
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