The Role of Compassionate Listening
By Dr Kathleen Coyne, Compassionate Listening Facilitator
On October 7, the world woke to yet another sharp reminder of the enduring legacy of hate;
this time through unspeakable violence against civilians and the beginning of a bombardment of revenge also disproportionately impacting civilians, especially children. No doubt that the willingness to act in such inhumane ways has its origin in intergenerational trauma. For many Jewish people around the world, October 7 echoed the atrocities they or their ancestors experienced during the Holocaust and triggered existential fear, kept alive through ongoing acts of antisemitism in their own communities. October 7 also reflected the intergenerational grief of Palestinians displaced from their homes during the Nakba, ‘the Great Catastrophe’ of 1948, and the rage against a regime that still now limits their every move, arrests and sometimes kills Palestinians indiscriminately, and expropriates land for Israeli settlements within internationally recognized Palestinian borders.
Both peoples have lived with the uncertainty of existential threat for generations, a perpetual
state of profound grief. Speaking of the liberation of Jews and others from concentration
camps, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Victor Frankl said: “at the end of uncertainty, comes the uncertainty of the end.” Not knowing what the future holds and only ever having a tenuous possibility of peace, both Israelis and Palestinians, victims of intergenerational trauma, are understandably unable to imagine peaceful coexistence.
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a physician from Gaza now living in Toronto, lost three children in
previous Israeli bombing of Gaza and dozens of extended family members in the current
bombardment. In 2011, he wrote a book entitled I Shall Not Hate - A Gaza Doctors Journey. A
recent New York Times editorial describes a phone call with him in which he was asked, after all he has been through, if he is still now a man committed to peace. His reply: “The only real
revenge for murder is achieving peace.”
Is it Possible?
No doubt achieving peace and reconciliation is an extremely complex endeavor. But it begins
with listening. September 30 was the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. It is a day when Canadians acknowledge the enduring harms done by Canada’s colonialist policies and commemorate the intergenerational trauma First Peoples experienced for centuries. Many communities honour this day by listening, learning and standing with First Peoples as friends and neighbours.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a relatively new day of remembrance, fulfilling a key recommendation of National Truth and Reconciliation of Canada Commission report released in 2015. The report followed from six years of cross Canada hearings with testimony from more than 6,000 residential school survivors and their loved ones and provides a list of 94 Calls to Action for all levels of Canadian society to play a role in healing the intergenerational harm. In recent years, the Government of Canada is implementing, albeit slowly, other recommendations including the establishment of funds to compensate for the trauma of residential schools, resources for First Nations to reclaim cultural identity and funds to address inequality in services to First Nation children in care. Slowly, awareness of the deep commitment needed for repair to be remotely possible is growing.
It has been a long time coming. As Garry Feschuk, former chief of the shishalh Nation and Co-
chair of the syiyaya Reconciliation Movement, repeatedly says: “it will take a million steps to
reach reconciliation between our peoples in the shishalh swiya, and right now, we may only be on step 500… but we’re on our way.”
Being Attentive to the Suffering
Thinking of conflict around the world and our own colonial history brings to mind the words of Christian mystic Simone Weil: “pain and suffering are a kind of currency passed hand to hand until they reach someone who receives them and does not pass them on.” This is our task for this time – to take responsibility for the ‘sins of our fathers’ and courageously refuse to pass them on.
To be a full partner in peace and reconciliation requires a deep capacity for compassion - the
awareness of suffering, the ability to be with it with loving kindness and the willingness to take action. But how do we hold profound intergenerational suffering without also being
overwhelmed? How can each of us be a positive force for change?
Drawing from what has been learned from reconciliation and trauma recovery work in the past fifty years, there are several key stages before reconciliation and forgiveness is possible. First, it is important that safety be established. In the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict this means an enduring cease fire. Next, each person and group must be able to tell their story and name the pain. Nobel Prize Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu who was the Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said that:
True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could
even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but, in the end, it is
worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring
real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
Without doubt, the process of listening must be followed by action starting with apology and
recognition of the harm done and genuine efforts to repair the damage. In Israel and Palestine, this would be an endeavor of gargantuan proportions, requiring massive and multi-faceted support of the global community. Only then would the people impacted begin to be open to the possibility of forgiveness. Only then is peace remotely possible.
Forgiveness as Gift to Future Generations
Forgiveness does not mean absolution or letting ‘bygones by bygones.’ It means not letting the painful experience(s) control one’s life and purposefully reconnecting with alienated parts of oneself. A subsequent choice is then possible: to release the person who did harm from any involvement in one’s life or to re-establish a relationship in a way that is meaningful for the person harmed. The most important step is then possible – to re-establish authentic connection with one’s own self and community.
Forgiveness is letting go of our attempts to change the past. Forgiveness is a choice we make
for ourselves, to free ourselves from the pain of our basic human dignity having been so
violated, to create a new story. According to Desmond Tutu, “the path of forgiveness leads us
back to where we were trapped, so we can rescue the parts of ourselves we have given up.” In
essence, forgiveness frees us to begin imagining a new story, a story where we are the
empowered one. Within this recognition of our common humanity is the possibility of
transformation. Forgiveness then can be a gift for future generations.
Forgiveness starts with telling the story. Once it is told and heard compassionately, the pain is
no longer carried alone. As we hear each others stories, we are transformed and able to
recognize our shared humanity. According to Tutu: “Forgiveness opens the door to peace
between people and opens the space for peace within each person.” Or in the language of the Compassionate Listening Project: “creating peace one person at a time.”
Every day now we are bombarded by yet new atrocities committed by both Hamas and the
Israeli Defence Force and, through the news and social media, hear graphically of the deep,
deep suffering of Palestinian and Israelis families whose lives were profoundly changed on
October 7. It is difficult to offer fair witness. We can’t help but notice injustice that we connect
most with and we are invariable tempted to take positions.
I invite you, no matter where you live, to not turn away, to pay attention, to open your heart
and try, with all your might, to keep it open to the intergenerational pain that is at the root of
this and so many conflicts. Let compassion be your ‘position’ when asked to take a side and
‘listening’ be the strategy used to support awareness raising. Applying the teachings of Dr
Loretta Ross, American activist and scholar, it is time to ‘call people in’ to our collective
yearning for peace. And then be ready to move forward.
As compassionate listeners, our role now is a vital one: to compassionately hold space for
people – ALL people - to speak their truth, to reflect back and offer deepening questions in a
way that supports them to reconnect with their alienated self, the part that has been violated yet so yearns for peace. This time - the time we are living in right now - requires nothing less:
complete courage, radical hope and timeless patience to do this one person at a time.
Kathleen Coyne is a Compassionate Listening Facilitator who lives and works on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. Her interest in compassionate responses to community issues was inspired in part by her participation in the CLP Journey to the Heart of Israel and Palestine in 2019 where she met and had conversations with many people who are now personally impacted by this dramatic escalation of a 75 year conflict. At this very tragic time for both countries, she is committed to standing with the many Israelis and Palestinians committed and working together for peace, the safe return of hostages, and an end to the devastation of Gaza. Kathleen holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy focusing on inclusive processes for vulnerable communities and has worked for over 35 years supporting community development in low income and vulnerable communities across Western Canada. She is currently the coordinator of the syiyaya Reconciliation Process.