Love in a time of conflict

Watch this: Dare to Disagree - Margaret Heffernan
Read this: The Five Love Languages
Read this: The standard you walk past is the standard you accept

I used to sit in history class and wonder how such seemingly small conflicts resulted in terrible and draw-out warfare. I wondered how the assassination of one high-ranking individual lead to World War I and how that war in itself built the momentum for World War II. And I still don't have the answers. As a kid, I asked myself and those around me why government officials couldn't sit down in a room that was neutral territory, have tea and biscuits, and work out their conflicts. They could yell, but they'd be forced to listen to each other. And a few hours later or a few days later, perhaps there would be a conclusion. No lives lost, no great wars, no human suffering. Just a long, deep, and useful attempt at conflict resolution.

Of course, even as a ten year old, I knew that was a pipe dream.

As a twenty-two year old, I spent a month working in hospital in Papua New Guinea. And there I encountered absolutely bewildering levels of physical violence. I saw patients with their faces sliced off, their arms broken by machetes and their bodies battered from years of trying to defend themselves. I ask them how this happened, and I asked the same questions of the local doctors caring for them. No part of me could accept the one answer I got. "Because that's what these communities do. Someone wronged the other group centuries ago, so now they play a war of tit-for-tat." That's all. Nobody remembers what the conflict was in the first place, all they know is that they've been hurt, so they'll hurt the other group, and so on and so on forever. The only aim is for revenge, but revenge for what? And at what cost?

At the same time, I now work in a space where we sit at the other end of the spectrum. We rarely discuss the things that ebb away at us as "not quite right." We follow our consultants somewhat blindly, unable to confront them about things that sit uneasily. Graded assertion can only go so far, particularly when you know your own knowledge is far inferior to that of a boss. And, disappointingly, a lot of our fear of speaking up comes from the fact that these very people we may disagree with are the ones who decide whether we get jobs next year or the year after, or whether we will ever have an opportunity to get onto the training program of our choice. And so we blindly follow. If David Morrison's quote, "the standard you walk past is the standard you accept" is true, I have a lot of explaining to do.

It's, in part, this systemic pressure that contributes to so much dissatisfaction in the health industry. But if it's so pervasive in a workplace with educated people who, for the most part, have similar backgrounds, how can we expect open and honest discussions around contentious issues with nations who have entirely different cultural perspectives on what is "right"?

We look back with our retrospectoscopes on huge atrocities - the Holocaust, the Pol Pot regime, the war in Darfur, the systematic efforts by colonising powers to remove native peoples - and accuse so many of wrong-doing. (If you're interested, here is a list of genocides by death toll.) We have international tribunals dedicated to charging people with the most horrific of war crimes. But what do we blindly walk past daily?

The conflict in the Middle East, particularly the current Syrian Civil War, has ceased making front page news. It comes somewhere after the cricket scores and Kim Kardashian's latest escapades. Yet more than 10 million people have either fled Syria or been internally displaced. That's almost half the population of a country about the size of Victoria. But before you tell me that more people died in the Holocaust than those who are currently displaced in the Middle East, I want to ask you something. Does that number make a difference to the suffering? Would you care more if the death toll started hitting the unimaginably high numbers of the 1940s? The absolute number should not be our indication for action. The lives that those ten million displaced people live is completely unimaginable to me. And I can do very little to change what is happening in the Middle East. But that doesn't make any of us powerless in these situations.

One my closest friends realised he could make a difference. When a room in his house became vacant, he and his housemate decided they could afford to cover the rent for a three-bedroom home between the two of them. And now they have a Syrian refugee living with them. It's a difference to only one life, but to that one life it will hopefully be the beginning to a life in a country without conflict.

Our love for humanity can overwhelm us when viewing conflict from afar. It is easier to bury our heads in the sand about these things. But how will our grandchildren judge us for that? How will we judge ourselves in the light of our retrospectoscopes? It's all the more powerful when considering that our human population may have experienced a bottleneck to as little as a thousand individuals in our history. If this were true, our population as a species was once in the vicinity as the number of humans working in my hospital. We are all, literally, each others' cousins. And if blood runs thicker than water, we are all brothers and sisters.

Our own silence and fear oppresses our voices. We are walking past conflict and suffering daily. And yet we protect ourselves first at the expense of our local and global families. This New Year's, remember to listen with two ears and speak with one mouth. Every tiny difference amounts to something meaningful.


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