By Melaina Spitzer
When I woke up the morning after the election, I was in it: Shock. Sadness. Anger. Fear. The decision that Americans made deeply disturbs me. The protective parts of me were swinging in full gear. “How could they? Who are these people? They don’t represent me!” shouted my angry part. I could feel the division between myself and the “other” Americans growing deeper in my mind. So I took a deep breath and chose to examine this incredibly important question: How are we going to work together? How are we going to heal?
In my heart, I know the answer: We need to begin a long process of conflict transformation and peacebuilding in America.
How does Transformation Actually Occur?
I have spent the better part of my adult life studying and working on something called Conflict Transformation. The idea behind the concept is that it’s not enough to simply “settle” a conflict, to put a band-aid on a wound and say it is cured. Evidence has shown us that conflict is cyclical: it will come around again—unless the relationships between the actors in the conflict are actually transformed.
The only way we can truly transform a conflict is if we can begin to imagine ourselves in a different sort of relationship with people we perceive as enemies or adversaries. This concept—the moral imagination, coined by John Paul Lederach—was something I saw firsthand during my masters’ thesis research on the ground in Colombia.
In the context of over 50 years of armed conflict, I decided to study a group of farmers and workers who had managed to maintain a peace zone in their territory, in the middle of a war zone. I knew this had huge implications for Colombia, but today I want to share this example because of its’ implications for our polarized American nation.
How did this small group create peace in the midst of war? They weren’t super humans, trained mediators, or wise academics: They were farmers, workers, displaced people, and victims of violence. However, they achieved something extraordinary: In spite of their own pain and trauma, and stood up and declared: We have no enemies. We will talk to you, but in exchange you must agree not to commit violence within our territory. If a conflict arises, instead of hurting or killing, call on us and we will mediate. For over twenty-five years, this group dialogued with armed actors from both sides—guerillas and paramilitaries—who had committed terrible atrocities. They won the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 by implementing their own version of conflict transformation: a long-term process of peacebuilding.
The Road to Peacebuilding in America:
Colombia is not out of the woods yet, and neither is the United States. Colombian voters rejected a peace deal, even as their President received the Nobel Prize, sending negotiators back to the table. In the US, the election battle has just ended, but our polarization continues and our divides run deep. So let me leave you with this nugget of wisdom I learned from the Colombian peace process:
“The very people we don’t understand, the people we feel anger towards, are the people we must seek out and dialogue with.
It’s ok if today you aren’t ready for dialogue today. Many of us are still reeling with emotion, unable to envision having a productive conversation in this moment with someone from the opposite side of the political divide. If this is true for you, just be with your emotion. Welcome all parts of yourself; be accepting of your inner landscape as it is. After all, if we are going to have a successful dialogue with the “other” we cannot lead with our anger, fear, or sadness. We have to put our higher selves capable of compassion, curiosity, and empathy back in the drivers’ seat. If you are struggling with how to do this, please reach out to me—I would love to support you and share my resources on inner peacebuilding with you.
Ultimately, if we shift the relationship with parts of ourselves that we don’t like we will be more able to shift our relationships with others. For example, if we can understand fear in ourselves, we can understand it in others. This is why I created Inner Peacebuilding. We must build strength through our own capacity to listen. If there is one thing I learned in Colombia, it is that the most important quality to cultivate is empathy: To understand what is behind that person who has hurt us. From what we know about trauma, usually the perpetrator was first victimized, the bully was bullied, the violent offender abused. This doesn’t mean sacrificing justice for peace—we need both in our world and we cannot have one without the other. It does mean being willing to listen, knowing that when people feel heard, their walls come down.
Let this election be a wake up call. It’s time to start talking to the “other” to start understanding those we perceive as our adversaries. It’s time to stand strong in the face of fear and say, I choose something different. Whatever side of the divide you fall on, it’s time to start getting to know the other half of the country. Let’s choose dialogue. Let’s choose peacebuilding—within ourselves and through our conversations with others. Let’s choose conflict transformation. It won’t be easy, it won’t be speedy, but it just might be our way out.
* If you're interested in cultivating your own inner peace, let's talk.