Are you listening?

As a child, I used to love listening to stories about my parents’ youthful adventures, misbehaviours and the like, but my own children act as if my husband and I didn’t have a life before we became parents.

At the beginning of the summer, the 14-year-old exclaimed that when she grows up, she shan’t live a boring life like her parents.

“Sweetheart,” I replied, “our lives weren’t boring until we had children.”

Returning from a meet-and-greet with the 10-year-old’s teacher recently, I excitedly told my daughter that her class would be studying peace and conflict later in the year.

“I already know that,” was her sullen reply.

My enthusiasm undiminished, I let slip that I was once a bit of an expert on peace and conflict studies, having studied and taught the subject for several years before I had children.

On hearing this unsolicited information about her mother’s past endeavours, my daughter raised her eyebrows and said,

“How come you’re so bad a resolving conflicts then?”

Ouch.

She had a point, of course, for I can’t recall the last time I used any of the conflict resolution skills I once taught others, to solve disputes at home.

What learned during my decade of involvement in peace and conflict studies and community-based conflict resolution, is that any peace must begin at home. Unfortunately, for too many so-called experts (myself included), conflict resolution and peacebuilding remained largely an academic subject, divorced from ourselves as human beings.

And yet, if there’s any discipline in which ‘walking the talk’ is essential, it’s in the field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. For peace not only begins at home; it must start with ourselves.

Whether we proclaim to be experts in peacebuilding or not, we must look within before we make judgements about other people, other countries and the world at large. The fractures in society are themselves a reflection of unresolved conflicts within ourselves and between each other. And no international conflict can be divorced from the internal conflicts of each society involved. It’s all connected.

One of the reasons why I refrain as much as possible from engaging with politics and the news at present is the war mentality that permeates almost every aspect of society. It’s us vs them, right vs wrong, good vs bad. It’s not only in politics and the news that this war mentality is apparent; social media’s obsession with ‘cancelling’ people whose views are judged to be unacceptable is also a reflection of this either-or mentality.

Peace is ultimately about human relationships, and as such, it is not something that can be negotiated as if it were a business transaction. If we are serious about wanting peace, we first have to be willing to listen – truly listen – to those with whom we disagree, and to enter into dialogue with them. This applies to conflicts on all levels, from arguments with loved ones to conflicts in the community and between nations.

Now, before I am accused of throwing stones in glass houses, let me be the first to acknowledge just how hard it can be to listen to people we’re in conflict with, whether it’s our child, spouse or a politician with whom we fundamentally disagree. I have failed countless times and will fail again, but I won’t stop trying.

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