Counselor-Mom is a Peacebuilder Too

April 13th, 2012 | 76 comments

By Michael John Shank, MA ’05 in conflict transformation

Most people have a very classic notion of what it takes to be a peacemaker: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, or Nelson Mandela. Beyond the notables, however, there are others recognized for their peacebuilding on the front lines – be it the oft-forgotten and low-income inner city, the uninhabitable prison, or the war-ridden, unstable state.

We miss an opportunity, however, when the parameters of peacemaking are so narrowly defined. It discounts the myriad not-insignificant moments in one’s day, one’s profession, and one’s life to build, make and create peace.

One example of a peacemaker who does not quickly consider herself such is my mother, Lois Shank Gerber. A professional counselor for nearly two decades, my mother wouldn’t readily rank her work in the realm of peacemaking.

Yet she has thrown herself into the hard work of helping heal one person at a time – whether it was with persons with severe mental disabilities, kids with behavioral disorders in extended stays at a children’s home, or Amish and Plain People in eastern Pennsylvania.

In all of these environments, the need for peacemaking seems self-evident – whether among clients who experienced physical and sexual abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and low self-esteem, or the moral maze of religion, replete with overtones of guilt, fear and self-loathing.

When I interviewed my mother for this article I asked her what skills aided most in assisting the counseling process – and ultimately the healing process. A common theme throughout our conversation landed, quite simply, on the dual arts of listening and caring. (It is a shame, really, that these two gifts are so hard to come by in normal society that professionals are required in their stead.) For many of her clients, they simply needed a safe space to sound out their thoughts and have someone compassionately walk them through the transformation of their own pain.

On the skills front, however, it is more than merely listening and caring. As my mom recounts the early days in her counseling career, and recalls going to random lengths – like riding roller coasters at amusement parks with kid clients from the children’s home and heeding 2 a.m. calls for help when a storm took out the power at the children’s home – it is clear that this peacemaker was willing to go outside her comfort zone to make someone else feel safe.

Add courage, then, to the characteristics of a good counselor. For the Amish, and even the Mennonites (the community from which mom and I hail), counseling remains a relatively new form of therapy. In recent past, particularly for the Amish and more conservative Mennonites, the strength of one’s faith was the barometer by which one measured psychological health. Weakness in mental health equated to a weakness in faith. Fix the latter and you remedy the former.

Integrating the counseling practice into this paradigm, then, is no small feat and requires a willingness to push boundaries and pioneer a process that still suffers a stigma in both religious and nonreligious societies. For Amish and Plain People, this reality is evolving slowly and mom’s experience as a counselor with many of them gives testament to their increasing willingness to walk down this uncharted path.

In our interview, my mom noted that as a middle child out of seven siblings, the impulse to be an interlocutor between friction and faction came naturally. Back then it was all about keeping the peace. Now, after training and technique, it is about listening to another’s burden but not absorbing it as one’s own, empowering them to feel capable of finding their own answers, focusing on strengths not weaknesses, and not being afraid to countenance the contrasts or contradictions.

Helping a hurt heart heal may be one of the less glamorous but more difficult of peacemaking efforts, and it comes with profound and positive implications for it is the root of all that individual will later inspire, initiate and innovate.

Humans have a tendency to play out their pain and unresolved past on the world stage, externalizing a conflict that ultimately lies within. Counseling, then, is one-part personal therapy on the individual level, and another part conflict prevention on the community level – the remedies of which will be recognized later as the ripples of one’s actions expand outward into society.

My mom is making peace long before a client’s hurt manifests in a prison or an urban warfront. She is building peace long before a weapon is wielded or a relationship severed. She is a peacemaker every day she is on the job.

Michael John Shank, class of ’96 (Kent State grad), MA ’05, is vice president of U.S. operations for the Institute for Economics and Peace, headquartered in Australia with offices in New York and Washington D.C. Previously Shank served for three years as U.S. Congressman Mike Honda’s senior policy adviser and communications director. In addition to himself and his mother, Lois Shank Gerber ’66, his two siblings are graduates of EMU: Kris Shank Zehr ’92 and Karl Shank ’93.

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