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by Isabelle Baugé

This is the forth blog in a series of four blogs that Isabelle wrote for her final project for the Self-Reg Foundations program.

Why do I need/want to reflect on… Peace?

Because when I read the World News…

… I am amazed, each day, by the courage, dignity, creativity, even humour, shown by the Ukrainian people as they are facing war, fear, destruction, violence, torture, rape, separation from their dear ones, migration, death. 

And hope.

They remember to use their voices, documenting their stories, making sure that the world out there listens to them, from presidential speeches to stamps, from street art to TED Talks. They do their best to protect their lives and heritage (for example, Ukrainian paintings secretly left Kyiv in November, just before a massive Russian missile attack, to be kept and shown in a museum in Spain).

A few days ago, I listened to the Ted Talk Ukrainian education pioneer Zoya Lytvyn gave on April 14, 2022. She said: 

“Putin can take a lot from us. Our homes, our jobs, our loved ones, our peace. But he cannot undo education. Knowledge and curiosity are unassailable treasures.” 

And just today, November 29, 2022, as I start writing this blog, President Zelensky of Ukraine released a book: A Message from Ukraine. Speeches, 2019-2022

He is probably the busiest man on earth right now, fighting like hell to restore peace in his country, for his people. So why is he dedicating some of his precious time to publish a book? Why now?

President Zelensky recently said: “We Ukrainians are a peaceful nation. But if we remain silent today, we will be gone tomorrow.”

There are storytellers from “out there” too, who take action and make sure that Ukraine will not be silenced, such as actor and filmmaker Sean Penn who was in Ukraine, filming a documentary, when Russia attacked on February 24, 2022. More recently, I rejoiced when I read that graffiti artist Banksy had left 7 artworks in Kyiv and other ukrainian cities. And I am grateful each day for the journalists who are risking their lives, and dying, for us “out there” to be aware of what’s going on. 

Through books, articles, photographs, paintings, music or fashion, from raw stories to celebration of life and beauty, storytelling is a powerful way to nurture the very foundation of humans’ need for connectivity. 

Storytelling contributes to peace because it sustains the resilience of communities, supports the reconciliation process and helps prevent conflicts.

Storytelling is a diverse and powerful tool that can help us reframe, recognize stressors, reduce stress, reflect and restore energy, and I agree with Susan Hopkins when she says in a video about reducing the stress load: 

“[…] tell stories, listen to stories, wherever you can. If you’ve got a storyteller in your family, privilege them and try to hear the stories over and over again, turn experiences into stories, these are ways that actually… stories reduce stress. If you have humor and a laugh, anything you can do to bring a lot of laughter is a very positive thing. […] it anchors me to them, it actually reduces stress, it makes you feel connected to others. And so, stories are a great thing to consider as a very useful tool for self-regulation.”

Why do I need/want to reflect on… Peace now?

Because in my personal life…

… since I was young, I have been haunted by a quite dark question: “How much would I be ready to sacrifice, personally, to fight against war and protect peace? How long would I resist under torture?” I cannot explain why I have this question in my head, but it’s there and has always been. I hope I would be strong enough to do what, to me, would be the right thing, but how can I know for sure?

Migration is another big topic for me. I started researching about it when I was teaching Cultural Studies at a university in Germany. But I truly began to grasp these questions from a deeper perspective in 2016, when I was working for a French non-profit organization that supports asylum seekers and advocates for asylum rights.

I was responsible for a group of asylum seekers, 30 young men aged between 18 and 39 year-old, who came from Syria, Irak, Afghanistan, Soudan, Eritrea. I had been hired because of my experience as a French instructor and because I speak different languages. They needed to learn as much French as possible, as quickly as possible. But above all, they needed to be able to put together their “histoire de vie” or “histoire d’asile”: their life story explaining why they were seeking asylum in France, a key document any asylum seeker must present in person to OFPRA (Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides/French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons), on which a final decision is based, a decision in favor or against the asylum status, a decision of life or death for many.

Storytelling… The asylum seekers shared their stories with me. Intimate, painful, raw stories I will never forget.

Stories of war, fear, destruction, violence, torture, rape, separation from dear ones, migration, death.

And hope.

I have not only seen but also felt the overwhelming and complex stress these young men were going through. I wish I’d had my Self-Reg lens back then, but I didn’t. I only did my best.

