Gift Culture: Restorative Circles

by Shammi Nanda

I was once on a train, and a woman pulled the chain to stop it. The cops came, and she explained that her husband was left on the platform. When the train began to move again, the woman saw that her suitcase was on the platform, so she pulled the chain again. This time, the cops were angry with her, until she said she was a minister’s daughter. Then, they were super polite and helped her carry her luggage. I was disgusted, so I commented, ”Is that all your ‘desh-prem’ (patriotism)?” Hearing me, the cop threw me out of the train onto the platform.

I was reading on forgiveness that time, so, I was not inclined complain about the cop and get him punished. At the same time, I didn’t want to just go back home without doing anything. So, when I reached my destination, I went to the Station Master, shared the incident, and requested that he arrange a meeting with him. He was confused and asked, “Why do you want to meet him? If you want, you can write a complaint. That’s the language he will understand.” I insisted on arranging a meeting with him, and they finally called him over.

The railways staff asked him to apologize, but I requested them to leave us alone. I then asked him, “Why did you throw me out of the compartment?” He said, “I was already stressed and felt attacked by you.” I could sense that he was hurt by my words; no one likes to be seen in the wrong. Seeing his vulnerability and humanity, my pain melted away. I told him how important it is to me to respect the dignity of all the people around us. I felt connected to him in the end. Interestingly, initially my back was hurting from the fall, but when our conversation was over, my back pain had disappeared.

More than five years later, I came across the ‘Restorative Justice System’ (RJ). Initiated by Dominic Barter in the slums of Brazil, as a way to conflict transformation, it is now being embraced all over the world. Unlike the existing retributive system (where we look for the wrong and right and give punishment and rewards), RJ intends to create a safe space where people can bring their conflicts out of the closet. The facilitator does not hold any special power, does not tell anyone that they are right or wrong, or give any solutions. Yet, the community of people involved can find ways of restoring connections during the process.

I enjoy the way the circle or the community is constituted. If an act or harm has happened, any member who is part of the system is empowered to contact a facilitator in order to call a circle. During the pre-circle, the facilitator asks each person, “Who else you think needs to be there?” For example, if three people are named, then the facilitator goes to each of them, shares what’s happening, and also checks with them about who else they think needs to be there. I like that each person has the space for inviting people to be in the circle and form a community which they think needs to be there.

During the circle process, there is a conscious attempt towards mutual comprehension. Whenever someone expresses themselves, the facilitator tries to ask another person, preferably to the one to whom something has been said, to reflect back what they heard. Then, they cross check with the first person if that’s what they were meaning. When people’s deeper meanings are heard, miracles begin to happen.

I was recently sitting with a group of my old friends and their wives. I had met them after 25 years. They were talking of some recent disconnect amongst the group. One woman was trying hard to convince everyone to sit and talk with other people, and everyone was telling her how it won’t work. I was not sure if I should intervene, but I went ahead to ask her, “Are you in pain? Do you want more connection among the community?” She said, “Yes,” and tears rolled down from her eyes. At that moment, I sensed we had moved from the head to the heart. Everything that happens in a circle, be it anger or silence, has meaning behind it. Once, when I asked one young man to reflect back what he had heard, he responded by, “I DON’T CARE!!” I could have been triggered by how he raised his voice and what he said. Instead, I chose to reflect the deeper meaning, “So, it seems you are really angry.” He said, “Yes. I have been saying it for so long, and she doesn’t understand me.” He made his point; we moved on.

Presently, there is a conflict going on in my family. Some of us are almost not on talking terms and that pains me. With a court case going on for the last four years, the connections are getting worse. We are talking to lawyers instead of those whom we grew up with. I know that there was once love and care amongst us and now there is hatred. For me, real solutions will come once we hold each others’ needs with care. I am longing for something like a restorative system in our family but am lost as to how it will come. I myself am less triggered by anger that is directed towards me these days, as I am able to see harsh words as just a way to communicate someone’s deep pain and hurt to me. I am able to be little more empathetic towards them, even though I still get disturbed some times.

The more I see the increasing distress in my family, the more I have the desire to deepen my understanding of restorative systems. I dream that one day we will be able to hear each other’s story, to share our hurt and pain in the presence of a community of people who care for us, going beyond the blame game, beyond judging something or someone wrong and right, where we will not ask for apologies from each other, and where we will feel safe to express our stories without being judged or sentenced.

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