Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

A Meditation on Conflict

Over the past week, we were asked to think about conflict, about the inexorable pull of negative actors and triggering events, calamities and grievances, societal pain and retribution.  Of course, reality sneaks into my mind, an unwanted matte against which I paint a canvas of theory and framework.  The past few weeks have shook my country to its core.  I wonder, as does the world, will the United States survive?  The incipient poisoning of our institutions has taken years, but will they truly wither?  And what happens in the throes of a nation falling apart?

In a framework, I’m supposed to examine the root causes and connections, but I cannot be so clinical when my own nation is feeling the rot and ruin. I ask myself, “Are there two sides?  Who are the others?  What do they want?”  Can I be so flippant as to dismiss the needs and wants of my fellow citizens?  I try not to be, but the anger that wells inside is so basic, so sure of righteousness, that I am stymied in nuance and understanding.  We blame echo chambers—we listen to our own views parroted back at us, reinforcing our view of history, our view of facts, and our view of how to name the other.  Through the clear-eyed view of the peace practitioner, I should be able to recognize the alternative timelines and interpretations of each party.  However, I cannot; I am a participant in this conflict, convinced of the essential truth of my cause.  I should be able to dispassionately parse the context—a changing economy, rural-to-urban migration, rising inequality, fear of terrorism—but my blood simmers.  How can one separate oneself from a conflict, when the fight is his or her identity?

We haven’t learned the ability to remove ourselves.  I’m not sure if you ever can—you open the box, and Schrodinger’s cat is either alive or dead.  You work within conflict, and you begin to edge towards one side.  You side with Israelis or Palestinians, Ukrainians or Russians, liberals or conservatives—for me, it gets complicated.

The beauty of engineering is the simplicity of math.  Problems are solved through ingenuity within discrete boundaries.  Steel is only so strong; water only flows at a certain rate.  The undiscovered solution is a methodical approach of trial and error.  I was never an engineer—I am a poet.  The complexity of language runs through my very marrow.  I believe it’s why I am drawn to conflict.  The problems that resist simple solutions draw me in.  They are beyond a simple framework.  Yes, a methodology and vocabulary allow us to speak eloquently about certain subjects, but conflict defies easy explanation.  There is a lyrical quality to conflict, the stories bleed into one another—the martyrs, the heroes, the injustice—that muddies all waters.  I have yet to meet the bureaucrat that can pull a peace from a conflict map.

But these are the tools we have—to assess and recommend—yet it still feels like something is missing.  If relationships matter, how in the vastness of the United States do we engender the coming together of divided groups?  If institutions matter, how do we restore trust in what has been so bloodied?  If positive influences matter, how do we multiply them?  These aren’t idle questions, they are necessary to the health of my country.  Frameworks and tools give us a language, but we—as peace builders—need to be able to write poetry in that language.  We need to understand the complexities and layers of divergent histories, and forge new narratives and hear new voices.  Building a poetry of peace is our most important task, and I only hope that my nation is willing to listen.

Travis Burke – USA

Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 22


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