Head in Sky, Feet Not in the Abyss
I work as a public school cinema studies teacher with detained youth in the United States. As I prepared to begin the Rotary Peace & Development Fellowship, I dreamed about how my Social Change Initiative would inspire policy to end juvenile incarceration, or at least put an end to the horror it causes my students and their families. Twelve weeks into the program, I’ve come to realize I may have gotten lost in space. There are just so many things in the carceral universe that are out of my control. And while dreaming is arguably the wellspring of peacebuilding, what I’m getting most from the fellowship is the importance of gravity’s pull. Getting my feet back on the ground doesn’t mean I can’t dream. It means that change can happen, but not without checking back in with Earth’s base to gather the necessary skills that keep us steady, balanced, and clear-minded so where the initial peacebuilding can get done.
I’ve learned that no matter how good-natured I am, or how good I am at my job, I have limited resources. And that I need to protect those resources. I am only capable of so much each day before the quality starts to slip. So, I must learn to set boundaries to protect myself and my resources. And when negotiating any conflict, I’ve learned it’s important to practice tactics like using I-statements, stating the obvious, sticking to the facts, repeating back the circumstances, clarifying our expectations, and asking for an agreement. Remembering to practice these tactics will help me to remain emotionally balanced, save my energy, and maybe even walk away with a desired result. I also learned it’s important to keep my ego in check by asking better questions to problems, rather than thinking I have the solutions.
I’ve learned that when I’m stressed, there’s a greater tendency for my emotions to run amok. I might start to fictionalize my internal narratives, making me the author of my own untruths, which makes me more likely to make assumptions. Assumptions have the potential to violate peacebuilding because, when we make them, we risk throwing the facts out the window. When we make them, we may be mistaking someone’s good intentions for bad, or seeing situations worse than they actually are. We also run the risk of tricking ourselves. More than once during this fellowship I have assumed myself into thinkingthat a class session has little to do with my work. As we began a week devoted to conflict analysis in July, I went into class that Monday thinking, “What does this analysis stuff have to do with me? I deal in the arts!” Here I was, thinking I was above it all, until I realized halfway through the session (and after applying a finger to the tip of my schnoz to lower it down a few degrees) just how much analysis could be helpful in every aspect of my work. And, how creative conflict analysis could be! After all, isn’t every movie scene written with conflict at its center? Isn’t most important art based upon it? Aren’t all my students’ lives rife with conflict?
I’ve learned through my experience in this job, and it’s been reinforced by the fellowship, how working with people who’ve been traumatized can become my own trauma. To be in a locked facility everyday can be maddening, and it has the potential to drive any sensible person crazy. In this environment, conflicts arise out of the ether, pessimism spreads like a virus, and neurosis is always lurking around the corner. Working in this environment obviously requires radical self-care. But what I’ve learned in the fellowship is that self-care must be applied and practiced constantly in order to ward off becoming overcome by trauma myself. I cannot just expect that because I play tennis twice a week, or ride my bicycle to work every day, that I’m going to be hunky-dory on Friday. Or that because I meditate for ten minutes before breakfast, I will be OK throughout any given day. “As long as I do yoga five times a week, I should be fine!” I bragged to my Colombian fellow in a recent breakout session. “In your work environment, that sounds like bringing flowers to a dead marriage,” she replied.
My fellow’s wisdom provided a revelation: Perhaps my work environment, with all of its arbitrary inconsistency and Kafkaesque absurdity that promote both direct and systemic violence, is simply not a sustainable workplace for me–or for anyone, really. However, in the meantime, I know I need to maintain activities and regimens that bring me energy and levity. If not, I may find myself at risk of falling into the DMA Abyss, otherwise known as the Dualistic-Manicheistic-Apocalyptic Thinking Hole–the polarized opposite to lifting off into space. This would not be good, for down there in that abyss reside the Twin Devils of Cynicism and Despair.
Even if we manage to avoid falling into the abyss, our lines of work can often render us teetering on its edge. And if we do happen to fall in, we must be armed with the necessary tools to climb out, and quickly. The Twin Devils, despite having each other for company, are lonely. They’d like to keep us around, put us under their spell, keep us far from rescue and far from the surface, where we need to be–steady, balanced, and clear-minded–to help others. Coming down from space is arguably easier than crawling out of the abyss, but either way, it’s important for us to stay grounded upon the earth so we don’t risk being lost above or below it all.
Geoffrey Diesel – USA
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31