Pieces of a puzzle

September 17, 2010

Creating a world and culture of peace is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. In a jigsaw puzzle, each individual piece by itself gives only a glimpse of the picture of which it is a part. It is only when all the pieces interlock together that the whole picture becomes clear. Peace is the same way. We have a general idea of the big picture, but can only imagine what the final result looks like. We catch glimpse of it when two nations resolve a conflict non-violently, when an individual strives to lead a sustainable life in harmony with the earth, when a girl in Africa is able to pursue an education and earn her own income, when a Muslim and a Jew in the Middle East become friends, but it is not until all these pieces come together to form a whole that we will have peace.

It is possible to construct sub-groups among the individual pieces, in both a jigsaw puzzle and the path of creating peace. The natural way to work on a puzzle is to look for pieces with similar markings and put them together to create something larger. In peace, some of the pieces are naturally more related to each other than others, and through looking at these groups we can begin to gain an understanding of what the whole might look like.

The edge of the peace puzzle might be the values on which a culture of peace is based: healthy relationships and communities, cooperation, compassion, and the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. These values are the container in which actions towards the creation of peace take place. When two neighbors decide to use mediation rather than the adversarial courts, one reason is because they value their relationship. When we push our government to provide social services, it is because we have compassion and believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Another sub-grouping of pieces are the ones focused specifically on building cooperation and addressing our tendency to categorize into “us” and “them”: conflict resolution, bridge-building, and restorative justice. These actions encompass inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogues; story-telling; groups with differences doing cooperative activities together; individuals learning non-violent communication and learning to listen; individuals, groups, and nations resolving conflicts non-violently; and restoring, rather than punishing, people who have caused harms in the community.

Closely linked to the cooperation and conflict sub-group is another group related to education and treatment of children. Our parenting methods and educational systems must teach children the values of peace: cooperation over competition, listening, valuing needs and feelings, compassion for others, and democracy. We must teach children that they are valued as human beings with worth and dignity, and that community and relationships are important. Perhaps most importantly, we must model the behavior we would like our children to learn.

Another crucial sub-group of pieces are social services and basic human rights, the economy, and the environment. Basic human rights include water, food, shelter, health care (including control of one’s reproduction),  education, and dignity. It is crucial to the big picture of peace that our societies, economies, and governments be structured in such a way that all humans are ensured these rights. In order to do so, our economy must be based on measures of health and happiness, not on ever increasing consumption of material goods. Resources must be distributed equitably and created in ways that are sustainable and not using up finite sources. In our economy and our lifestyles we must value community and the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Two last pieces each exist in their own sub-group: empowering women and inner peace. It is impossible to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans without recognizing that throughout most of recent history women were not valued with the same worth as men nor afforded the same dignity, and that in creating peace we must take positive actions to reverse these effects. This piece is in fact linked to all the sub-groups I discussed above: we need education that teaches that women are as important as men, social programs targeted towards women (for example, job training and reproductive health care), an economy that values work traditionally labeled women’s work, and bridge-building between women and men.

Finally, there is the piece of inner peace. Although it is up to each individual to find and create it for themselves, many of the pieces I have discussed can help and encourage individuals on their path to inner peace. Conversely, as people reach inner peace, it will be easier and more natural for them to work towards peace through one or more of the actions above.

I am not under any illusion that I have definitively defined all pieces of the puzzle. What else can you think of that contributes to the big picture of peace?

As we work on our individual pieces in the puzzle of peace, let us remember to look as well for where we might fit in to the big picture. Together, and only together, we can create peace.

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Dialogue online?

August 9, 2010

Is it possible for meaningful dialogue to occur over the internet? I ask myself this question over and over when I see the comment threads on prominent feminist blogs such as Feministe and Feministing. There are often huge flare-ups in the comments around topics of race, privilege, and other such incendiary issues, with people going at each other’s virtual throats. It pains me to see the extent to which many people race to share their own story without making an attempt to understand the perspective expressed in the other comments. It equally pains me to see the ways in which many people express themselves, using hurtful, accusatory, and divisive language – “you” statements dominate by far over “I” statements. On both ends, the comment discussion lacks crucial elements of dialogue, where individuals make an effort both to listen and to express themselves in ways that are respectful of others. I find myself wondering how productive the online, forum-style form of communication really is. An often-lauded benefit of the internet is the way in which it brings diverse people in contact who would otherwise never meet. However, if the way they are meeting is through divisive comment threads on blog posts, is that benefit lost?

