On hiking as metaphor

Belfast, N. Ireland My blog writing has been less than adequate of late, as it has actually been nonexistent. I have been meaning to write a couple of entries, updating you all on the end of the semester here in Belfast and providing insights into both my week-intensive on storytelling at Corrymeela in the north and my two day silent retreat with the Benedictines in the south (of Northern Ireland). Unfortunately, I have not found time for any such writing. I return to the States for Christmas on Friday, and perhaps I will find time to do some writing there. I did want to offer a very brief reflection that I wrote after a two hour hike in some hills behind Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor last week. These hills had no marked paths, save for the occasional one resulting from the traffic of sheep and cattle. My time on the hills was very much a wandering, with no clearly designated way to go. As I wandered up the hillsides, I began to notice how much the hike paralleled the work of conflict transformation.


Direction and Adaptation

When we begin the hike, we have an idea of where we need to go, and so we choose a direction, a path. But quickly we might run into a dead end, or hit a ridge, or come across a marsh. Thus, we have to adapt, and this requires humility as we accept our first path didn’t work. We might walk horizontally for a while or perhaps even backtrack, thereupon not making any “progress” up the hill, but then suddenly and unexpectedly, we might see a way, as if it just presented itself. But then we will need to adapt again, always altering our direction slightly to account for the things we didn’t see at the beginning that were always there (cliffs, boulders, trees, streams, etc.), as well as the things that may have just arrived, such as wildlife or bad weather.

In conflict transformation, though we might know where we eventually hope to get (i.e. coexistence, healing, reconciliation, justice, etc.), we may not know the best path to get us there. But we choose one and move forward. It would be foolish, though, to expect that we will never have to adjust our movement. Approaching conflict transformation with humility allows us the freedom to adapt and try new things, not crushed by the realization that our first path was not the best one long term. And we must be vigilant, aware that the best way forward may be one we didn’t see before or never expected. Lederach talks about this in the form of a soccer match (see previous post).

Patience and Taking Stock

Sometimes we need to stop, catch our breath, and survey the terrain. We can’t always trudge ahead without ceasing, as we may find ourselves lost. Additionally, pausing allows us to soak in our surroundings, appreciating the potential beauty of where we currently find ourselves.

An old adage says, “When one finds oneself at the edge of a precipice, a wise person takes a step backwards.” Railroading through conflict is rarely, if ever, right. Tunnel-vision puts on blinders that do not take into account the surroundings and what might be happening that should change the direction, or even definition, of our progress. Sometimes we may need to pull back and try something different. But as Lederach discusses in The Moral Imagination, there are times when it is best to stop doing and just wait and watch. We often scream, “Stop sitting there! Do something!” But perhaps there are times when we should stop doing something and just sit there.[1] The monastic discipline of vigilance would apply well here.

Getting Dirty

All the while we are aware that there is crap everywhere! In fact, there is so much of it, we cannot help but step in it. We will get plenty dirty as the crap of other creatures gets on us. But this is to be expected. We cannot anticipate we can hike up a muddy, sheep-roamed hillside and remain clean.

People bring all kinds of stuff into conflict transformational processes. We cannot expect to emerge from such processes looking and feeling the same as when we started. Inevitably, we will be affected by the trauma of others as we engage deeply in the “crap” (to put it crassly) that has happened to them.

Journeying Together

Additionally, such treks should not be attempted alone, especially without a way to call for help. If we slip and injure ourselves or get lost, we would have no way to get help. We have to do such treks together so we can support each other. To say yet again, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”

We cannot deal with the trauma of conflict on our own and expect to survive, much less heal. We need to journey together, to draw off each other’s experiences and energies. No person is an island. We must learn to live and embrace the shelter of each other.

One Issue Among Many

As I hiked up toward the peak of the hill which I set out to climb, I found when I reached the top that it was not in fact the pinnacle, but only a brief plateau atop the first slope of the greater hill. Each time I reached “the peak” I found another hill rising from the current one. The decision then is whether to turn back, too daunted by the ever climbing numerous peaks, or keep pressing on determined to find the zenith. 

In the same way, I think we have a tendency in conflict resolution to assume the current issue is the whole issue and when we have resolved it, then we have resolved the conflict. But quickly we find that the issue with which we are currently engaged is only one among many, and the other issues may actually be much more difficult to climb as they grow increasingly steeper. And like the hike, we have to decide if we bail and just give up, or if we keep moving, trying to transform the conflict and not just one or two issues.

[1] John Paul Lederach, “On Web Watching” and “On Serendipity,” in The Moral Imagination, 101-129.


  1. It is actually very simple. “There is no peace,” says the LORD, “for the wicked.” Isiah 48:22

  2. mtmcray says:

    What is simple? I’m sorry. I’m not quite sure what you are referencing.

  3. EVMacBain says:

    Interesting view on the challenges the world is facing today. Things are getting more complex by the minute, .
    Mr Cummings, would you mind explaining, what do you mean by it’s simple? I don’t think anything is purely black or white, so one cannot quite easily distinguish one or the other without considering the complexities involved around the actions and choices people make.

  1. […] of forgiveness that cannot come, was a truly humbling experience. In a conversation I had during a silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor, one of the Benedictine brothers explained that the word […]

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