Tea, earl grey, hot.

As part of my curiosity trip, I have started a new HarvardX course: Religion, Conflict and Peace. I find it very intense to take this course: it is about religion, about nationalism, about tribalism and sectarianism (the best quote so far from the course: ‘Sectarism is belonging gone bad’). All the things I’ve been struggling with lately in my research, so very useful but very tough.

The reason why I want to share my experience in this course with you is that following it I was confronted again what I discovered earlier in my search on changing my mind: the unattractiveness of doubt.

Doubt in itself is a bit of a cowardly word. It feels unfinished, as if you haven’t finished working yet. Doubt is a state you want to get out of as quickly as possible. At the same time, when I immerse myself in the great contradictions that our country – and our world – is currently struggling with, I see that doubt is again and again the starting point of understanding and reconciliation. Doubting, not knowing, postponing your opinion: it are these qualities that make it possible to start the dialogue over the gap of the disagreement.

Doubt, and an infinite amount of tea. Because whether it is about the abortion referendum in Ireland or the conversations between parents of deceased children in Israel, a dialogue with doubt and respect for the other takes time. Lots of time. In Ireland, a ‘Citizens Assembly’ – a group of randomly chosen citizens – discussed the text of the constitutional amendment on abortion from November 2016 to April 2017. Six months, and a lot of tea later, the amendment was put in vote in a referendum. That referendum was held this year, and Ireland voted in favour of the amendment. Since then, abortion under the Irish Constitution is no longer illegal.

In Israel, parents of children killed by violence – Jewish and Palestinian parents – talk to each other. And they stand side by side to end the violence. In the beautiful documentary ‘Encounter Point‘ (can be seen via the youtube link, highly recommended!) you can also see these parents talking to their ‘own’ people. Years of violence, fear and propaganda make it difficult to spread their message of peace. Step by step these parents continue to work on a world in which violence is no longer common. That too takes time, and tea.

Doubt is therefore a great asset. But at the same time, doubt seems to put us off, seems to exit us from the play field. As one participant at the meet up in November put it: I don’t know how to form an opinion about many things! I read information, try to inform myself, see points of view already arising and colliding and then… I withdraw. I don’t participate anymore.

A former inhabitant of a settlement in the occupied territories expressed it as follows: The left and right wings in this country have it easy. They know what their opinion is, they have the truths clear. They print their truth on a sticker and stick it on the back of their car. But how about people like me? People whose truths and opinions are a page long? That doesn’t fit on a sticker! Nobody reads my opinion.

At the meet up, the mood at the end of the evening became rebellious. We doubters are marginalized, we concluded. We have to claim our place! It is time for a Radical Central Party. It is time to normalise the sound of the doubter, or even better, to idealize it: doubt is good for you!

As Atalia Omer (Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame) says: we need to rethink nationality, identity and citizenship. By talking to each other, being critical and staying in dialogue, we can ‘denaturalize’ settled definitions of citizenship. This means that we make them un-usual, questioning the ingrained pattern. By doing so, we can look at our own identity and our definition of justice with a fresh look.

So that’s my good intention for 2019: I’m going to drink a lot of tea with people I don’t know yet. I’m going to find my own blind spots. And I will try to examine my ingrained definitions step by step. Because understanding the other, that goes through the mirror. I will continue my journey through the mirror in 2019. I wish you all a very beautiful day, and hopefully I will see you again in the new year.

November rain

It’s eleven December already and I’m only now getting to my November blog. What did I learn and do in November? How did my research go?

November was as busy as I feared it would be. But busy with a lot of the best things: teaching and being a training-actor. Seeing pennies drop, seeing the twinkle in the eyes of people who suddenly get a new insight: it’s fantastic.

In November I got to teach two on important themes in my professional career. The first theme was cooperation in the social domain. Together with professionals who make a difference for young people every day, I worked on effective cooperation. We learned the theory, but more importantly we learned from their own experience. What do you see? What happens? And what can you do?

It is remarkable how much power and pleasure it gives professionals to take the time to take a step back and actually analyze what is happening in their daily work. For them to ask the essential to ask many questions: ‘Why do we actually work with these partners? What’s in it for my organisation, and what’s in it for me? What are our goals? What is the phase of the collaboration? What have we already set up properly, and where are the white spots? These and other questions not only gave the students a lot of insight, but also a lot of strength in their own work. Because if you know what’s going on, you can also choose much smarter and more powerfully what you’re going to do yourself. And this produces very nice results: cooperation can really be easier, better and more effective, and you can do something about it yourself!

At the same time, it is difficult to see how we are still struggling in the social domain in this country. That it is so difficult to build and maintain powerful partnerships. That it is still not self-evident that the decentralisation of 2015 has led to better care and to working more effectively. As co-author of the 2014 transformation agenda, I know so well what hope and expectation we all had. And I also see a lot of beautiful things happening, but also a lot of struggling. I think that has to do with the major changes that are taking place in our society on a wider scale: different expectations of the government, a different role for the professional, more customization but also a shortage of money and a new division of responsibility between client, network and professional help. We have to find each other again, on a lot of different levels.

Anyway, I’m digressing. November was also busy with me teaching people to negotiate. As a training-actor I supported Mieke Bouwens in her two-day masterclass Excellent Negotiating. What a blast we had! So wonderful to give people the opportunity to actually practice their behaviour. To show how big the influence of small things like body language, position and use of language is. To play ‘games’ around themes such as: how long can you keep asking questions? Don’t say anything? Don’t use the forbidden word (price, discount, money)?

It was two days full of twinkling eyes, full of tears of laughter and full of seriously busy brains. Building new paths in your head, heart and behavior is hard work. And that’s what the students did. With result!

Besides all the work I was able to do in November, I was also able to spend time on my research. One highlight was a face to face Meet-up about my research! On 22 November we were in Amsterdam with a nice circle of people talking about how you can change your mind. I will keep coming back to this night a lot in future blogs, because it has given me a lot of insights. I will give you a short cryptic overview:

  • Changing my mind? I can’t even form an opinion anymore!
  • Irish referendums and the power of drinking tea.
  • It is time for a Radical Central Party.
  • From debate training to consensus training in secondary schools.
  • Steamrolling and the other persons truth.
  • Radicalisation and the power of a bridge builder

I am curious to see where all these insights, all these questions and cryptic beginnings of a thoughts will bring me in December. I am probably not be founding a political party this year, but who knows what the future holds.

In any case, what I am going to do in December is to study ‘the other persons truth’. After all, that frase was used a lot in my November. In the meet-up, but also, of course, in the Netherlands where we have struggled with understanding the pain of the other this last month. The conversation, sometimes debate and sometimes fight over black pete has faded away after 5 December. 

For me it was a crucial part of my November, because this year I did not want to stay away from this debate. I talked, read, listened and thought. I found beautiful sites like this one of the Meertens Institute that researches all kinds of questions about black Pete (sorry, it is in Dutch). Read and listened to Harvard professors who talk about moral philosophy and religion.

In short, November was for me the month of the group, the change and of the other persons right. In this month I shifted my attention from the individual and his/her brains, to the groups and communities in which we live together as individuals. I will continue this shift in December. I am very curious what kind of insights it will give me!