I do believe that the most effective dialogue must occur in person. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice are all important parts of communication between individuals that help us empathize and achieve understanding. On the internet, we have only words. Skilled writers can achieve great things with only words, but the majority of content on the internet is not from skilled writers. Putting intense emotions and deeply-held assumptions into words is difficult enough as it is, but without the aid of non-verbal cues, it becomes that much harder. Dialogue also requires making oneself vulnerable. In some cases, the anonymity of the internet may allow someone to share something they would not otherwise. But in other cases, the knowledge that anyone in the whole world may read what you write can feel even more threatening.

However, I do not think that productive dialogue is completely impossible on the internet. Sharing stories is an important part of dialogue that does not require immediate response from others. The asynchronous aspect of the internet allows individuals more time to reflect on what they have read before responding – although many people do not seem to do enough thinking before responding, at least the potential is there. In general, I think that for dialogue to be truly effective on the internet someone needs to set the intention for it and explicitly invite the participants to interact in a dialogue format. This act of creating space for dialogue to happen is no different from what is needed for productive in-person dialogues. Most people have little experience with communicating in the ways required by dialogue, and therefore most conversations, either in-person or over the internet, do not take the form of dialogue.

In the end, we all make a choice about how we respond to the words we hear from others, either verbal or written. No matter what the context online, whether or not dialogue is a specific intention of the website, blog, or forum, we can each set an intention with ourselves, to read each others’ words with an openness of mind and heart, holding the intent of gaining a better understanding of each other and ourselves as human beings.


We must dialogue

August 6, 2010

In most conversations, we talk at each other, often without even really hearing what the other party has to say. As others speak, we are already preparing in our head how we are going to respond. This sort of conversation is often sufficient to get us through the day – we pick up on the content that is relevant to ourselves, the parts with which we already agree, and let the rest slide by.

However, when we get into conflict or encounter individuals different from ourselves, our usual approach to conversing will lead us to dehumanize each other. Typically, if we are having a disagreement, we work hard to convince the other party of our position, without making an effort to understand their perspective or attempting to discover common ground. We take our beliefs as a given and do not let ourselves question the assumptions on which our views are based. We will quickly become stuck in intractable conflicts with this approach, as each party refuses to recognize the validity of the other party’s perspective.

In order to move beyond the “us vs. them” mentality, beyond dehumanizing people different from ourselves, beyond the concept of “the other,” we must make intentional efforts to engage with each other differently. We must dialogue.

In dialogue, we enter into conversation with the intent of understanding each other better, understanding ourselves better, and being understood. Together, we uncover and explore the assumptions and experiences that lead to our different perspectives. We listen attentively to each other’s words, and speak openly and honestly. We do not use rhetoric to try to convince others of our position, but instead share personal experiences that influence our current beliefs.

To dialogue, we must be willing to change. It requires us to put ourselves in a place of vulnerability. We may question previously held beliefs. We must be interested in valuing relationship above closely guarded views of “right” and “wrong.”

In order to create a world in which we can each reach our full human potential, where we live with our differences without feeling threatened, and where we resolve conflicts through non-violent means, we must be willing to enter into dialogue with each other.

I am particularly inspired by the work of Libby and Len Traubman, who founded the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogues in San Mateo, CA, 17 years ago, and continue to do inspiring work with dialogue.

