Monday, July 31, 2006

Has War Outlived Its Usefulness?

As we watch the war in the Middle East unfold on our television screens, each day bringing new scenes of devastation and horror, more and more I am hearing people say, "This is crazy, there has to be a better way." These comments are not just coming from my peace and justice friends, the already converted dovish ones I can count on to espouse such things. No, this time I'm hearing this from unexpected quarters, from people I would never have expected it from. Yesterday's news of 37 children killed in the village of Qana seemed so over the top, so outrageous, that I thought, "that's it, they have to stop now," and yet they are not stopping. The rockets continue to rain on Israel and the Israelis will not stop until they feel they have knocked out Hezbollah completely, until they feel safe. And I don't know when, Hezbollah will ever stop. So we're probably in this one for a very,very long time.

I can understand the Israeli need to feel safe and secure within its borders. I can understand its need, even its addiction to feeling powerful, following as it does on a two thousand year history of persecution and extermination. I can understand that Hezbollah gets to feel really powerful by going up against Israel. Boy what a rush that must be when you have not felt powerful, respected or admired in the world in recent memory. They are fighting for dignity and empowerment and respect all over the Muslim and Arab world and it probably feels great and they are not about to let go soon. The problem is that every death in this war, whether that casualty is a civilian, a soldier or a Hezbollah terrorist, plants the seeds for more terrorist acts, more revenge and retaliation in the future. The entire premise that this war is fought on, is bankrupt.

People fight wars because they think that the use of overpowering force will stop people from acting violently toward them. That may have been true at different points in history. One may make the case that overwhelming force caused the Nazis and the Japanese to surrender in WWII. But the face of warfare has changed in the past sixty years or so and state to state wars are increasingly rare. More and more violence is the result of lawless militias, insurgencies, terrorist groups and cells wreaking horror against large state targets. These are people who are angry about something, people who feel left out, people who want something, who feel powerless, who have yearnings that have not been heard. And because they feel so weak, so powerless, they turn to violence which in an instant makes them feel powerful. There's nothing like a gun or a bomb to make you feel powerful--fast. They feel devalued and they do not value life; they will take it in an instant. How to stop them? Is bombing them into oblivion and taking out a lot of civilians at the same time the best way to stop them? Do you really help your cause if you make heroes of these people?

There is a saying in the addiction field that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time hoping for a different result. As I watch the war in Iraq and the war on terror that the US is conducting, I can't help shaking my head ruefully. Do they really think this is going to make a difference? It's the same reaction as I watch Israel conduct it's war, first against the Palestinians and now against Hezbollah. How many of your children do you want to die, in this or in future wars? How many of your grandchildren will be dying in future versions of this war? Are you ready for your economy to be devastated? Your infrastructure to be destroyed? Your beautiful cities to be torn up? Everything you've built to be demolished, all of this so you can say, well, at least we've survived? Survived for what? I thought life was about living, having fun, loving, making music, dancing, laughing, playing, contributing to the common good. If you and your children and grandchilden and your country are maimed and destroyed, what kind of life is that? Is that a life worth living?

I will put this very starkly and boldly: I think war has outlived its usefulness. I think we have come to a turning point on this planet and it is time to find a better way to solve our problems in getting along with each other. Even if war may have solved problems at some point in our history, I believe that it is now unworkable on this ever more crowded planet. I believe that we are on the cusp of an evolutionary leap in our development as human beings. There was a time when human beings routinely committed cannibalism. We longer do that. There was a time when we routinely practiced slavery. We not longer do that on this planet and when it happens it is front page news. We are in the throes of an evolutionary change where rape and domestic violence are becoming socially unacceptable. They are still practiced in many quarters, but more and more around the world these practices are illegal and unacceptable. This is the place we are coming to with war and violence. It's not that it is bad. It's not that it's wrong. It just is unworkable. And it's time for humanity to learn new skills to replace the violence option.

Why have humans resorted to war and violence so quickly and why haven't we learned other behaviors to take the place of violence? Pretty simple. When we are in conflict with another, whether one individual or a group, we feel powerless and one thing makes us feel powerful--the threat of force or the actual use of force. Hence the use of guns and bombs and lethal force. And, after using lethal force, even in very constrained and orderly ways known as the military, people get very used to it and tend to glorify it and mytholigize its use. We want to keep it around because it makes us feel powerful and safe. To even consider other options is very frightening to us. It makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. And yet, I am convinced, that if humans are to survive and thrive on this planet, that we must, absolutely must, learn and master new ways of behaving and dealing with conflict without the use of violence.

What are some of these ways? Can we actually learn these ways? Having spent my life learning them, I can vouch for the fact that the new behaviors are eminently learnable. It takes determination but anyone can learn these new skills. Here are some of them:
--Deep listening from the heart to the sufferings, needs and yearnings of the other
--Turning toward the "other", the "enemy", being willing to encounter, to understand, to befriend those who have hurt you
--Being willing to listen to the grievances of the other without getting emotionally reactive and defensive
--Learning to control one's emotional reactions or "triggers" so you don't fly off the handle all the time
--Learning how to "walk a mile in the shoes" of the person who is different from you
--Give up being a victim and take 100% responsibility for your life, both as an individual and as a group
--Take responsibility for the hurts you have caused and make amends, both as an individual and as a group
--Give up talking in slogans (e.g."democracy") and the absolutes of black and white thinking and embrace the greys of this world
--Instead of simple, fast solutions for problems, look for the upstream, more complex, long term root causes to problems
--Practice connecting with people at the heart level, even when its hard
--Learning the ways of forgiveness

We could be living a life of playfulness, contribution and fulfillment or we could be living lives of devastation, grief and loss. We can choose. We can create it the way we want it. We don't have to live the way we've been living. All it takes is the decision, individually and collectively, that we are sick to death of grieving and funerals, of blood and mangled bodies, and children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters buried too early, much, much too early. Choose.

Questions of Inquiry:
1. What about those lawless countries like Somalia and Afghanistan run by warlords and thugs, would talking and listening work there? Isn't violence the only option with people like that? What do you think?

2. What's great about violence? Why should we keep it going?

3. Why do you think people resist learning non-violent behaviors?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Upstream Solutions

As war breaks out in the Middle East, I watch helplessly as Israel reacts, first to the Palestinian kidnapping of one of their soldiers with over the top (or so it seems to me) punitive responses to the civilians in Gaza. And now in the twinkling of an eye, the conflict has widened into Lebanon with rocket attacks launched by Hezbollah into Israel and now of course, we are witnessing the expected retaliation. I sit on my hands and scream with frustration because none of this has to happen. All of this could be otherwise. Yet this cycle of violence is so predictable and it keeps on happening. What is going on here? Do these people, both Israelis and Arabs, have a death wish?

These are important questions to ask, indeed vital questions to ask, if one has more than a passing interest in the idea that this conflict could end. When I say end, I mean completely stop, forever and for all time end. I'm talking about something far more profound than ceasefires and brief periods when the conflict merely simmers on the back burner. I'm talking about all out peace. In order for such a thing to happen in the Middle East, I am convinced that the parties involved in this conflict at every level would have to begin exploring upstream solutions.

