I just got back from a workshop for mediators on the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a program at work locally in Iowa’s prisons and in war zones around the world. These facilitator led workshops teach conflict resolution skills through an active, participatory, experiential process. Participants perform a series of “light and lively” games and role plays which get people off their feet, interacting and giggling together. The emotional demands of the exercises increase as the days progress. By day two, participants feel safe enough in their community of new friends to share their feelings and support and affirm one another. Often the participants are members of rival gangs or political factions, perpetrators and victims alike.
Those of us attending the workshop experienced an abbreviated version of the program’s process. I must confess the introvert in me approaches some of these activities with dread - ”You want me to do what?!” The opening activity was as promised...light and lively. We paired off to ask questions of one another and then came back to the circle to be introduced one at a time. We spoke our names and people in the circle were invited to tell the group what they learned about us in our pairing off. The gap between how we see ourselves and how others describe us is telling. I found myself wondering why people included certain details and left out others, and why I had both revealed and kept secret certain things about myself. The exercise reinforced how unreliable perceptions can be.
After lunch the workshop leader, Val Liveoak, from San Antonio, Texas, dialed up the intensity of our exercises. Drawing an imaginary line from zero to one hundred she said, “Place yourself on the line according to your level of self-care.” This seemed odd. We thought we were attending a peace workshop. What does self-care have to do with peace? We exchanged curious glances with one another and hesitantly placed ourselves on the line. Some of us clustered toward the top, some in the middle, one brave soul at the bottom. We took turns explaining why we were standing where we were and offering up slightly different ideas about what self-care means. Then Val asked us to move to the place on the line that we wished represented our level of self-care. Many moved closer to 100, a few stayed where they were or moved up only slightly. The conversation this time focused on what it would take for us to get to this more ideal level of self-care. Answers were similar…. exercise, better eating habits, more time to relax, attention to relationships. Those who didn’t move explained that they weren’t ready to make the sacrifices necessary to take better care of themselves. Some questioned if caring for yourself before others is a worthwhile goal.
When we returned to the circle someone asked the question on most of our minds: “What does self-care have to do with peace?” Val flipped the question back to the group. We concluded that in order for victims of violence to put themselves on the path toward peace, they must make a choice. The choice is both a letting go (of fear, hurt, and anger) and an embrace of the work that must be done to get better. Even considering the question, “Do I take care of myself?” encourages thinking about the role of personal responsibility in healing and wellness. It’s all a part of the same process - loving yourself allows you to heal; healing allows you to care for others; caring for others builds nurturing communities; nurturing communities foster peace. It all starts with self-care.
My takeaway for the day was summed up in Val’s statement about why AVP is a hands-on, experiential process. “We get people actively involved, she explained, because learning happens where experience and reflection meet.”