Studying conflict can be intensely demoralizing. Every day seems like a new lesson in mankind’s potential to be cruel, and every solution seems painfully imperfect. We learn to pull our far reaching hopes in, to make our goals a bit smaller, and to ultimately view peace not as a singular leap but instead as a multifaceted process that may never be fully complete. These are hard lessons–most of us are young idealists who always dreamt of saving the world, many of us are heartbroken to realize how impossible that may be. At times, I have found myself edging perilously close to cynicism. In February, a group visit to the Corrymeela Community served to remind me of the human potential for change, for progress, and for good.
In contrast to the breathtaking coastline upon which it sits, Corrymeela’s buildings seem quiet and unassuming. It was established in 1965 as a space in which to have difficult conversations. During the Troubles, bitter political rivals could meet here as a first step in overcoming devastating social rifts. Our introduction to the organization was provided by current community leader Padraig O Tuama. His speaking style was an echo of the place itself–quiet, comforting, unpretentious, and yet decidedly charged with power and meaning. I wish I could remember every word he spoke; I wish I could write them all here and have them wash over you the way they washed over me, somehow shaking me to the core while simultaneously providing me with a sense of strength. Knowing I can’t manage that I offer instead what I found to be his three most potent thoughts:
- Seeing the bigger picture. Padraig told us the story of a conversational impasse, a moment when all sides felt so mired in their differences that they could not speak productively. One member of the group suddenly looked through the window and pointed to the ocean: “There are dolphins out there!” The group broke, moved outside excitedly, watched in amazement as the animals leapt and swam. The group was able to come back to the conversation with a sense of the larger world and its meaning beyond the divisiveness of any single issue.
- Feeling safe. “Before anyone enters the room,” Padraig explained, “there are hundreds of phone calls being made. Most of these are assuring guests that they will be treated with respect.” It makes sense–who would want to enter a space knowing that those within it are waiting eagerly to tear you to pieces? Regardless of the perspectives from which group representatives might come, much of Corrymeela’s burden is to ensure that they feel safe enough to engage in productive dialogue.
- Speaking the same language. When discussing his work combating homophobic legislation abroad, Padraig mentioned its alleged moral roots in the Christian Bible. Instead of condemning the authors and legislators as heartless or broken, he approached them with a Bible in hand. Together they sat and worked through the texts that both sides valued, ultimately finding the passages to be far less in favor of dogmatic punishment and far more in favor of acceptance and empathy. When their moral framework was respected, they were far more open to change.
None of these are solutions in themselves, but they are elements of a larger process that holds infinite potential. Corrymeela stands as proof that great change is made up of small-scale action, and that one organization, one group of dedicated individuals, even one young idealist, can move the arc of the moral universe a little further towards justice.