I found a seashell in my bed the other day. You can tell it’s old – all of the edges are worn away and its ridges are smooth. I picked it up to try to figure out where it came from, and my room faded into the backdrop as I remembered sitting on the grainy beach with eight other ultimate peace coaches for our end of the year celebration. The waves are tumbling and the wind is harsher than a breeze but not so violent as to disturb the cups and snacks littered across our picnic table. I can’t hear anything in my foggy memory, but I see collective laughter, a few tears of gratitude.
The chopper breaks up the reminiscence as it circles again, along with the whine of my tiny fan that provides little respite from the stale, stagnant summer heat that hangs heavily with grief and rage over Jerusalem. At least it drowns out the distant pops and booms. When I lived in Mexico, I used to spend a few minutes of every conversation with my parents convincing them that the gunfire in the background was celebratory blanks for weddings and saints’ days. I don’t think they ever believed me. It’s the same argument around here, but I’m no longer convinced of the jovial motives of these far-off explosions. “Wedding or a war?” we used to laugh. There’s not so much laughing now.
I’ve spent the last few days transitioning from an emotional high of world-saving ultimate frisbee summer camp – watching enemies become friends and my girls conquer their fears, and meeting people who have convinced me that the world really will turn out alright because people like these do exist.
Then I dipped back into the molten core of the most ancient ethno-religious struggle in the history of the world. Checking on my neighbors to make sure they’re ok – many of them decided to leave town for a while. Waiting on my co-worker and praying that she’ll get to work. People asking me “Who are you kidding?” when I tell them how I spend my free time teaching peace through sports.
I remember in my oral exam in my senior year of college, I answered that Constructivism would be the prevailing paradigm of this era – that we as individuals will use our capacity to construct our future rather than basing our actions off of a cold and rigid rules of power games. But my friend told me the other day that perhaps that was the worst contribution that the West ever offered to social theory – that the individual has power over the collective. What if we are kidding ourselves as we one by one push on this giant, obstinate boulder?
I didn’t tell anyone about this because it was too terrifying and I felt like I talked about it enough, but I think maybe it’s pertinent here. A few weeks ago, I was harassed by an officer on a horse. He was “herding” me out of the corner where we were watching a demonstration and he was using the horse to scare me by clipping my ankles and pushing my back with his face. His hot breath (the horse’s not the policeman’s) snorted in my ear and he slapped my face with the bridge of his nose. It didn’t make me angry at an particular side of this narrative, but simply wary of power dynamics in general, which are intimidating no matter who’s holding which flag.
My friend asked me how I felt about this whole experience, and even to my own surprise, my answer was “totally liberated.” Completely empowered. Because in that moment, I realized I couldn’t fix the system; I couldn’t influence hunger for power or change the heart of this officer and the darkness he’d extended to his horse, but I could do one thing – not run away from him. In a screwy world we’re living in, is not running enough? When we’re surrounded by warfare and violence, is one handshake or one new friendship enough? Are these sustained relationships and the bonds fortified through Ultimate Peace camp enough to shift the way our world is spinning?
I’m looking at the seashell again, and smooth my fingers over the memories that resonate most deeply with me during my life here in the Middle East. In this time when tensions and fears grip most of my community, I am completely surrounded by a bubble of courageous, hilarious, insightful, compassionate, intelligent, loyal individuals. These are coaches who dedicate their lives to facilitating relationships. These are kids who spend three years of their adolescence – precious time they could be studying and out with their friends – and they choose to learn how to manage a nonprofit, run a tournament, and coach other kids. These are brave kids who are terrified to leave home for the first time and to hang out for a full week with kids whom they are taught to hate. We won’t know if it’s enough because change takes time, like the ridges wearing smooth from the waves washing over this seashell. I wish I knew the answer. But like drops in the ocean itself, if we remain persistent, perhaps someday we too can smooth out some of the jagged ridges of humanity.