The concept of upstream solutions comes from the following parable or extended metaphor. Imagine that you are at the edge of a river and you notice bodies floating downstream. You know how to swim and have lifesaving skills. You jump in and save the first person you see. As you are congratulating yourself on your heroism you notice another body and another body floating by. You raise a ruckus and call for help because you know you cannot save them all on your own. People come and together you work to save the bodies coming downstream. You are heroes! But as you are drying yourself off you see even more bodies coming downstream. This is serious! You need a lot more help and you put out the call until you get more and more people to help. After a while people are getting tired. Finally someone has the good sense to ask, "What's going on upstream? Why are so many bodies washing downstream? Let's go and find out." So they go upstream a while and they find that for some reason people are getting sick in some village and they fall into the river. You decide to take care of them in the village. But more and more of them are getting sick in this village and surrounding villages! After awhile, all the aid workers you can muster are getting exhausted. What to do? Finally someone decides to go further upstream until they find out the real reason people are getting sick and deal with the ultimate and final cause.

When it comes to medical problems and public health issues, the world is somewhat farther ahead of those of us who are concerned with issues of violence, war and murder. When there is an illness, medical researchers study until they find the causative organism or toxin or genetic defect that is responsible for the illness and then they try to find a remedy for that cause. When the cause is a germ or a toxic substance or a contaminated water supply, those things can be attacked and corrected. The situation gets a lot, lot more complicated with social problems like war and violence caused by how human beings think and respond emotionally to the actions of other human beings.

There is a belief among human beings that war is always with us and that violence will never disappear. I simply don't believe that. If that were true we would still be practicing cannibalism and owning slaves. Humans are evolving and we are in the midst of growing out of the antiquated habit of violence toward our fellow humans. It is time to begin looking for upstream solutions for complicated, ongoing and intractable conflicts like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and other repetitive, cyclic conflicts.

We have come a long way in the past one hundred years or so in understanding human behavior. The fields of psychology and sociology, among others, have helped us to understand how and why humans behave as they do, and the recent upsurge in the study of the human brain has given us an intimate acquaintance with how the brain, and particularly the emotions, work. It has become possible, in my lifetime, to entertain the possibility of humans acquiring emotional intelligence, and many humans have become adept at learning how to manage and control their emotional responses. Even in very demanding and harrowing circumstances people have learned that they can master their emotions. We have also learned an amazing amount about how people respond to traumatic events and how memories of these events linger in the brain, but more importantly, how they linger in the stories and interpretations we make up about what the trauma means. We have even begun to understand how whole cultural, social and ethnic groups can develop and shape their identities around memories of shared historical traumas and we now understand that these memories can be important in fomenting the automatic emotional responses that feed the cycle of violence.

That's what we have learned, or perhaps I should say it's what some of us have learned. Because it amazes me that just because this knowledge is out there in the public square and is well known in the academy and in the professions of psychology and sociology, it has not been eagerly absorbed or taken up by political leaders, diplomats, the military or the public. As creatures who fear death, we still cling to our tribal, ethnic and national groups when we feel threatened or afraid, and we look to our leaders to save us. All too often, their prescription is some form of organized violent response to our so-called enemies. It makes you wonder whether the world really wants to live in peace at all. Is all that language so much feel good rhetoric and window dressing? Do people really want peaceful, joy-filled lives for themselves, their children and their descendants?

If we wanted to end intractable conflicts, and if we truly wanted to live in peace with our neighbors, it seems to me that we would go to any lengths, I mean any lengths, to look at our blind spots from the past, master our tendencies to over-react emotionally, learn how to truly listen to people we don't like and master the skill of standing in the shoes of our enemy. We would become committed to finding the myths from the past that are still running usunconsciously, not because those myths are bad or that we are wrong for holding onto them, but because they are simply unworkable in today's world, because they interfere with our ability to lead lives of safety, fun and creativity. Call me crazy but I love being alive! I think being alive is the greatest thing going and I'd like to stick around for a lot more of it. I'd like every person on the planet to have a chance to fulfill every talent and skill they were born with and to experience as much joy as possible while they are here. Upstream solutions seem like the only way to go if we really want to have some fun around here.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Self Compassion for Peacemakers

People who are concerned about the state of the planet spend a lot of time and energy giving to others to make their visions a reality. We tend to be the ones that more cynical types call bleeding heart liberals, tree huggers and other not-so-nice epithets to put down the love and compassion that flows so freely from us, or sometimes, the judgment and hypocrisy that they also see coming from us. No matter. There is however, one way which all of us who care about the current situation of the world, frequently find ourselves in but rarely talk about. Whether we are right wing or left wing, whether we are activists or take a more embracing stance, all of us suffer from one common disease: we get very tired. And we get discouraged. To put it bluntly ---we get burned out.

Being in the throes of my own case of burn out and exhaustion lately, I've been taking a long, hard look at this issue and have been surprised at what I've been learning. I've actually been stunned by what I've seen. I would like to share that with you. Caring passionately about the future of the world and the people in it, as I do, I tend to attract and surround myself with other people who also share the same passion. And I've noticed that all of us give of our energies quite selflessly. We listen to people who have been marginalized and forgotten. We raise money and give money to causes we support. We sign petitions and go on marches and attend rallies. We go on trips and delegations to third world countries to see what is actually going on in conflict-torn regions. We start non-profits and shore up sinking non-profits and sit on boards of directors or volunteer for NGO's we believe in. We listen to the problems of people who are not making it or barely making it in this world. We pour out huge amounts of energy and at the end of the day we come home to our own homes and families and sometimes we are so tired we can barely lift our heads.

There is a dark side here that I want to expose to the light of day. I got into peace work because it drew me, because it made me feel totally alive and it thrilled me to make a difference in the world. It still does. For me, to express love and compassion in the world, especially for people who are suffering feels as natural as breathing. But the obstacles to the transformation of the violence, greed and hatred in the world and the things that block empowerment and aliveness are many, and I get stopped far more often than I would like. I find myself calling myself a failure, thinking I have done it all wrong, and sometimes I just want to give up. Sometimes I can't even get out of bed or do the things I promised I would do that day.

What I have discovered is that other people do this also, whether or not they are engaged in peacework or not. All human beings beat up on themselves in one way or another. We are all in need of compassion.

I see that it is so easy for me to be generous and loving to other people and it is very difficult to be loving and generous to myself. I simply don't know how to be compassionate to myself.

I had a tremendous awakening about this ten days ago. I had been in deep despair because I had been unable to find a job and have been living in fear, picturing myself plunging into poverty. Some friends confronted me about my unwillingness to receive feedback and be open to their help. I saw that they were right. I was so closed about this that, in fact I had closed off my passion for my peace work. I literally could not fulfill my committments and promises in that realm. That felt awful. I examined this more deeply and meditated on it. Suddenly I saw the degree to which I had been criticizing myself and making myself wrong the past few months. I had literally been calling myself names, comparing myself with others who were doing life right while I was doing it all wrong. I saw that this war on myself had to stop immediately. Then and there I made one of the most important committments of my life. I made a pledge to God and to my highest Self. I vowed to become a peacemaker internally as well as externally, and that both forms of peacemaking had to be equal in importance and value.

I got my test the next day when I got a severe migraine. I spent all day in bed sending love to the headache pain and to the nausea that comes with my migraines. As I did that I saw that there was no difference between me and anyone in the third world or in any country anywhere else in the world. I had been holding the idea that only service somewhere in the third world really counted as a contribution to the world. i had been telling myself that staying safely here in Seattle was not really a contribution to the world. But now I saw that there is absolutely no difference between offering love to myself and offering it to anyone else in the world. Just because I seem to begin and end with the barrier of my skin is an illusion. We are all deeply connected in far more ways that any of us understands.

