Building Peace: Know Thyself

It has been quite a while since I last wrote about peacebuilding. Frankly, there have been other things on my mind, like the US presidential election, living in New York City, and trying to feel better on a daily basis. I recently returned from a much-needed trip to Southern California where, among other things, I remembered what I used to feel like and who I am capable of being. My mum recently told me that I’ve lost my sparkle. I hadn’t phrased it in such stark terms in my head, but I know that I felt sparkly in California.

I felt like me, which hasn’t happened in a long time.

In struggling to feel like myself and understand the changes I’ve been seeing in the world, I’ve been finding it difficult to continue the work I love. I love writing about education, peacebuilding, and working to make the world a better place. It has been difficult to focus on those things when so much of me is caught up in other trains of thought.

But I’ve been thinking a lot. Reading a lot. Time has passed. I went away for a week. According to the calendar, a tough year is over.

So it’s time to start over.

“Write down three adjectives to describe yourself.”

“If asked in complete confidence, what would your students say about you? Your friends?”

“When you think about being happy, what comes to mind?”

I have asked and been asked many varieties of the questions listed above. But rarely when I was a student. My employers and the friends I’ve made as an adult have been much more interested in how I would describe myself than anyone ever was when I was in school. Back then, it was always about what I wanted to do after college. People talked about the future. Rarely was anyone interested in the present.

Continuously looking towards the future seems to reduce or eliminate a focus on today, specifically in making changes today to benefit the world of tomorrow. I think this is problematic for several reasons:

  1. We need to believe in our abilities to have an impact in the world.
  2. We need to evaluate our present options in order to set ourselves up for a sustainable future.
  3. We need to decide today (actually, really yesterday) what kind of better world we want for tomorrow.

I see peace as the keystone in the arch of what comprises a better world. If we cultivate peace within ourselves, it is easier to see what we can do to make the world better because we are in the process of doing it, in our own lives. This means understanding ourselves in order to know why we want what we want and why we’re making the choices we’re making. To what ends, as my advisor in grad school used to ask. Indeed.

If we haven’t decided who we are, we can’t create the world we want to live in.

In working with students, I’ve found that it’s difficult to get young people to articulate who they think they are. Some are confident in themselves, which is great. But many laugh their way around the question, reluctant to sound too self-assured. Some truly don’t have anything kind to say about themselves and are crying out for help to whoever is willing to listen.

I think that one of the reasons for this uncertainty is that we don’t often ask young people what kind of people they want to be. We tell them what they should be. We tell them to be good, kind, strong, courageous, hardworking, polite, respectful. But do we provide them with opportunities to develop those attributes in themselves? Do we ask how they think they’re doing and where they want to improve?

One of my favorite activities with students in any grade level is when everyone sits in a circle and each student writes his or her name at the top of a piece of paper. They pass the papers around the circle, spending about a minute on each student’s page, anonymously writing down something they appreciate about that particular classmate.

To their credit, every group of students has taken this seriously. My favorite part is the minute or two of silence once each student has received his or her own paper and begins reading the anonymous messages. I love seeing their eyes move rapidly through the message, flipping the page over, returning to their favorite notes. I love the small smiles that spread unnoticed across their faces, the eyes widening in surprise and pleasure. I love the warmth that suddenly fills the room and the uncertain giggling when the nervousness breaks and students try to figure out who wrote what. Even when they begin to tease each other again, they keep the most personal messages private. No one really wants to spoil the moment. In every class, there are at least a few who whisper, “I didn’t know everyone thought that about me,” or “Oh! They think I’m funny.” In every class there are a few whose eyes just shine.

We learn what others think of us. But how does that align with what we think of us?

To build peace in the world, we need to understand that about ourselves. We need to know who we want to be and how to become those people.

In my ongoing quest to figure things out, I picked up The Hero Handbook by Nate Green. I’ve had a copy of it sitting in my GoogleDrive for so long that I honestly don’t remember how it got there. But I’m currently going through a self-exploration period and opened the book in my search for answers. As Hermione Granger aptly stated, “When in doubt, go to the library.”

Green suggests coming up with a list of personal rules to live by, which is something I’ve never actually done. I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions and ruminating over the answers. I’ve learned a lot about myself. There are decisions to make. Determining my guiding principles will hopefully help clarify how to live going forward.

In coming up with these rules to live by, I’m creating a moral code, such as it were, that I hope will help me take responsibility for my decisions, trust my instincts where appropriate, and stand by what I believe to be the best courses of action for myself.

Rebecca’s Rules to Live By

  1. Take care of myself by eating well and exercising regularly.
  2. Practice compassion to myself and those around me.
  3. Connect with friends and family by reaching out, sharing experiences, and acting from a place of love.
  4. Seek out and do things that scare me.
  5. Learn at least one new thing every day.

The five rules listed above are what I need to do in order to feel the best about who I am. This is what I require of myself in order to do what is important to me, which is to make the world a better place.

If I were to ask my students for their rules to live by, I wonder what they’d say? I wonder what I would have said five years ago, or ten years ago, or even farther back. If I’d had to come up with rules years ago, where would I be now? What rules would have changed as I changed? What would have stayed the same?

I’ve tried to make these rules as flexible and pragmatic as possible, but also constrained in the sense that these are five things I will not compromise. Come what may, if I can take care of myself, be compassionate, connect with others, push myself, and keep learning while doing New Thing X, New Thing X is worth it. If I can’t do those things, New Thing X is not worth it and shouldn’t happen.

So what?

That’s the question my students are required to answer at the end of any argument, written or oral. So what? Why do we care? Why does this matter?

This matters because I always want to be better. Better at being who I want to be and doing what I want to do, which is make the world a better place. I hope that creating these rules for myself reflects my current (and fluid!) understanding of what I need, what I am willing to do for the work I love, and the level of importance I ascribe to helping improve the world we all share.

I have done a lot of stumbling over the last months and that has distracted me from what really matters. Right now, I’m working to get all of that back on track.

Because the world needs it.

Because I need it.

Peacebuilding requires an understanding of what peace is and what we can each contribute to it. Knowing who I am and deliberately giving myself guideposts to continue growing as that person will help me do the work that I believe needs to be done.

Falling down is part of life. Getting back up is living. – José N. Harris

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