Looking deeply and listening softly

Looking deeply and listening softly

Illustration credit: Kathryn Gichini

Being changed forever can happen unexpectedly.

Rwanda, 27 June 2009: My task at the Mutobo demobilization centre that day was complex, but (I had expected) achievable. I was to interview former members of a rebel force that had recently committed a series of horrific atrocities in eastern Congo, part of a United Nations investigation that would contribute to determining the chain of command, and thus responsibility, for war crimes. I had been doing this work for years and felt confident with the backing of an arsenal of international human rights treaties and the bastion of Security Council resolutions that mandated my investigations. I was convinced that within a few weeks—months at most—we would have forensically mapped out who had ordered what, when, and where, and thus be on the way towards something like justice.

Probably: I had already been at this kind of work for too long. Likely: I was exhausted. Yet from that collapsing space of conviction emerged a different kind of possibility: on that day, my refined capacities to judge and my honed skills to ascribe blame instead gave way to seeing more deeply and to listening more completely. Consequently, what I saw and what I heard brought me closer to humanity than I had ever been before.

Captain X was escorted to the table where I was conducting interviews: I first saw his face, without a jaw, that I would learn had been blown out years before by a grenade. Then I heard his voice, which carried a trembling story of devastation, loss and fear. His testimony embodied Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘law of conservation of violence’, which explains how violence—like electricity—will continue to travel the path of least resistance. Captain X and all the countless others were entrenched in systems of structural and global violence from which they had no means of emerging.

The systemic violence that Bourdieu describes lays at the foundations of the social, economic and political structures that organize the societies in which we live. It is transmitted between individuals and across generations—and, crucially, through institutions, laws, policies and practices—and is thus conserved. Such conservation can feel inevitable. Yet we are—right now—living in a moment that calls into question such inevitability. A pandemic has shown us that we can stop. One more killing has shown us that it is enough.

The work of transforming systemic violence can feel grueling. It can be exhausting. Yet it must be done. It is actually easier than we think: it simply starts with that next right action.

What do we do with our next breath?

What do we do with our next breath?

Photo credit : Adam Wilson

Before reading any further, please watch this 9 minute video documenting the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020.

George Floyd’s supplication is simple and soul-ravaging in its clarity: “I can’t breathe… please.” His life is taken before our eyes, and, as his last breath leaves him, bystanders plead, futilely appealing to a sense of brotherhood in officers who have, for generations, policed the violent and entrenched structures of inequality and injustice.

Barely emerging from the confines of a respiratory viral pandemic, we are confronted with the dystopia of a nation facing centuries-old rage that has been too-long stifled. Protesters are–in this very moment—reckoning with the myths of equality and justice that have only ever been partial. They are also revealing the power of individuals, coming together, willing a bottom up change that is the start of an awakening—the crude and compelling collective consciousness once willed by Franz Fanon—that lies at the foundation of truly transformative social change.

Tonight, protests across the United States continue. There is rage that must come out, that must burn through so many generations of fear and hardship and hate and denial. The time has come for a collective reckoning of no-longer-sustainable injustices.

Beware: this is not only an American story.

We are living in a global moment that has never been experienced before. This rare and fleeting gift of consciousness is at once terrifying but also full of possibility. So what will we do with this possibility?

This global moment is raw and visceral, pulsing with fear, discontent and uncertainty. It is a moment also beseeching us to love—love of the big and universal kind that transforms embers of darkness into light. In a “night already devoid of stars”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once offered us his guidance: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

We are on the precipice of a different kind of world. We are so close to something better… but everyday individual actions will be required to realize meaningful positive social transformation, which will require collectively-sustained courage, imagination, audacity, and grace. This is what we can each practice with our next breath.

What does it mean to build trust in our communities during the covid19 crisis?

What does it mean to build trust in our communities during the covid19 crisis?

Photo credit: Nina Strehl

Annika Erickson-Pearson is the Community and Communications Coordinator at the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform. She is finishing her Master’s in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, and focuses her work on urban conflict and gang recovery.