I resolved that I would no longer trash myself in any way, no more self-criticisms, no more comparing myself to others, that my internal landscape would be sunny and bright and loving. "Aha, now I'll be happy," I thought. So I began diligently practicing a profound kind of self-love this week and yet, funny thing, I was still have languishung in pools of muck and despair. What gives? More lessons to be learned . . . Boy, God just won't let up with these lessons!

As I began to inquire more deeply, I turned to one of my favorite writers for guidance, the well known Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. I started re-reading one of her books that I love, When Things Fall Apart, because that is certainly how my life was feeling to me. And as I read, I began to find a deep peace inside myself. I noticed that way back, in the recesses of my mind, were some very old beliefs surfacing. Underneath my loving and gentle thoughts to myself, and the forswearing of self-criticism, were old, very old beliefs that must have arisen when I was a young child, thoughts like: "I'm no good"; "I'll never succeed at anything"; "I can't do anything right;" "I fail at everything I do." I noticed these thoughts and began to extend compassion to myself for having made up such thoughts in the first place. Such powerful thoughts! Such untruths!

Now I see that I can trade these thoughts in for new, more realistic beliefs about myself, ones that reflect my true loving nature, my generous heart. When I do that I immediately feel better. The question is, for all us would-be peacemakers, indeed for all of us alive on the planet, how do we extend compassion to ourselves when such hurtful thoughts kick in so automatically and unconsciously into our minds? How can we identify them? How can we lovingly counter them? How can we extend deep compassion to ourselves and choose a more peaceful way of being in the world?

I have a feeling that as we all become more loving to ourselves, we will automatically create a more loving planet, just by that action alone. How could we hurt another human being if we were being unfailingly kind to ourselves?

Questions of Inquiry:
1. Do you think the ways we hurt ourselves in our own minds are related to external acts of violence?

2. How can we go about practicing self-compassion routinely in our lives?

3. How do you practice self-compassion when you are with other people? How can you practice it when you are alone?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Joy's photo

Justice First, then Compassion . . . Maybe

In long-term intractable conflicts I often hear a complaint from people who experience themselves as victimized or wounded in the apparently never-ending violence and hatred that they or they group is caught up in. It is a conversation that is directed toward well meaning people like me, who suggest that listening and dialogue might be helpful. "I am so tired of listening. I don't want to talk. Talk doesn't change anything. What we need is action! We need justice, justice now!!" I have heard variations of this conversation from Palestinians, from Israelis, and from African Americans, and it reflects a frustration and exhaustion with reasoned talk which is the norm around the globe when dealing with long-term unhealed, sometimes violent conflicts.

What is the thirst for justice about and how does one respond to it when someone is in your face demanding "action now!"? Justice is something I've studied and examined in great depth in my life and it deserves a closer look. There is no doubt that human beings do terrible things to each other, whether in private criminal acts or within the larger scale actions that constitute genocide, terrorism or war. Whenever anyone violates the body, the safety, indeed the spirit of another human being or takes a human life, there is something in our core or that of those who survive us, that demands an accounting for that violation. Call it reciprocity. There are certain fundamental agreements that humans have that make survival of the whole possible: we need each other, we have to treat each other with respect in order to live in community or the whole cannot survive. If we tear each other apart, the chains of food production, and other things we need for our joint survival cannot be sustained. So we have to call one another to account when one or more of us violate the agreements that make for the survival of the whole. Beyond that, each of us knows that in some way, every life seems to have some value, at least to those to whom he or she is related, and the sudden and precipitous end of that life, is a terrible loss and violation. These things call for an accounting. There is some sense that a profound wrong has been done to us and has to be made right. It is from these deep, inborn feelings that humans have evolved their systems of justice.

In the days of tribes and clans, when a life was taken by a competing tribe or clan, the family simply went out and took revenge on the tribe that committed the original murder. So of course the murders went back and forth in an unbroken cycle of revenge and retaliation until the original injury was forgotten or until someone called for a truce. This was a very rough form of justice and things easily got out of hand, especially as society grew and as people moved into towns, villages and states. Eventually, as kings took over as rulers of nation states, they found this inter-tribal warfare far too costly to the peace of their kingdoms and they instituted the rule of law, wherein the king alone was able to meet out justice for wrongs done. This had the benefit of stabilizing the nation, getting people to delay the thirst for revenge, and it probably also brought in income to the king's treasury. This is how our own system of law and justice evolved.

Now this has certainly not eliminated revenge killing as you can see in the streets of any city neighborhood ruled by the Crips and Bloods. And it hasn't eliminated revenge and retaliation in international warfare as is quite evident in the insurgency in Iraq and in the terrorism conducted by Al Quaeda. So in some ways we are far ahead of where they were a millenium ago with our system of laws and our penal system. But even that system, at least in the US, can still be a system of rough justice at times. The family of a murder victim may wait for years for the person who murdered their child to be caught, then tried, and then convicted. Once the person is convicted, they may sit in the courtroom hungrily waiting to hear from that murderer, some words that he or she is sorry, to see some expression of remorse for taking the life of their loved one. But they will rarely ever see that in a courtroom in the US. Most likely the murderer will have a stony expression on their face and will say nothing as they walk away to their death sentence or to serve life without parole. If the murderer gets the death penalty, the family may wait another ten or twenty years for the murderer to be executed. When that moment comes and the murderer is executed, how satisfying is it for the family that the person who took the life of their loved one is finally taking their last breath? So much time has gone by. No words have been exchanged. Is this really justice? Or is it too, another form of rough justice?

So what is justice after all? Part of it is the judgement of a tribunal, some higher authority that a wrong has been done and that it should not have happened. For people who feel disempowered in their lives, the moral weight of a judge or a tribunal is often very important and helpful in adding an imprimatur, a stamp of value to their loved one's life. In addition, if someone has done some grave wrong and if they continue to pose a danger to the community, then it is important that they be confined until they no longer threaten the safety of all. It seems to me that the current way we administer justice can accomplish at least those two objectives. Yet I think we need to go further and think more deeply about exactly what we want to accomplish when great harm has been done and then we need to ask if our present ways of administering justice are the best way or the only way of giving justice to people.

It seems to me that true justice is something that satisfies the mind, the heart or dare I say, the body. When there has been some great loss, some cruelty, some deep and persistent wrong, either to oneself, one's family or to one's community, such wrongs rankle. They hurt. They persist in the heart, the memory and yes, the body. The vast majority of human beings cannot just get over great harms. They cannot just snap their fingers and move on. So the question is, when a great wrong has been done, what makes it right? I will never forget a dialogue session that I took part in a few years ago in Seattle on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During this dialogue a Palestinian woman, whom I believe was a professor at a local university, spoke with great feeling about the loss of her family's home in what is now the state of Israel. The family home had been lost in the Nakba of 1948, the catastrophe in which so many Palestinians lost their homes and became stateless refugees. I asked her this question, "If today some Israeli citizens or a representative of the Israeli government were to listen to this great loss of you and your family and they were to say to you, "We deeply apologize to you for the loss of your home and your village during the Nakba," what impact do you think that would have on you?" She stared at me for a moment, almost as if she were in shock. I thought she might cry. She paused for a moment and said, "That would be wonderful. No one has ever said such a thing to me. . . And I still want the right to choose where I live." What I understood from this little example is that human beings have a deep hunger to have the injustices that have been done to them heard. We all long to tell our stories, to have them heard and honored.

