Kenneth E Miller has worked in places where resilience, courage and human spirit are tested to extremes. For the last 25yrs he has worked with communities affected by armed conflict in different parts of the world.
His graduate research took him to Guatemala – where he worked in the highlands at the tail end of genocide against the Maya Indian population. He worked across the border in refugee camps for Guatemalan’s, living for part of each week in the camps. He then directed a clinic for Bosnian Refugees. More recently he has worked in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Lebanon with the refugees from Syria. As a psychologist he has been a professor, a researcher, consultant, filmmaker and therapist.
War brings out the worst that we are capable of and also the very best
He has seen remarkable destruction and acts of evil – but also seen such dedication and courage that is so inspiring.
He has been inspired by people that could have gotten out but didn’t. Those constantly threatened but who keep working as they are committed to justice and making the country a better place. That sense of “purpose” “to make a difference” feeds the human spirit.
Is purpose and meaning really what we should be striving for in our lives? There is a lot of talk about happiness and Kenneth sees happiness as a byproduct of what comes out of purpose and meaning.
If you are passionately committed to something – the love of what you are doing, the being part of something larger than yourself and connections that you have to others that you care about – gives us a sense of purpose.
Kenneth has always written “dispatches” – long detailed letters back to family and friends. It was a way of staying in touch with his community… and people would write back … he was writing conversations about what he saw. Kenneth realised that the writing was both therapeutic for him and interesting to others.
He collated his experiences and powerful stories to produce his book “War Torn” – a series of stories from the field for people who want to understand the impact of war.
The power of stories and the power of listening
A Syrian friend talked to Kenneth about his ordeal of being terribly beaten whilst trying to cross the border illegally. Just by telling his story it had unburdened him and he was able to sleep again without the intrusive images of the beating he got. Listening is just a human act – and anyone can do that for anybody. Listening without judgment is when the healing happens.
We often think of resilience as being inside someone – someone has more or less resilience. But Kenneth feels that it is less of an individual trait and more of a product that a person or the environment brings to that situation. We have a need to reach out to other human beings, talk to each other and express ourselves. Resilient people often have strong social connections.
We all have a profound need for belonging – a place where we matter and where our absence is deeply felt.
Whilst working with children, Kenneth’s primary assumption was that the children were stressed out from what they have been through. But in fact research shows clearly that stress is caused not just through direct exposure but heightened family tensions and increased violence. Much of the children’s stress seemed to be linked to the family environment and not directly to the war. It is very difficult to have a positive effect, working with children when they are constantly going back to the same home environment. They now work with families and parents, helping parents deal with their own stress as a way of helping the children.
Kenneth tells us of a young Afghan girl living through the Taliban and Soviet occupation. When the family was able, they left the country but they couldn’t all leave together. They left one or two at a time very secretively. She was the last to leave aged 15yrs. She left the lights on in the house and caught a bus to the border with Pakistan. Three times in a row soldiers caught her and sent he back. Eventually she managed to cross the boarder and meet up with her family, moved to California and eventually earner a Masters degree. She is now back in Afghanistan trying to rebuild the country. She has lived through things that few of us would have imagined living through. She has an inner strength and comes from a very loving, supportive family. There were all sorts of resources that fostered her resilience – her outcome was not inevitable – it was the product of both what she brought and the environment and circumstances that she lived in.
The idea of our environment and culture shaping us as individuals, is often something that we disregard. Culture has a major part to play in the way that we manage ourselves.
Kenneth shares a true story told by a community representative who witnessed a man sitting on a chair holding a machete, with his unharmed son on his knee. On the floor were his two young daughters, his wife and his mother in law, whom he has killed. The police asked why he had done this and the man said that he had heard a rumor that his wife was having an affair with two men and if you go to their homes you will find that he had killed them as well. He had killed his wife because she was bringing dishonor on the family, he had killed his mother in law and daughters because they probably knew about it and didn’t tell me. He was going to kill his son but when he looked into his eyes he saw a reflection of his own face, he couldn’t do it. The police asked why he didn’t run away and he replied that if he had, they would have arrested some innocent man and charged his family money to let him go. This man was convicted and went to jail. While the man served his time a woman from the community heard about his story, she was so moved about how he had restored honor and not run away, that she started corresponding to him and eventually married him when he was freed.
The people listening to the story were at first horrified and then decided that the man acted honorably as they thought that the people who died may not have been innocent – they could have kept this secret from him and he restored honor to his family – it was a good story with a happy ending.
This story shook Kenneth up because he felt that something as fundamental as taking the life of family members – which you would imagine was a universally abhorrent thing – was not universally abhorrent and that under certain situations in certain contexts it can be a form of restoring honor to the family.
Culture plays a profound role on shaping very basic core values
We tend to attribute peoples behavior to something internal to them and we grossly underestimate the power of the context. We see a resilient person and ignore the context. Someone cuts us up on the motorway and we immediately think – What an idiot…how inconsiderate…. We don’t say – I wonder if they have somebody sick at home or are they are racing to the hospital. We tend not to take context into account.
Kenneth has collected his stories through listening. People underestimate how much “listening” is doing something. By listening without judgment but with support and empathy you are doing something profound. Kenneth has also found that if you listen long enough to people they usually come around to knowing what to do, people often know their solutions but are afraid of what those solution may imply – maybe a life change!
Read Kenneth’s blogs and dispatches
or his inspiring book “War torn, stories of courage, love and resilience“.