from the book
Chicken Soup for the Soul®
Stories for a Better World
Used here by permission ©2005
Reaching Out for the Other
For centuries, social and economic discrimination
by the British state against Irish Catholics resulted in deadly
cross-cultural battles. More recently, the bloody struggles known
as The Troubles in Northern Ireland have affected
everyone there on all sides of their political, ethnic and religious
divisions. Physical and social boundaries are the outcome of conflicting
goals and identities. For over twenty-five years, Loyalists who
wished to maintain Northern Ireland as British territory and Nationalists
who sought the removal of British control from Northern Ireland
were engaged in armed conflict
Many citizens experiencing The Troubles
did not take up arms. They sought shelter in their homes situated
in culturally segregated communities demarked with murals of their
cultural icons, heroes and martyrs. However, their insular neighborhoods
became targets for armed opposition positioned on the other side
of their societys geographic, economic and political divisions.
Random attacks on the other in their community were
retaliatory outcomes of an undeclared war on identity difference.
Regardless of the spreading violence that
Sean*, a young Catholic man, witnessed, he was shocked and overcome
with grief when his apolitical, nonviolent and handicapped sister
and her husband were gunned down at home in front of their two
infants. Their identities as Catholics in a Nationalist community
caused their targeting by Loyalist paramilitaries. The premise
of such intimidation is that people will not risk crossing cultural
boundaries if they are in fear of their lives. At least they wouldnt
dare do it without taking up arms. The tactic did not have the
predictable effect on Sean.
Sean anguished over his familys losses,
but restrained his instinct to drown his pain and anger in pints
of ale. He also refused to arm his own household in preparation
for a possible attack. Yet Sean realized that a passive non-response
to violence sustains it as much as picking up a weapon to strike
back. He recalled from history how violence was stopped when the
conflict that caused it was constructively addressed. He also
knew that peace grows from within, which meant he would have to
deal with his current psychological problems before constructively
building peace anywhere else.
Sean faced the challenge that all people
encounter when their loved ones are murdered: he had to reduce,
and hopefully overcome, his anger and anguish. This was particularly
difficult for Sean due to his deep affection for his murdered
sister Rosaleene. She was so special. She was born with
a disability that almost killed her as a child. Rosaleenes
doctor predicted early that she could never lead a normal
life. Well, she proved them wrong with her determination and strength
of character. In reflecting on Rosaleenes courage
and strength, Sean realized that he could use those qualities
in his current location, the crossroad between revenge and reconciliation.
Sean understood that he needed to do more
than avoid revenge and forgive the killers, who were never arrested
and convicted. He knew about their paramilitary group and their
continued presence in the region. As dangerous as it was, he realized
he must heal himself and others by reaching out to those who assassinated
his dear Rosaleene.
With the help of his understanding family,
Sean decided to change his career from manual work to social work.
To learn how he might facilitate social reconstruction with community
members on all sides of the group divisions in Northern Ireland,
he turned to peace-building organizations. His new career entailed
forgiveness and reassurance that he, as well as those he helped,
could reach out for and work with the culturally different others
in their community.
Thirty years after Rosaleenes murder,
Sean still feels the loss and pain. He accepts the ongoing danger
of an attack when he ventures into communities of the other
to work with them. Yet he is focused in his goal to build
peace through contact, assistance and understanding. When
I joined him in his cross-community work with Belfast teenagers,
he gave me pointers on the careful use of identity labels, including
Irish and British, that when misused could result in offense or
even violence. Clearly Sean had developed essential skills, such
as sensitivity to cultural identity, for establishing an integrated
community with diverse youth groups.
Last week, Sean began carefully teaching
ex-convicts in the community of the other conflict
resolution and other interaction skills. He demonstrated perception
differences and communication problems that lead to misunderstanding.
Some of his trainees are former paramilitaries and supporters
of the group that killed Rosaleene and her husband.
Says Sean, I could not come into this
area unless I was trusted and given permission. But its
still scary being in their community where recognition
of and aversion for my identity difference can be deadly.
But, he maintains, We need to go beyond forgiveness. We
have to reach out for those that we see as the enemy; understand
those histories and reasons that make us value and strive for
different goals and aspirations. If we stay fixed in our own physical,
mental, emotional, social and cultural silos, we will also be
viewed as the other. When that happens, we lose our
How can you reach out to the other?
You start with two open hands.
*Names have been changed.