A few years ago when I was deeply involved in the Restorative Justice movement (a movement to shift the paradigm of our present punishment oriented justice system to one of healing and repair), I was trained to conduct meetings between murderers and the survivors of the person they had killed. Although I never actually got to conduct such a dialogue myself (the process hadn't been approved in Washington state at the time), I watched many videotapes of the process and talked with many people who conducted such encounters. Such meetings have been and continue to be extraordinary and miraculous both for the surviving victims and for the perpetrator of the violent act. There is something that happens in the privacy of these meetings that can never happen in a courtroom. Stories are told on both sides of loss, grief, and sorrow. Remorse is expressed by perpetrators of a degree that victims have only dreamed of. Victims walk out of these dialogues feeling deep peace, able at last to get on with their lives. And for many of the murderers, the dialogue opens up something new in their lives; it is a gateway to personal transformation as they see and experience the real, the true human cost of their actions. Isn't this what we truly want---miracles of healing? community building? redemption? reconciliation?

I have watched several different documentaries about the Truth and Reconcilation Commission in South Africa and while I love the intentions and bold aims of the Commission, I was saddened that so much of that work, especially the confrontations between victims and perpetrators, took place in public and on television. Humans are fragile, shame-based creatures and when we have done something wrong, or defined as wrong by others in the community, even if we don't believe it was wrong, it can be terribly hard to take responsibility for it in public. When we are held up in a public tribunal, even if it is only the trial of public opinion, where the proceedings are televised, the phenonmenon of shame automatically comes into play and people shut down. The become closed, defensive and guarded. They are very unlikely to open their hearts to the losses, grief and trauma suffered by their victims. Therefore I have come to believe, that such encounters, should take place in closed sessions, led by highly trained facilitators. If we want true justice, if we want transformation for both victims and offenders, this is entirely possible. It may not happen every time such an encounter is conducted. But it is far more likely to happen in a closed session than in an open one.

I want to return now to the issue of conversations between people caught up in long-standing intractable conflicts like white/African American racism and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I understand that people on all sides in these conflicts are exhausted by the intractability of it all and by the endless cycles of violence. It all goes on and on and nothing seems to change in either of these conflicts. There is an unceasing sense of injustice in both conflicts and perhaps that is my fascination with both: what would or could make a difference in conflicts where there is such suffering? In both the example of racism and in the example of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, there is a demand on the weaker side that the talk stop and that action happen now. There is the implication, spoken or unspoken, that the other side, white America, the Israeli Jews, are stronger and hence they are the perpetrators. There is a rhetoric of helpless victim versus all-powerful perpetrator that pervades these conflicts and the more this rhetoric goes unexamined, the more these conflicts stay rooted and unhealed. One interesting aspect of one side demanding action now or justice now before they will sit down to listen or talk is that it implies that someone else has to come along to fix or correct the situation. That side has surrendered their own power and potential in the situation and effectively declared themselves powerless. Someone will come along to save us! We are too weak! By looking at the issue of power and powerlessness in this way, we can begin to find places where we can empower ourselves, where power has been lost, and can be re-asserted in a life affirming way. There is something very exciting, even thrilling, about solving problems oneself (whether as an individual or a social or national state) versus having some other larger force coming along to solve them for you.

Another issue that comes into play in both these conflicts is the difficulty of the party being labelled as perpetrator in taking responsibility for any acts of violence or hurtfulness because to do so would threaten the present perceived role of good, innocent victim. In the US, the white majority likes to portray itself as good and noble and therefore innocent. We white people can't be guilty of racism because that's bad! We're the good guys on the planet! The Israelis view themselves as the victims of the Holocaust and many, many of them were so victimized. They have an identity that is passed down in the Jewish culture as the unwanted victims of the world. So if they are the victim of the world they are innocent and good. They can't do anything wrong. Because of these fixed identities, the majority power or the side with more actual power (in weapons or money) cannot take responsibility for perceived wrongs to the less powerful side because it threatens the identity or self-image of goodness. A similar identity is present for many Palestinians.

Where do we go from here? Well . . . . you can either live with the present conflict and continue to complain about it and make the other side wrong and live with the losses and death you have come to accept as normal. OR, you can do something altogether new. You can engage in a radically new kind of conversation. You can participate in conversations that are carefully structured to create complete safety so that people on each side can be vulnerable and open with each other. You can create conditions that make it much more likely for people in each community to see the places where they individually, or their community, has bought into an identity of victim or perpetrator.

An almost unheard of new conversation would be to give up the identities and labels of victim and perpetrator altogether. In a safe space where these labels have been surrendered, it would be far easier for people to take responsibility for wrongs that they have done, either individually or that their "side" has committed in the course of the conflict. In an environment of acceptance or accountability with love, the human cost of wrongs done by both sides can be heard and honored. It is high time that we let go these fixed labels of victim and perpetrator for I am convinced that at this stage in our evolution, they hurt more than they help. There is no one in this world who hasn't hurt someone at some point in their life, so no one can on this planet can claim to be completely good, innocent or better than other people. And no one, however bad the things they have done in their lives, has not done at least one kindness to another human being at some time in their life. These labels are so arbitrary and constrict us so terribly. It is really time to give them up.

Under conditions of safety and vulnerability, new things begin to happen. People express themselves in different ways. They take new, undreamed of actions. They embrace people on the other side in friendship and community. Walls come down. Alliances are built. An either/or way of seeing the world is surrendered and a both/and way of looking at and being in the world is embraced. Something, roughly like justice, begins to emerge. Or perhaps we should call it compassion.

Questions of Inquiry;
1. Have you experienced rough justice?

2. Have you experienced true justice that satisfied your heart and soul? What was the difference?

3. How could we go about creating justice first in intractable conflicts?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Across the Great Divide

Americans today are divided, polarized by political and cultural schisms that are wide, painful and deep. The nature of the issues that divide us are social, cultural, political and religious. In some ways it feels as if we are living in two, (or three or four) different countries, depending on where you live and how you describe these schisms and how you vote. The simplest description of this division is to separate the country into the so-called red states and blue states, that is that people in those states vote overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic depending on how they feel about certain cultural or social issues. We can pretty much predict that most people who are pro-choice vote Democratic and most people who are against same sex marriage vote Republican. No surprise there. What I want to look at today is the depth of this divide, the extreme hostility of the divide, how it got so bad, and what strategies, if any, could possibly lead us out of this muck and mire.

