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Creating safe havens to Feel and Heal

For whom the bell tolls
No man is an island
Entirely by himself
Every man is a piece of a continent
A part of the main….
Any man’s death diminishes me
Because I am involved in mankind
And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee

— John Donne

Aside from the complete disregard that the bell also tolls for womankind, which can be explained by the fact that this poem was written about 250 years before the women’s movement began to change everything, I love it because it reminds me how deeply we are involved with and connected to one another. And this includes our connection to the suffering and pain around us that often we would rather not see because seeing means that we might have to feel something painful and then…Well… who wants to feel pain?
Several years ago, a friend called me while I was teaching at the Peace Studies Department at Goucher College.
“What are you doing?” He asked
“Just writing” I replied.
“About what?”
“Oh… about a student who committed suicide a few days ago by hanging himself from a tree next to the dormitory and now the college administrators want to cut down the tree so the other students will not be reminded of the suicide.”
There was a moment of silence and then he said:
“I had such a wonderful dinner last night with Bill at the new place…”
I don’t remember anything beyond those words because I felt shocked and hurt. I had expected an “OMG that’s terrible”, an opportunity to share my anguish.
Later, lying in bed for hours I tried to figure out why he ignored what I shared. Was I too intense? Did I scare him? Or maybe it was just because avoiding pain is easier than feeling it.
I have lived most of my life in Israel surrounded by conflict and trauma and see how we try to avoid the pain that is always just around the corner. We build walls of denial eschewing the news, not talking about the situation or just embracing an US and THEM mentality. We are right, they are wrong, end of story. Why is it so difficult to hold complexity, to see how we can both be right and wrong? To feel compassion for the pain of the other side? Or even to feel the pain that belongs to us related to the things we went through in life, the pain that is ours to feel?
But maybe first why is it even important that we feel our pain, and that we create spaces for others to feel theirs? In seven words it is because: “pain that is not transformed is transmitted”. And one of the reasons why we, the Israelis and Palestinians continue inflicting pain on one another for almost one hundred years is that there have hardly been any opportunities for us as peoples to be in a safe space where we can feel the pain related to the Holocaust, the Nakba and 72 years of conflict. Safe havens where we could express and transform this pain that is chaining us to a cycle of violence, of acting and reacting and forgetting that every man’s and women’s death and suffering diminishes us because we are involved and connected to woman and man kind.
OK so it’s important to feel and transform our painful emotions but why is it so difficult to “just do it”? Why are so many of us doing so much in order to not feel our pain? One reason has to do with how we were brought up and that we were not taught about safely expressing painful emotions. In school we learned computers, math, geometry, science, history, biology, chemistry, how to play basketball, football, soccer and tennis, how to dance and draw and sing. But we did not learn to safely feel and transform frustration, anger and heartache.
Instead we received messages to hold back, get a grip, overcome, “be a man”, don’t make a scene in public. You are such a sissy. Go cry in your room. Alone. Sometimes we were even punished for expressing strong feelings simply because people did not know how to deal with our emotions because nobody taught them. So, we grew up trying to hide what we feel, choking our tears in shame, hiding our anger until it erupts like a volcano.
After 25 years of creating safe havens for people to feel and heal, I know that when people finally release and show their anger in a safe space, screaming while hitting a cube or pulling a stretch band, or when they sob from grief and heartache in somebody’s arms, there is such a relief and a shift.
I believe that if we are to survive as humans we must learn to “do the inner work that has been underemphasized, that we have not trained ourselves to do, the work that is upon us now.” Feeling our pain and supporting others in doing the same.
“No man is an island” wrote John Donne. We are all related. We are all part of the main, the whole. And we all have feelings, feelings of love and joy, feelings of fear, anger and despair. Feelings are as much a part of us as are our thoughts. When welcomed and given a safe space, they come and go like waves. They become friends we can learn from. And after they have been expressed our thinking becomes clearer and we make decisions not from an emotional fog but from a place of connection and clarity.
But when we avoid our feelings whether its heartache, frustration, despair or unworthiness, they keep coming up; they do not leave us alone. And often they affect our behavior towards one another.
I wonder sometimes what our lives in Israel would be like if every child and every adult had a safe place where they could go when they felt sad or upset, a place where he or she could express these feelings and feel accepted? A place where we could listen to the feelings of others with empathy, develop compassion and realize our own ability to provide love and support? I wonder what our lives would be like if from a very early age, in kindergarten through college, we were taught about being comfortable with emotions? That there is room to express pain and suffering, that they are not awful things to be avoided but an integral part of our being that can be listened to, and learned from. And that when strong feelings are expressed, acknowledged and respected in a supportive caring space, then it is possible to let go, forgive and move on.
Looking back now at what happened in Goucher so long ago, I wonder if there was a message to us as a society that this young man who committed suicide was trying to convey when he hung himself in such a public place — on a tree next to the dormitory?
I pray that we do not ignore these messages that we do not overcome so quickly, that we lean in for a moment and feel what is ours to feel, that we don’t run away from the pain or cut down the tree that reminds us of someone else’s suffering.
This book is about my own journey to find a safe space for my feelings, the stories of the women and men from the safe spaces we created for Arab Palestinians and Jews from Israel and Palestine and about our unique multidisciplinary peacebuilding approach which has grown and developed for over two decades.
I believe the bells of human experience do toll for us. And they are saying: Please create opportunities to feel, transform and ultimately heal as individuals and a society.
Nitsan Joy