I normally use these posts to write about something I’ve recently discovered that might make my readers think about an issue in the news or a long-standing problem that we face.

This time, I want to write about a seemingly innocuous event that left me vaguely—and happily—ill at least and led me to rethink a couple of things. And since I think through new things the best by writing about them….

As regular readers know, my wife and I recently became Rotary members because of its commitment to peacebuilding. We initially joined an online club based on the west coast whose meetings started after my normal bedtime. During the fall, I learned about the Rotary E-club of Global Peacebuilders that was based here in Northern Virginia whose meetings began at 7:00 our time, so we lept at the opportunity to join. Then, we discovered that this club fit our needs in programmatic ways since it focused on doing things as a group, including figuring out how to implement the Institute for Economics and Peace’s eight pillars of positive peace in our daily lives and beyond.

To make a long story short, the club had its first in person social gathering at what proved out to be a lovely Italian restaurant not too far away from us. Although Gretchen and I have essentially not been indoors with people other than our immediate family and our doctors for three years, we decided to go.

And I’m glad we did. Above and beyond the meal (I had a surprisingly unchocolaty chocolate infused pasta dish), I learned a couple of very different things about myself that are about to change my life. Maybe not in ways that bowl me over, but significant nonetheless.

The Power of Face to Face

The public health and political crises aside, I have loved (sic) the pandemic becayse ut has brought what I call my “inner hermit” side to the surface. 

When I first started teaching, I couldn’t work from home. I somehow felt I needed the hubbub of people walking up and down the corridor outside my office door to get anything done. I listened to classical music while I worked. And I loved it when students interrupted to the point that I joked that the only time that they didn’t come for a visit was during official office hours.

Fifty years later, I find it all but impossible to work in an office. I crave total silence. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are utter distractions. If there is a chance that Gretchen might interrupt me, I move to the other floor.

Even before the pandemic began, I was spending a lot of time at home meeting with friends around the world on Zoom. I had one of the first paid subscriptions to the service which I got after I experimented with a number of its predecessors. My choice was simple. It was either Zoom or the dreaded conference call over the phone.

As a result, I’ve developed pretty good Zoom interpersonal skills. At least I think I’m pretty good at gauging people’s reactions on my admittedly large screen. 

But the dinner showed me that even the best Zoomers  miss out on things that are much easier to pick up when you are sitting in the same room.

I apparently said something on a Zoom meeting about how we could and should cooperate with the military in peacebuilding which seemed like an added plus of belonging to this group since many of its members were retired officers. My new friend “heard” me saying that we peacebuilders had to convince people who are or were in the military that we—not they—got things right. 

I don’t remember what I said and doubt that I would have intentionally said anything along those lines because it take great pride in the work I’ve done with current and former officers over the last twenty years in which we’ve both learned a lot from each other. In particular,  I’ve learned that most former soldiers are drawn to peacebuilding work because they themselves do not want to have to go into combat again.

In fact, what I said is not what matters. It’s the way my friend reacted to it. 

She was frustrated—and maybe even a bit angry. And I didn’t see it.

I would have been more likely to have picked up on her discomfort were we sitting in the same room. It might have been her body language. I might have noticed that she withdrew from the conversation.

Assuming I did notice, I would have reacted immediately. I would have found a way to address her concern by asking her to tell me more about how she felt either in the group or in a one-on-one conversation. It would have been easier for me to show that, my initial language aside, I do listen and show how what I’ved learned my military friends over the years has made me a better picture.  It’s not just that I can pick up body language more easily. If I’m facilitating a live meeting, for example, I’ll physically walk up to the person who asked me a tough question or disagreed with me, smile, and say something like “tell me more” to create a feeling that we can begin solving whatever the problem is together—and maybe even have fun doing so. 

The bottom line is now clearer than it was  over the weekend. The more emotionally difficult or ideologically controversial a conversation, the more important it is to have it face-to-face.

So, going forward,  I  probably will spend more time in face-to-face meetings at least when my colleagues and I have tough decisions to make.

That doesn’t mean that I’ll be heading back to the office on a daily basis. The vast majority of the people I work with (including my Rotary friend) don’t live in the DC Metropolitan area, which means that “live” meetings will always be the exception.

It does mean, however, that I’ll have to pay more attention to the non-verbal signals that do show up on Zoom screens. I may also experiment with other software platforms like Spatial Chat that allow you to break away from the boxes on the screen look provided by Zoom and similar packages.

Walking My Own Talk

I also realized that I was ill at ease in a more profound way that led me to realized that I have a much more important step to make that gets at more of my deeper values and assumptions. Gretchen and I joined Rotary in general and our E-Club of Global Peacebuilding because it does great work and reaches out to parts of the American and global populations that peacebuilders like ourselves rarely encounter.

I also realized that Rotary takes me outside of my personal comfort zone. That hit me when a couple of the men mentioned NASCAR. It was clear that they mentioned it in passing and that no one plnned to watch the Daytona which (I had just learned) was to be held the following day.

But the fact is that NASCAR isn’t something the people I normally hang out with ever discuss.

Of course, it wasn’t just NASCAR. My new Rotary friends are, well, just a lot more conventionally upper middle class than I am. 

Somehow, that left me vaguely uncomfortable. That’s surprising because they are lovely people, some of whom I’ve gotten to know fairly well over the last few months. It’s clear that they appreciate the fact that we “know my stuff” when it comes to peacebuilding. All the signs are that they also actually like both of us.

Yet, I didn’t feel fully at ease, the way I normally do when I meet new people in a couple of key ways.

First, I  have never felt uncomfortable in this way when I worked with military officers or Evangelical Christians with whom I had even less in common than I do with Rotarians. Somehow, I suppose Rotary just feels so different from my lingering self-definition as a 1960s radical. As my stepdaughter has been reminding me since she was in college in the 1990s—“the sixties were a long time ago.”   I don’t need or want to shed that identity. However, everything I’ve done since the 1980s has been based on the assumption that we can produce paradigm shift like radical change by working within the system. It’s probably past time that I anchor my sense of self in that mold and relegate the sixties to memories and the Pete Seeger commemorative stamps I use on those rare occasions when I actually put something in the US mail!

Second and more importantly, I realized that I wasn’t fully walking my own talk. For years, I’ve stressed the importance of expanding peacebuilding work beyond “the usual suspects.” Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why we joined in the first place. It is precisely because so many Rotarians are local community leaders who do not define themselves as radicals that reaching out to Rotary and other service organizations is such an important next step in our country’s political evolution—not to mention my own personal growth.

In short, I’ve just found my first big learning opportunity since I turned 75.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.