Pathways to Peace Training

For Peacemaking

by Victor La Cerva, MD
Article #4 in our series
Creating Less Violence
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Victor La Cerva, MD, Mediacl Director of the Family Health Bureau of the State of New Mexico, retired, is the author of two books, a figurehead in the Men's Wellness movement and father of two lovely teenagers. Victor lectures nationally on violence prevention and shares his expertise and experiences with visitors to this segment of Pathfinders.

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Training For Peacemaking

In order to continue to make progress in addressing issues of violence in our world, it is essential that we all understand some basic principles of prevention. How we conceive of violence in our minds and hearts needs to shift to a more empowering perspective.

The first principle is that most violence occurs between people who know each other. This is not the normal mind set that most people have when they tune into the evening news. Weather, sports and rampage and hear about yet another murder in the big city nearest them. Because all the details are not known when the story breaks, the false impression is laid that the violent episode was stranger related. The reality is that as a woman in this country, you are more likely to be maimed, raped, severely injured or killed by your husband, boyfriend or "ex", than you are by a stranger. This is not to deny the reality of stranger danger. Many of us have been victimized by violence from strangers. But when we do he numbers, carefully examine the epidemiology of violence, we clearly see a different picture.

The most common form of sexual assault is acquaintance rape; our children and grandchildren are most likely to be sexually abused by a neighbor, relative, friend of the family or a babysitter; more than 65% of all homicides occur between people who know each other. This is actually a hopeful perspective, since it elucidates patterns of violent behavior that clearly have many opportunities for prevention.

The second concept is that at the center of the web of a lot of the violence we experience sits domestic violence. When intimate terrorism is occurring, we have homicides, suicides, child abuse, elder abuse, and sexual assault. In addition, growing up in a violent household is the training ground for the next generation of violently acting out juveniles. As we have paid more focused attention to improving society's response to domestic violence over the last decade, we have also seen a significant drop in juvenile violence.

The third notion is that understanding violence is similar to a preschooler putting together a picture puzzle of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. Only when all of the pieces are put in place does one obtain a clear image. There are about a dozen major puzzle pieces that contribute to violence: poverty, alcohol and other drugs, easy availability of firearms, the media (everything from surfing the net to violent videos to junk mail messages), loss of community supports and sense of neighborhood, lack of individual coping skills, lack of a significant mental health infrastructure, previous history of abuse, all of the "ism"s (classism, elitism, sexism, racism, ageism). Every time we try and take out one puzzle piece and make it the cause of all the violence, we negate the reality of multiple causes. If only we could get rid of gangster rap, or handguns or alcohol, then violence would stop. Although such attempts to simplify are doomed to failure, there is a menu of solutions for each of the major puzzle pieces. The more people engaged on the solutions end, the more progress we will make.

The fourth idea is that in order to continue our peacemaking journey we need to be operating within five concentric circles, five circles that embrace each other. The innermost is the circle of the self: how am I doing today with my own anger and stress? Am I spreading it around my living room? The next circle is that of the family. What am I modeling for my children and other family members in terms of how I treat men and women, deal with conflict and my own emotional states? The next level out is the community. We all wear different hats in the course of a week. Perhaps we are engaged in a spiritual community, or involved with our children's school, or in our workplace or driving children to soccer games as a neighbor. In each of these domains, or circles of influences, we can be a positive force for peacemaking. The next circle is the culture: working to change some of the difficult aspects of our collective awareness. This might involve working to end racism, or to increase support for mental health services, or to reduce the stigma associated with getting treatment for drug problems. The final arena is global: there is much to be done with eliminating land mines, reducing the flow of arms, improving adverse health and living conditions and social injustice, which lead to conflicts that escalate into wars. The point is that at any given moment we can be operating in one of the circles to help make things better.



Most perpetrators of violent crimes, and most victims of homicide and suicide are young males between the ages of 15-24 years. Following is an exercise that is quite telling. Take a few moments now and do this exercise in two imaginary boxes:

Write down the first twelve words that first come to mind for the "act like a man" box. How do we train boys to behave in our culture? What qualities do we expect them to demonstrate?



