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Purposeful inquiry: detoxing the poisoned chalice

Derry/Londonderry is the UK City of Culture in 2013. In a place where names can be rigid markers of enmity, what tools can we use to dismantle the unseeing ways ‘the enemy’ is passed between generations?

Eamonn Baker
23 April 2012

Thich Nhat Han, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King writes in his poem ‘Please call me by my true names’ -

I am the twelve year old girl

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the sea pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving

Sometimes we casually remark ‘seeing is believing’. Perhaps it is truer to say that for us, often for the worse, ‘believing is seeing’. What we have grown up believing dictates how we see the world.

For the last dozen years I have been involved in, and now directly work for, the Towards Understanding and Healing project (TUH), based in Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland (NI). The goal of the Towards Understanding and Healing project is to encourage us to ‘see’ before it is too late. That refreshed ‘seeing’ arises most meaningfully when diverse participants in our storytelling and dialogue programmes share authentically their own experiences.

Here in NI, apparently secure in our separate community bunkers where we rarely or barely meet the ‘other’, all that we can know of them are our own thoughts and fantasies, inlaid with stories of grief and trauma, of un-mourned loss across generations. 

Prejudices and stereotypes about those outside our group are reinforced from within our own family, peer group, community. Not just thoughts and feelings, they are somatically alive – the enemies of our fathers and mothers can become our enemies. I know them by what I see in the media, from propaganda, from the stories I am told, especially within a conflict or post-conflict scenario.

These processes of dehumanisation arise from and are sustained by the felt experience of distance – what Eckhart Tolle names “the pain body”.

I read a story told by a young Israeli soldier who fought in the Lebanon war in 1982. He encountered two refugees coming towards him, carrying an object and shouting at him and his fellow soldiers. Because the men were only twenty yards away, the soldier could see that the object they were carrying was a crate of Pepsi and they were shouting "invitations to drink". The young soldier reflected, “If they had been 200 yards away we would have shot them and been glad to hit them".

The story prompts this question: how far away does ‘the other’ have to be before they become a target. How close must they be before we see they are human?

In March last year, here in NI, ‘dissident’ Republicans objectified PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr as a ‘legitimate target’ and blew him up.

Over nearly 40 years the conflict here drove the wedge down deep. Institutionalised segregation – in churches, in housing, in schooling, in shopping – supported and amplified this distance.  Historically the respective leaders from our major political and religious traditions unthinkingly enshrined such divisions.  The first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, boasted “we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.” In the Republic, President De Valera proclaimed likewise “A Catholic state for a Catholic people”.

In choosing the name “Towards Understanding and Healing", the management committee of the project had in mind the related notions of a journey – of movement towards – and of a destination. The chosen vehicle for this journey is storytelling and positive dialogue encounters.  The vision underpinning the work of TUH is that the journey may yield increased understanding both of self and of ‘the other’.  And at the end of that journey there may arise healing, both personal and societal. And then the journey may need to begin all over again, with the need for even more understanding, for even more communal healing.

My own experience of this process has been transformative. Through TUH, in a diverse group setting back in 2000, I met with a former British soldier whose mate had been shot dead by a member of the Provisional IRA in the street in Creggan where I grew up. Creggan is a Catholic Nationalist Republican area and was a major battlefield during the NI conflict. This encounter was both touching and thought provoking. I ‘sat in the fire’ and listened while he shared what that shooting, that death meant to him. He struggled to acknowledge his own violence in the wake of the shooting, his wrecking of houses in the follow-up searches driven by his own rage and grief.

I had never heard a story like this before. Nor had I ever heard before the intimate story of what would have engaged a young man to join the Loyalist UDA. These stories shared within the safe space co-created (not least by skilful TUH facilitators) and without interruption or “what-about-ery” provoked in me a re-evaluation of my own responsibility for violence during the conflict. The distance between me and the ex-British soldier and the ex-UDA man shortened. They became close enough for me to invite one to stay overnight with me in that very same Creggan; close enough for me to engage the other in sustained storytelling and dialogue processes with fellow-members of the Nationalist Republican community I spring from. 

