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Bearing Witness

On January 25, 2024 I will provide a one-day workshop on Creative Conflict Engagement to a group of nurses as part of their fellowship focused on leadership. This will initiate the 36th year that I have provided either workshops, presentations or consultations on this topic. I will end the day of work as I end all such presentations, thanking the participants for allowing me to do my “life’s work”.

I learned early in life the sheer idiocy of violence as a problem-solving device. The illusion that it “works” expresses a practice of self-destructive rationalization that is costly for the entire human enterprise. I also learned early that dominance not only harms the person being dominated but more dramatically damages the persons doing the dominating, demeaning and diminishing them, a systematic practice of dehumanization.

These are not stunning or obscure insights. They are easily documented. Nonetheless, they appear to be rare. The dark side of being a human sometimes seems hell bent on insisting that these insights are not true, as if to embrace them is to lose options for self-expression that are dear and precious. Indeed, for many it has seemed to me that to embrace these insights is viewed as threatening, frightening, and dangerous.

My personal response to the insights was to search, sometimes frenetically, for some practice that might mitigate what I experienced as the overwhelming flood of human violence and dominance that seemed to control human discourse. In 1986 I was awarded a three-year Kellogg Leadership Fellowship which introduced me to the emerging field of Conflict Resolution, later described as Conflict Engagement. It was the practice I was searching for, and I embraced it with a sense of relief.

I wrote a book that helped place me in the field, and began a long trajectory of “conflict work”. I often explained to myself and sometimes explained to participants in my workshops that for me this work was my contribution to “world peace”. Like many humans, I wanted to find some way to make a contribution, and this was mine. It kept the demons of horror, shame, frustration and helplessness at bay as I watched we humans systematically and deliberately harm one another.

The physical effects of aging introduced the need to decrease the time and effort I put into this work. The travel was draining and even damaging. It was difficult work and a difficult life style. It was also fraught with a continuous interface with people who did not want to look at this dimension of the human enterprise. It was time to step back, enter my place in the final dimension of the human life cycle, and as Ram Das described it, move from “role” to “soul”. I still did an occasional workshop; it was no longer a lifestyle.

Yet I kept a critical eye on the world’s preoccupation with violence and dominance. Often it seemed to pick up speed, then fluctuate back to some steady state. More recently, that steady state seemed to be totally disappearing. I was increasingly agitated, first by the war in Ukraine, then the escalating mass shootings in the US, then the deliberate integration of violence as a form of political discourse in the US, then the “normalization” of the “anonymous” crude discourse of social media, then the failure of mainstream media to recognize their unexamined habit of reporting only “bad” news, all manifested in the shadow of uncontrolled profit motives and persistent racism, ageism and sexism,…it was increasingly disorienting and overwhelming. The break point arrived for me in the attack of Hamas, the response of Israel, and the diverse responses across the planet. It was immobilizing, and my commitment to post a blog weekly actually froze in place.

I found myself back in the early days of my search for how one contributes to “world peace”. I doubted my decision to move from “role” to “soul”, as if my personal developmental process could not be honored because figuring out how to make a contribution to “world peace” took priority. In that, I recognized a self-deception: somehow the trauma I associated with violence and dominance could be escaped or dismissed by “making a contribution to world peace”.

It was a reckoning of sorts, uncomfortable and unbalancing. To take an honest wide-eyed look at the capacity of humans to deliberately harm one another is painful and discouraging. To see that this often is tied to obsessive desires for power, wealth and control is inescapable. And to see only that dimension of humanity is a serious distortion. I had found myself sliding into the very misrepresentations of reality that I find so offensive in the mainstream media. We were all slowing down on the freeway to check out the accident, to stare at the victims, to find our comfort in the realization that we were not in the car with the mashed doors.

The dark side of the human story is real. So is the light side. We all struggle to live with this dual dimensionality, to carve out our own options and decisions, to create some space and place that affirms our existence, acknowledges all other life forms sharing the planet with us, grapples with the nature of humanity. To see primarily the dark or primarily the light is a distortion. We have to find a way to live in the space where both are acknowledged. For me, the real challenge is to always select that option that increases the light.

I got unfrozen by remembering this, by recognizing that my “conflict work” comforted me, made me feel like I was making a contribution to the light…and that I could make a contribution to the light without doing this work as a lifestyle. I think every human who finds violence and dominance troublesome has to engage in their own search for ways to “increase the light”, to support others searching for that light. As Rumi observes: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

When I started this blog, my intention was to invest in “hope and possibility” for both myself and others. I feel like I fell off the path for a while, overwhelmed with discouragement and frustration. I suspect that others may have had the same experience: war makes us all restive; additional wars make us fearful.

Yet, after the trip down the whitewater of my personal demons I emerged with a deepened conviction that we all have to figure out where we can increase the light. Scope, depth or methodology of our efforts are not the important parameters: intentionality, commitment and compassion are. The presence of violence and dominance persist; we need to be, as Mohandas Gandhi posited, the change we are seeking.

“There is deep beauty in not averting our gaze. No matter how hard it is, no matter how heartbreaking it can be. It is about presence. It is about bearing witness.” - Terry Tempest Williams –

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