I’ve spent most of the quarantine living in a small house in a small town outside of a small city in a small country. I share this small house with people to varying degrees of immuno-vulnerability. I feel anxiety being around people, even my friends and people I know and trust.

As the world around me reopens, I notice my own feelings change. My first reaction upon hearing that controls would loosen was disappointment. I understand the necessities of creating opportunities for the (small) businesses that make this a thriving community, but I’m terrified of the health implications it has… for this same community. 

Covid19 is a peculiar virus, wrapping our destinies all up together into one. The degree to which I take precaution directly impacts the health of the people with whom I live. 

Recently, I’ve turned to peacebuilding to help me think through things. 

A friend whom I respect recently told me about an agreement she had with four friends during the quarantine. Acknowledging that they were in pursuit of a common good (time together, in person), they each undertook additional precautions to ensure they could be safely together. They were willing to adhere to a set of stricter standards (a cost, to exercise greater caution than usual in day-to-day life) in order to receive a benefit. They built an explicit agreement, committed to it, each giving a little and receiving quite a lot. 

Another friend told me a less-successful version of this story. He attempted to pursue a similar plan of action with his friends, but realized one week in that his friends were not understanding “precaution in the same way he did.” What was the difference?

I decided to give this a whirl in my own house and asked that my cohabitators come together for a joint expectation-setting conversation. I had no idea how to structure the conversion, so we fumbled our way through a discussion on the current situation, our fears and hesitations, and aspects we felt confident about. Over the course of the 30 minutes, one person emerged as the more “conservative” in the bunch, advocating for showers upon reentry from being in public, while another the more “liberal,” noting comfort with taking public transportation. 

It’s fair to say that different people look at the world, the threat of this virus, and our pathways towards global restoration very differently. 

It’s also apparent that in many places, these differences are causing actual conflict. People are protesting in the streets, boycotting businesses for their policies (either too conservative or too liberal), and there even seems to be a growing partisan divide between “mask-wearers” and “mask-abstainers.” 

While it might be tempting to think of peacebuilding as a tool that can “only” help us in “places” where there is “actual” “conflict,” we need to reject that framework. (Side note: I’m an American, who moved all the way to international Geneva (Switzerland) to pursue a master’s degree in “development,” whatever that is. I focus on the United States, which, for the record, is in desperate need of peacebuilding and development work.)

Let’s talk about dialogue.

If we go back to the more successful example of my friend and her small group of peers, we see a couple of factors. First, they came together for an actual discussion, face-to-face, on screen or person. Discussants were given the opportunity to contribute, but also were expected to listen to one another. Second, this discussion resulted in the explicit definition of variables. What does “extra precaution” mean? What does “safely together” mean? What is off limits? And third, perhaps unknowingly, these friends created a container for future dialogue. That is, if an agreement was breached, there had already been a precedent set for review and discussion around the breach as opposed to gossip or (passive) aggression. The other example likely failed in part because these steps were not followed. 

If our destinies are bound up in one another, we must establish regular and open dialogue, which fosters trust and creates healthy mechanisms for feedback. 

We can develop these containers with our roommates, with our partners, with our friends, with our coworkers, with the people we share apartment buildings with, with our neighborhoods, or with our communities. We can go to the people we are suspicious of and ask, “What makes you comfortable? What makes you uncomfortable?” 

In our house, we struck a balance between the needs. We decided that for the next two weeks we will enjoy seeing our friends, but see them outside and agree not to go into the homes or apartments of others. We decided to avoid public transportation but be more active about asking for access to the car of one of the house members if we need to get around. We decided that we’ll avoid restaurants for the time being, but reevaluate in two weeks as we see the national statistics. We set up a parameter for a future conversation to review our agreements and adjust given any updates. I can only speak for myself, but I feel safer, less anxious, and more confident, knowing that I am doing my best to look out for those around me and that they are doing the same for me. I trust them. 

But can this approach be applied outside of homes or buildings? Can this transcend roommates and coworkers? Of course, I don’t know for sure. But I have an idea.

