Journey through Conflict Workshop, pt. 2

(continuing…)

“I AM”

For the “I AM” exercise, the facilitators asked us to spend our first evening reflecting over numerous “I…” statements, such as “I feel…”, “I think…”, “I see…”, “I wonder…”, etc. Included were three “I AM…” statements, giving us chances to touch upon a few important aspects of our perceived core identities. The next morning we shared our statements with the group, forgoing the potential urge to explain our reasons behind each.

This exercise allowed me to attempt to capture in poetic form glimpses into the many complexities within myself. Statements such as, “I want…to forget but always remember,” “I feel…ready yet unprepared,” “I AM…sometimes,” and “I AM…unfinished” hinted at the inner paradoxes and intricacies I uncovered. But, especially in the context of former enemies after violent conflict or deep personal trauma, this exercise offers the potential for participants’ (likely) one-dimensional stories of each other to be challenged through listening to others’ complex self-perceptions. Essentially, the “I AM” exercise reminded and reinforced for me that we all are labyrinths of internal and external interpretations.

Life Stories and the Possibilities of ‘Storytelling’

After the facilitators divided us into small groups of four or five, we dispersed, each person taking a blank extra-large sheet of paper and set of colored markers, to spend an hour reflecting over our life stories and then drawing images representing significant events, themes, or feelings. When we reconvened, participants had nearly 45 minutes to tell individual stories using their own illustrations, with ten minute breaks in between each recounting. The presence of an attentive audience created a safe and welcoming atmosphere that made narration possible. For many, the attention of another is all that is needed to open the floodgates of narrative.[1]

Looking down on Holy Cross Monastery during a hike in the hills.

Though I revisited great pain through my narration (as most probably do), I found listening to the stories of others’ lives to be more troubling. To enter into their pain, to hear it in their wavering voices, to see it in symbolic images of feelings of drowning or in the desperate need for words 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 humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning ground. To be humble, he told me, is to be fully grounded in “you as you,” not believing yourself to be more or less than you actually are. Humility, essentially, is accepting that I am who I am. To know who I am, I must learn to see through the facades I present to the world, a process of raw and revelatory introspection as I reconcile the tensions between who I am and who I want others (and myself) to believe I am.

For me, the hearing of others’ stories has often provided the sharpest tools for scraping away these layers of the false self. As I tell and retell my story,and as I find parallels to that story voiced in fresh ways through the hearing of others’ life narratives, I gain deeper insights into my bare reality and become more fully grounded in who I am. I experienced the “Life Histories” process as candlelight in a vast dark wood. Unlike flipping a light switch, the flickering flame does not repel all darkness but rather, while dwelling in the humble glow of the candlelight, makes one more keenly aware of the immense surrounding blackness. Likewise, as I guided the proverbial candlelight of narration through my past, I became more humbly aware of both the dark mysteries of events not yet fully explored as well as was reminded of experiences I wished to remain undisturbed and undiscovered in the night of days before.[2] 

Along with the potential to cultivate humility, constructive storytelling may also lead to rehumanization.[3] When we perceive our other whom we do not know, we orchestrate in our minds a story about who they are, which – especially in the context of violent conflict or deep personal trauma – is often devoid of any positive nuance. The great benefit of such experiences as Journey through Conflict is that it provides participants a safe environment in which to explore the risky, mysterious waters of the other so that a more complete story might be understood.[4] In the context of animosity and trauma, sharing stories can blur the ‘black and white’ divisions between ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victim/survivors,’ allowing for the realization that those who offend have often suffered themselves.[5]

Rehumanizing the other means potentially coming to empathize – i.e. trying to see the intricacies of the world through the other’s particular lenses – which is a necessary component of the reconciliation journey.[6] This does not mean we will agree with or even accept their perspectives. In fact, as learning increases, so too may genuine dislike.[7] Thus, while storytelling will not formulaically lead to positive feeling, such practices can create a basic level of understanding and toleration. Participants might learn to live in the tension of the difficult questions that emerge without retreating into ghettoized preexistences, where clear boundaries divide “them” and “us.” Rehumanization allows for the acknowledgement of intra- and interpersonal human fluidity, the release of the tendency to demarcate people as either ‘saints’ or ‘demons.’ It is, in essence, granting the other the freedom to be complex.

The sharing of life histories also contains the potential for healing.[8] Carolyn Yoder identifies three core components of the journey of healing: safety, acknowledgement (of both our own trauma and the other’s), and reconnection.[9] She writes that “acknowledging and telling the story counteracts the isolation, silence, fear, shame or ‘unspeakable’ horror” that so often accompanies trauma.[10] For many victims/survivors, a great tension exists between speaking about their trauma and keeping silent, perhaps due to fear or a perceived incapability to speak the “unspeakable.”[11] The freedom to listen and share creatively within a healthy, safe environment may help battle feelings of helplessness and frozenness in the aftermath of violence or other trauma.[12] The myriad methods of narration offered by Journey through Conflict – e.g., drawing, clay sculpting, use of meaningful personal objects, etc.[13] – allows participants opportunities to attempt telling their stories in ways heretofore unexplored.


