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February 2014

Women as Peacebuilders Series - Session 8

Guest: Joyce Visceglia

Compassion. What is it and how does one come by it? These were themes explored in a recent Living Room Dialogue.

The dialogue was the eighth in the Peacebuilders series in which a guest tells the story of the influences in her life that led her in a particular direction. The guest for this evening was Joyce Visceglia who spoke about her life as a mother and social worker, an "ordinary life" she insisted, but clearly one moved by deep faith.

One of five children, Joyce was raised in a devout Catholic family in Brooklyn where the church was across the street and the family felt embedded in the parish community. Her father was a doctor of the old-fashioned kind who had his office in his home. Her mother was an unofficial part of the practice. When a patient's distress required attention of a non-medical kind, the doctor sent the patient upstairs where his wife listened sympathetically to the patient's troubles.

In this way, her mother, who went to mass every morning, modeled the gift of compassion for Joyce. She suffered along with whoever was suffering.

During and after college Joyce followed her mother's model by volunteering to work with children in hospitals and excelled with caring for "the smallest of the small." Then she married, moved to the suburbs with her husband and three children of her own. Despite volunteering at the children's school and in the community, she felt lonely and cut off from family and friends she had left behind in the city.

At a low point, she was greatly influenced by an encounter with Henri Nouwen, a charismatic spiritual leader who stressed solitude, compassion, and community as a way to find meaning and purpose in life. He himself lived in a community caring for severely handicapped young adults.

Around this time, she volunteered as a tutor in a school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Newark. She was very touched by the fact that the children loved school so much that they didn't want to go home. On the contrary, her own children liked it at home and didn't especially want to go to school. This experience led her to return to graduate school to study social work.

Employed as a social worker, she became director of a program to work with families of at-risk children. This work took her into homes where she could relate closely with whole families and had a sense of real participation in their lives. It was gratifying to see the results, in that the children attended school more consistently.

This work ended when she felt she was needed more at home. A spiritual guide at this time was the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped her to practice compassion while staying in the moment.

Today her life has changed such that she finds she has had to refocus energy and find compassion for herself. She has had to learn to accept help from others when she was used to always being the helper herself. She still does volunteer work, however. One interesting task recently has been to assist an art historian who brings caregivers of people with dementia and their loved ones to places where they can look at art together and talk about what they see. This adds a new possibility to their relationships.

Following Joyce's presentation, participants in the dialogue reflected on what elements of her story resonated in their own lives. A few told stories of mothers or other caretakers who showed generosity and compassion. There were also other examples of how simply listening with empathy to a person can be healing.

One person highlighted the importance of forgiving oneself in order to offer compassion to others; another remarked that somebody has to love you before you can love someone else. Yet another told a story about an eighth grader who, when asked by a third grader what the word "compassion" means, said "You know how you feel when your Dad tells you that you are wonderful? That's compassion."

There was a touching story about the mother of a child killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook. After the shooting she left her home and went to stay with her own mother. When she returned, she found her that child, a first grader, had left a message on a blackboard in her kitchen. Written phonetically, as a first grader might, when deciphered it read: "Nurturing, healing love." This mother has now written a book with this title. Someone commented that that is the definition of compassion.

A story about the power of prayer and intention emerged in the conversation. On the day after the Sandy Hook shooting, all over the country there were silent prayer vigils. A resident of Newtown told one of the participants about that experience for him: They could feel it. "All we got was love," he said.

This took the conversation to the difficulty of sending love to places (like the U.S. Congress!) where there is discord. It does not help, one person said, to add more horror to where there is horror.

A participant who is a lawyer talked about the difficulty of weaning the judicial system from its adversarial ways. You can spend years preparing a case, she said, and then you end up having the conversation that you should have had in the first place without wasting all that time and money. It's tough to get past the psychology of "that person hurt me and I want redress." We need a national Department of Peace that would promote mediation and alternatives to war-making.

In the end of the meeting, one person summed up the sense of the evening by saying, "I am grateful for the focus on compassion. You can feel so hopeless sometimes, but you always have the opportunity of showing up and being there, compassionately."


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