A friend of mine recently described the situation in his town in the United States. He says it’s come down to a divide between mask-wearers and mask-abstainers, which is creating high tension in the community and even determining which grocery stores are “safe zones” for either side. Of course, as someone who studies conflict, the spatialization of conflict concerns me sincerely. When people start to get protective over their “turf,” our reptilian brain can take over and reduce the likelihood of seeing the “other side” as humans deserving of our attempts to understand. 

I wonder if a “grocery store dialogue” could be possible. By this I mean, host a zoom call. Invite grocery store owners from “both sides,” as well as grocery store patrons from “both sides.” Accept those who are willing to commit to civil and thoughtful discourse. Engage a neutral facilitator who is willing to hold all parties accountable to civil discourse. Frame the conversation as both parties sitting on the same side of the table, looking at a common challenge: how can we build a stronger community during the covid19 crisis? Set conversational parameters: if someone starts to yell, they receive an immediate warning that they will be muted if they repeat their yelling, and if they continue to violate the rules of conversation, they are removed. Pose questions to both sides, giving equal time to explain their concerns about the covid19 crisis. Develop a common set of definitions, and eventually, perhaps in future meetings, outline a plan of shared action. 

Maybe the concern from some grocers is that 10% of their business comes from patrons who staunchly oppose mask-wearing. Maybe people in the community agree to crowd-fund that 5% of revenue so that the store can become a “masks-only” business, which would bring an additional 5% of business. You won’t know until you ask. And you can’t ask unless there’s a firm but peaceful container for the conversation. 

A strong community is just that: a community. A place where people go out of their way to help one another, both in terms of health and economics. Until we begin to better understand the needs of others, we can’t know what “helping them” truly looks like. Peacebuilding can often involve uncomfortable conversations with the “other side”. It helps to remember the alternative, that tensions deepen, the economy suffers, health suffers, and people live in fear and anxiety. 

So maybe there’s a “turf” conflict happening where you live. Is there a possibility for dialogue? 

Anyone can be a peacebuilder. You just need to start where you are. 


Continue the conversation with Annika: 

Belonging to each other

Belonging to each other

Photo courtesy Miriam Nabarro, London

‘We belong to each other’: these old words of wisdom remind us to care for and to hold sacred all that unites us, all that binds us together. Acknowledgement of our intimate and inescapable human connection—long forgotten, ignored, or denied—has now been forced upon us by a virus we barely understand, cannot yet contain, and, above all, fear.

Fear can be a powerful foe, or the greatest of teachers. In this unique and fleeting global moment we have an opportunity to confront our fear head on. To look deeply into its eyes and to see—if we are brave enough—reflections of ourselves, of our societies, of what we have become, and of how we have forgotten to be.

It was only a few weeks ago, on 2 March 2020, that a shocking Euronews video clip documented the Hellenic Coast Guard using prods and warning shots to push away a dinghy carrying desperate human beings in search of safety and hope. They were denied at the borders of a European ‘civilization’ once proud of its Herodotean ideals of fairness and equal liberty.

That basic and universal aspirations such as safety and hope should regain their meaning in a global pandemic gives pause to the sense of entitlement that has prevailed among the world’s fortunate few. As entrenched international and national systems falter and business-as-usual is no more, we have a rare opportunity to reconsider the societies we want. From such terrible circumstances emerge the possibility to imagine different ways of being, for we know that there are so many better ways we could be.

Yet the possibility of transformation can be terrifying, so the obvious default option is to resuscitate defunct systems and reinforce corroded ideals. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What we need now more than ever is courage—of the most basic and universal kind—to see into the darkness of this unknown how we are also being given a chance to save ourselves.

Feeling where it hurts

Feeling where it hurts

Ruby Sales, civil rights-era luminary and leading theologian, once asked a young sex worker who was battling out her daily survival on the margins of segregation-era America: ‘Where does it hurt?’. Into gently listening ears, the young woman’s story flooded forth: a personal chronicle of family abuse and intimate violation, transposed upon the history of entrenched social injustice. These co-occurring hurts lived in the same territory of pain.

Where is the pain, and what does it tell us?