I also took a hard look at how my own extended silence during the conflict may only have been the weapon of choice for the perpretator-in-me. Some years later, in tears, again within a TUH group, I was to say to a father whose British Army son had been blown to pieces,vaporized, in the notorious human bomb incident at Coshquin, October 1990:  “If through my silence I have contributed in any way to your son’s death, I ask your forgiveness”.

TUH has sought to co-create such shared and ethical spaces since its inception in 2000. It has sought to develop through its work a collaborative commitment where the following core skills, attitudes and behaviours are exemplified: skilled listening, genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. These are a challenge to arrive at. An ethical word of warning comes from an early supporter of the project, the Northern Irish poet, playwright and screen-writer, Damian Gorman: “If you are going to understand and respect someone's story, you have to understand and respect their silence first.”  

Within such spaces, islands, retreats, TUH storytelling and positive dialogue encounters can and have taken place: hearts may open, losses in all communities may be acknowledged, mourning supported. The collective pain may be witnessed with as much compassion and love as we can manage. Diversity of insight may overtake conviction and certainty; the enemy may become humanized. The victim may glimpse the perpetrator in him or herself.  De-humanising distance may be transformed into compassionate witnessing and inclusive social action. ‘I’ and ‘I’ may become ‘We’. We may become the change we say we want to see. It’s a tall order of course.

Recently Derry /Londonderry has been honoured with the accolade of UK City of Culture. Central to the successful bid was the theme “Purposeful inquiry”. This theme, or more accurately process, is crucially relevant, here and now, as we re-consider the legacy of the past and re-evaluate our ways of commemorating that past.

In a spirit of purposeful inquiry, we might compassionately inquire of ourselves, and might make such inquiries in dialogue with others: how can we act differently to shift the legacies of our colonial and post-colonial tribal trauma? How can we commemorate differently, interrupting the cycles?

And it is life giving to confront within oneself whether one truly wants to reach out, to touch and be touched.

Kaethe Weingarten, author of Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day – How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal, proposes an intriguing and empowering set of questions:

  • What is my large group identity? (eg religious, ethnic, national group identity)
  • What is my group's historical or "chosen" trauma?
  • How has the knowledge of this trauma been passed to me?
  • How do I pass it to others? Do I pass it exactly? With modifications? What aspects of it am I aware of? What ways might I pass it on that I am relatively unaware of?
  • What effects are there of passing on the large group's trauma for: Me? My family? My community? My country?
  • What would you wish to do with regard to passing on the historical trauma?
  • Whose support and what kind of support would you need to enlist to achieve your preferred relationship to the chosen trauma?

Distinguished historian Marianne Elliott in her book Robert Emmett: The making of a Legend writes: ‘Irish Nationalism has consisted disproportionally of the celebration of heroic sacrifice and legends like that of Robert Emmett. Is it perhaps fear of what would be left that deters many from questioning such legends?’  

The gifted American communicator Byron Katie and originator of what she calls “The Work” asks a similar question –

Who would we be without our story? Who would I be if I couldn’t think that thought?

Who might I be without my story?  Well maybe a person who was more ready to reach out to hear the other, the ex- British soldier’s story for example as described above. A person more ready to acknowledge that maybe my own certainties were an illusion, a prison, a poisoned chalice that I had unawarely suckled to my own lips.

Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, originators of Solution-Focused thinking, have brought us what they call the Miracle Question:

If we went to sleep tonight and somehow in the morning the seemingly intractable problems in NI/Ireland were solved, what would be happening? Spell it out for us in detail, then develop the momentum, step by step to create that new reality.

As we grapple with these questions we may get a sense of a deliciously uncharted territory, where we may create – literally – refreshed identities, released from the stranglehold of previous certainties.

This type of purposeful inquiry can help us consider the actions that we need to take, to interrupt the unaware ways we transmit intergenerational hurt and energise us to welcome the other: with compassion, and something like love.

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