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Central America, Peace

Why I Don’t Care about International Relations

[Our] accomplishments do not make the Western paradigm exceptional or suggest in any way that it has or ought to have a monopoly on the path to the future. — Wade Davis, Wayfinders

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After a challenging three weeks in an International Relations course, I realized something…

Wait. Let me rewind first. Three wekes ago, I wrote:

Anthropologist Wade Davis—and particularly his book on indigenous systems, quoted above—has left a deep impression on me in the past year.

He expresses, with compelling eloquence and abundant case studies, my own feelings about our modern status quo. In these first few weeks at UPeace, I have seen the Western paradigm for peacebuilding and conflict resolution repeatedly touted in assigned readings as the apex of human thought, with few voices raised in opposition. (Makau Mutua comes to mind.)

While traveling over the last three years, I have encountered countless well-intentioned people doing far less good than they had hoped.

I believe it comes down to arrogance.

The problem is that we think we know everything. We think our truth is the only truth—that our reality is Reality. We are self-centered enough to believe human development is linear (and concentrated in the “West”) and that anything that came before, or from outside, is irrelevant to our future as a species.

This narcissism holds repercussions far wider than the field of peace and conflict studies. It impacts economic systems, food production, development, immigration policy, and so much more. Even worse, it closes our minds to all the wisdom available to us within our own history, and it stunts our capacity for creative and critical thought.

Human innovation is limitless, but only if we are humble enough to apply it to the flaws in our own paradigm.

As a storyteller, I am most interested in the role individuals play—as agents of change, or as champions of a flawed system. It is individual arrogance that calls America the “Greatest Country on Earth” and believes it devoutly. It is individual arrogance that can watch a system of production far outpace the earth’s capacity for regeneration and call that progress. And it is human arrogance that promotes the universalization of broken structures in the name of peace, employing many kinds of violence to achieve it. I believe real progress will come from empowering individuals to think critically and tell new stories about peace.

This is why I’m drawn to movements like social permaculture, rewilding, and experiential learning. These proceed with humility and open minds, don’t assume they have all the answers, and look beyond a human-centered, modern Western paradigm for solutions.

I do not believe there is anything idealistic about such an approach; given the circumstances, it might be the most pragmatic yet.

international relations

You see, I wrote the above words from the perspective of a writer, a student of anthropology, and a poet with an enduring interest in indigenous wisdom. The readings in my recent course, on the other hand, offered answers mostly rooted in the rigid and ethnocentric tradition of International Relations.

In our final assignment, we were asked to, “Cite the theoretical frameworks and readings that have most influenced your thinking.”

Instead, I decided to be honest—and not to simply put words on the page for the sake of a grade.

I had to admit that those theories and readings had not influenced my thinking—not in a meaningful way.

They made me question the utility of any political system at all. They made me seriously consider becoming an anarchist. And they have made me wonder if perhaps my incorrigible optimism is not so well-founded.

With the utmost respect to the field of International Relations and those dedicated to it, I am not at the University for Peace to learn about Neorealists and Neoliberals.

I do not care about great powers, nor small ones.

I do not care if China will be the next hegemon, not really.

I do not care if my worldview would be classified as “Cosmopolitan” or “Neorealist.”

I believe in the potential for transformation at the micro level, and I direct all of my efforts in my work—in writing, facilitating, editing, and learning—toward that end. I believe that the actions and choices of individuals and communities have an increasingly global impact.

This impact does not care what experts on civil society say about it. This impact will go on impacting regardless of what I say about it.

I believe in the exceptional power of media to inspire, accelerate, and sustain that transformation. International Relations speaks of hybrid warfare. Perhaps we could also speak of hybrid media: Individual “influencers” with audiences numbering in the millions. Online forums that subvert the status quo and utilize new blockchain technology to circumvent established channels of communication (and power) entirely. Anonymous “actors” who sway the tide of public opinion.

A single policy change may touch millions of lives (for better or worse), but so can a single viral article.

So, what do we do with that power? I am refining my answer to that question day by day. This new media is a masterless force, and I hope I can have a tiny, tiny role in directing its course—by adding my own voice to the multitudes and advocating for tolerance, understanding, equality, love, and curiosity, and by supporting individuals to find their voices and harness their experience for positive change.

The theories and paradigms I have studied so far paint an excellently accurate picture of the “world as it is,” but I am more interested in the “world as it could be.”

