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Into the Mediator’s Gray Zone

Photos and Drawing by Dick Harris, circa 1966 and 1967.

Like other mediators and arbitrators, I work in the gray zone of human affairs, the interstitial area between hard positions, contending oppositions, and powerfully different assertions about what is “the truth.” In that stormy zone, and under the right conditions, we help construct new explanations and a better future narrative, what Blackstone’s law called a Tertium Quid.

This is also what Bill Ury called a “third side.” In order to exert that kind of positive force, we have to learn a certain degree of deception and distraction to help people move beyond their immediate fight. As best we can, we also have to withhold our rapid evaluations, confirmation biases, and severe initial judgments of right and wrong. To be clear, humans are hard-wired to make judgments about good and bad, danger and safety, and enemies and friends. Artist William Kentridge described this as keeping both unbridled optimism and unrestrained pessimistic at bay.

Not always easy.

My roots for trying to do this with some degree of craft reach back farther than the initial mediation trainings I got. It took place between 1966 and 1967 when I was twenty-two years old and a newly minted college graduate. Amidst the backdrop of the Vietnam War, massive political dissent, and cultural and racial turbulence, I did a two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small town halfway between Mumbai and Goa and not far from the Arabian Sea. My roomie and I built a couple of schools, killed a lot of rats, and helped start some poultry businesses. All of this I tried to describe more fully in India-40 and the Circle of Demons: A Memoir of Death, Sickness, Love, Friendship, Corruption, Political Fanatics, Drugs, Thugs, Psychosis, and Illumination in the US Peace Corps.

Stimulated by that odyssey into a profoundly different and ancient civilization, there was also the inner journey, my shift away from the dualistic thinking I had grown up with to a view something more tolerant of human foibles including my own. That is “The Gray Zone.” India-40 and the Circle of Demons is about those two years in India, the run up to it, and the aftermath from it.

Here are some excerpts from the book that capture how this shift happened and, in my mind, rooted me in what would eventually become my work as a mediator, broker, and negotiation adviser. By way of disclosure, most of what I wrote is true but it also includes some invented discussions with the Hindu god Shiva, a supreme deity in the Hindu cosmology who is destroyer of the universe (paving the way for a new one to be born), an ascetic, a trickster, a family man, a philanderer and womanizer, and the progenitor of the Ganges River and a swarm of equally strange children. In other words, he is a mirror of all of the good and bad contradictions we display in our own human condition and that we now see at the table.

In our study group at Philosophy 310, Sammy Smith, me, Sewell the Bird, Laurel the Pimple, and the perpetually melancholy Alfredo went to the Pancake House to decipher Professor Stull’s strange question: Tell me exactly why good is better than evil? Bird said good and evil are just figments of our imaginations so it doesn’t matter. We are animals. Sammy said it’s about power, how we apply it, the ends to which we put it, and the means by which we deploy it. Laurel chimed in. Easy to say for you guys but if you don’t have any power, its all bullshit. Alfredo quoted Hemmingway: being against evil doesn’t make you good. I told them to stop dithering. It has to be one or the other so let’s get on with it.

… the training for India proceeded: culture and construction studies interspersed with values discussions and intensive language lessons. I found myself brooding on a book I was reading by Jelaluddin Rumi, a 13th century Persian philosopher. He wrote that there are many branches to you and you will do many different things in your life. There is also a deep taproot, he said, and you are in the world to do something particular, not everything in general. “There is one thing in this world which you must never forget to do. If you forget everything else and not this, there’s nothing to worry about, but if you remember everything else and forget this, then you will have done nothing in your life.”

All that sounded good but what exactly was that big thing and what am I supposed to do next Monday? How come no clear answers and why all this elliptical, abstract thinking? Why not just tell me?

Communal strife in India always starts with a perceived insult: a cow hit by a Muslim truck driver or an affront to an Imam at the local mosque. Then come the incitements of absolutists and fanatics on either or both sides, the formation of mobs, and a narrowing focus on whatever real or imagined slights, indignities, or injustices have happened in the recent past. Individual psychopathologies start to masquerade as social and religious issues. Things escalate. Crowds of bored or alienated young men rampage through the streets, pull people from their beds, hack them to death with machetes and swords, then torch the homes and stores of their enemies. It is a virus, a sub-routine.

A week later we hire a Mussulmen cook named Hussein recommended by a friend of the Block Development Officer we report to. Hussein doesn’t know many dishes. Rice. Veggies. Some chicken on occasion. He’s a swarthy, shifty looking guy. Harris hates him, thinks he is a crook. I am more wait-and-see.

