Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
“Peace” as a concept has different layers but usually we only think of it in the political spectrum of things: as the absence of physical or systemic violence. Even though I have been presented with more comprehensive definitions of peace – those that also include the self and the relation between the self and the society – at many occasions at trainings and workshops, I had never consciously applied this to my work and myself before coming to Chula.
As I work on Iraq, a country that sees enormous levels of violence on a daily basis, people will often ask me: how do you do it? But somehow the answer was always simple: because of the amazing people there. I get to work with dedicated, extremely intelligent and brave Iraqi’s who risk their lives day in and day out to try and bring about change. And they do. Their energy inspires and is contagious. But somehow, the events of the past year with the rise of ISIS had a profound impact on me. Not that I lost all faith, but I did lose a lot of energy. Even though my work became more relevant than ever and even though I still had energy to make more trips to the country and clocked more overtime than before, it became harder to do it. I thought it was simple tiredness that could be solved by a nice long vacation. But somehow, the vacations were not really enough. Perhaps I needed another approach?
One of the reasons I applied to the program here at Chula was so that I could get out of my work routine for 3 months. How often do we get the opportunity to take our time to learn new things, to take a step back, to breathe and reflect? The great thing about this program is that the organisers really realize that and see it as part of the program. That does not mean that they make the course easy: our program consists of classes from 9 – 4 daily and on average up to one hundred to sometimes two hundred pages of preparatory reading per week. But the way the course has been set up is to facilitate reflection – during the daily program on topics we are tackling as well as in the form of required journaling and assigned reflection papers.
In addition to that, last week we received three days of teaching on the topic of self-care by renowned psychiatrist June Pagaduan Lopez, expert on psychosocial trauma management from the Philippines and nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize as one of the “One Thousand Peace Women of the World”. It is a great opportunity to be taught by people like June, and thinking from my usual political peace perspective, I was looking forward to classes on how to work with traumatized communities. Instead, however, June took us on a journey to discover the peace within ourselves. This was not easy and initially I felt resistance. Using teaching techniques that involved dancing, coloring and meditation meant that most of us were quite out of our comfort zones. Not only was there a focus on how to relax and get to a place for reflection on how stress impacts us, June also taught us some very simple self-assessment tools to be able to measure our own mental wellbeing. And even though I discovered I am nowhere near a burnout, it was eye opening.
I realized that the first thing I do in times of stress is to abandon the activities that help me to relax, like sports and yoga. So that was my mistake – working like crazy and then thinking a holiday would fix it later. It makes complete sense that without self-care, we cannot care for others. And isn’t that what motivates us peace activists the most, as most of us apply the concept of peace as meaning the absence of violence, the absence of the killing of the other, by another in our work – doesn’t the need to work for change comes from the fact that we care?
However, we often forget that in doing our peace work, we are witnesses, and this has deep impact. It can leave us numb and it can make us stressed, on edge and short-tempered. I see it with colleagues and I see it with myself: stress is part of the job, and the first thing we do is skipping our personal time in order to do more. Thanks to this week, however, I realize more than ever, that caring is an art, and that it starts with care for ourselves. It is an art we need to learn and that we need to cultivate in our daily lives, in our organizations and in our work cultures. Sometimes you just need a little bit of distance to realize these things, and Bangkok, one of the most hectic cities in the world, suits quite fine for such reflection, it turns out.
Thirsa de Vries, The Netherlands
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2015 session