Movies, video games, and political slogans often pitch criminal punishment and revenge as the way to achieving justice when we are confronted with violence, but in the very real human world vulnerability and inner peace may be far more important. This came home to me in a moment two years ago when I served as a mentor for Peacejam, a program that uses the words and deeds of Nobel Peace Laureates to inspire and promote social change.
Sometimes it takes one person, one story, to reconnect to humanity, and this begins our journey toward healing and rejoining our community. We need to be reminded that we are not alone in our struggles. And this is one story of a moment when I discovered the true meaning of peace and how important emotional healing is to combat violence. Sometimes, we just need to listen and find the peace within ourselves to heal.
I was a mentor for PeaceJam, an international education program, in which the initiative attempts to inspire middle and high school students to become committed leaders who can create a positive change in themselves and their communities. From bullying, to domestic violence, to rape, these issues are very real for students. Issues that grown adults struggle to talk about openly are embraced by these students. And for three days they come to talk about solutions.
What humbles me about this conference is the students, not it’s noble goals. They come from all different backgrounds, but for three days they leave all of their personal baggage at the door. For three days they become vulnerable, exposing secrets and fears, and open up in ways I never thought humanly possible. Most importantly, they leave the conference with a sense of peace in themselves and a commitment to tackle deep rooted social and personal issues. I love working with younger students because they approach the world with an honesty about them that is authentic and genuine. They believe they can make a difference, and that if they continue to push, they will change not just their own life, but also the world.
In my mentor group last summer, I had an African American boy who was in the sixth grade. From the way he dressed to the way he spoke, I could tell he had been involved in gang activity, and he was not looking to become vulnerable during these three days. He had to remain a “strong” man. I could feel he did not want any part in the heavy discussions as he sat in the back with his hands crossed and stared blankly at the ground. As a mentor, I felt a disconnect and it frustrated me. But I continued to include him rather than push him away. I could only hope that he would have the strength to use his voice, when, and if, an issue hit home.
One particular mentoring session, we were back in our assigned room discussing our thoughts on a previous talk by the Nobel Laureate. I opened the group discussion so they could share their personal struggles. We had been discussing lots of issues, but not personal stories. It was their time now.
I posed the following question: “Sometimes peace seems so distant from our life, almost like a dream. When there is so much suffering, how do we keep peace alive?”
Tears started to softly fall on a student’s face.
“Can you share with us what is making you cry?” I asked her.
She was ready to share her story, because she felt a sense of trust, and peace, among her peers.
“I’m scared to go home and face him again. It’s my uncle. He has been raping me since I was a little girl, but I have never told anyone.”
As a mentor I was prepared to deal with these stories, but for some students it was the first time they had heard someone share their own story.
And then something powerful happened. The same young boy that never spoke a word, and never unfolded his arms, stood up and moved to a seat next to the young girl. He sat next to her and hugged her.
He then said, “I go home and my father beats me every single night. I have never told anyone this. It has made me so angry. But when you shared your story, it made me sad. I am sorry that has happened to you.”
Almost every student in the room began to cry. That young boy just wanted to connect with someone. I thought there was nothing anyone could do to change him. This young girl’s story allowed for two people to begin their search for peace, and maybe even other students in the room.
“Would you like to be my friend?” The boy asked her afterwards. Right then and there they exchanged phone numbers and for the rest of the conference they never left each other’s side.
Sometimes we just need someone to listen to us, to allow us to feel connected. I will never forget the way these two kids—young adults—held held each other in their arms. In that moment of vulnerability, a young girl was able to find peace within herself and a young man was empowered to make a difference.