With my yoga students, we enter these questions anatomically: to work through collapsing spines and exhausted minds, I offer postures and sequences aimed to strengthen and to ease. With my university students, we enter these questions analytically: to understand political economies of inequality, we consider how global, historically entrenched practices of material consumption are driven through (explicit and invisible) patterns of systemic violence.

Our pain tells such eloquent stories, and sometimes they converge:

Sixteen-year-old Ibrahim has an inspiring capacity to easily integrate the teachings of yoga alignment that have taken me decades to learn. He balances on his hands with a lightness and grace that evoke something like awe in me. But usually it’s the simplest postures that cause him pain. One day he brought me the x-ray image showing that his humerus bone is fractured close to the shoulder joint. I asked him how it happened.

‘I was still in Libya then. One day I was trying to escape a beating, but I fell as I was running away. I raised my hands to protect myself from their batons. That’s when my arm was broken.’

Is it in our pain that we realize how much the same we all are?

Tibetan Buddhist scholar Pema Chödron writes: ‘Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.’ Perhaps this is why equality feels like an ache as well? That it is in its absence that the possibility of equality hurts so much?

‘I cannot feel the last three fingers of my right hand,’ another young yoga student explained one day as I guided the class into Adho Mukha Svanasana. We knelt together on his mat to examine his open palm: deeply scarred, irreversibly wounded. ‘They set dogs on me as I climbed the fence at Ceuta. But somehow I managed to get over to the other side.’

This is raw, shared pain and it is profoundly troubling. So I anticipate the first question: ‘What should we do with it?’ There are endless ways to begin healing such pain, but before we start, the hurt must first be acknowledged.

Courage (denoting the heart)

Courage (denoting the heart)

As I climbed the small flight of stairs on the Nice-Ventimiglia regional train, the rhythms of Naija’s summer hits wafted down. At the top, a young man who I would come to know as Abeo danced to Joeboy’s ‘Baby’. The train began to move along the glittering coastline, and as the compartment emptied of its Sunday afternoon beachgoers, Abeo strolled down the aisle in search of anything useful but forgotten or unwanted. Eventually he stopped next to me, and asked with disarming grace: ‘Signora, mi dai un po’ d’acqua?’ I extended my half-finished bottle of San Pellegrino and replied, in English: ‘I like your playlist.’ With what appeared at first like disbelief, then perhaps relief, he collapsed into the empty seat across from me. As we continued our journey, for now together, Abeo shared a little of his story.

‘Four years ago, I decided to take my chances to find a better life. Nigeria offered me no hope at all for improvement, no opportunities, no possibility to realize my dreams. So I made my way across the Sahara… you can imagine. Near Tripoli I managed to find work as a transporter. (Those Libyans, they have so much money, oh!) Life was good there. I would have stayed to keep working, but then there was the war. I was arrested. In prison I nearly died… The war got worse. Eventually I managed to escape. I made my way here.’

For Abeo, ‘here’ is the [f]rontierland between Italy and France, where, for him, daily existence is rarefied to the basics of finding a bed for the night and a meal for the day. His most valuable possession is now a plastic id card issued by the Red Cross that sometimes gets him out of a visit to the police station but that most tangibly sustains his hope that he might one day be allowed to stay. Then he could work, contribute to life (here, and ‘there’), and simply get on with realizing the shining possibilities of his dreams. For it is in his dreams that he finds the courage to face the excruciating uncertainty and hardships of each day.

[Courage: Middle English (denoting the heart, as the seat of feelings): from Old French corage, from Latin cor ‘heart’.]

‘Do you know that usually when I ask people for something here, before they’ve even heard my question, they just say: ‘No. No. No.’ Sometimes I’ll just be asking for something like directions, and they’ll reply ‘No’. Or they look away then walk around me, putting as much distance between us as quickly as they can. At first, I wondered to myself if something was wrong with me. Did I smell? I didn’t understand why I was so frightening. Eventually I stopped asking them for help. I got used to being ignored. But I still haven’t understood why I seem less human to them.’

Humanity. Our shared human experience: an acknowledgement that requires tremendous courage in this world today– this, our burning, fleeing, hating, denying world today– and yet, it is the tiny act of shared humanity that we all most urgently need, and that we can so easily realize, here, today.