I woke up much earlier than my usual wake-up time in order to join a Zoom session with Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hale, the filmmakers of Disturbing the Peace about Combatants in Peace, a group of former Isreali and Palestinian combatants who are now working together to end the cycle of violence in their region. The session was organized by HK Dialogue Hour, an initiative founded by three Hong Kong women who wanted to find a peaceful, middle path forward for Hong Kongers given the ongoing conflict between those who feel Hong Kong's freedoms and autonomy are being eroded and those who feel their comfortable status quo is being destroyed by protests. Both sides have put forward their own narratives of victimhood. However, like the Isreali-Palestinian conflict, there are more than two sides and a multitude of stories. Similarly in the US, where I am now, there is also much conflict stemming from the long-term suffering of many of its citizens.
The discussion left my mind racing in all different directions. But before I delve in, I want to highlight an interesting and hopeful coincidence. As I sat down to write this post, there was a breaking news item from BBC, "Isreal and UAE strike historic deal to normalise relations": "As a result, Israel would suspend its plans to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank."
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The film and the post-screening discussion with the filmmakers raised many questions. I hope others will view this film and engage with their own questions (Here's the hosting and discussion guide). Here are just a few of mine:
Cynicism is rooted in victimhood: The scene that made the greatest impression on me was when a Palestinian family discuss whether their two school-aged daughters should join their father in a peaceful protest. I kept hearing fear behind the mother's words, a fear that prevented her from having hope in the work that her husband was doing: "Those few Isrealis in the peace organization...They say they want peace...They go to demonstrations with us, yet they are living on our land...It's like they took over our land, and gave us our bathroom to live in...Isreal has immense power, and you think a small group from Combatants for Peace will change anything?...You were someone who spent your entire life in prisons, who fought against the occupation, whose brother was killed, and whose mother was known for her activism. And you've gone to the other side. It makes me crazy!" The wife sees her husband's participation as dishonoring the work and suffering of his family and hers. I felt her resistance to her husband's hopes. When we fear that change is impossible, we give up hope. When we choose to allow our fears to define our beliefs of what is possible and what is not, we abdicate agency. And when we seek to freeze narratives as a way to hang on to a part of what we have lost, we are resisting change and the possibilities it opens up. So we end up feeling powerless. The success of any non-violent movement rests on the movement's ability to facilitate individual transformation -- from seeing the world through fear and acting based on that fear towards seeing the possibilities of a better world and acting based on that hopeful vision for the future. It's very easy for me to lapse into cynicism (especially when I find myself back in my home state of Arizona); it takes conscious effort for me to be hopeful and optimistic. So my question to myself is: How can I maintain and nurture hope when I am surrounded by fear? I know the answer, because I know how hard it is for me to practice it. Which leads me to my next thought...
Meeting rage with love: One of my most challenging triggers is encountering threats of violence, real or perceived. They usually take the form of verbal aggression (raised voice, name-calling, blaming, shaming etc.), but it feels threatening enough for me to shift into flight/freeze mode (I'm not much of a fighter), which essentially has me breaking down in tears or retreating into silence. I know meeting rage (or hate, indifference, cynicism, fear, etc.) with love works, because it has worked on me. In the exchange between the husband and wife above, I was most impressed by the husband's even tone throughout the conversation. I keep reminding myself of what holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." And this is the sense of freedom that Stephen and Marcina describe all the participants in Combatants in Peace as possessing. I continue to engage in practices such as yoga, pranayama, meditation, and qigong to hone my ability to regulate my sympathetic nervous system, and it helps, but there are moments when it doesn't. And the more hate and fear I sense from my environment, the more my ability is taxed and the more time and energy I have to devote to self-regulation. I am fortunate that I can afford to expend this time and energy on what I think is essential to not only my own well-being but also those I come into contact with, but most do not have this luxury even if they desire to do this work. A question I constantly as myself is: How can I, an individual, encourage and enable others to do this work in an environment that keeps baiting our emotions and pushing distractions our way?
Trauma causes pain, and it's hard to give when one is in pain: This is something that Marcina said during the Zoom session. It's hard to love when we are struggling with our own pain. Even the most privileged among us are experiencing heightened fear and anxiety. Our fears are being stoked by politicians, businesses, media and people we come into contact with, all vying for our attention, dollars, votes, or presence. It's more imperative than ever that we learn to limit our exposure to fear-mongering. We can develop resistance/immunity to that fear-mongering by increasing our exposure to more hopeful alternative narratives. But again, finding and engaging in those narratives takes time, our most limited and precious resource. We live out the narratives we embrace. Will we choose to be the hero who holds the narrative of a new possibility? As Marcina points out in her TEDx talk below, for many of us, that new possibility begins with healing our own pain.
Hale (around 05:00): "Everyone alive has had to endure challenges. And not one of us will get through life without experiencing betrayal, loss, and suffering. And everyone has hurt somebody else at some level. We have each been the victim and the victimizer, no matter how good we try to be. We have endless reasons and opportunities to hate one another, to hurt one another, to fear one another, to feel sad and hopeless, all justified by our own victimhood. We've created a culture that supports and even cultivates this.* And it's the actions and response of this woundedness that appear to be influencing much of our world."
*The Guy Pearce film by the same title is an example of how our culture glorifies violence; where there's violence there's a perpetrator and a victim.