Books

A Healing Dose of Courage

Author Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave says a grieving heart can begin to heal when it’s surrounded by comfort and warmth. Her touching poetry provides just that.
BY Brett Chudá TIMEJune 11, 2022 PRINT

With all the world in disarray,
one tender blossom survives;
In the deepest crevasse of the human soul
the kindness of heart still thrives.

—From “Reveries” by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave, 2021

“Reveries: In Search of Love, Hope, and Courage” is a book of poetry by American writer and photojournalist Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave. Within, a trusting and compassionate hand seems to coax our fears and sorrow out from their dark prisons, and transform them, page after page.

Villard de Borchgrave is the author of six books of poetry and a biography of her great-grandfather, railroad magnate and financier Henry Villard. She grew up all around the world and worked as an international journalist in the 1960s and 1970s. But her spiritual and artistic faculties were only pressed into service in the aftermath of 9/11, when she sought to help victims heal by offering comforting poetry. Since then, readers, from terminally ill patients to grieving family members, have called her poetry profound, uplifting, and healing.

Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave, during an interview on October 11, 2009, in Cairo, Egypt.
Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave, during an interview on October 11, 2009, in Cairo, Egypt. (Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian-born former Secretary General of the United Nations, contributed a forward for one of her collections, describing it as “an oasis of compassion and inner calm.” John C. Whitehead, the former chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, sent her first book, “Healing Light: Thirty Messages of Love, Hope, and Courage,” to 9/11 survivors’ families. Her encouragement continues to comfort people in hospitals and hospices through books gifted by her organization, the Light of Healing Hope Foundation.

Radiant Life: Please tell us a bit about your background, your creative vision, and your work.

Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave: I was born in Washington, D.C. and spent my formative years in Norway, Libya, Switzerland, and Senegal. Even at a very young age, and in going to Sunday school, I believe I was given a mission to bring comfort through kind words and beautiful images. I think my books are a reflection of many of my life experiences, including the 16 years I spent as a photojournalist covering events, starting in 1968, throughout the Middle East and Africa, where I witnessed war, suffering, and poverty as well as hope.

Covering the October war in Egypt as a photojournalist.
Covering the October war in Egypt as a photojournalist. (J.R. Bonnotte)

A feeling of empathy with those who were suffering then led to a desire to record the emotions and events I observed. I did not know then how deep that desire would run.

Radiant Life: It seems you have a strong sense that physical healing often comes through spiritual means. What informs your beliefs about that?

Borchgrave: I believe with all my heart that when someone is able to feel comfort, there is a special space of warmth that opens within and encourages the healing process. Forgiveness also allows one to release feelings of hurt or anger, opening a pathway to heightened compassion and healing.

Radiant Life: Did your time in countries like Senegal, Libya, Switzerland, and Norway influence how you see spirituality and healing?

Borchgrave: Living in different cultural environments exposed me to diverse spiritual beliefs about life and the healing process. It was a fascinating, although somewhat confusing, experience to wake up as a child of 2 amid the sparkling snowcapped mountains of Norway amongst a Christian people of courage and kindness, and then to wake up three years later at the age of 5 in the hot desert wind of Libya amongst a Sunni Muslim people of ancient Berber traditions with a strong sense of hospitality. As a small child, I benefited from being treated with kindness by everyone I met, and I believe that kindness is one of the greatest ways of healing those in pain.

Perhaps the most significant moment that influenced the whole of my life came when I developed glandular fever in the space of an hour. We were staying at the Uaddan Hotel in Tripoli, as the residence was not yet ready for my father, who had been newly appointed as the first American ambassador to Libya. I had just turned 6. My mother had gone to call on Queen Fatima one afternoon when I fell into convulsions with a fever of 105. Not knowing what else to do, my lovely young Norwegian governess wrapped me in a sheet and took me down to the lobby of the hotel where she hoped to find a doctor. None was available. I had made friends with the engaging Italian concierge who I could see was making frantic calls to find one. Just as things were reaching a critical point, my mother returned and immediately took me to the American hospital at the Wheelus Air Base. I was acutely aware of my mother’s love enfolding me as she held me in her arms, but I also felt I was slipping away from her. We sped toward the base at breakneck speed with our driver, Ramadam, doing his best to weave in and out of the traffic as we were rocked back and forth on the back seat. I must have lost consciousness at one point as I do not remember the doctors taking me from my mother’s arms to care for me.

As I grew up, I believed that coming that close to losing my life meant that every extra day was a gift that might be taken away at any time, making me somewhat fearful of participating fully in life for fear of falling ill again, which I often did, but at the same time making me desirous of expressing love and gratitude to those around me.

Radiant Life: The origin of your organization, Light of Healing Hope Foundation, and of your books, appears often in your materials. You prayed for a way to bring comfort to those who suffered in 9/11 and who lost loved ones. Can you please tell us the full story?