Now repeat the exercise for the "act like a woman" box. What twelve words identify how we train girls to behave in our culture? What qualities do we expect them to demonstrate?


What words do we, or other children use, if a girl or boy deviates from what is expected in their pre-conditioned box?


Make a list of the steps that you use daily in seeking your own balance and awareness about gender roles in your life.


The leading causes of death for young people in this country are motor vehicle crashes, suicide and homicide. Depending on where you are in the country the order may shift, but that is what is killing and hurting our young people. The training starts early in our culture. To be a man, one must express certain emotions and repress others. Anger is the most allowable feeling for male humans; anger is not encouraged for females, for whom fear and sadness are more desirable.


The "act like a man" training manual means a young boys is supposed to be tough, in control, not cry or be afraid, hide feelings and make money. He is expected to fight, tolerate being ignored, play sports, and take various forms of harassment that will help him be more manly.


The "act like a woman" training manual demands that young girls play the counterpart. If men are to be the heroes, they must have someone relatively helpless to save. Thus girls can be smart, but not too smart. They can make money, but not more than their male companion. They must accept as normal being whistled at, catcalled, pinched, and accused of having a bad reputation if they seek the same sexual outlets as young men. They are supposed to be sexy but not too sexy, passive caretakers who are sweet and polite and interested in the boy's future more than their own. We train women to be nurturers. Normally little boys don't play with dolls unless they are power ranger or wrestling dolls, destined to beat the heck out of each other.


A man who doesn't follow these cultural guidelines is called a wimp, pussy, sissy or queer. A woman who fails in her standards is a whore, bitch, slut, dyke or butch. We all lose as a result of such cultural training. Even realizing that these roles are shifting, that the boxes are perhaps less rigid for more and more of the population, the reality is that the consciousness of such change is still not commonplace when applied to how we are raising our young. It is not really a big surprise that young men, well conditioned in this mode of being, begin to act out violently. They are desperately seeking a diploma in masculinity, which the larger culture suggests can only be achieved by risky, acting out behaviors.


Because of their inexperience in recognizing, allowing and expressing a wide range of human emotions, young men tend to channel any feelings into anger. The expansive keyboard of feelings, including guilt, shame, rejection, anxiety loneliness, hurt, fear, depression are ignored, denied, suppressed, or medicated away with drugs. The individual then experiences body sensations of being frustrated and tense which translate and seek release in anger, hostility, rage and ultimately violent acting out in an attempt to get what he wants. The other scenario is that the violence is directed inward. In view of the boxes, it is easy to understand why a teenage girl attempting suicide will often take five aspirin, leave the bottle on the table and call three of her friends, while a male in a similar state of mind will simply take the family gun and blow his brains out. The youth suicide rate has quadrupled in the last 30 years, with young males bearing most of this burden. Young males are most often the perpetrators of violence, as well as the largest percentage of people killed by homicide and suicide.


The solution is to consciously raise boys and girls the same way, in the sense that every human being is entitled to learn how to be assertive as opposed to aggressive when dealing with conflict, and that all young people need to learn about emotional fluency, the basics of mad, sad, glad and afraid. How do we handle conflict when it arises between young people?

What kinds of gifts do we buy them for birthdays, Kwanza, Christmas, Hanukkah? Do they support their creative imagination? Do we encourage young boys to cry when appropriate, and young girls to be assertive, to help them not get into the above destructive boxes in the first place? Do we encourage nurturing play in boys and expansive creative play in girls? Remember, this is only one of many puzzle pieces, yet it is an arena that we can directly influence for the better.

Victor La Cerva, MD

©Victor La Cerva 200

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Editors note:

Victor's Pathfinder series offers an opportunity for visitors to understand the roots of violence and to explore the ways of understanding and addressing it at home and work. This begins with your own personal tapestry of internal issues.

Contributions and questions that arise from your personal experience are valued and welcomed.We wish you well on the path and look forward to your participation.
© dwij 2000
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