As far as I can remember, I have always known that words matter. And I witnessed how important words indeed are, while working with them. Learning French with me wasn’t just a cognitive way for them to co-regulate and self-regulate. It was so much more. 

Biological: None of them was able to get a good night’s sleep, because of recurring nightmares and/or attempts to navigate through different time zones while connecting with their dear ones, left behind in their respective countries. As a result, it was difficult for them just to go through their days. The French class helped them regulate their biological clock, by giving them a motivation to get up, an objective in their day. 

Emotional: They were able to share their experiences, open up and express their feelings during the class. They were able to connect with each other, laugh and joke together, and make fun at each other in a gentle way. 

Cognitive: Due to their personal traumas and unstable, not yet safe and secure “new normal” in France, focusing and learning was extremely challenging. Each new word memorized, written or pronounced was a joy, for all of us. We started to put together a small library that they loved. I noticed how calming it was for them, just to spend time in the room we were using for our classes and look at the books. 

Social: They came from different countries, with different languages and cultures. The French class was a hub where they learned to read each others’ cues, and also to read me, a French woman. 

Prosocial: Thanks to the French course, they acquired more self-confidence and were able to better interact with their environment, organize a supper for the team who was taking care of them, go grocery shopping, etc. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started, everything is coming back to me. The news is echoing what I have witnessed at my work in 2016. Lots of stressors I was experiencing when exposed to the effects of trauma on a daily basis are back. I feel like the suffering and struggle of victims of war will never stop, it keeps on coming back, and back, and back. 

But I have a tool now. My Self-Reg lens. Today, I know that it is okay to not let myself be absorbed by the darkness (such as “how long would I resist under torture?”). I know that focusing on Peace is not going to make me erase people’s sufferings from my awareness. Changing the trajectory of my focus will not diminish my ability to feel empathy. And it might contribute to bringing some light. 

So instead of focusing on war, I will reframe Peace and see what storytellers can do to nurture it. 

Reframing Peace 

Etymology: The word ‘peace’ comes from the Anglo-French pes = freedom from civil disorder, internal peace of a nation, from the Old French pais = peace, reconciliation, silence, permission, from the Latin pacem (pax) = compact, agreement, treaty of peace, tranquility, absence of war, from the Proto-Indo-European root *pag- = to fasten, to bind together by treaty or agreement. 

The ancient Greek word Κοινὴ Εἰρήνη/Koinē Eirēnē comes from the verb eiro = to join or bind together that which has been separated or divided, by the means of a treaty that recognises the autonomy and equality of all city states without regard for their military power and intends to permanently remain in place. 

The etymology shows us that Peace is not passive. It is caused. It is an active process that needs to be nurtured, sustained, planned, organized. 

For the longest time, I have seen war and violence as the destruction of peace. But since I’ve started reframing “Peace” for this blog, I wonder if it’s not the other way around: is peace the interruption of war? 

Characteristics: Far from being uniform, peace manifests in many different ways. It can be personal/internal (inner peace), external/interpersonal, international or global. It can be fragile, sustainable or enduring. 

Peace can be defined in a positive way, based on growth-promoting actions such as restoration of relationships, creation of social systems to serve the needs of the whole population, constructive resolution of conflict. 

But it can also be defined in a negative way (absence of violence or war). We need to keep in mind that its roots and conditions can vary greatly, from democracy to coercion. In fact, peace is not a synonym for justice or equality: a society might not be engaged in a war, but it doesn’t mean that it is a peaceful or a just society. 

Self-Reg: Self-Reg establishes a clear distinction between being still or quiet, and being calm. In the same way, a country or a person can be still or quiet, but it doesn’t mean that they are peaceful. 

The etymology and the characteristics of Peace show that it is a process – like self-regulation. It is the process of joining/binding what has been separated. I cannot help but think of the dyad and the Interbrain here. 

