There Must be a Better Way

by Janet M. Powers

I first saw the sign in Shu’fat, the only Palestinian refugee camp within the city limits of Jerusalem. It was on a bulletin board in the community center (built by the government of Germany) where older women, denied education during the years of turmoil beginning in 1947, came for literacy classes. Younger women, mothers of boys imprisoned for throwing stones, came there too for group therapy sessions.

At the time, the phrase “There must be a better way” seemed to me to refer to the violence on both sides: the Separation Wall, stone-throwing, the Occupation, suicide bombings, attacks on settlements and ambulances turned away. But I found it oddly moving that in the midst of such misery, hope still flourished. Indeed, this phrase, and the hope embodied in it, encompasses a broader meaning.

It is a core belief for those of us who have paid our own money and taken our own time to be trained as mediators, and who give countless hours pro bono to conduct training sessions and mediations. Why, you ask, would anyone take on these responsibilities knowing that service will be required without pay? Most of us who serve as mediators believe in our hearts that alternative dispute resolution is a better way.

Living in a litigious society where people sue each other for the smallest things and where it has become commonplace to sue even the manufacturer of a vehicle involved in an accident, one longs for the simple days when a village elder, a clergyman or a family member helped to sort out blame and suggest reparations. Taking someone to court involves long delays and usually results in a win-lose situation where someone goes away hurt and angry.

Of course, there are many situations so complex that only attorneys can sort them out, and case law exists for exactly that reason. But could there be a better way? Could there be a way of solving conflicts in which both sides come out winners? Could there be a way of handling all sorts of conflicts in which both sides believe themselves to be right?
Could there be a way for disputants to look each other in the eye and listen without yelling?

Living in a world where war now seems to be the only solution when we don’t approve of dictators or someone else’s system of government, one longs for the possibility of a better way. When the United States is pouring 21% of its budget into the military, one can’t help but ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Surely on the international scene there must be a better way, one involving fewer deaths for civilians and military personnel.

I guess you could say that mediators (and we exist at all levels, local, national and international) believe that there is a better way. Negotiations, mediations, and arbitrations usually work wonders when the process is fair and participants are open to compromise. Perhaps someday humans will finally outgrow our endless need for scapegoats and enemies.

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Janet M. Powers is presiding officer of Mediation Services of Adams County and Professor Emerita at Gettysburg College.