Saturday, October 23, 2010

Peace (noun): freedom from disturbance, tranquility, freedom from or the cessation of war or violence

Taken in San Bartolomé; this art was sponsored by an Israeli non-profit for peace, "The first condition for peace is the willingness to acheive it"

The fire is dying down in the kitchen, small pockets of sap hiss and crack as we huddle close together in the warmest part of the house for night-time tea and chisme. My host-mother, Victoria, nods her head unconsciously, while my host-brother, Eric and I curl our feet around the hearth of the fire, poking each other and hiding our laughter under our sweatshirts.

"Canchita, where's your novio?" my brother utters softly, breaking the silence.

"Go pick up a mirror, mi amor," I reply.

He chortles, nudging his wife who musters a grin. Its a daily question. We go back to silence for a while, which gets interuppted only to comment on the weather, or maybe how rico the food was, again.

These are the moments I cherish with my host-family. The quiet, peaceful times. When I reflect on my nearly 3 month experience here, however, I have had far more struggles than I care to recount. However, at the same time, I am grateful for these struggles, and let me tell you why.

My host family is full of hypocrisy, anger, fear, resentment, and prejudice. They are staunch Evangelicals who are all too happy to Tell You The Way It Is, while blissfully ignoring their internal turmoil. For the sake of their privacy, I won't divulge the details. However, what I will say is this: this family and I are extremely different. If they were not my host family, I would never go out of my way to get know them. Who would want to be friends with individuals who judge, criticize, bribe and steal from you?

You might think I'm crazy to say I'm thankful for this experience. But I am. Because at this point in our relationship, we have reached an equilibrium. We can live in peace, and even sometimes laughter, with one another. Why? Mostly on my part, but occasionally on theirs too, we have bothered to see one another. I don't mean seeing as in "I see you over there," but really seeing each other. Looking. Feeling. Wondering. Why do they do this that way? Why did I react that way? Can I react better next time? What is their story? Why do they treat each other that way? Most of the time when I find the answers to these questions, I don't like the answer I get, but I understand it. Herein lies the biggest achievement of all: understanding. Hurt, then resentment, then anger build when I don't attempt to understand their actions - when I make the effort to do so, my own peace of mind is achieved.

Websters Dictionary has some additional phrases included under its definition of the word "peace," which I find interesting. For example, it writes "keep the peace: refrain or prevent others from causing civil disorder." This, combined with the definition (freedom from disturbance, tranquility, ect), gives one the impression that peace is simply the opposite of war or disturbance, but I disagree. I believe it goes further. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so it would be arguable that times of peace will tend to lead to times of war or disturbance. So if we want to talk about permanent peace, we must talk about ceasing the action which swings the pendulum of civil unrest and quietude. We must re-define peace.

Albert Einstein once said, "peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding." Just today, I truly understand what this quote means by virtue of this experience with my host family. The experience of understanding another person, religion, culture or country can have a profound impact on our ability as a world to achieve peace.

There will always be individuals and groups with which we fervently disagree, and would never choose to befriend. And I believe that's OK. What is important, and I now believe critically important in our world, is to begin to understand where "the other" comes from, as Edward Said would have put it; to begin to understand why. I believe peace and love work in the same fashion, and as Mother Theresa has famously said, "love must start in the home, and then from there to the streets, to the neighborhood, to the countrysides, and then to the world." Perhaps if we were to substitute "peace," for "love," in her words, Webster might have a run for their money.

This is an edit, written a few days after this initial post: I was sitting in my room last night, reflecting again on my experience with my host family, when something tremendous happened. I heard a soft knock at my door, pase adelante, and my entire family came streaming in, tia leading the charge, a seamstress' measuring tape draped around her neck and a neat little notebook clutched in her hands. After all of our ups and downs together, disagreements, hurt-feelings, and akward situations, they had come to announce that they were making a Traje, or typical Mayan dress, for me. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I began to tear up as she took my measurements, and they laughed and nodded their head approvingly, because both of us knew what this meant. In Guatemalan culture, this is a huge gesture of love, affection, confianza, and belonging. Even more so, my family is very poor, and I can't imagine how they pulled the resources together to do this for me. This is my very first victory in Guatemala - the tough times were worth it, my patience and perserverence with this family paid off. Sometimes life gives you lemons, but sometimes it gives you a traje.

Listening to: "Your Hand in Mine," by Explosions in the Stars

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