In Foundations 1, Module 1, Jean Clinton explains the Interbrain saying (emphasis mine): 

So, you’ve got a little two-year-old who has a fever, so that means the red part’s going, that’s their heart rate is up, their temperature is up, their blood pressure may even be up, who knows? They’re very uncomfortable so their limbic system, their lizard green part of the brain is firing, firing, firing, firing. Now dad comes along and says “I want to give you medicine to make you feel better”, but there’s no way you can talk that little one into it because they don’t yet have the connections to the blue part of the brain, but by the time they’re four, they’ve developed enough experience and self-regulation to know that when dad says “This is going to make you feel better”. They’ve got the relational connection and kaboom, they’re able to see daddy. It tastes yucky but it’s going to make me feel better. So, this is a core concept in self-regulation; the connecting between the limbic emotional brain saying “I want to know, I want to know”, and the thinking part of the brain. Now some call this the wizard brain. So, as you can see here, part of the development of self-regulation cognitive skills is learning how to have the lizard brain, listen better to the wizard brain

And in Foundations 1, Module 1, Video 2: ‘Secondary Altriciality Across the Lifespan’, Stuart Shanker says: 

We now know that this basic foundation which is being set in the first year of life is what we call the child’s reactivity to stress. And what that means is, think of it in terms of a smoke alarm. I can have an alarm that goes off at the slightest little twinge, and that alarm is always going to be going off and then we’re going to have to figure out strategies to soothe it, to turn it off

What this means is that for us, humans, fear and reactivity to stress are more primal and basic than hope. Fear and stress reactions to threat are triggered sooner than experiences of hope and optimism, which are considered secondary emotions that we experience more downstream, once we feel safe and secure. 

Being hard-wired to focus on problems and threats first, saves our lives. But is surviving enough? In times of struggle and darkness such as the times Ukrainian people are going through right now, the connection with the wizard brain, with the thinking part of the brain needs to be nurtured. 

Hope needs to manifest, be maintained and sustained, especially in the worst of times. And storytellers have a part to play in this. 

Recognizing the stressors 

In her TED Talk, Zoya Lytvyn shares her story, her experience of the beginning of the Russian war in Ukraine. There is so much in her description that echoes what I heard from the asylum seekers back then, at my work, in 2016. Listening is something we all can do, if we want to build empathy and allow understanding. 

Biological: Zoya describes her stress response to the night of bombardment on February 24, 2022. She describes how she was stunned, speechless, motionless, helpless. She froze. Her hands were shaking. 

Emotion: Zoya says that her “first lesson of war is that “what you cherish can be taken from you in a moment. Even your peace of mind.” 

Cognitive: As she woke to the sound of bombs with her windows crashing in on February 24, 2022, Zoya’s daughter spoke for the first time. Her first word was “ba-bah,” like the sound of a great explosion. It was the sound of the bombardment of Kyiv. 

Social: Zoya had to flee the Ukrainian capital with her children and take refuge in Slovakia, leaving her husband and her parents behind. Away from her family and her roots, she had to adjust to a new norm, a new culture and society, while grasping the fact that her country was being attacked and destroyed. 

Prosocial: Sadly, there is so much to list here… Feeling the stress of your own children, family members, and country in the midst of incredibly dysregulating events, feeling unprepared, being a victim of injustice and violence… 

Reducing the stressors, restoring the energy 

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” 

Zoya is a mother and an educator: two good reasons to begin with the children. During the COVID pandemic, her team had worked with the Ukrainian government to create the Ukrainian school online. Since the beginning of the war, thanks to her nonprofit project, skills and experience, 400,000 students are able to learn from within Ukraine and from 120 countries where they are refugees, sharing a safe environment, burning their energy in a positive, growth-promoting way and expanding their cognitive, social and prosocial skills. 

At the end of her speech, she says (emphasis mine): 

And as long as our children keep learning and our teachers keep teaching, even while they are starving in shelters under bombardment, even in refugee camps, we are undefeated. In this war, every Ukrainian has his own front. Our soldiers, our doctors, our mothers. And, yes, even our children and teachers. By continuing to learn, they fight for our future. And this fight is about so much more than borders. Ukrainians are fighting for freedom, for our right to imagine and build our future in our own way. Our people stand heroically. But against the second-largest army in the world, we cannot stand alone. To end this war, we need you. We need every citizen in every nation to demand that it stops

And that was my third lesson. My freedom is connected to yours. My daughter’s first word was the sound of destruction. But as she grows, I know she and the rest of her generation will build Ukraine again. We will rehabilitate our roads, our schools, our hospitals, our houses and people. Fueled by knowledge and curiosity, we will walk again the path to become a prosperous, free nation. If you stand with us

Reflecting: Enhancing the awareness of stress 

I believe that storytelling is a way to stand with Ukraine. When you suffer, it is calming and soothing to know that your story is embraced, heard and relayed in a respectful way. Suddenly, you feel less alone, don’t you? 