But it’s all very strange. No work. No job assignment, no supervisor, no one especially interested in us beyond being a curiosity and diversion. I feel like Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land, trying to “grok” this place while people grok us. What was I thinking coming to India?

What remained instead were longer periods of boredom and endless hanging out with the Block Development Officer and his minions who fetched us tea and asked questions about America, none of which resulted in real work. So we sat around waiting for something to happen and when nothing did, Dick and I sat around discussing what didn’t happen. The world was made of people who were useful and useless. We were useless. Then one day it dawned on me that all this worthlessness might be the true shape of being Buddhist, a triple helix of nothingness, Peace Corps, and me. I tried hard to be calm but I still had itchy feet, a mind full of idle chatter, ideas for monkey business. Very American, I thought to myself, fighting with “nothingness,” but sill it would be nice to do something.

At the river, in the early hours of the day before the heat comes up, we pick a spot, spread out, and start casting. I’m using grasshoppers for bait. Ted has worms. Dick has lures. We are throwing everything at them except dynamite and Clorox which if I had some, I might use. I am consumed with the hunt, filled with blood lust for a catch-and-eat dinner.

An hour goes by. Nothing. More fiddling around. Mosquito bites. Then gnats and no-see-ums, then flies. Nothing. Two hours go by. More nothing and becoming one with my existential nothingness. The heat rises. Some little girls come around and watch us. I ask them in Marathi where we can find fish to catch. They step out onto the rocks, point down at the water, and then start giggling.

Shiva: You really think I’m just an egotistical murderous bastard?

Me: You’ve been eavesdropping on my conversations?

Shiva: Of course, I listen to anything I want. For an engineering man, your friend Bal Khelaskar has exquisite ideas. But you are still an idiot. I keep telling you things, and you don’t listen.

Me: Like what?

Shiva: I’ve said this before. Everything that commences must end. Anything born must die. Anything strong becomes weak. Anything that rises falls.

Me: What’s so hard to understand about that?

Shiva: It’s what lies between the rise and the fall, the new and the old, and the strong and the weak that you are completely missing, especially with women. It’s because you are a nincompoop. You keeping thinking everything must be one way or another when it is always both.

Me: Is that true with you?

Shiva: No. I know things you seem incapable of because you are mentally and spiritually lazy.

Me: Like what?

Shiva: Love. Especially love! When you turn to love, all things in the world shiver and anything is possible. In fact, the world trembles. That’s what you haven’t discovered.

Me: Why is that?

Shiva: Because you are uncommonly stupid.

But lately, it has become clear. What Shiva and all my mentors and teachers kept trying to tell me as they accused me of being lazy and unfocused in the unrelenting search for certainty, of living in a world that is perpetually transitional and liminal, full of moments that will never come again and that should be savored. Each of these passing minutes is full of rich vagueness and beautiful ambiguity, untroubled by the deficiencies of dualistic thinking.

I secretly yearn for a life that would have direct lines between causes and effects but I have become more porous, perhaps something like a crude kind of music that isn’t very polished and rarely achieves excellence in performance but somehow satisfies as a flow of relationships between soft and hard notes and extended silences.

Sometimes I catch glimpses of these musical constructions when I look hard and listen in ways that are generous and not self-centered and but many of those assemblies are beyond me, residing at levels that seem simultaneously sub-atomic and astrophysically cosmic. Donald Rumsfeld calls these the “unknown unknowns” even though he was talking about military intelligence.

So I live in the gray zone and have come to love it. The Japanese call this realm wabi-sabi, an outlook built on the acceptance of asymmetry, irregularity, and the transience of all things. In the face of adverse uncertainty, my father-in-law used to repeat a Japanese proverb: Shikata ga nai. “It cannot be helped.” Perpetual imperfection has its own beauty.

Though I backslide sometimes, I have come to embrace the impermanence and paradoxical entanglements of most things. I see them everywhere and they lead to patience with day-to-day matters without paralyzing me into total passivity. In India, this is not an uncomfortable place to be. Nor in the United States.

As poet Jane Hirshfield describes them, entangled relationships are “the strange charms” that exist between border collies and sheep. The song of the wind that blows between leaves and branches. The odd, illuminating friendships that come to people who think different. It is the mysterious energy and traction and between Sisyphus, the boulder, me, and the hill, each and every time just a little different as we play out our parts.

That’s how it always is: movement and stillness, hold and let go, extend and contract, create and disrupt, fear and then hope rising. More and more I love the interstitial spaces between polarities.


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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