Changing the landscapes of our mind

A fascinating gathering of people who are working on change is taking place in Slovenia this August, inspired by the Art of Hosting community’s wish to reach out to others who are doing similar work. They are people who are working in what I call ‘emergent’ and ‘transformative’ change – the part of the iceberg that lies underneath the ‘visible’ activities and structures of our world. This is the work that changes attitudes, beliefs, relationships, and consequently, ways of doing things, and it is so important because the landscapes of our mind change so much more slowly than does the landscape of our institutions and political structures.

I was reflecting on how wonderful it is that this gathering is taking place in the Balkans. Throughout the 20th century, this has been a part of the world where people struggled to find ways to govern themselves while keeping their identity and history and where people struggled with the gulf between politics and daily life. Where dreadful things happened, over the course of many conflicts, and also where people reached out to one another, and from outside, to help. A part of the world that bridges what one writer calls the fault line between eastern and western concepts of the world.

A crucible of the 20th century

Just within the 20th century, people fled from Russia in 1917 to seek refuge in Serbia, English nurses came to aid the sick in a terrible WWI epidemic, and Norwegians came to help Serbs who had been sent to labour camps in their country during WWII. Serbs and Croats struggled back and forth over the desire to control a state that grew initially from a dream of uniting all Slavs, inspired by a US president at the end of WWI. Conflict over how to relate to the Balkans helped spark WWI. During WWII, people with different beliefs about the idea of a state fought each other while fighting invading forces from outside, and while one of those ideas won, the underlying ideas still remain alive in many peoples’ minds. The state created after WWII brought many benefits to people, but at a cost – that of not talking about this fundamental question, the ‘national’ question. That state collapsed in the end in part because its leader did not want to share power and so it devolved to a rotating presidency that in the end, contributed to creating the horrific war that engulfed Bosnia in the 1990s.

A forgotten capacity

At the same time, in villages dotted around the Yugoslav region, people continued to live the way their ancestors had lived for centuries. They worked with others to plant fields, grow food, celebrate together, mourn together. Like people on the Canadian prairies, they had the idea of ‘moba’ – working together to help each other. They had a tradition that those who did well in business should give back to their community, and so successful people contributed to building universities, bridges, and ornate springs that made water available to all passersby. They lost a lot of that knowledge of their own ‘civil society’ capacity during the years after WWII, but that capacity remained present. One scholar who spent time in post-war Bosnia discovered that when people remembered this capacity, they felt that war happened in part because they had forgotten it.

And when the state that was Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, people experienced all the things that North America and Europe have been experiencing more recently – the privatization of what had been public services, such as health care; a focus on earning money to survive that had not been there before; and an ever-widening gulf between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ that had not been there before, either. Serbians also experienced the first real manifestation of the new form of warfare that involves attacking the entire nervous system of a society – transportation, communication and so on – as a way to put pressure on its political leadership. And in the end, showed that it was the people themselves who could play the most effective role in changing that leadership – and that work was not finished unless they dealt with corruption.

Seeing from outside

It is hard for outsiders to talk about the Balkans, I know, just as it is hard for outsiders to talk about Somalia. The people of the region know their history so well and at the same time, have so much pain associated with many parts of it, that outsiders often must seem ignorant because we do not see all the complexities and do not feel it in the same way. So I have struggled with how to write this piece.

People I know in North America often have a picture of ex-Yugoslavia that is either idyllic, from tourist visits in the 1970s, or incredibly bleak, from the terrible scenes and stories of the Bosnian war. What they do not often see is that the issues that the former Yugoslavia tried to address politically are quite similar to those in Canadian history – how does one shape a country that has political jurisdictions that work, while also respecting different languages and cultures and beliefs about societal organization? Canada struggled with the question of how to bring together English and French cultures and languages for so long, and then at last with the question of how to respect aboriginal cultures and governance that had been suppressed for so long.

This is a perennial question in our world – how do we shape structures that honour and respect our collective, and individual, experiences? How do we enrich our structures by weaving in the experience of all respectfully? How do we create structures that leave no one behind?

Seeing our history ‘whole’

For me, the lessons of Ireland, and of Somaliland, are that it is the people themselves who must come to terms with their history and shape something new from their reconciliation, and that part of doing so is to see themselves and their history ‘whole’. That means facing the terrible things and celebrating the good things. It takes great courage and it cannot be done by outsiders. Doing so, however, begins to reshape the landscapes of our mind and from those changes emerge new structures that encourage collaboration, respect and care for others, and innovative forms of governance.

That is a lesson that comes from Brčko, in northern Bosnia, and from Northern Ireland. Both now share their hard-won lessons with people in other parts of the world who are experiencing conflict – not, I think, in the sense of prescribing structures but in the sense of describing process. They talk about how they came to talk together, and work together, and how that is still an often difficult and evolving thing – that the landscape is changing around them as their internal landscapes change. And as their internal landscapes change, so too do the stories they tell.

And so I believe the gathering in Slovenia, as people talk about how they are changing their own internal landscapes and how that work is changing the landscape around them, will be a time of great learning and great possibilities and great hope precisely because it is taking place where it is – in the Balkans.