Self-Care for Peacebuilders

"Peace is not the absence of noise, trouble or hard work. It is to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart."

This week, students from colleges all over the US have come together for Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights, "the largest undergraduate student-organized and student-attended conference on human rights in the United States." The conference has been extremely well-organized, the participants engaged, and the panelists inspiring in their breadth and depth of knowledge and experience. I was honored to be invited as a panelist, to talk about Survivors' Truths' model for working with survivor communities to create media that promotes peace and reconciliation.

In addition to making presentations, panelists were invited to facilitate breakout groups, where participants have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss issues raised in the plenary sessions. This afternoon, after discussing cultural differences in understanding of the self and manifestations of mental health problems as well as the complexities of re-training former combatants in civil conflict to be an effective military, a student asked, "How do you deal with the stress of this work?" This led us into a rich conversation about the value and importance of knowing one's own limits, honoring our preferences (don't go to a war zone if going to a war zone puts you in a constant state of anxiety), and things that one can do to make tough work sustainable.

Then we did some yoga. 


The conversation had been rich and dynamic, with all of the students contributing ideas. After a while, though, I noticed that the energy in the room had shifted. I felt tired and saw my fatigued mirrored in the expressions and body language of the group. It brought to mind Amy Cuddy's TED talk on how our postures and body positions affect our biology and behavior. After more than an hour sitting around tables talking, we were all sitting, many of us hunched forward, ready for a nap. I commented on this and we ended up talking about how important it is, especially when working to help others, to continue habits like running and playing music even especially when you get that dream job, are working long hours, are living in an unfamiliar and possibly hazardous place.

As we had about fifteen minutes before going into another hour-and-a-half plenary session, we decided to stop talking and start moving. In our business attire, we took off our shoes and did a short yoga series. 

It was fun, it got the blood moving, it was putting in practice what gets a lot of lip service.

When we were done, group members talked about their own preferences for keeping balance. I promised to send them links to the series we had done and Kripalu, which offers free mini yoga breaks that can be downloaded in MP3 format.

So, this post is for the the students in Room MTC2101, who have inspired and challenged me the past two days. They give me hope that the work of helping in international settings will continue to evolve and transform, becoming more effective and relevant to the people, communities, and countries that we endeavor to assist. Thank you all for enriching my life as you have shared your ideas and aspirations this week. I look forward to seeing you on future panels, sharing your failures along with your successes with the rest of us.