As an extrovert, I draw most of my energy from outside myself… my surroundings, people, places, events and moods invigorate me, or exhaust me. So, the biggest challenge for me on Encompass, after my fear of heights, was coping with intense discussions and at times, the negatively charged atmosphere. Over the course of the week we discussed topics near and dear to people, and since we all came from different backgrounds and nationalities, our very colorful differences surfaced regularly—and loudly.
Our week in Scotland was the first time many of us had a chance to talk to people “from the other side” and explore tough issues. For example, one night after our formal discussion was over, the Israelis and Palestinians had a shouting match over a map of Israel sketched out on poster paper.
Side note: when I sat down to figure out how to write this wrap-up blog, I knew I’d be dealing with a sensitive issue, the conflict in the Middle East. So, as a reminder, this depiction of what happened is purely from my point of view as I remember it, both as a westerner and as a witness not directly involved in the conversation.
The map lay on the floor in the circle of six people. People filtered in and out of the room, and the discussion took the better part of three hours, with intermittent smoke breaks.
One Israeli boy and one Palestinian boy, who both seemed to be elected by the other members of their team to speak for the nation, dominated the conversation while the rest of us listened. Night and day met each other head on in this stuffy classroom at the Outward Bound Center in Scotland.
The discussion was not mediated by the staff since it was an impromptu, voluntary thing. So, given free reign, the boys shouted over each other. Years of raw emotion bubbled to the surface and tension that was building all week burst open in rapid fire. It was a frustrating, hard-to-follow verbal bloodbath…Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
But, in order to understand each other and really talk, this shouting match was absolutely necessary.
Back and forth, back and forth. Each tried desperately to speak his own thoughts but neither was listening very well. The conversation went in circles. Each boy felt he was right. As if everything he said was obvious and why didn’t the other see where he was coming from! That was step one toward understanding.
At the climax of the discussion, each boy was standing, leaning in over the map, their faces inches apart, spit flying as they shouted at each other. Firsts were ready to go up and it felt like a physical fight could break out at any moment. One of the British boys physically stepped in between them and told them to cool off—he said we’d end the discussion period if they made anymore threatening gestures. That was step two toward understanding.
From there, with the aggression worked out, each boy took turns talking. We “outsiders” got involved by asking questions and shushing people who talked over the designated speaker. From then on, though the discussion, though still heated, worked out much better. I say this shouting match was absolutely necessary because until these emotions, feelings, and thoughts were expressed, the two nations couldn’t really start talking about solutions. The conversation turned from pointing the finger of blame to acceptance (more or less) of the past and looking ahead to the future. For the Israelis and Palestinians, the conversation didn’t end with a hug and a vow to be best friends for life. But I could tell that the benefits of regurgitating these feelings were threefold:
• Both nations realized the other also wants peace in their homeland regardless of the past
• It’s okay to agree to disagree on some dimensions of the conflict
• Listening to each other, while difficult, was actually the best way to work toward solutions
Step three toward understanding.
Then we all went and played basketball. Israelis, Palestinians, Indonesians, Americans, Brits. Girls v. Boys, and I’m proud to say the girls dominated.
This program wasn’t meant to teach us all to be best friends and life is all sparkly and perfect. It was meant to open doors of communication that were blocked by racial, ethnic, religious, political or economical barriers. I learned that it’s vital to challenge perceptions and views of people different from myself in a world where globalization is ever prevalent. But rhetoric and reality are sadly not always synonymous.
As the ticking clock wedges time and distance between my London life and my fond memories of Encompass, I realize that rhetoric and reality must be one. It’s nice to float off to Scotland for ten days and talk about how people of different backgrounds can peacefully interact. But in the “real” world, it’s much easier said than done. There will always be articulate fundamentalists who have the power to sway eager masses of ignorant people who don’t understand.
Now that the program is finished, perhaps I face the biggest challenge yet… to ensure Encompass is not over. Encompass is not just a program or a trust or an organization. It is a way of living. A way of breathing and existing. So in my own experience, Encompass taught me the power of understanding. Regardless of the chasm of difference, I will forever ask questions, forever try to understand. Because until there is a desire to understand, we will live divided in a world that aches to be communal.