Letter from the Road #40

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Becoming a Citizen Diplomat

10 years ago my husband, Elias, and I sold our house and belongings, packed what was left in a small storage container, raised funds from a few friends and set off on an open-ended pilgrimage of direct service and teaching.  We committed to going wherever we were called.  We went first to Thailand and Burma where we had contacts and had been working with environmental activists who wanted us to teach Buddhist monks about deep ecology.

In 1999, we spoke at a conference in Bangkok on “Alternatives to consumerism”  where we met the much revered Cambodian monk, Maha Ghosananda. He was considered the leading peace activist  in his home country and played a critical role in bringing healing to the villages of Cambodia after the civil war. Sitting beneath a shady tree with a small group of Asian activists, I asked him, “ How best can we serve our world?”

He paused for a moment before answering. “First you have to show up to the suffering.”   Then he  advised us, “Once you are there you ask questions, listen to whatever you hear, and over time what is yours to do will be come clear.”  As simple and difficult as that.  It was simple because I didn’t have to have lots of answers or solutions for what was ailing the world. But it was difficult because I knew I was being urged to  go to places that would make me uncomfortable and unsettled. Especially if I didn’t carry all my pet solutions!

Following this Elias and I spent 6 years “ on the road” . We taught environmental education in village huts, ashrams, church basements, hid from the Burmese police and dined with the President of Indonesia.  After 9/11 our work shifted to peace building in the Middle East. We lived in Iraq for 4 months before Shock and Awe, led Pilgrimages of Peace to Syria, raised money for Lebanese organizations devoted to non-violence, and helped open the Abraham Path from Turkey to  Palestine.

Now, though we have a home base in Boulder again, we still are active with citizen diplomacy and peace work in the Middle East and Central Asia and most recently in Iran and Afghanistan.  “Show up to the suffering” is  one of my mantras whenever I don’t know what to do next or a colleague asks me what I think they might do to bring our world into greater balance.

Obviously it is not everyone’s call to travel to areas of conflict in the world, but we can each show up to the pain and structural violence around us — our angry teenage son, a jobless neighbor, a polluted lake.  The key is showing up in a state of what Buddhists call “ not-knowing” — a willingness to put our preconceived answers down and deeply listen to what is in front of us. What we offer is a compassionate ear, a patience and a trust that the natural intelligence of the situation will make our caring useful.

An important part of bearing witness in this way is to testify to the truth of what you have witnessed. This blog is a space for that testimony. Here I will share stories and insights  about peace making and public policy from the places I have traveled–including talks with animist elders, mullahs, monks, students, women’s activists, teachers, poets, refugees, ex-taliban, government ministers and more .

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One Response to “Becoming a Citizen Diplomat”

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