Polarization is pretty much a fact of political life as far as I can tell and were I to make a study of it throughout American history (or even world history) I betcha I would find that the American electorate has always been extremely polarized on the political issues of the day, even from the days of the American revolution. We were never in agreement! That's not what I'm talking about. Disagreement in a democracy is a good thing. What I'm talking about is the way we disagree and the depth of the polarization and how ugly, mean and nasty the division has gotten between people on various sides of not only the political debates but on various sides of the arguments about social and cultural issues as well. We seem to have gotten locked into argumentation and debate and attack as a style of politics that is so automatic that we take it for granted as the only way that political discourse can take place. We seem to think it normal to attack people who don't agree with thus, to call them names, to use snide sarcasm, to make fun of peoples' appearance and their sexuality if we don't like them. There is something very cruel going on in the public discourse. There would be no problem with any of this of course, if it worked to solve the pressing problems of the day. If verbal attacks, screaming denunciations, casting personal aspersions on people and cheering when people were down, actually worked to make effective change, then I would say, go for it! But when I look around for examples of that in my life and other peoples' lives, that's not what I see. What I see is that when people argue, when people get yelled at or are shouted at, they shut down, they go away. I've never been convinced or changed my mind in any argument where someone was shouting at me in my entire life. Now, if someone sits down and talks to me thoughtfully about why they believe in some course of action, marshalls their reasons, shares a personal story or two, and the stuff they tell me makes sense, if it opens up something new to me that I hadn't seen or been aware of before, then I may change my mind. But being screamed at, no, that never works for me. How about you? Does it work for you?

I think we have gotten so used to our culture of argumentation that we've grown unconscious to it. We don't even see it or hear it anymore because it's everywhere. Every political talk show features talking heads screaming at each other or trying to outshout each other for air time. Polititians argue with each other. People who have differing views on cultural/social issues like abortion; homophobia and gay rights; stem cells; immigration; homeland security; the Iraq War; sex offenders and what to do with them often end up on television or in print debating each other. It is very, very unusual to hear people on opposite sides of an issue in thoughtful conversation and inquiry with each other. When people want to express a different opinion they write an article, book or op-ed piece or blog about what they think and then hope that someone reads what they wrote. But the thoughtful exchange between people with very different opinions, radically different opinions in a civil, respectful way is so rare in our society as to be almost non-existent. Is it any wonder that so little gets done in the halls of Congress? Is it any wonder that the American people are cynical about politics and politicians? We rarely see any real change and we rarely see any real change because our elected officials don't appear to know how to talk to each other. They don't appear to know how to listen to each other and to solve problems together.

How did it get this way? Is argument and debate simply a habit that's gotten out of control in our society? Perhaps. One could certainly point to the power of technology and the media. In previous centuries when communication about political and social issues took place via letter and newspaper, pamphlet and book, people congregated at public meetings and lectures in their town but there was time and space to think and process the issues and arguments that one was hearing. In today's world with television, radio, movies, cell phones, the internet and instant everything, we have information beamed to us constantly so there is little time to separate ourselves from the onslaught of words coming at us. We've also gotten hooked on the sound byte and spin and hype, and perhaps this too is a product of the advertising age and the information age. Maybe arguing just makes for good entertainment. But I have some news for the media moguls who might think that: I turn off all political arguments! They bore me to tears! When people are actually listening to each other, that's interesting!!! Listen up!

Another factor may be that we've grown cynical and resigned and hopeless about the possibility of our public discourse being any different. Maybe we've seen so much spin and hype and commercials and money running politics that we've collectively turned off and gone away and turned inward and now all we do is watch American Idol, hoping at least for something real to excite us. Or it could be that there are lots and lots of resentments and frustrations and unheard feelings that have never been adequately vented about things that have happened in our collective past, and these resentments are fueling wounds that spew toxins into our collective American soul. There are people in this country who feel completely left out, forgotten about and unseen. Large scale social movements erupted in this country in the 1960's and 1970's: the civil rights movement, Vietnam, use of marijuana, the women's movement, gay rights, easy divorce. By the 1980's life in this country was very, very different than it had been for people growing up in the forties and fifties and some people felt left out of these social changes. They never got a say in them and those changes felt imposed on them, especially if they were raised in traditional, rural areas with very religious or conservative values. Some people still have not caught up to the times and continue to be disgusted by an America that they perceive as gone wild, gone all to hell. And yet, there are other sectors of the population, one might call them the liberal or left parts of the electorate, who grieve desperately over the injuries to the ecosystems of the planet, the cost of global warming, the deceptions and failures to be absolutely clear about the reasons for the US going to war in Iraq, and these sections of the electorate feel incredible pain and rage and powerlessness at their inability to make any effective change in the tactics or actions of the present administration. We are so separated from each other. Is yelling at each other across this great divide truly the only thing we can do?

I think not. I think there is another way to be with each other and it may in fact be a new way for human beings to be with each other that is emerging on the planet. It may be so new that we don't know how to do it very well. But that shouldn't stop us from trying. Because we desperately need to learn this very new skill, which in fact is very old, but so new as to seem odd and very difficult to us. It's called listening. What I am talking about is learning how to be with other human beings who hold or espouse opinions very different from our own while putting our own opinions, judgments and assessments temporarily aside so that we can make a human connection to the person we are listening to. When confronted with a person who thinks or acts very differently than ourselves, the normal way we humans react is to get on our high horse and to judge them, condemn them and make them wrong and ourselves right. "Well, if I was in their shoes, I wouldn't . . . " and yada, yada, yada. We always know that if we were them we would behave much much better. And then we set about trying to convince them of how they are wrong and we are right and how they should change their beliefs or actions. Or we scream at them about our need for justice. Whatever. It hardly ever works. Why? Because no one likes to be screamed at. And no one likes to be lectured or talked down to. And no one likes to be disrespected. If you are lucky you will get someone yelling back at you. Good luck!

This doesn't go very far in solving human problems. It hasn't worked too well in solving an intractable conflict like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It hasn't healed racism between whites and African Americans in this country. It hasn't settled the abortion controversy in this country nor the homophobia/same sex marriage debate nor the stem cell controversy nor the war on drugs nor the immigration dilemna. Hmm . . . we've got some BIG problems to solve. And we can only hope those levees hold and that we don't get any more category 5 hurricanes in New Orleans this summer! And oh yes, we haven't brought those troops home from Iraq yet and President Bush still hasn't told the truth about why he "lied" about why he took us to war there, has he?

So what I am talking about is a very different sort of listening, listening if I may dare say it, from one's heart and trying to connect into the heart of the other. This is altogether new. How does one suspend one's one judgments for a while and just be present to another and try to find the humanity in them? Here's a clue: it's not easy; it takes practice. A few years ago I had a surprising experience. I was watching the evening news on ABC television and the late Peter Jennings was interviewing John Ashcroft on his final night as Attorney General as he left office. Jennings did an amazing interview and was incredibly skillful at the way he got Mr. Ashcroft to open up. I have never liked John Ashcroft and in fact, if the truth is to be told, I had mocked him on more than one occasion. I did not like or approve of the policies and practices he followed as Attorney General. But I was interested and compelled to listen by Jennings' warm and thoughtful approach during the interview. Mr. Ashcroft looked frail to me and I recalled hearing that he had had surgery recently. Jennings asked him for his assessment of his successes and failures as AG. He paused for a moment. He discounted his successes and then spoke ruefully of his disappointments and his failures. I saw a broken man, a man who looked to me as if he might die soon. In some ways he reminded me of my father before his death. I burst into tears and wept and wept. I was so shocked. I couldn't believe my tears. Why was I crying for a man I disliked so intensely? And of course I knew the reason why---I had connected to him as a human being.

