BY Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP
War is one way to work things out. Somebody wins, somebody loses. But winnng a war, as Israel did in 1967, did not mean winning the peace. And for the losers, home took on an entirely different meaning. The conflict remains what anthropologist Scott Atran and psychologist Jeremy Ginges refer to as the "the world's great symbolic knot." Both sides are convinced of the righteousness of their position, outraged by the wrongs inflicted by the other, and unable to imagine anything like mutual trust. In their January 25, 2009 New York Times Opinion piece titled "How Words Could End a War" Atran and Ginges describe the remarkable results of their research about the kinds of transactions that hold potential to break the impasse, and none of them have anything to do with breaking heads or brokering business deals.
"Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures," they write. "For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel's right to exist."
This research shows the power of what we in the psychodrama profession refer to as role-reversal - to take in the experience and truth of "the other" and convey an understanding of it. It demonstrates that intangible things like apologies or clear, unambiguous recognition of another's rights have enormous value to heal conflicts, with relevance to our social reality and personal relationships. A recovering addict, for example, faced with the daunting challenge of completely rebuilding his life, might minimize others' anger toward him for his destructive behavior because he cannot go back in time and undo the damage done to others when he was active. But spiritual healing for the addict can turn on his developing the capacity to see the injury through the eyes of the injured party and to offer honest apology. A parent confronted for abusive behavior toward her children might try to make it up to them through any number of material gifts or favors, but recognizing their pain and its cost to their well-being is the real work of emotional repair.
Larry Winters, fellow psychodramatist and author of Making and Unmaking of a Marine, wrote about the need for this kind of symbolic healing for veterans in his essay "Truth and Citizenship" now available on his website: "We have learned we don't have to take responsibility for what our soldiers have done in our name. The real lesson is that the United States public has never matched sacrifice for sacrifice. Not now. Not before. This is reflected in how our veterans express the side effects of war with domestic violence, addiction, homelessness and suicide. Our response to these side effects is poor health care, lack of job security, and the demonization of soldiers for what they have been trained and ordered to do by the US military." A combat veteran himself, Larry knows that wars are waged with no understanding of "the other" and that the rest of us have no real understanding of what happens to soldiers in war, but he has an idea that the research supports:
"What veterans need from the public they defended is a sincere recognition of their sacrifice. I believe the first order of business in every public gathering should be to honor all the veterans present by asking them to stand to be seen and venerated. Vets should stand and be praised in every church, synagogue, temple, mosque, ballgame, conference, etc., in short every public assembly that a veteran might attend. And let's add to that by having every political officer in the country getting down on their knees once a month out of respect for what our vets have given them. If such a thing began to happen in our society then for the first time we'd see how many people have sacrificed for what we have and we'd know where our appreciation and honor needs to be directed and maybe we even ask questions about what war is really like."
Conflict is part of every human relationship, but we can untangle the most twisted emotional knots through the creative act of seeing the situation through someone else's eyes.
Nicholas Wolff is a trainer, educator and practitioner of experiential and action methods in psychotherapy, education and group work of all kinds. He teaches the skills, techniques, and philosophy of action methods to professionals in organizations and work teams as well as trainees in his groups at Lifestage, Inc and conducts workshops for personal growth and recovery.