Storytellers have the power to help us reflect and enhance our stress-awareness by building emotional, cognitive, social, prosocial connections, which in return has a powerful impact on our biological well-being. 

Here is a short selection of the storytellers who fuel my knowledge and curiosity. Who are your storytellers? Are you a storyteller? 

I mentioned earlier in this blog Sean Penn and Banski, each of them telling stories from and about Ukraine through different mediums. 

Susan Hopkins mentions the importance of humour and laughter in the above mentioned video; I am thinking of Roberto Benigni’s film La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) in which Guido, a father and chaplinesque storyteller, protects his 5-year-old son Giosue from the horrors of the Holocaust, telling him that their life in the concentration camp is an elaborate game. If they win the game, they get first prize: a tank. Making a game out of a death camp is absurd and mirrors the absurdity and evil of Nazi ideology. Thanks to Guido’s ability to distill humor out of tragedy, his young son can endure the terror of the camp. After the film was released, Roberto Benigni received thousands of letters from children, thanking him for introducing them to a subject they knew little about, in a way they could comprehend, through “serious laughter”. 

Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, recipient of the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (a prize Canadian writer Margaret Atwood received in 2017), has traveled the globe over the past forty years, witnessed our times’ major events and helped us understand them through his exceptional photographs (forced migrations, genocide in Rwanda, drought in the Sudan, refugee camps, war in Kuwait, etc.). I cannot recommend enough the documentary The Salt of the Earth, filmed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders in collaboration with Salgado’s son. 

Ripple Effect Images is a nonprofit collective of world-class storytellers (photographers and filmmakers) who empower women and children with their films and images. They are committed to telling stories of women in developing countries, working with vulnerable communities, reporting and storytelling while in the field. 

Chinese dissident and contemporary artist, documentarian, activist Ai Weiwei released a film in 2017 about the global refugee crisis, taking us to over 20 countries and helping us understand the scale and impact of the massive human migrations we are witnessing today (the number of people who fled Ukraine since February 24 is estimated at 15,835,332, while 8,125,775 have returned to the country since February 28). Ai Weiwei’s film Human Flow tells us striking stories of the global migrant crisis and explains: 

It’s going to be a big challenge to recognize that the world is shrinking, and people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other. 

I warmly invite you to watch The Salt of the Earth’s and Human Flow’s trailers, or the entire films, if you can, in case you haven’t seen them yet. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and discovering your storytellers. 

I believe we all can be storytellers and breathe life into the peace process, one story at a time. 

Like Alyona Synenko, a regional spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who shared her story of beauty and violence in a recent piece published by the New York Times: “The Glow of a Wedding Amid Bombs and Blackouts” (Nov. 24, 2022). She says: 

Absorbing fear into our routines and making jokes about life and death does not mean we are not afraid. Fear is the most human feeling there is. We have survived as a species because we know how to be afraid. What is truly terrifying is when you get so used to being afraid that it makes you numb to being alive. 

Beauty brings joy. And living amid violence, when it is easy to forget that joy exists, beauty becomes a lifeline to normality. 

Storytelling through art and beauty, as means for self-regulation and co-regulation. 

Who could illustrate this better than 35-year-old Ukrainian artist Hamlet Zinkivskiy, born in Kharkiv, who joined a volunteer military battalion after the war began. Hamlet is ready to fight on the front lines when it is needed, but his commander gave him a very specific order: to do what he does best, paint whatever he wants, wherever he wants, to lift the spirits of those who defend the city.

So for example, Hamlet filled some of the marks left by cluster munitions on the streets with white paint, revealing that their form resembles flowers.

“War steals a lot of time and opportunities. War gives a lot of time and opportunities,” reads the inscription on one of his recent works, depicting a seesaw that resembles a scale.

Storytelling, to help us reframe, in the worst of times.

I believe that the more stories we listen to and/or tell, the more equipped we become to help Ukrainian people and children today, be ready for Peace tomorrow, to enhance all childrens’ ability to feel safe, secure and calm, experience Empathy, understand Justice, and know what Being Human is.

Processing war, fear, destruction, violence, torture, rape, separation from their dear ones, migration, death.

For hope.

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