This is the second installment in a series called “The Quest for Peace in a World of Violence,” by Charles deGravelles, an Episcopal deacon, chaplain and teacher at Episcopal High School of Baton Rouge where he teaches a course in peace and conflict studies. In the first installment, deGravelles wrote about his inspiration for the class and its inception. The series will follow the progress of the class.
By Charles deGravelles
“It’s a standard procedure of problem-solving, tried and true,” I told them during an early lecture. “You break it down into its component parts, note the connections, how they fit, how they affect each other, then when you put it back together, you will hopefully know how it runs. So I’m going to throw onto the floor of our classroom, 2,000 pieces of an intricate machine, some unwieldy and impossibly heavy, some tiny and delicate, and our job will be to put it all back together to see what makes it go.
“Unfortunately,” I continued, “we have no instructions, and we don’t even have a picture of what it looks like finished. All we have are these scattered parts (and we’re not even sure if we have all the parts). But we do have the name of the machine: ‘Human Violence and the Promise of Peace.’ Don’t worry,” I laughed, “we’ve got a whole semester to put it together.”
After some discussion, we decided to use a wire mobile as our idealized model, our frame on which to connect the myriad pieces of a problem so enormous and complex it has never been solved. We started with a single crossbar hanging from the ceiling. We labeled it “power,” and from that we hung four arms: “personal violence,” “interpersonal violence,” “community violence” and “societal violence.” As we read, researched, discussed, traveled, interviewed, the scant frame of the mobile began to expand, to fill out.
An early trip we made was to the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center, where trained volunteers field phone calls from desperate people. Director Norma Rutledge and her staff taught us about the many forces that can nudge someone down the long and ever-narrowing corridor towards a door marked “oblivion.” We learned about the most vulnerable populations, ways to detect suicidal tendencies in family or friends, and ways to intervene.
The highlight of the trip was two volunteers role-playing a “typical” call to the center. We closed our eyes and imagined that we were listening in. The caller was “Joe,” a college undergrad whose lifelong goal to become a doctor had been, in his mind, destroyed by a failing grade on an important exam. Joe could think of nothing else, but he saw no solutions to his dilemma. He wasn’t eating or sleeping. For the first time in his life, Joe was considering suicide as an option. The other volunteer who “took the call” carefully probed for key details about Joe’s history, his coping mechanisms, his feelings, and at the end of the call elicited from Joe a pledge to do something positive later in the day and the next day.
Back at the classroom, our mobile reflected what we’d learned. We hung from the cross bar of “personal violence” another piece called “suicide” and under that still other pieces: “divorce,” “death of a loved one,” “loss of a job,” “depression,” “addiction.”
We began to expand the cross bar of “interpersonal violence” after a visit from an attractive and savvy young woman, smart and articulate, weeks away from finishing her dissertation for a Ph.D. in history. Hardly the image of a domestic violence victim, it was, in fact, exactly what she had been. Trapped in a marriage with a violently abusive husband, she had a child, no job or income, and in her own mind, no way out.
She made her decision following a beating and choking when, as she lay on the floor holding her bruised throat, her eyes met the terrified gaze of her young daughter. Even then, after she knew she had to get out and would, it took her five long years. The “power” piece of our mobile took on a special significance, as we added words like “fear,” “control,” and “dependency.”
Other field trips and guest speakers have so far included the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff, Sid Gautreaux, who talked to us about dynamics of the gang warfare, which produces the highest number of murders in our city, and the Capitol Area Human Services agency, which provides mental health and addictions services for a seven-parish area. We’ve learned a lot.
Other trips and guests remain: a visit to LSU’s Office of Social Research and Development, which researches issues of criminal justice, a day-long tour of the infamous Angola prison and the chance to talk to inmates about their own lives of violence and peace, and more.
Interestingly, our mobile is beginning to look something like a spider’s web as pieces from one level of violence connect with colored yarn to identical pieces hanging from another level of violence. Addiction, dependency, poverty, mental health, for instance, have their counterparts at the personal, interpersonal, community and societal levels.
Will we ever see it whole? Will we fill in all the pieces? Will we get the big picture? And will we, somewhere in the assembly process, discover a place for us to contribute — not just to understanding but to find a solution. We will wait and see.