If the victor had fought, she wouldn't have won
I’d bookmarked this story to share a few weeks ago, before the horrors broke out in the Holy Land. Nothing else has seemed relevant to share in the past couple weeks, especially not something so trivial as masks in a dance class. But it stuck in my mind, and when I revisited it today, I realized its eerie relevance to the current world situation.
The story is from Raquel, a member of the online program I host called the Sanity Project.
It all started about a week ago when my salsa dance teacher announced in our WhatsApp group that facemasks would once again be mandatory starting as of the next class. This was an announcement that upset me greatly, as I had already noticed that talks of COVID were starting to pop up along the periphery, but didn’t actually expect people to pay any heed to them this time. For me, this was the first concrete example of the dreaded return of COVID pandemania, a return that brings up strong emotions along with a profound need to set a clear boundary this time: I will not wear a mask, even if that means being excluded, even if that means making personal sacrifices.
PHASE 1: My first reaction is blind rage. A desire to pulverize my compost with a shovel and machete at the same time. Irrational anger directed at something intangible. A strong drive to immediately respond in the group with a message of ridicule or hate, but thankfully a drive that I managed to resist.
PHASE 2: My logical brain takes over. I feel a strong desire to make a list of all of the scientific studies that demonstrate that masks are ineffective, harmful to the wearer, etc. I start to make a highly structured mental list to construct a science-based argument against mask use (which certainly isn’t difficult). Yet again I resist the strong drive to write this in the group. At this point (approximately 2 hours after the announcement) the physical pain starts: my feet swell up, my right knee starts to buckle, I find it hard to continue to stand up.
PHASE 3: A day later, the grief starts. The last round of COVID cost me a number of childhood friends, and it certainly felt like this was going to repeat itself once again, just with a new group of people. I start to feel like the easiest way to proceed is to simply disappear, just not show up for class and not give an explanation. Through an interesting stroke of chance, it rained that day (rain in the desert makes a mess) and class was canceled, giving me more time to think things through.
PHASE 4: I start to come to terms with the fact that acting in a way that is aligned with my beliefs will require sacrifices. I also move away from the desire to disappear, and instead start thinking about how to kindly explain to my teacher why I am not going to go to class anymore. It took me about three days from the initial announcement to find the words to explain my feelings to him in a way that wouldn’t be construed as a personal attack, as I am well aware that my COVID views in many ways threaten the worldview of other people. I was very careful in choosing my words and want to repeat them in their entirety here (translated into English):
“Hi ----, I wanted to let you know that I’m not going to go to class because of the new facemask rule. I know that you made your decision thinking about others’ well-being, but the reality is that you and I have a very different idea of what that well-being is. For me, I don’t want to live in a world with facemasks, a world where we are afraid of microbes and of physical contact between humans. And if I want that world to exist, I have to lead by example, because nobody else is going to do it for me. In all honesty, I think that facemasks do more harm than good, and I have already set a clear boundary which consists of not using them, even if that means being excluded from activities, businesses, etc. I hope you don’t interpret this as a personal attack and I didn’t want to write anything in the group because it could create a pointless conflict. I hope I can once again participate in the group in the future but in a way that doesn’t conflict with my values, if you will still accept me. Thank you in advance for trying to understand my viewpoint.”
I wrote this in awareness that I was dealing with a reasonable, kind person who would not ridicule me for my mask views, but I also wrote it fully expecting to get a somewhat cold response establishing my exclusion from the group. Nonetheless, what I got in response was more understanding than I could have imagined, and my teacher told me, “I’m going to think about making the masks optional.” I thanked him and thought it was best to not put more pressure on, and to give him time and space to make his decision.
Two days later, a couple of hours before our Saturday class the teacher announced that facemasks would be optional. I didn’t want to write anything in the group saying “Yaaaay, no facemasks,” as I felt like that would feed the same sort of conflict I had been trying to avoid. I was thrilled about the change but also somewhat nervous about going to class, feeling like there might be a bit of discomfort around me having exerted boundaries around facemasks, but that this discomfort would probably dissipate over time. I also expected about half the class to be wearing masks, even despite the 40º weather.