[1] Smyth and Fay, Personal Accounts from Northern Ireland’s Troubles, 3. I found this to be true in my interactions with homeless individuals in Nashville, Tennessee in the U.S. Often only a single question would evoke an hour long monologue.

[2] John Paul Lederach and his daughter Angela Jill Lederach carefully and freshly evaluate the important role of metaphors, imagery that helps define our journeys and the way we understand the processes of life. Thus, the Lederachs argue we should critically choose which metaphors will be our defining or dominant ones. See Lederach and Lederach, “Shifting metaphors,” in When Blood and Bones Cry Out, 41-72.

[3] Little and Verwoerd, 65. The adjective “constructive” is necessary here, as it implies that not all forms of storytelling are positive. Storytelling can in fact be a vehicle for defamation and aggression, recipes for re-traumatization. For more on the difference between “constructive” and “destructive” storytelling, see Senehi, “Constructive Storytelling: A Peace Process,” 43-61.

[4] Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that the danger of “single stories” is that, when repeated often, they produce stereotypes, convincing the audience that the description within the story is the whole truth. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,” she elaborates, “but rather that they are incomplete.” Watch Adichie’s Ted talk at http://blog.ted.com/2009/10/07/the_danger_of_a/

[5] See, for example, Bloomfield, Reconciliation After Violent Conflict, 64-65; Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, 121; Yoder, Little Book of Trauma Healing, 38.

[6] For more on this, see Halpern and Weinstein’s very helpful article on the role of empathy in reconciliation, “Rehumanizing the Other: Empathy and Reconciliation,” 561-583. Rabbi Michael Lerner identifies this as an essential component for healing and transformation in Israel and Palestine when he writes that both Israelis and Palestinians need “to recognize the legitimacy of the other’s story and the other’s perceptions, and learn how to see the world through the other’s eyes as well as one’s own,” Healing Israel/Palestine, 130.

[7] Halpern and Weinstein, 579.

[8] Louise DeSalvo writes in Writing as a Way of Healing that telling our stories has the power of life transformation. She argues that telling life narratives well, through the writing process specifically, carries restorative and healing potential.

[9] Yoder, 45-69.

[10] Ibid., 53.

[11] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1; Hackett and Rolston, 358-9; Lederach and Lederach, “Introduction: social healing in the age of the unspeakable,” in When Blood and Bones Cry Out, 1-14.

[12] Yoder, 60. To find the capability to share such trauma is often incredibly difficult for victims/survivors. In his interviews with descendants of perpetrators and bystanders of Nazi Germany, Bar-On found five stages of working through the process of coming to terms with the devastation of their ancestral legacies. He notes that “very few” of his interviewees reached the final stage alone, finding it possible to “bring into dialogue the complexity of knowledge, meaning, first emotional reaction, [and] the following emotional conflict,” Bar-On, “Towards Understanding and Healing,” 17. Because of the tremendous difficulty of speaking the ‘unspeakable,’ Little and Verwoerd take great care in selecting participants for the workshops, looking for those who, among other things, demonstrate “emotional readiness,” Little and Verwoerd, 52.

[13] Ibid., 59-62.

Bibliography

Bar-On, Dan. “Toward Understanding and Healing Through Storytelling and Listening: From the Jewish-German context after the Holocaust to the Israeli-Palestinian context.” In Stories in Conflict: Towards Understanding and Healing, ed. by Liam O’Hagan, 15-26. YES! Publications, 2008.

Bloomfield, David. Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook. Stockholm, Sweden: IDEA, 2003.

Cashman, Ray. Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border: Characters and Community. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.

DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923.

Govier, Trudy, and Wilhelm Verwoerd. “Trust and the Problem of National Reconciliation.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 2, June 2002: 178-205.

Hackett, Claire, and Bill Rolston. “The burden of memory: Victims, storytelling and resistance in Northern Ireland.” Memory Studies 2(3), 2009: 355-376.

Halpern, Jodi, and Harvey Weinstein. “Rehumanzing the Other: Empathy and Reconciliation.” Human Rights Quarterly 26, 2004: 561-583.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora, 1992.

LeBaron, Michelle. Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Lederach, John Paul, and Angela Jill Lederach. When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lederach, John Paul. Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. Syracuse: Syracuse Press, 1995.

—. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Interocurse, PA: Good Books, 2003.

—. “The Mediator’s Cultural Assumptions.” In Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual: Foundations and Skills for Constructive Conflict Transformation, 80-83. Akron, PA: Mennonite Conciliation Service, 1995.

—. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lerner, Rabbi Michael. Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation. San Francisco: Tikkun Books, 2003.

Little, Alistair, and Wilhelm Verwoerd. “Journey through Conflict Trail Guide: Introduction.” Unpublished, 2012.

Minow, Martha. Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Senehi, Jessica. “Constructive Storytelling: A Peace Process.” Peace and Conflict Studies, Vol. 9, December 2002: 41-63.

Smyth, Marie, and Marie-Therese, ed. Fay. Personal Accounts from Northern Ireland’s Troubles: Public Conflict, Private Loss. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Stutzman Amstutz, Lorraine. The Little Book of Victim Offender Conferencing. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2009.

Yoder, Carolyn. The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and Community Security Is Threatened. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: