Storing up Trouble, and the Need to Listen

I sit at my computer on a hot, sticky July day complaining about the heat and then I turn on the radio and later in the day see the television pictures of the horrors coming out of the Middle East. I am a bystander watching a tragedy unfold in a world in which tragedies are sadly becoming a daily event. In nearly every continent of the world we appear to be witnessing conflict with each side becoming polarised.

Politicians who use the rhetoric of democracy to justify the use of our armed forces in conflicts far away appear to be sucking is into situations in which the world becomes more polarised – white against black, Christian against Muslim. I hear myself scream out, “When will this madness end? Don’t they all realise that what history has taught us is the need to talk and understand each other’s point of view?”

As you have probably gathered, all this news deeply troubles me, partly on an individual level, but more importantly as a parent. At least one of my children’s friends is in the army and one child’s friend’s mother was caught up in the London bombing. What is this doing to them in terms of their ability to understand people from different cultures and races, and – horrors of all horrors – will they be sucked into any of these conflicts? These dark thoughts, however, are mere musings of a middle-aged man who has had a good life.

Although these thoughts may appear to be a rant of a white middle class man, they have relevance for all of us. What all of these conflicts have in common is they are all littered with unintended consequences. Wars may be fought between soldiers, terrorists, freedom fighters and politicians, but the effects on civilians and on communities is the most significant part of any war, whether it is in Middle East, Northern Uganda, Burma, Sudan or in Northern Ireland.

When the guns go silent, it is the people that will have to cope with the ongoing trauma. It seems obvious to say that people cope with trauma in different ways, but it is a message we often forget. At the end of the Vietnam War, the returning GIs did not return to a hero’s welcome and many are still trying to make sense of their role in the war.

The children in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq or Afghanistan will have been changed forever and when the fighting stops they will have to pick up the pieces. There is no quick fix. As they grow older, their needs will change. Some will cope and others will not. When I worked in child protection, it was impossible to predict how people would cope with the trauma of abuse. In a number of tragedies we have seen people whom the world has regarded as heroes committing suicide because they have felt that they did not do enough.

When my brother died I often heard people saying that they knew what I was going through – they didn’t then and they don’t now. We need to be there for people who want help at the time and place they want it. In my view, the crucial thing to remember is that we do not know what somebody is going through and to assume we do is arrogance. If help is required we need to listen and understand not impose. ‘Healing’ takes time and the most important aspects in all conflict resolution is listening and understanding, shown so dramatically in the South Africa at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  

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