It is critical that we see things as they are if we wish to shape them to a vision of how they could be—absolutely. Frameworks and theories are useful tools for organizing practice, innovating solutions. Yet, as Einstein (or, it may have been Mark Twain) famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

From where I sit, even new theories look suspiciously similar to old ones. Human-centric. Stubbornly rooted in a Western paradigm. Of limited relevance to the average human being.

The extraordinary young entrepreneurs I met in South Africa, in Kenya, in Zanzibar do not need our theories. Are they not already doing more than any of us to promote peace in their communities? The writers I have worked with for years, supporting them to share stories of trauma, of sexual abuse, of mental disorder, may or may not agree with Kant’s theories on peace, but they are practicing peace—and inspiring others to do the same.

The yoga students in my classes do not need theories of transformation to transform.

The lesson is in the practice.

None of this is to discount the value of large-scale institutions, nor the power of structural change. Indeed, transformation must occur at all levels—for instance, nations signing onto the Paris Agreement; big business investing in corporate responsibility; entrepreneurs pursuing eco-restorative initiatives and non-traditional models of growth; and individuals committing to drastic changes in lifestyle.

But while the knowledge I have gained in the past three weeks is undoubtedly valuable as such, my work is not there at the level of state actors and UN resolutions.

My work is not theoretical—or, I do not want it to be.

I find it impossible to understand how my actions, here at the most micro of levels, have any bearing on these expansive theories.

And that’s okay.

There are seven billion of us here on the planet, and more on the way. There is no shortage of shoes to fill.


Adapted from a (perhaps overly honest) final reflection paper for my recent course at UPEACE.

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light
Central America, Nature

Pure Light, Pure Life: A Costa Rica Snapshot

At the edge of Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, in 6 am light

The light falling through my windows at 6 am cleans the sleep from my eyes.

I study how it falls on the striped tablecloth, on the laundry hanging on the porch, on the dishes in the rack by the sink, now dry.

This light has weight. Depth. And levity.

As I walk through it to bring my compost to the pile at the edge of my yard, the light transforms the ordinary into magic. Last night’s rain glistens on blades of grass, hibiscus flowers, palm fronds. The air itself breathes, infused with life, illuminated.

The mossy track up the hill to the road could lead anywhere, in this light.

Portals could appear around the bend, elves could shimmy down the velvety rays, and I would not be surprised.

This 6 am, 7 am, 8 am clarity washes away the dark and the rain and the heaviness of the night before. It redeems the incessancy of the September rains. One could take flight in it; its very existence defies the gravity of the season, washes the soul, and lifts the spirit, suspending it in lush, velvet lucidity for the rest of the day.

And this 6 am tableau expands to touch all the senses. Birdsong rides upon the coattails of the light, insisting that all who hear it enter into the day. It is more effective than any alarm. Moths who stumbled inside at midnight, addled by electric bulbs, buzz now at the windows, anxious to rejoin the jungle. Close behind the birdsong sings the scent of dawn—wet earth and drip-drying branches—with the promise of a fresh beginning.

Amnesiac mornings, yesterday forgotten.

And within the light that trails the birdsong that carries the wet earth smell, a prescience of the daytime heat to come. Already, nighttime chill begins to dissolve. Cool tiles underfoot raise goosebumps, and the air is just brisk enough that one feels compelled to carry a sweater, which will be obsolete within hours.

Finally, the taste of 6 am light—because sunlight like this has flavour just as it has weight… dark green, a little bit dusty, rich and smooth on the tongue like homemade whipped cream. Or sweet and bright like ripe pineapple. Or tart and effervescent like good champagne.

It lingers. Leaves an impression.

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Pure life, this light.

But I don’t think there is anything particularly rare about it. Surely you could find light like this—uplifting and exquisite and soft to the touch—anywhere. Not only in Costa Rica. Not only in the jungle.

I think, though I have no proof, that we can find this light whenever we open space to it. When we slow down our mornings to hear it, deepen our gaze to observe it, stick out our tongue to taste it…

Sunlight everywhere reaches out its fingertips, nudges the soul to take wing, offers prayers for a velvet, amnesiac morning.

Pure life—

Not a destination, but a way of beginning.

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wings
Adventure, Central America, Travel Advice

On Growing Wings & The Value of Figuring It Out for Yourself

wings

I have the clearest memory of asking my father for help tying my shoes.

I was sitting on the bottom step of our unfinished basement—I must have been around four years old—trying to remember something about a rabbit and a hole. And there was my father, who already had all the knowledge I needed about shoelaces and rabbits; he could help me.