Borchgrave: A week before 9/11, I was having dinner with my dear husband Arnaud [journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave], who was preparing to leave for Bulgaria for an interview with King Simeon. I happened to look out the window and saw a plane landing at Reagan National Airport and I felt my whole body go cold with an inexplicable feeling of dread. I turned to my husband and said, “You know, darling, I am getting a really bad feeling, and I don’t want to be here alone if something bad is going to happen.” Arnaud reassured me and said, “Don’t worry, darling, I will be back in a week and I’m sure nothing will happen.” I hadn’t forgotten that Arnaud had warned in a recent article about terrorists using planes as weapons of mass destruction. I couldn’t shake the premonition of dread I felt right up to the day he left.

On the morning of 9/11, I was watching Charlie Gibson interviewing Fergie on ABC at 8:45 a.m., when suddenly he said, “There is something happening at the World Trade Center.” And then we all witnessed the second plane go into the tower. I knew immediately that this was a terrorist attack.

That night, as anguish hung in the air like a veil of tears, I began to pray for a way to bring some small measure of comfort and healing to the families who had suffered the most devastating loss of their loved ones.

I prayed that same prayer every night for a year, but I could not find the right way to bring comfort to those who had suffered this unspeakable tragedy. Then, on the first anniversary of that terrible day, as I watched the children call out their parents’ names at Ground Zero with great courage, I was once again overcome with sorrow for them. The next morning, I woke with a strange pressure in my heart, and I knew something was going to happen.

I got in the shower and all at once, poetic words cascaded out of me so quickly I had to jump out of the shower and grab a pen and paper to write them down. As I did so, I heard a voice say to me, “All right, if you really want something to do, here it is, and if you do it, it will get to where you want it to go.”

As earnest verses about love, hope, and courage flowed out of me, I felt I was being shown a way to bring comfort to those families in need, and the result, three years later, was the publication of “Healing Light: Thirty Messages of Love, Hope, and Courage.” That book was sent as a gift, through the kindness of John C. Whitehead, then chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, to all the survivors’ families, and my prayer was answered.

Radiant Life: You have given comfort to so many during times of loss and suffering. Have you gone through periods like that in your own life?

Borchgrave: In losing my dear parents and, most of all, my beloved husband, Arnaud, I have come to understand the agony others before me have suffered. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing the person you love most in the world diminish in pain before your eyes without being able to help or ease their suffering.

The de Borchgraves at President Ronald Reagan's second inaugural ceremony, 1985.
The de Borchgraves at President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural ceremony, 1985. (UPI)

Radiant Life: Please tell us more about the transition from comforting those who lost loved ones on 9/11 to offering comfort to people in hospitals and hospices.

Borchgrave: After “Healing Light” sold out three editions, my friends said, “Alexandra, we have read this book 16 times, now you need to do more.” So, encouraged by those who had found “Healing Light” to be soothing in troubled times, I wrote “Heavenly Order: Twenty-Five Meditations of Wisdom and Harmony” followed by “Beloved Spirit: Pathways to Love, Grace, and Mercy.”

With “Beloved Spirit,” I came to believe in an intimate moment of surrender, a time when the soul may connect with a higher being, light, spirit, or God, a part of which I am convinced resides within all of us. Moments of reflection allow us to be open to creativity, take a step forward into the unknown, make untold mistakes along the way, and learn from them. It permits us to be vulnerable to sorrow and accepting of criticism, and fosters a willingness to do better. It provides untapped courage in the face of terror and, ultimately, the peace with which to depart this life.

This philosophy, along with the encouragement of dear friends, led me to found the Light of Healing Hope Foundation in the hope it would help light a new pathway to comfort.

I am so grateful to our generous supporters who have made it possible for me to provide books of hope and comfort for adults as well as for children who are suffering.

I am thrilled that the Light of Healing Hope Foundation has delivered thousands of our gifts to over 100 hospitals and hospices including Johns Hopkins, NIH, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, INOVA [Health System], St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the Capital Caring Hospice.

Radiant Life: Addressing the suffering of others is an act of giving from a deep part of one’s soul, and can feel draining at times, according to those who do it for a long time. Does it sometimes get to you? Do you have ways to help yourself carry on?

Borchgrave: My efforts do not compare to those of the extraordinary, devoted caregivers who have given so much of themselves and have been burned out during this terrible pandemic. In my own limited way, there are times when I do feel drained to find new ways to bring as much comfort as I can to those who are suffering simply by continuing the creative process. Receiving special notes of appreciation from those who have been given our gifts is the most precious source of inspiration for me. My wonderful colleague, Henri, has also been an invaluable source of encouragement for over 15 years, as he reflects with me on the impact of our work.

Radiant Life: What has your experience taught you about the nature of courage and hope?

Borchgrave: Every person has within them a spark of courage that can be ignited, and my work has been to try to light that spark, to try to instill some hope that things might get better.

Radiant Life: What’s next for you?

Borchgrave: Every night I pray for the means to be a better person. I want to continue to bring hope and comfort to those who are suffering. Reaching our goal of 70,000 gifts delivered by the foundation fills my heart with happiness. I am always searching for new ways to bring hope and healing to those in need.

Brett Chudá
Brett Chudá writes stories about fascinating people and ideas that have made a difference in the world. Her degree in World Arts and Cultures from UCLA has served her well as she globetrots from Alaska to Africa to Europe, marveling at each culture’s unique traditions of beauty, wellness, and belief in the divine.
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