What is important about this anecdote is that I never gave up my opinion about Mr. Ashcroft's policies being bad for this country. Yet I was able to see him and honor him as a human being. Were I to ever be in a position of working with him, I know I could accord him basic respect and have a successful working relationship with him. I think this is what all people yearn for: to be treated with dignity, to be seen, honored, to have our stories heard. When we listen to each other this way, even if we dislike or disapprove of one another, we create a space, I might even call it a sacred space, and within that space, new things are possible, new ideas can be invented, new possibilities can be conceived, new approaches designed and carried out. This is a skill, a difficult one to learn but it can be learned and I think it is a critical one for the human race to acquire in the twenty first century. So many of the problems that beset us in our world right now, including the problems of terrorism, global warming, even the possibility of a global pandemic of bird flu, are so huge they could totally overwhelm us. It is vital, I believe, that we find ways of listening to and being with each other, in these perilous and challenging times.

Questions of Inquiry:
1. Do you get a kick or a charge out of mocking or attacking the "other side"? (come on, tell the truth!)

2. What issues most fire you up? What polarizations are you most present to in our society?

3. Have you ever tried to sit down and understand someone very different from yourself and how they got that way? How successful or unsuccessful were you?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Healing Racism? I Don't Want to Talk About It . .

For a few days last September Americans had to face a dirty secret about our society and we didn't want to look. We found elegant and artful ways to call this ugly thing something else.But for a while we had to look at it directly and we didn't like what we saw. And what we saw is that poverty and inequality in this country has a black face. Despair, death, and squalor all were black last September, and it still is. That's what came bubbling to the surface in the fetid flood waters of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina after the levees broke, after the infrastructure collapsed and after all the rhetoric and bombast and pomposity broke down. American shame was on display for the world to see. Racism is an issue I have struggled with for many years in my adult life. I have led groups on racial healing and been part of an on-going group on racial healing. I have looked at my own white privilege. But none of that has made any difference. The racial divide and class divides and the economic and educational disparities persist. Most of all, the pain in African American hearts persists and isn't likely to go away anytime soon. And all our making nice about it and covering it up isn't doing a damn thing to make it go away. God save us from some other major disaster---bird flu anyone?

What is it about this social problem that it so damned resistant to amelioration? What would it take to heal it? Heal it? Did she say heal it? Uh huh. That's what I said. Heal it, completely for all time. Cuz I'm sick of it, sick and tired of people hurting and being hurt by this cancer and I think it's time that America healed itself of this infection. It's hurting us and I think it's time to stop pretending to ourselves that there is no problem. There is a problem and it is costing us plenty. There never has been any doubt in the mind of any black American that there is a problem and that racism has never gone away. Oh, maybe things have gotten a bit better here and there, but the big nasty is still there. The question is how to get white America's attention about it and to get white Americans to see that it is in our interest, our vital interest to decide to heal this thing, now, once and for all, for all time.

Right away when you start to talk about racism you run into a big problem, especially with white people, because the way the language is used in this effort, turns most people off big time. As soon as most white people hear themselves accused of racism, or its newest incarnation, white privilege, they turn off, they absolutely turn a deaf ear and leave the room. This is a critical question and it's one that people who care about such things absolutely need to address if we are to make any headway with this issue. I'm convinced that what white people hear when they are called to account for racism or white privilege is that they hear that they are bad. Or shameful. If someone accuses you of racism or racial bias and you are white, the vast majority of white people will get angry and defensive and the reason is because underneath that we have conflated shame with this word racism, as if we have done something terribly wrong.

About five years ago I applied for a job as a substitute school nurse in the Seattle school district and went in for an interview with the woman who was head of the department. I didn't know that anyone else would be present at the interview. At the last minute another woman, an African American entered the room and sat further away from my interviewer and was not introduced to me during the proceedings. I addressed my remarks to the first woman. Later I was called in for a private session and the head of the department confronted me (she was white) for my racial insensitivity to the African American woman who was a school nurse in the department. My interviewer challenged me about my whether I would be able to be unbiased in the extremely multi-racially mixed Seattle school system. I was heartsick and totally ashamed. I immediately rose to defend myself and blamed her saying, "But you should have told me who she was!" The fact was clear however, I had not accorded fundamental respect to the African American woman. I had not acknowledged her as a human being. I had ignored her presence. I wanted to die. What made this worse for me was that it came after I had done years of work in racism healing! As if that was not bad enough, a few months later, I ran into both these women unexpectedly in another social setting and again, I literally did not see the African American woman. I was so sick with shame that I wrote her a letter of apology afterwards. This experience has stayed seared on my consciousness.

I recently watched a movied called The Color of Fear which is a well-known film in the area of racism reduction. The film, made in 1993, shows a group of racially mixed men who go away for a weekend to discuss the impact of race and racism on their lives. Early on in the film, the men of color appear to gang up on one hapless white man who appears to be in total denial. He is just not getting it at all. As he persists in his ignorance the others, particularly one very articulate African American man, raise their voices, and start screaming at him about their pain and finally, slowly, he begins to connect the dots. I had a lot of problems watching this film this year and began to question whether anger, rage and shouting was the best way to break down white racism. There is no doubt at all in my mind that white racism exists and that it is pernicious. That is not the issue I'm raising. The problem is how best to get peoples' attention and once you get it, how do you hold it so that true healing of this ugly sore, this cancer on the American soul can begin?

When I was confronted on my own racism in 2001, it brought up my own shame and I certainly felt humiliated. However, what I had going for me is that I had already done years of work in this area and I was highly motivated to see through my blind spot and get conscious about it. I didn't have anything to lose. In addition, the nurse manager at the Seattle School District who challenged me about it, did it matter of factly and with great dignity. She was not out to shame me or make me wrong. She had simply taken a stand that this was unacceptable behavior among her staff members and she was fully empowering and supportive of persons of color who worked for her. Believe me, I got that message loud and clear from her and I will always revere her for that.

So when I see how poplular the white privilege argument has become in the field of racism these days I am a little troubled. I recently went to a presentation about white privilege and the speaker was full of zeal, fiery and passionate about getting white people to wake up and see the privilege they have. Lots of teenage kids in the room had tee shirts on in colorful cues--red, green, blue--that said, "Got privilege?" Ya know, it didn't do anything for me. I really wonder if the anger in this approach, well meaning as it is, is the best way to go about waking people up. Whenever anyone has hammered at me about anything in my life, screamed at me, tried to shake me up, tried to get me to see the error of my ways, it has never worked. I literally put up my dukes and resist. And whenever I have tried this approach on anyone to get them to wake up to the blindness of their ways (trying to shake them into awakeness) I notice that it never works either! How come? Because of the shame/badness factor. Because when people are screamed at they feel made wrong and they turn off and go away.

I think to get the attention of white American about the problem of white racism and then to engage them in healing it, an altogether new strategy is called for. For the most part, white Americans didn't design or set white racism into motion. Racism is an inherited conversation. It is in the air we breathe, passed down from generation to generation and we absorb it unconsciously. That is why white Americans have such trouble accepting that it is inside us and it is indeed hurting people of color and hurting them badly. We don't even know we're doing it!! We may not be to blame for it, I think, and hence we need not feel shame for it, but we do need to be responsible for it, and in particular, I think we need to be responsible for healing the effects of it which are contaminating our culture and poisoning relations between black and white Americans and creating costs that I don't think any of us really want to bear any longer.