But instead he said, “You can tie your shoes yourself.”

And I did.

Maybe that memory is real. Maybe my mind constructed it out of dozens of memories like it. I don’t think it matters.

My parents pushed me to “tie my own shoes” throughout my childhood in countless ways, large and small. It’s one of the gifts for which I’m most grateful. Without a doubt there is a fine balance between holding a child’s hand and pushing them out into the world alone. I have no idea what that balance is—one of many reasons I’m not a parent.

As an adult, I’ve made a religion of self-sufficiency. Perhaps I’ve taken it to too much of an extreme, but that is what I have done. Solo travel, distance walks, one-way flights to countries where I know nobody, constant seeking for edges—my own, and the world’s…

Some people are adrenaline junkies. The Unknown gives me my high.

When I moved to Cape Town for the first time in early 2016, I didn’t know anyone there. I came with a name—a friend of a friend—and an address. When I found out that the house I’d already paid a deposit on was nowhere near the center of the city, I hitchhiked my way to climbing gyms, dance classes, and cozy cafes until I figured out the informal shared taxis.

Would it have been easier to have friends, family, or resources at my disposal, ready to give me rides, show me the ropes of a chaotic transport system, and introduce me to new friends? I’m sure it would have—but then, would I have learned as much?

I’m a firm believer that we grow fastest and fly farthest when we push ourselves well beyond our comfort zones. Experience has taught me a key paradox to traveling (and living) in a state of discovery: To thrive outside our comfort zone, we must trust, absolutely, that we can thrive outside our comfort zone. But to truly believe in our capacity for flight, we have to fly.

In essence:

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Now, there are a few key elements to this jumping-off-cliffs-and-growing-wings business…

First, that balance. We are none of us an island, as a wise writer once said, more or less. For every cliff we jump off alone, there may well be another to whom we say, “not today,” and third on which we find a companion to hold our hand on the way down. Balance.

Second, support. While my parents were teaching me to tie my own shoes, they were also giving me love and support every step of the way. I am blessed to know that my family and friends are always there, ready to cheer me on when I fly, or pick me up if I take any knocks on the way down. Family, friends, community—a support system, even if we never call on it, makes it so much easier to jump.

Third, will. You could argue that personality or background determine our ability to grow wings, and I would disagree with you. While stubbornness is my dominant personality trait, and I don’t like following directions, I have met so many others far more resourceful than I, of every possible personality type and cultural background. I don’t believe it is personality; it’s will. Tautological though it may sound, to figure it out for yourself, you have to want to figure it out for yourself.

To grow wings, you have to grow wings.

Easy?

Wrong question. It’s possible, and that’s really all we need to know.

Happy flying!


Many thanks to a good friend here in Costa Rica, whose conversation on this subject pushed me to articulate what exactly I think about it!

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toby, optimist, smile, vermont
Central America, Culture

How to be an Incorrigible Optimist, or, What I’m Doing in Costa Rica

“We are the crazy ones who choose to believe in peace,” he concluded.

One sliver in a blurred progression of notable speakers and presentations that overfilled my two-day orientation at UPeace (University for Peace) in El Rodeo, Costa Rica, his words stuck with me.

The volcanic mountains of San José rose in the hazy distance outside the window. Over 100 students from several dozen countries filled the seats beside me. Anyone pursuing a master’s degree in Peace Studies must be at least a tiny bit of an optimist.

I certainly am.

To trust, to believe, to hope—this is my daily act of rebellion in a world that tells us only to fear, to hate, and to doubt.

Our world is full of darkness. And it is full of light. I am an optimist not because I do not see the darkness (of course I do—who could ignore it?), but because I choose to always strive for its opposite.

The world is at war; I hope for peace.

Humans are cruel, petty, hateful, and foolish, but I believe—I know—they are more often kind, generous, loving, and wise.

No matter how many times I encounter the former, I continue to trust. This is not naïveté; it is optimism. Because my world—the world I want to live in—must deserve my faith.

peace, optimist, costa rica

How can we be incorrigible optimists in a world that is constantly turning on its head?

Simple.

We choose it.

We rebel against cynicism and decide to be optimists. There is no other way.

That’s what I’m doing here at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Choosing to believe in peace.


More stories of discovery, peace and adventure in Costa Rica are on the way. What do you want to read about? Let me know and I’ll probably take your suggestion on board!

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Why I Don’t Care about International Relations
October 13, 2017
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September 30, 2017
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September 23, 2017