Class time arrives and while walking from my car to the gym, I run into another classmate also walking to class. She’s not wearing a mask. We go upstairs to where the class is and the teacher is there along with another couple – a couple who religiously wore their masks until not long ago – none of them wearing a mask. A handful of other people trickle in as it gets closer to start time. Not a single one is wearing a mask. Eventually the class starts and we line up to start our warm-up. At that moment, the teacher takes a crumpled old surgical mask out of his pocket, glances sideways at me mischievously, and makes as if to put it on, but instead laughs, crumples it back up and puts it back in his pocket. Right at that moment there was such a powerful feeling of cohesion in the group it’s hard to describe. But that was that, everybody seemed completely at ease, and I honestly think that that’s the end of the mask debate in our group.
I share this story now for a few reasons. One is simply that it carries the resonance of hope. Masking had become an intractable debate a few months into the pandemic, the battle lines drawn, pro- and anti-maskers entrenched in their positions. With rare exceptions, no one was going to change their minds. And in this story of peacemaking, no one had to change their mind. No one had to admit they were wrong. And no one got to gloat about being right. The victor won without a battle, and if she had fought a battle, she probably wouldn’t have won.
Can you think of any intractable debates that stir the passions today, in which both sides are deeply entrenched in their positions?
The process by which Raquel came to her peace gesture is also illuminating. Phase 1: the rage, wanting to lash out in hate born of pain. Phase 2: channeling that anger into a more subtle form of attack, an assault by logic, evidence, and ethical argument. Phase 3: grief, resignation to nothing ever changing, wanting to retreat from the impossibility of justice ever happening. Phase 4: setting a boundary in the full recognition of the goodness and humanity of he who would have otherwise been the adversary.
If any of these phases seem familiar to you as you witness your own and other people’s response to events in Israel / Palestine, then perhaps there is some useful wisdom coded in Raquel’s “Phase 4.” She did not fight back, nor did she capitulate. Often, people think that peace means capitulation. It doesn’t. Peace is the result of starting with the base assumption of the humanity of the other side.
Some might object that, in the case of Hamas, or in the case of Israel’s Jewish supremacists, the leadership has proven itself to be inhuman. If a murderous psychopath invaded your home, would you do anything but fight for your children’s lives? But a nation’s leadership reflects the conditions of that nation and those that surround it. Underneath the dehumanizing rhetoric and blinding ideologies is a mass of human beings who love and laugh and weep and care for their families. How to speak to the humanity underneath, in the same way Raquel spoke to the kind and reasonable person she chose to see in her dance teacher?
The way we see people exerts a powerful invitation for them to be as we see them. If you see a nation as inveterate haters, then you treat them as such, and bring into expression what you see. If you see them as willing to let go of hate for the sake of peace, that too exerts a powerful invitation. So in the Holy Land, what is the equivalent of Raquel’s letter? What does a peace proposal look like that holds all parties to the basic humanity we have the faith to see in them?
I have proposed some general ideas in an earlier essay. They are not so unreasonable. A cease-fire, humanitarian relief, and thousands upon thousands of peace witnesses flooding the Holy Land. Then a political process that recognizes the full history of all the people in the region, that incorporates their stories and makes room for all of them in a peaceful homeland. I think for the rehumanization of bitter enemies to be successful also requires some kind of peace & reconciliation committee process, like that of South Africa and Rwanda.
How do you forgive the unforgivable? They did it in Rwanda, recognizing that if the cycle of revenge were to get going, there would be no end to the bloodshed. They recognized that the terminus of all the debates about who is justified, who has the right to do this or that, who deserves punishment, is a child cowering under a bed. So they agreed to put something else higher than what was justified. Instead, they decided, let it stop.
Raquel ended her story by observing a powerful cohesion in the group. That is what is possible among Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Holy Land. It won’t be because the Palestinians have finally won justice. It won’t be because the Jews have finally won security. Both of those things will happen, but the cohesion will come because of what both sides surrendered in order to get there.
Having sacrificed hate, they will be united by a nearly unbearable compassion for each other that will light up the world.
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