In regards to our recent journey across the world to Thailand and Laos, there is one specific experience which I wish to capture amongst all the beautiful, scary and life changing moments.
This happened after weeks of seeking something which I could not put into words until it happened. I was searching for a heart to heart* moment, a moment where I was able to glimpse into another’s world and understand for a minute, even though it may be very different from my own. A smidgen of empathy.
What I learned, though, was this is not something I can force to happen nor is it something I could buy at the market. In order to see another’s worldview, your own must be pierced, at a price.
On one of our first days in Vientiane, Laos, our group went to a museum called the COPE Centre. This centre is a memory of what happened during the Secret War on Laos, or as we know it, the Vietnam War. Little known facts faced us as we entered a room which housed bombs and stories of those affected by it.
Story after story fell upon us as the weight of this act became clear. Many, many, deaths and much suffering was inflicted upon this nation. Children, indiscriminate violence. Over two million tons of bombs dropped. The worst part: the injustice continues in that the explosives dropped still explode today, unperturbed for years until a fatal blow.
This shadow of pain was heavy upon me the next day as we attended a class taught by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) about peace and how they teach peace to their youth. The irony of it upset me. Why would Lao people need to learn about peace? Should not this class be taught in the US? Why is the value of peace so important to these people, instead of justice? As I sat in the corner and attempted to move on and process what had happened there, one of the leaders and I chatted. I mentioned to him that we went to the centre, and tears threatened to fall. Instead of being embarrassed at my crying, he too teared up.
In this moment, something was exchanged, and in a strange twist of fate, this Lao man comforted me as I considered the tragedy in his country. And I felt empathy towards him and his people.
What I learned from this was that in order to experience empathy for another, it requires one’s own suffering in order to understand. This conversation taught me that anger and bitterness would not be the way to justice, and that forgiveness, even if an act is so heinous, can be given before justice is acknowledged or granted. Peace is more important, in one’s heart and life over the value of being done right by. Forgiveness is the path to peace. And it is the only way to endure suffering, or as Madeleine L’Engle wrote:
“Peace is not placidity; peace is the power to endure the megatron of pain with joy…”
This lesson from the heart of Lao people touched my heart, and now, I hope it touches others.
*The Lao word for heart is ‘jai’