I remember when my boss at ESCWA turned to me and said: “Ana, this experience will be good for you if you go back to the US with more doubts than when you came.” I guess Vito had no idea how right he was when he told me that.
I came to Lebanon to do my internship at the Emerging and Conflict-Related Issues Division (ECRI) at ESCWA – the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. Lovely team and topics aligned to my area of interest – governance and decentralization in transition countries. By the way, I invite those interested in the region to check their website. They produce a lot of useful resources. For about eight weeks I have studied and written about these topics. My task is to contribute to increasing ESCWA capacity to suggest sound policy recommendations to countries in the Middle East. I am pretty sure I am learning a lot more than what I can account for at this point. However, a personal aspect of my stay in Beirut has occupied a lot of my thinking lately. As I guess other people interested in working with peace and conflict may face similar issues, I decided to share some of these thoughts on this post. Well, imagine a child who loves building sand castles. Every now and then, though, some naughty wave reaches out to her castles. And all those amazing walls and towers go back into being sand grains, which makes her sad. To prevent that from happening again, she goes looking for a place, at the beach, where she could build the most beautiful, sound castle ever. A place where the waves could not reach. A place where her castle would be safe. After a long time searching, she finds the perfect place. She is happy. She then starts making her ultimate castle – or should it be called a fortress?! She puts a lot of energy and thought in every single aspect of her work. Hours and hours later, she is euphoric… Her masterpiece is completed!! How wonderful her castle is! Weeks have gone by. And throughout that time, she’d kept very good care of her castle. She would even add things to it – new gates, towers, tunnels, lights… Until the day the inevitable happened, and the ocean claimed the sand back… She was lost. All she could do was to sit there and stare at what was left of her long-term project… That little girl is me. And this is my story…. Even before I applied to the Rotary Peace Fellowship, I knew I wanted to focus my studies on the Middle East. I am from Lebanese descent and have always felt a need to reconnect with this part of my heritage. Also, by living and working here, I hoped to learn about the region for myself, through my own eyes and experience, and thus help building peace and mutual understanding.
When I first arrived in Beirut, at the end of May 2013, everything seemed quite perfect – personally and professionally. Some of my ideas were being challenged, which was actually very good. Others reinforced, which I perceived as part of the process. With time, though, things started to change. Some aspects of my life here had sent me back to emotions and behaviors I thought I had long left behind. I felt as if all my efforts to becoming a better version of myself were gone – or even worse, had never really been there. I was lost and with no place to find refuge. My castle had been turned into sand grains. It was a tremendous shock having to admit that I was “walking backwards.” I still cannot tell what exactly triggered such an emotional turmoil: the stories of kids collecting pieces of bombs as toys; the constant shouting on the streets, which some locals attribute to 30 years of war; the indifference, loneliness, and feeling of disconnection; the suffering, pain, and anger of those who feel victims of external interests; the lack of sensitiveness of those who do not want to look at the other with compassion; the hardships of adapting to a life with less comfort (electricity cuts, water shortages, falling-apart house) in a place extremely hot and humid; the mismatch between my expectations on working for the UN and the reality of being part of a such huge bureaucracy; or my incapacity of actually talk to people and help them feel better and joyful… Maybe it was all that. Maybe I am still missing the point 😉 Anyway, when I realized my castle was gone, I did what a good “thinker” does (as a reference to my personality type). I started reading and analyzing, and reading more, and analyzing more… And, so far, I learned two things I believe are worthy sharing. First, our ability to understand the other is limited to our own experiences. (Another reference to personality types, I have strong empathy, which means I can sense the emotions of those around me.) When I came to Beirut, I guess unconsciously I had an equation in my head:
“academic” knowledge + genuine willingness to learn and listen + empathy = understanding
What a mistake. Even though all those elements are important, I realized I couldn’t assume they were sufficient. I cannot forget that it is OK to ask questions, to admit that I need help understanding what is going on. I have to say, one thing that made it back into my to do list is reread my books on mediation and negotiation. I’m afraid I missed a lot when I read them on my first semester at Duke. The second insight I’ve had is that we do not go back to zero when our castles are no longer there. The knowledge remains. The strength remains. The person you become after building the castle remains. Your choice on how to deal with the situation is still there for you. It may sound silly – or ordinary. To be honest, I would have been able to tell resilience is possible before all this. The difference lies on the sort of obstacles I was facing: they were related to some of my core values and my deepest fears. But then again, that is also part of life. Sometimes the bumps will be small and virtually unnoticeable. Others they will challenge the things you care the most about. Going back to the metaphor of the castle (which I actually took from one of the books I read)… The bottom line, for me, is that instead of looking for places further and further away from the water, I must accept the fact that my castles will eventually be demolished. Rather than suffering with it – or after dedicating the just share of suffering to the loss of it – I can smile at what is left and enjoy building the next one. It is not easy, I know. I’m going through it right now. But it is what I believe is right. I don’t want to stop taking risks on what truly matters to me. So, I’d better keep investing on my construction skills.