While racism has terrible finacial costs to African Americans, costs in lost opportunities, educationally and professionally and occupationally, ultimately what it is, is a disease of disconnection and not seeing someone for the precious and unique human being that they are, and persistenly denying them the opportunity to thrive on this planet. I certainly over simplify this problem if I imply that it is solely a white problem to solve. Not at all. In fact, I think there's plenty to be done to heal this problem. What it's going to take is a lot of work within the African American community and a lot of work within the white community and ultimately probably a coming together for some kind of healing in common. What we need however, is a new way to frame that problem, to shift it out of the present context of rage, hatred and blame. I suggest that other contexts might open up avenues for healing.

One of these new contexts for healing is the context of trauma. I saw this vividly when I heard African American author Dr. Joy de Gruy-Leary speak late last year. Dr. de Gruy-Leary has written a book called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. In this groundbreaking book, Dr. de Gruy-Leary suggests that the millions of Africans who were transported here from Africa, and sold into slavery, were deeply traumatized by that harrowing, horrific and humiliating experience. It went on for 400 years. Under terrible conditions of involuntary servitude, people had to adapt and survive. There was no such thing then as post-traumatic stress disorder, no psychologists providing trauma interventions once slavery was over. Survive, survive, survive. That is what it was all about. Dr. de Gruy-Leary describes how African Americans developed patterns of behaviors to deal with their white owners, to protect their girl children from rape, to try to assure that their children would not be sold to other plantations. She traces how these behaviors still exist, unconsciously carried out, in black families today. This is altogether remarkable reading and it will make you weep. Families adapted but they did not heal. How could they? They came out of slavery with nothing and before you know it they faced the Jim Crow laws in the south and the era of lynchings had begun. Dr. de Gruy-Leary's book may be one of the most important books ever written on the effects of slavery and how they persist to this day. It is a brilliant book.

I deeply believe that for Americans to heal the cancer of racism we must go beyond blame and hatred, to the place of of anguish, pain and vulnerability. We must connect at the heart level and see the price that so many of our citizens have paid and continue to pay every day for this pernicious virus. We must be able to see and feel the pain black Americans have paid and we must meet soul to soul and we must grieve together. And this part is vital---white Americans must see the cost to them of continuing in denial, of pretending that this problem does not exist. After I heard Dr. de Gruy-Leary speak, I went home and cried for several days. I thought deeply about the cost to me, as a white American, of racism. What is the price I personally have paid, I asked myself? And this is what I came up with:

  • When I walk down the street, especially at night I am still afraid of being physically attacked or robbed by black boys or men.
  • I am afraid of the anger of powerful black women.
  • I am sick of the financial cost of keeping one third to one half of the population of black men in this country in prison.
  • I am sick that with so many black men having been in prison, many of them cannot vote.
  • I am sick of the cost to our educational system that so many AA kids continue to fail in school.
  • I am saddened by the numbers of African Americans who fail to realize their dreams, whatever those dreams are, whether to be an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, a writer.
  • I am saddened at the economic and gap in inherited wealth between white and African Americans that still persists.
  • I am dismayed that after so many years of working to end racism, I still have so few African American friends. I still live a semi-integrated area but have no close neighbors of color.
  • African Americans go to different parties and to different churches and social clubs than me.
  • Most of all, I miss out and continue to miss out on loving so many people who, were conditions different in our country, I would be able to love and love deeply.

The loss of love, that is the real and terrible cost of racism. It has cut our country apart. And it is a vicious gash on the body politic. After four hundred years, is it not time to heal it, not with anger, not with hatred and blame and accusations, but with deep listening, and compassion and ultimately, with healing?

Questions of Inquiry:
1. Is there a time and a place for anger and rage in the healing of racism? If so, where and when?

2. How can we move past political correctness to honest vulnerability, to loving each other?

3. Do you think it's possible to truly heal racism in this country?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Forgiving the Ancestors

I have written before of the extraordinary pain and suffering caused by intractable conflicts and the cycle of violence that can go on for generations. Why is it that some conflicts are never truly finished and what would it take to completely heal them? Is such a thing even possible for human beings? Indeed, some of us are so cynical and resigned about conflict, especially long-term, deeply embedded conflicts, that we despair about the possibility of this kind of fighting ever being truly resolved or mended. And yet, individual human beings and even families and small groups have found it possible to create enduring peace after deep conflict, so why is it so unthinkable that larger groups caught up in multi-generational conflicts could find their way out of brutish and cruel conflict? The question I am really asking here is, "Is it possible to transfer the lessons of individuals, from the so-called micro level and apply them to the so-called macro level of affairs?"

We tend to divide up our understanding of the how the world works into the arena of the individual and personal (the micro level) and the level of the large group/nation/state or ethnic group (the macro level) and we tend to think that affairs in these realms operate very differently. Certainly they are different in scale. Studies in the academic arena actually divide them into different fields of study. The individual/family realm is studied in psychology and sociology; relationships in the macro realm are studied in political science and these are seen as distinct and different fields. But I don't think they are so different and maybe these fields have a lot to learn from each other, especially when it comes to creating peace and resolving some of these horrific conflicts that go on and on and on.

In 2003 when I made my first trip to Israel/Palestine, I knew very little about the conflict there. I had no ties to that land by blood or religion or ethnicity. I simply showed up out of curiosity. Boy, was I in for a shock! There was much I did not know about the history of the conflict between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians so I simply could not participate in the endless arguments about historical facts that seem to be so characteristic of this conflict. Nevertheless, there was something hauntingly familiar to me about being in the Holy Land. What was it? It was as if it was in the air we were breathing. In the trip I was on, (sponsored and led by The Compassionate Listening Project) we went back and forth listening to stories of suffering by Israelis and Palestinians. I finally realized that why this place felt so familiar to me, (despite its outward strangeness of appearance and custom) was that it reminded me of my family! We're right. No we're right. We've suffered more than you have. No, we've suffered more than you have. I understood this rhetoric in my bones.

And because I have reconciled with my the majority of my family members and found a real family again after many years of discord and division, I believe that peace is possible. I used to characterize my family to friends, jokingly, as being like Bosnia. I did that to cover up my deep seated anguish at being cut-out of my family and cut off from them for so many years. Truthfully, it was the deepest pain I've ever known in my life. And healing with them was the most challenging thing, and the most miraculous and most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. I believe that human beings were meant to live in community. We need each other. Conflict is, I think, natural. Violence, hatred, exile, and cruelty are not. It is possible to heal the wounds of the past. It is possible to develop skills in which we learn to listen to deeply to each other, to hear how what we have done in the past has been experienced by those on the other side. And it is possible to take responsibility and to make right these hurts, these wrongs of the past. It is possible to find a new, more loving and respectful way of living together.

After my first trip to Israel/Palestine I became so fascinated by that conflict that I read everything I could about the origins and history of that fight that will not be done. I returned to Israel/Palestine again in 2004 and it continues to occupy a central place in my thinking. One of the most interesting phenomena about this conflict is the extraordinary way it polarizes people into sides, even here in the United States. Almost without fail, very intelligent, rational, highly educated people who gather to talk about this conflict very quickly fall into an argumentative rhetoric about facts and which version of history is the right one. Almost before you know it, emotion is flying around the room and very sane people are taking one side and blaming the other. These discussions quickly deteriorate, far too often, into designating one side, often the Palestinians as the victims of all-powerful perpetrators, the Israelis. But then, the Israelis and Jews in the room, immediately feel victimized by that rhetoric and launch into defense mode. The attack is on and no one can open their hearts to the other side.

