The Roots of Wisdom in Dialogue –  Reflections from Northern Ireland

Sandra Barefoot

Creative Co-Lead

13 March 2024

“Dialogue starts from the courageous willingness to know and be known. It is the painstaking and persistent effort to remove all obstacles that obscure our common humanity.”

Daisaku Ikeda

I feel deeply honoured to have spent time at the Corrymela Community in Northern Ireland with Dr Masi Noor and facilitators Jim O’Neill, David Holloway, and Grainne O’Neill of Community Dialogue, where we facilitated an immersive dialogue process in small and large groups exploring Belonging and Reconciliation. This process held the deep roots of wisdom from many incredible people who have been working in Northern Ireland for peace and reconciliation for over 30-40 years.

In our time together, I came to realise two essential needs: Firstly, that we as human beings are hungry to be deeply cared for and held in spaces where we can be seen, heard, and acknowledged. Secondly if we are to re-imagine, re-configure, re-frame, re-generate, re-source, rest in resistance, and reconcile, we need to find a language large enough to be the container that holds us all. During our two days of dialogue sessions, it was the language of poetry, verse, metaphors, and visual images that weaved through each of us, bringing a collective sense of possibility and connection. This then became a vital thread: As one woman shared: “my heart is opening and I didn’t know it was closed”.

This picture represents the words spoken from participants in a group dialogue session. It is framed with my own reflections of metaphors alongside theirs:

We need to return to the roots and the branch and put people at the centre: In this room I witnessed the wisdom of roots that thread through histories that need to be seen and acknowledged that it is from our collective roots that the branches can soar to the skies. We need to have the courage to reconcile with what has happened on both a personal and societal level.

We need to energise our resourcefulness – drawing water from the soil, rest in resistance and be “infected by love which is everywhere”  to allow our hearts to be opened. Essentially:

We need to collectively, dramatically make friends with each other”

We live in circles – circles of ourselves, our loved ones, our families, communities, society, and the world: Our being in the world brings the flow of rivers through all these circles. As Rainer Maria Rilke echoes: “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I will give myself to it”. The language of belonging and reconciling will never be complete in our lifetime, but by simply trying, we are holding the threads of re-imagining possibilities to unfold.

In this trying, I was reminded of how closely we need to listen to our bodies. One man described this beautifully in our session as he began to speak of the struggle he had as a maker, trying to fit pieces of wood together to make a piece of furniture. As he struggled, he came to pause and realised if “I give into my body then one-piece fits into place”. It was this moment that affirmed to him that “the body knows where it’s supposed to go”.

As Masi and I left Corrymela to spend time in Derry with Jim O’Neill for the weekend, I found an unexpected and joyous circling unfold: As Jim walked us around the city walls sharing the history of Derry, and his lived experiences, we realised our shared connection to our colleague and dear friend at The Forgiveness Project – Jo Berry, whose father Sir Anthony Berry was killed in the Brighton Bomb in 1984. This year is the 40th anniversary of her father’s death, and Jo’s journey of dialogue from across the divide and work with Pat Magee (the former IRA activist who planted the bomb) has led her to profoundly understand what it takes to reconcile with our pain and that of others. Jim shared how he had spent time with Jo nearly 20 years ago when he was organising and facilitating community dialogue sessions, and I shared how Jo worked alongside me in our prison programme RESTORE. I suddenly realised Jim and I were circling back and forward, re-igniting seeds that were watered all those years ago.  We felt excited to re-connect his storytelling through music with Jo’s storytelling which for more than twenty years has centred on the spoken word of dialogue and conversations.

As I began to head homeward, I noticed tears falling and I began to draw. I felt a deep-rooted pain which came from a sense of separation, from having experienced during the past few days this sense of belonging to a collective whole. I knew these tears to be those of grief. I reflected on the absence of collective grieving and the need for this to be present and care for all the suffering and loss that cannot be answered or reconciled. During these dialogue sessions, I was very affected by Masi Noor’s sharing of Judith Butler’s work on “Precariousness and Grievability”, writings that pose the questions ‘whose lives are mourned?’ and ‘whose lives are considered grievable?’

And this personal intention shared by Masi stays with me:

“I value your life, I will do anything to safeguard you from harm. If I fail to do this and something happens I will publicly be accountable and mourn.”