Friday, July 19, 2013


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
July 19, 2013

                Peace occurs in elusive moments of living relations, like specks of gold that appear after long periods of panning and sifting.  As in gold mining, the harder we try to accumulate peace, the more waste, destruction and human suffering we create in the process.  As one who has invested a great deal of personal human capital in trying to make peace, I find this a particularly hard reality to accept; ultimately, this reality makes it hard for me to live with myself.  In the face of human problems in my own daily relations, let alone in the face of demands to stop violence on larger human scales, I confront my own impotence.  I have heavily invested my ego in making peace happen, though experience keeps trying to show me that the moments of peace I encounter are instead those I let happen.
                A case in point happened during a demonstration of mediation between guards and prisoners that I facilitated last December at Santa Rosa prison in Trinidad.  When the demonstration ended, a magistrate and experienced mediator seated behind me asked, “Did you notice what Prof. Pepinsky did [to make the demonstration work well]?”  She pointed out how much I had kept quiet and let other participants do the talking.  I was too flattered to let onto what kept me so quiet.  A combination of loud air conditioning, my failing hearing, and my unfamiliarity with Trinidadian spoken English meant that I relied more on body language and tone than on content of what was said.  Plainly put, I didn’t understand much of what people were saying, and so I left others’ interpretations of what was being said alone.  My ignorance proved to be my most salient asset.
                What applies to helping resolve other people’s differences applies to helping me resolve my own internal conflicts.  I have just returned from a visit to Poland with my wife, daughter and granddaughter for a rather large and wonderful family reunion led by my father-in-law, who moved to his present home in Montreal in 1965, and had not been back to his homeland for more than 40 years.  The time was properly theirs to plan and journey through, mine to observe.  I took many pictures and did a lot of listening and watching, while in past visits alone or with my wife and daughter, I had been an active participant.  I had become all the more effusive when I downed Polish vodka with enthusiasm, while this was my first sober visit.  I also spent time with colleagues of mine and Jill’s.  A natural question on getting back together was, “What are you doing?”  I had recently confronted some resistance and resentment in two organizations I have joined—the local folk music society and my neighborhood organization, and was learning to back off and be in both groups without “doing” anything much worth talking about.  So when a couple of dear kinfolk with whom I have spent many good visits asked why I seemed so sad, I found I had little to say in my defense, and felt guilty that I was making them feel bad besides being uninteresting.
                I also returned to outrage among friends, colleagues, and commentators I respect over George Zimmerman’s acquittal from the charge of murdering Trayvon Martin, and the attendant desire to see Zimmerman prosecuted by the US Justice Department for violating Martin’s civil rights.  My blogging ego wanted to contribute something constructive to the discussion, and yet I could not deny to myself that I felt critical of taking the anger and frustration I feel over the racism the incident represents on one criminal defendant.  An inner voice reminded me of what students used to tell me:  Hal, you’re always so critical; what do you propose instead?  All in all, personally and professionally, I came home feeling pretty inadequate, pretty useless as a fellow human being.
                My spirits were briefly lifted on my first walk back home at dawn through my heavily wooded neighborhood, even though it was abnormally still.  I met no deer.  A single blue jay called out from a distance, but otherwise no cardinals chirped, no birds flew across my path.  As that day and the day after wore on, I returned to my existential funk and confusion…that is, until I went out of the closed, air-conditioned house with a cup of coffee to sit on the patio.  The fish were busy feeding on the water hyacinth roots and the algae on the walls of the pool.  I had one leg crossed over the other.  A fly landed on my upraised great toenail.  She and I gazed at each other.  We both rested quite still except that she gently rubbed her front legs together as though cleaning them off.  And as I looked up, one bird after another flew near and began to sing; a pair flitted round each other just over my head.  And I began to feel reconnected with my living relations.
                Last night I fell asleep early.  In place of an unusual string of nightmares I had been having, I had a dream that was merely interesting.  I awoke refreshed.  As I took my warning walk, I passed a young cardinal (perhaps one of those born in my yard), then came upon a doe standing in the middle of the road.  As I walked toward her, she skipped across the road onto a school playground, then walked back toward me as I drew nigh.  I said a soft hello as I passed, and as I nodded toward her she dipped her head in return.  By the time I returned home, showered and had breakfast, all my anxiety over this or that future event or possible problem had dissipated, and I felt free to write this essay.
                In this moment I can separate my appreciation of the nugget of shared awareness that connects masses of people across racial lines in recognizing that no stranger one encounters on the street merits profiling by race, age or gender, as was apparent for Trayvon Martin as it is apparent from police stops to incarceration.  Were it not for our culture of profiling, Mr. Martin would have returned home alive and well.  I separate that appreciation from my refusal to extend that recognition to condemnation of George Zimmerman to further punishment.  I have little enough faith in the capacity of human juries and judges to pass judgment and impose sentence on defendants in any case, which is why I have chosen back home in retirement not to register to vote and hence become obliged to do jury service.  In the Zimmerman-Martin case, I am further taken aback that based on faraway news accounts alone, people are prepared to “demand” that Mr. Zimmerman be prosecuted to the so-called full extent of the law and locked away accordingly.  That is the mindset that underlies lynching.  And for those who think that Zimmerman’s suffering somehow makes up for the loss of Mr. Martin and his nearest and dearest, I would point out that Zimmerman has not gotten off scot-free.  His legal debt has to exceed six figures.  He has been confined and can scarcely go out in public without fear of being recognized and vilified. It is always a moot point whether punishment raises offenders’ awareness of their own responsibility for harm done even if convicted and sentenced, or instead only deepens the anger and fear that may have led them to offend in the first place.  If public condemnation has that effect, Mr. Zimmerman’s conscience is no less troubled for his formal acquittal (which the law makes clear is not the same as being certified innocent).  Nor would repeal of stand-your-ground laws stop racialized violence in the long run any more than court orders have stopped separate and unequal schooling across lines of class and color, which now takes the former of high stakes testing and public funding of elite charter schools and closing of neighborhood public schools not only in the South, but foremost in Chicago, the home of the nation’s first black president, with his implicit blessing.  In a larger sense, today, racism has progressed from national and colonial to globalized, privatized levels across hardening boundaries from the Rio Grande to Southern Europe and across the former Soviet Union.  Nuggets of connection, of compassion that cuts through violent divisions pan out.  They are precious.  My enjoyment of those precious moments sustains me, despite the prospect that for countless generations beyond my lifetime, they will continue to be outweighed by the violence and destruction in which they appear.  Love and peace--hal


  1. perhaps you'd say that peace happens, occasionally, regardless of intentional intervention of persons seeking peace? interesting.

  2. I found your mixture of nature walks/talks, acquittal of Zimmerman, and the political base of Mr Obama confusing, unconnected, and unconvincing.

    1. I'll bet you're not alone--l&p