This conflict is not being driven by thoughtful, objective people. I grant you that many people seem rational and objective on the surface, but in reality they are not. They, both Israeli Jews and Palestinians, are being driven by myth and stories of past trauma that have been inherited and passed down year after year. And these stories of trauma fuel the current cycles of violence, retaliation and revenge which create more fodder for future stories and myths. No one seems to know how to break out of this vicious cycle. There is nothing unusual or different about the people involved in this conflict. If you or I had been raised in either of these cultures and grown up hearing these trauma stories passed down to us since the time we were little children, we too would be reacting just like the Israelis and the Palestinians have been reacting for the past fifty plus years. There is no room for superiority and judgment here. What is needed is new ways of thinking.

I was at an Advanced Training of the Compassionate Listening Project a few weeks ago and in that project an exercise was held to simulate a highly emotionally charged issue, so that these facilitators-in-training might learn ways to deal with issues when they things get heated in the room. The theme chosen for the simulation was the question of whether or not the new Hamas government should be supported or not by the Israeli government. A friend of mine who was born in Israel and grew up there in the 1930's and 1940's participated in the exercise. As the exercise came to a close she was telling stories of her experience living in poverty in Israel during those years. Suddenly she turned to the group and said in anguish, "I have asked myself over and over again. I have searched for answers. I have prayed and meditated about it and written in my journal and studied and searched for the roots of this conflict. We didn't hate the Arabs then. We were just trying to survive. We were so poor. What went wrong? What went wrong?" I will never forget the look on my friend's face as she looked up at us and the simulation ended. Indeed, that is the question, what did go wrong?

Llast night I was talking to a Palestinian gentleman that I know who has lived in the United States for many years. He was born in Jerusalem and goes back there from time to time to visit relatives. He told me recently that he has nieces living in Jordan who admitted to him on his last visit that they have considered becoming suicide bombers, so desperate are they to make a difference in the endless conflict with the Israelis. I was talking to this man after he attended a fundraising event for the Compassionate Listening Project. I found my friend in despair. Rather than inspiring him, the event had brought the conflict home to him and made him angrier and made him feel more hopeless and powerless than ever. He cannot see any progress at all in this interminable conflict. He has lost too many friends and family. I asked him if I could listen to his story. "I'm too angry," he said, "No one wants to listen to me being angry." I replied, "I do and I will."

There is so much suffering going on as a result of this conflict alone, and these are just two tiny little experiences of people here in the U.S. This doesn't even begin to touch the suffering going on in Israel/Palestine itself, nor in the intractable conflicts all over the globe: in Sudan, in Congo, in Rwanda/Burundi, in Liberia, in Nigeria, in Sri Lanka, in Colombia and elsewhere.
I find the conflict in Israel/Palestine particularly fascinating because I actually think it is ripe for healing and new approaches. One of these approaches is what I call forgiving the ancestors. The I/P conflict is a natural for creative interventions for several reasons: the territory of the area is small; the time frame for the actual conflict is very specific (from 1880 to the present); and many people who were alive for signifcant parts of the conflict are still alive. There are also many, many people who are sick of the conflict and there are huge economic costs to continuing the conflict.

My Israeli friend's question, "What went wrong?" is a fascinating one. The conflict in Palestine started in the 1880's when Zionist Jews from Europe, to escape pogroms and persecution there, began emigrating to Israel and buying up land there. At first the colonies were small and the local Arabs farming the land didn't raise too much of a fuss at the numbers of Jews arriving to buy land and live there. However, as the numbers of arriving Jews began to shift the population balance, local Arabs began to get worried and disturbed. After the Balfour Declaration and the British protectorate was established in 1917, a subtle shift in power happened with the British giving somewhat more protection to the Jews. The Arabs turned, for the first time to violence, and acts of terrorism took place throughout the 20's and 30's. With the Holocaust, the numbers of Jews seeking a homeland and safety increased dramatically. And so events culminated in the declaration of the United Nations giving a homeland to Israel, followed by the War of Independence and the famous Nakba, the Catastrophe from which the Palestinian people have never recovered.

The roots of the I/P conflict were sown during these years and in all the events that happened after them. Two differing versions of history have arisen and it is this that the two peoples still fight over, as if one were right and one were wrong. My proposal is entirely different: what is needed here, I think, is to embrace the worldview of the actual human beings, both Jews and Palestinians, who were living in those critical times and who took the actions and made the fateful decisions that sowed the seeds for the conflict we have today. Who were these people? They were the fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, great grandfathers and great grandmothers, uncles, aunts of people alive today. If they were Jewish, they came to the land now known as Israel, once known as Palestine, seeking a better life. They came because they sought safety and security for themselves and their children. They were tired of being hunted and persecuted. As my friend testifies, most people in the early days were pioneers, many were literally scratching out a living from the land, and it seems, poverty was rampant. When people are focused on safety and security and taking care of their families, there is little room for generosity and overtures of kindness towards others who are already on the land. As for the Arabs who were living on the land, many of them were poor, some of them were literate, some were not, but they were clearly non-plussed by the increasing numbers of Jews arriving in their land. Their lands were being sold out from under them by absentee landlords. We know this from studies of Palestinian newspapers from the early years of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, despite their unhappiness with the steady influx of Jewish pioneers, the resident Arab population was never able to mount an effective protest againtst the encroaching Jewish wave of immigrants. They were never able to negotiate with them or effectively say, "Hey, this is not okay, we don't like it." They were a tribal people who were powerless to deal with their very westernized, more sophisticated interlopers. The conflict was real however, and this powerlessness took the form of terrorism and violent acts throughout the 20's and 30's and the British seemed powerless to stop it.

Now here's the critical question: were the grandmothers and grandfathers of the past who carved out a living for themselves or who tried to resist the incoming Jews bad people? Did they do it wrong? Nonsense! These were men and women who were doing the best they knew how to do at the time. If the new immigrants had had the energy to negotiate with the Arabs, if they had even recognized that their arrival constitued a threat to the people already on the land, they might have made different choices but they did not. Their focus was on feeding themselves and building a new country. For whatever reasons, the Arabs living on the land were not empowered enough to mount an effective protest and to make their voices heard with the incoming Jews. Nobody knew how to talk to each other. Nobody knew how to listen to each other. Most importantly, it was apparently not on anyone's radar screen back then that this was vitally important to do and if it wasn't attended to it would create huge problems in the future. (Actually a few people like Martin Buber foresaw the problem but no one paid them any attention.)

So the ancestors plowed on, doing the things they had to do to survive, carrying out the actions that they thought they had to carry out, doing the best they could. And some of it resulted in acts that still have consequences today. Is it worth blaming the ancestors over this? I think not. I think it is time to forgive the ancestors. I think it is time to let them go and let them rest. They did the best they could, at every moment they did, and each of us, is always doing the very best we can to make the best of the present situation. Let us bless them for their gifts to us and let them sleep in deepest peace. It is up to us, those of us alive today to relinquish the past, and especially the myths and stories of suffering of the past, the blame and resentment and the game of who is right and who is wrong and who has suffered more, and it's time to get on with life and create a new future for our grandchildren and for future generations. Let us create a new future without war, a future full of forgivenss and healing and empowerment, where our children can play and we can sit under the grape arbors and drink wine together in the sun. This is completely possible. Listening to each other is a place to begin.