Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Art of Peace

Mostly I listen to podcasts while I exercise, and I did that today. However, I also find they help me do mundane tasks like cleaning the kitchen. And I did that today, too. I listened to part of several Speaking of Faith episodes. I haven't listened to any of these for a while, even though it's one of my favorite programs.

The most interesting one was called The Art of Peace. It's an interview with Mennonite John Paul Lederach about his life in peacemaking, working in many areas of entrenched conflict. I found all of this fascinating, but the part I liked best was about using poetry and music in peacemaking. Lederach's daughter Angie has worked with child soldiers in Sierra Leone, helping them re-integrate with their communities after they have been brutalized by their experiences.

Here are some excerpts from the transcript:

Ms. Tippett: You and Angie writing together have talked about this phrase we often use about "unspeakable violence."

Mr. Lederach: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: And, in fact, that the ways human beings transcend or give voice to what they need to give voice to sometimes is not through words and process but through poetry and music in that, again, you know, somebody might hear that and say, "Oh, how sweet. How fluffy." Right?

Mr. Lederach: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: But you see these things as essential to survival in the most excruciating circumstances. So, again, is that something you've discovered across the years?

Mr. Lederach: Yes. I think very much so. And a lot of it by having been very close to people who have suffered not just a single event of violence, which is already horrific in itself, but have lived through repeated cycles of that kind of violence and displacement. And so much of the literature that's written about healing, trauma healing in particular in the field that we work with, and reconciliation is often written from the standpoint of sort of the bigger picture of the things that happen across time. Here are the stages, or here are the phases. And what we were discovering at several levels was that many of the things that were most important to healing and reconciliation are in the realm not only of the unspeakable, but are often in the realm of things that are not linear. That is, that they are circular. They may be repetitious, they may be ritualistic in form, because people have a capacity to experience and feel something for which they cannot give good, clear, or fully explainable words. The words just aren't there to do it. And essentially what we've come up with is that there are some very significant things that happen in healing and reconciliation that cannot be described as a person progressing from point A to B, but that are in fact very important elements of healing. One of those, for example, is the notion that going in circles, we would typically say if you're looking at it from the lens of a program that has funding that over the next year or two is supposed to produce something and it's applied …

Ms. Tippett: And a trajectory. Right.

Mr. Lederach: It's applied to healing or reconciliation, then going in circles is not going anywhere. When in fact, going in circles may be doing something that's very different. It may be about deepening. So, you know, I somewhat facetiously tell my colleagues at Notre Dame where I teach, I said, "Imagine for a moment if the funding agencies were coming here to Notre Dame and were inquiring about your behavior that they're noticing, which is you keep doing mass, some of you every day, most of you at least once a week. Is there something that's not effective about the way you're doing mass? If you did it once, would it not be" — in other words, we don't apply that …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Lederach: We don't apply that lens to something like mass or music or other things. We understand that the purpose that it has is to create a space that permits you to get back in touch. Now here's where it becomes important. That words often move things to a head level, explaining …

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Mr. Lederach: … but the violation lies at the level of the bone. That's something that you feel in your very core but you may not have words to express.
. . .
Mr. Lederach: So her [Angie's] work was with how and what ways communities and particularly women work with the reintegration of child soldiers. And so you have an identity of being a victim, but you also are brought into a fighting force where you become a part of something that requires you to do violence for survival, so you become a perpetrator. You are a motherless child mother.

What she saw rather clearly in the work that she was doing, that in the times when they were interviewing young women who were child mother soldiers about their experience, they found a very sort of flat effect reporting of their life story. A number of them could not read or write, but poetry permitted them to bring forward a voice that was nowhere present in the interviewing format. On the other side of that coin was how, particularly, mothers and communities brought child soldiers back into communities that they — that is, the child soldiers — had actually violated.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Lederach: And among the modalities, especially in West Africa, was that many of these went back to rituals of rebirthing. So you would use a birthing ritual, which would typically be done when a child was born into a family or community.

Ms. Tippett: Oh.

Mr. Lederach: They used formats of those rituals in order to bring back people into a sense of connection to the community again. And those almost invariably at one point or another involved singing.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Lederach: And certainly in some instances drumming. All of which has sort of this vibrational component to it that sits at a much different level than the ones that are more typically explained, especially in the therapeutic understandings of psychological counseling.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Lederach: Which seems to be the least useful things in those contexts.

So often we think of music and poetry and art as nice add-ons to life, rather than essentials. They are the first things to go when we are cutting school budgets. They are seen, in Krista Tippett's words, as "sweet" and "fluffy." And yet these things are at the core of what makes us human, and they are vital in healing. That's certainly my experience, and it's fascinating to me to hear this explanation of how that works on a larger scale. It fits with my exercise podcast from today, too.