For a more in-depth exploration of the dialogue process, I recommend an excellent essay at BeyondIntractability.org. Here is an excerpt:

In dialogue, participants explore the presuppositions, beliefs, and feelings that shape their interactions; they discover how hidden values and intentions control people’s behavior and contribute to communication successes and failures. For example, it begins to become clear why a group avoids certain issues, or why it insists, against all reason, on defending certain positions. Participants can collectively observe how unnoticed cultural differences often clash, without their realizing what is happening.[18] These observations help participants to determine what is blocking effective communication.[19]

However, this can happen only if people are able to listen to each other without prejudice and without trying to influence one another. Because its broad goal is to increase understanding about parties’ concerns, fears, and needs, dialogue centers on inquiry and reflection. Participants refrain from assuming that they already know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other.[20] Instead, they assume that the other is speaking honestly from experience, and listen closely. This process of deep listening and reflection typically slows down the speed at which parties converse. The slower interchange enables individuals to observe the conversation while it is actually occurring, so that they become more aware of both the content of the communication process and the structures that govern it. They gain insight into the “assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided.”[21] Each participant can examine the preconceptions and prejudices that lie behind his or her opinions and feelings, and then share these insights with one another. Participants not only expose ideas to one another’s scrutiny, but also open themselves up to the possibility that their ideas will be changed. This means that they try to appreciate what the other side is saying and keep their ears open, even when they do not like what they hear.[22] To be fully open to new ideas, participants must be ready to abandon their old ideas in the face of new and better ones. They must be willing to change their minds and emerge from the dialogue as altered people. If they instead strive to convey their own points of view and defend their positions, genuine dialogue will not be possible.[23]


A quote on tolerance

June 21, 2010

This interesting perspective on tolerance is from the novel In Lucia’s Eyes, by Arthur Japin:

[T]olerance is not the same as acceptance. It is actually closer to the opposite: tolerance like this is a clever means of repression. If you accept others as equals, you embrace them unconditionally, now and for ever. But if you let them know that you tolerate them, you suggest in the same breath that they are actually an inconvenience, like a nagging pain or an unpleasant odour you are willing to disregard. Tolerance is a cloaked menace: the mood can change at any moment.


A quote from… Lady Gaga

June 5, 2010

Lady Gaga on hatred and love:

I’m not trying to create and generate more hatred in the world… I just want to generate awareness. It’s always wrong to hate, but it’s never wrong to love.

I don’t believe in any hatred or any war-like behavior. I believe in commitment and love and positivity.

Awesome, go Lady Gaga!

These quotes (and a bit more) are from about 5:30 to 6:51 in this interview:


Quote of the week

May 15, 2010

After a couple months hiatus, I’m diving back into my weekly quote feature with a provocative quote on science and religion. It is from an essay titled “Mind and Spirit,” by John A. Buehrens, from the book Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, by John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church.

As important as science is, however, a sound integration of mind and spirit means that the world cannot be saved by mind alone, nor by science alone, nor by reason, nor by technology. As our nuclear age and our ecological crisis so painfully demonstrate, without a larger sense of purpose and relatedness, the productions of science and the human mind can themselves become dangerous idols. These relational issues, and issues of purpose, are spiritual in character. At the same time, the various warring sects of religion testify that the products of the human spirit can also become dangerous idols if not brought within a wider and more reasoned perspective.

That “larger sense of purpose and relatedness” is what I believe is absolutely critical to becoming a more peaceful world. We need both rational, logical, critical thinking and a spiritual sense of the interrelatedness of all beings.


Every day is Earth Day

April 22, 2010

I did not do anything special for Earth Day today. In fact, I even drove my car this evening, as I do every Thursday evening. I did not feel the need or desire to specially celebrate the earth today because I think about the earth and sustainability every day of the year. I am well aware of the impact of my actions on the earth and I have taken sustainability into account in many deliberate choices about the way I live, including when I will drive somewhere and when I will bicycle somewhere.

Earth Day is perhaps important as a means of consciousness-raising for those people who do not otherwise think much about the impact of their behaviors on the earth. But we must all be reminded of these impacts far more frequently than once a year. Earth Day is not just about taking care of the planet because we think trees are pretty or wild animals are cute. It is about taking care of our home. If the earth goes down, we go down with it. To be more specific, if the climate changes drastically on earth, human civilization as we know it will end. If we continue on our path of massive consumption and little regard for the interconnectedness of all life, we will eventually reach a point at which our civilization can no longer sustain itself and will quickly decline. We must drastically change our ways of living if we do not want to see ourselves, our children, or our grandchildren face massive chaos. So,  make tomorrow Earth Day and the next day as well. Think about how sustainable your behaviors are every day, not just one day a year.