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A Father's Journal > Columns > A Father's Journal Index

Listening for World Peace
by Forrest Seymour

I could hear my wife's voice from out in the driveway.

"Emily, just get in the car!"

In the house I cringed, hearing the car roll our daughter off to school, both anxious about what the neighbors might think, and indignant too that it should matter.

After all, this battle is an old story now; our five-and-a-half-going-on-fourteen-year-old frequently flexes her expanding wisdom and independence. She desires to pass through the world at her own pace in her own style, one often at odds with that set by schools, jobs, and the clock. So our parental dilemma becomes: How best to elicit her compliance based on values she does not share? The simple, "because I said so," fell by the way side long ago. Now we negotiate and compromise, we dole out rewards and consequences. And, a bit too often, we just yell.

I returned to feeding the baby and tuned the radio to the news, trying to stay in touch with a world which was feeling increasingly remote from my day-to-day parental concerns. It is the holiday season. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas all get covered in our home. But the radio that day was talking instead of free verses fair trade, back-room deals, tear-gas scented riots in the streets of Seattle, and calls for global democracy; an unruly protest by thousands about rules set by a few that impact millions.

I was shocked! Here is a loop I was certainly out of. Where was I when this issue arose?

Raising babies, I murmur to myself, and just then Jake screams from his high chair. He's run out of Cheerios while my mind drifted. Yet even after sating his desire, my mind kept go back to this world class protest. Why should this distant event, on the far side of the continent from our New England hills, seem so relevant and familiar?

On the first night of Hanukkah we had friends over for Hallah and soup and to light the Menorah. Conversation drifted to the protests against the World Trade Organization. What I know of street protests I learned years ago along side one of our guests, Angus. Environmental civil disobedience, anti-war community organizing, I learned these tactics with and from him. And I know that being in the middle of these actions can be very intoxicating. In the midst of battle everything seems important.

But is the media taking these protesters' articulate concerns seriously, we wondered that night? Why are we hearing from the same news show talking heads? Where are the voices of the opposition?

"The media is ignoring the purpose of the protests," the usually generous Angus argued. "They aren't talking about all the workshops being held, the education about globalization. They make it seem like there is only one free-market solution."

"I heard one reporter admit that before the protests she knew little of world trade," I remembered, having felt much the same myself. "Now she is expected to speak on it with authority. She could not possibly get up to speed in the few days she had, not on a topic encompassing such divergent views."

A sudden shriek interrupted our conversation. It was Jake again. This time, rather than wanting food, he was altering us that the gate was down from the bottom of the stairs, and that he was preparing for a climb, something he knows is forbidden. Nice of him to let us know. His protest was both heard, and quickly acted upon.

Another day it was I who was yelling and driving Emily to school, being the keeper of the clock, when she suddenly silenced me with her quite adult tone from the back seat.

"Dad, it is OK to be late to school," she explained. "You just go in and either the parent walks the kid to class or the kid goes in by themselves."

"Oh," I said, slowing the car a bit. "OK."

She's right. What's the hurry, I think. Life goes on.

Emily cannot always be so articulate. Often she just grunts, or silently fumes, and it is then so easy for us parents to take this as stonewalling, as distracted confusion, rather than as the quasi-civil disobedience that it is. Just because she cannot always explain herself does not mean that she lacks a good reason for her actions. As a parent it is my job to give her the benefit of the doubt, to create the calm space in which she might be able to explain herself.

When I remember.

When I'm not in too much of a hurry.

But it is rare in our civic lives that we experience the kind of calm space for articulation that is so essential in sorting out fundamental value conflicts. Much of the media helps little. Average sound-bite size is down; what passes for in depth analysis must be composed and spoken in mere moments. Without this space for conversation, we have only the din of can't and protest.

In the aftermath of the Seattle protests I read stories in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times which suggested the protests were indeed heard and would impact the WTO in years to come. Maybe so. Perhaps the unexpectedness of the protests led to a moment of awe in which a bit of real listening happened on the part of the media, and even by policy makers. I hope so. Or maybe, the cynic in me pipes up, this is just subterfuge or idealism or both; elites wanting us to think the protests were heard while they proceed on with their predetermined agenda. Even though we may never know, I do hope the protesters will not loose heart, that their convictions will inspire them on and again.

But what of me? Gandhi spoke of peace beginning at home, of creating zones of non-violence around ourselves. Am I aspiring to this in my life, I wonder? Do I seek the peaceful, negotiated solution in my home? When I can see no solution do I look to blame others? Or do I see this as a sign of my incomplete, and maybe unjust, way of looking.

I begin finally to see why the Seattle protests seemed so relevant to me, so familiar. My family is a microcosm of the larger world. We share power unequally; we are not a democracy. My daughter rebels against this autocracy, she wants to be heard, if not obeyed. Often we cannot understand why she defies us, why she can't be satisfied with how things are.

Yet I too remember how it felt to protest, to disobey, at a time when I this seemed the only way to be heard. These days, as parent, professional, business man, I have to re-tune my ear to even hear my thin clear voice from back then. But I do hear it. And just as I admire and respect the protesters in Seattle, I also admire my daughter's own protest, her rebellion, her voice. Even though it is a pain.

Maybe the next time the clock is ticking and my daughter is not moving on my schedule, I'll remember instead of yelling to listen. Maybe the next time the street protests seem most chaotic and misguided, and the voices most inarticulate and without meaning, our media will allocate the significant resources necessary to listen, and we who do not understand will pause to seek and hear these voices.

Our world's holidays this time of year, when the days are short and the nights are long, from Christmas to Hanukkah, from Kwanzaa to Ramadan, all are festivals of lights; all these celebrations ultimately share the aim of helping us through the dark cold times, of lifting us on to another spring, of illuminating the darkness. It is a time of stories, of listening, of remembering, of understanding. Perhaps in this spirit we can all work to listen a little better to our children, to our communities, and to the thin clear voices of protest within us all.


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