Another interesting part of this podcast was Lederach's haiku.

Mr. Lederach: I've gotten very interested in the connection between poetry and peace building over the last years. One of those insights and one of those areas of personal discipline for me was both discovering and working with, but then deepening a kind of a haiku understanding of complexity. Which, as I see it, is an ability not to simplify the complex, but to some degree the haikuist is constantly trying to capture the full complexity of a human experience in the fewest words possible. And that discipline is a very interesting one and it requires haikuists — I'm an especially big fan going back into its origin toward Basho and Kikaku, a variety of these haiku Japanese poets. Their understanding of what they were doing was about a kind of a way of being in a context, particularly nature for many of the haikuists, the link between the human experience and the experience of the richness of nature, in a way you could fully capture the moment, the season, the human experience, but in this very short five syllable-seven syllable-five syllable kind of a format.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, "I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity."

Ms. Tippett: I love that.

Mr. Lederach: And that is what the haikuist is after. So I do a variety of things. One of them is that I've become much more respectful of, I think, the link between appreciating being in and feeling nature and noticing things that we're involved in when we're in settings of violence. For me it's like a recuperation of sorts. But the other is that as I travel in work, I listen for haiku in people's conversation because what I find is that quite often when people say something and we all have a kind of an a-ha moment around what was said, it often is a capturing of the complexity, that simplicity on the other side, and it comes out very close to, if not actually in the form of, a haiku. And I could give you one or two of those if you want.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Mr. Lederach: I refer to them as conversational haikus or poetry in conversation. That is, that people don't take notice of their poetic capacity in the midst of their conversation, so I take note of it. So I jot notes of it. I sometimes — I don't often keep all these in sort of my own repertoire. I give them back to people. In fact, I've done whole summaries of meetings sometimes just by capturing a range of these haikus. I think you were in one of those once.

Ms. Tippett: Yes, I was at a meeting and you sent us all the haikus at the end. They were fantastic. Yes.

Mr. Lederach: Yeah. So if you want, let me start …

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Lederach: … with one or two that are of that nature.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Lederach: Seven years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I was sitting in a seminar and people, while still happy that the agreement had held, felt that Northern Ireland has fossilized in its sectoral relations. That is, that things were simply not changing and that it may not get much better. And in a dinner conversation, one of the colleagues from Northern Ireland I was sitting with said this that I placed into a haiku. I actually gave this one a title. I don't always title my haikus, but this one's called "Rainbow's End?" Maybe, he says, this / is as good as it will get / peaceful bigotry.

Ms. Tippett: Hmm.

Mr. Lederach: A few that were, for me, things that I've picked up in places I've been that just give a flavor. I've worked on occasion with a group of people from Burma —inside, from the ethnic minority groups. They call them ethnic minorities even though they're the majority. That means they're not Burmese. And many of them have armed fronts that have been fighting, some of them for decades and decades, against the current regime. I worked primarily with a small group of people who for one reason or another were brought into being shuttle mediators, attempting to open up, discuss, or move some kind of a negotiation on between people in the Burmese government and various of the armed ethnic groups. There were small sets of people who had these experiences from each of the seven or eight ethnic groups. And in 2003, I spent the better part of a week simply listening to their stories. They were, from a mediator's standpoint, some of the hardest stories that I've ever heard.

I can remember one group who lived very close to the Bangladesh border with Burma who needed to carry a message across the border to the commander of an armed movement that was just on the other side, but they could not pass directly through the border to that area. They needed to travel all the way to the capital city of Yangon, get a passport, and every passport has to be turned in after each visit. So it's a one-time passport. Then fly to a third country in order to convey one message. And then all the way back again to bring it forward, many times sitting with local commanders or groups who would arrest them and keep them imprisoned for weeks on end until they sorted through whether they were legitimate.

The perspective that you have in these situations is so unbelievable about the kind of difficulties that they're facing. And the group that I was meeting with used a kind of an informal name. They referred to themselves as "The Mediators Fellowship." And so I wrote a little haiku when I was leaving Yangon, and this is in March of 2003. It was titled "Advice from the Mediators Fellowship."

Don't ask the mountain/ to move, just take a pebble/ each time you visit.

Ms. Tippett: Hmm.

Mr. Lederach: Want one more?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Lederach: Tajikistan. This was translated back from Tajikian to English, and the way that it rang in the translation, I played with it a little bit and it came out almost as a perfect haiku. They have very odd borders in Central Asia that were created by Stalin that have separated small portions of each major group so that every country has a minority of every other country's majority. And some of the most significant cultural cities of one group are located in a country where they don't live. So this was the haiku that came out. This one was in April 2003.

Gods and men love maps/ they draw borders with pens that/ split lives like an ax.

Don't you want to have Lederach over for dinner and listen to him talk for hours? I do.

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