The Infrastructure of Healing

By Bob Koehler

A door opened for me on a Wednesday afternoon, as I was trying to finish a column.

This is not a door I would have opened by myself. So the Tribune Company, for which I had worked as an editor for 14 years, opened it for me. The year was 2009, when financial disaster was commonplace and doors were flying open everywhere. In fact, the Trib had been undergoing a serious jettisoning of employees for the past year, but of course I felt secure. And then on that May afternoon, as I was about a dozen paragraphs into almost my five hundredth column . . .

“The desperation of our military efforts is showing around the edges of the carnage and tragedy.” I had written. “This past week has brought three official U.S. denials that we have done what eyewitnesses and/or other evidence indicates we did: a) used white phosphorous as a weapon against Afghan civilians; b) killed nearly 150 Afghan villagers in a sustained bombardment; c) killed a 12-year-old Iraqi boy as he stood innocently by the side of the road selling fruit juice.

“Note to David: Goliath’s vulnerability is the truth.”

Writing this was at the edge of my real job – you know, the one I got paid for. I was an editor. I worked for what was then called Tribune Media Services, the syndicate arm of the Tribune Corp., which was housed on the 14th and 15th floors of Tribune Tower, in Chicago. I had a cubicle on the fourteenth floor with a fabulous west-facing view of the city, and often worked late enough to watch the orange-red sunset smolder and gradually sink between buildings. I worked with words – burrowed deep into their grammar and logic. I made sure our syndicated writers made sense and spoke with factual precision.

I also had wangled a unique, extracurricular partnership with the company: I had my own – by then – syndicated column, which I churned out once a week. Each column was a reach into hope and darkness, an untying of something in the news. Usually I wrote about our wars. I called my columns prayers disguised as op-eds.

“We are living on the brink of profound change,” the column continued.

And I believed this with such furious hope.

“. . . hard as that change is to see through the smoke and rubble . . .”

I believed and tried to summon with every word I wrote a shift in the prevailing consciousness of human society. I was frustrated with lesser work, the sort that you earned a living from.

“. . . but why else would the U.S. military, or any other military for that matter, find it so hard to accept responsibility for its own actions? Why the fumbling evasions rather than a sneering ‘It was necessary’? If might makes right, why take the trouble to worry about public relations at all?

“Governing morality may not have changed much since the days of the Roman Empire, but the seething mass of the governed — humanity itself — has evolved beyond barbarism to a higher state of values. Vaguely articulated ideals pulse amid the shrapnel of politics: We want a fair and just world. Every child deserves a chance. We are (ahem, cough) all one, at some core level.”

The phone on my desk rang. “Could you come into my office, please?” One of the editors had to be cut loose. This wasn’t easy for anyone.

Part of me knew in that first moment, as my boss looked at me with uneasy eyes, that I was being called toward something, not simply being pushed out. I didn’t know what, of course. I believed the words I wrote: “We are living on the brink of profound change.” I felt so close to it – this social upreach, this human reorganization around higher principles than dominance, scapegoating and killing the enermy – and I wanted to be a part of it as fully as possible. I wanted to be one of the ushers, you might say, of the Big Shift, as humanity surrendered to the better angels of its nature and moved beyond . . . war, vengeance, armed fear.

I had discovered, for instance, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Some day, after mastering the wind, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of Love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Wow. I wanted to be part of this, whatever it was. I could feel its pull. And it had nothing to do with being a copy editor. My job wanted so little of me! Still, my life – my writing life – was thoroughly intertwined with my existence at the Tribune. My cubicle was my office. Over the years, as my home life ebbed – I lost my wife to cancer, then my daughter went off to college and began exploring the world – I had allowed my home office to lapse into dysfunctionality.

Plus I had just lost my income. And I was 62 years old. I felt humbled and alone – and terrified – as I walked through the door that had just opened. Sometimes opportunity feels mostly like fear, as it glows faintly in the darkness.

I also still had my syndicated column. Part of the layoff deal was that the syndication contract would stay intact. The column became my focus and destiny, and maybe my Aladdin’s lamp. It’s what kept me believing that “we are living on the brink of profound change” and, most important, believing that I wasn’t just a spectator in this change but fully, topsy-turvy, a part of it. It also helped that I couldn’t figure out how to hook my printer up to my computer.

I had friends surround me with healing vibes and well wishes and positive energy and Starbucks coupons. And then there was Nick Angotti, co-founder of Chicago’s Peace on Earth Film Festival, who invited me out to breakfast at the Heartland Café, then – when I began lamenting the sad state of my home office situation – said he’d be glad to come over and help me set things up.

And so our friendship grew. Nick asked me to join the board of the film festival’s newly created parent organization, Transcendence Global Media. He also had a few other ideas he thought I should be a part of – including, well, breakfast. And here’s where the destiny bit started to kick in.

Specifically, he had an idea that I should meet two friends of his, Elizabeth Vastine and Peter Newman, who were part of Chicago’s Restorative Justice movement. Both of them are lawyers and they taught a class called Restorative Justice at the DePaul University Law School, and on occasion ran what might be called trans-judicial healing circles. For some reason, Nick knew that this was an important connection to make, for all of us. We wound up meeting regularly for the next four years. And that first breakfast get-together, at a restaurant called Nookie’s, lasted three hours.

I’m still amazed when I think about this – that this meeting happened within a few weeks of my layoff, that it gave physical shape and reality to precisely what I had been writing about for years, with ever increasing disbelief and despair as endless war and violence of every sort became the national norm and the media, the official consensus, remained stoppered in cluelessness: How is it that we know so much about how to kill and so little about how to heal?

But writing about what’s wrong is so easy.

Something big, something right was happening on Planet Earth and in Chicago: the building of a smarter, more compassionate social structure. I could hear it in Elizabeth’s voice as she talked about a circle she and Peter had recently conducted. It ignited a fire inside me – a Teilhardian fire: “Some day . . . we will harness for God the energies of Love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

I knew I wanted to write about this, whatever it was.


Can a concept like this have social resonance? You know, the way defeating The Enemy does, killing The Enemy, winning the war? My God, love thy enemy?

This is the story Elizabeth was talking about: the story of a dad, a mom, a daughter and a custody agreement. I learned the details later. I wrote a column about it.

Get a rock and talk.

The thing is, Bill Heenan had won his case. He got custody of his daughter.

This is the limit of conventional justice: “victory,” which of course means defeat for the other person, in this case, the mother of his daughter. Why not celebrate? His lawyer was satisfied. I mean, come on, you won, man!

But Bill, a Chicago fireman, had the nagging feeling that his daughter was also one of the losers in the decision. The case had been dragging through Parentage and Child Support Court, one of the busiest in the Cook County Circuit Court system, for a year. The court hears child-custody and other child-related cases in which the parents were never married, a situation that may cover nearly half the kids in Chicago.

“The court system is the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Bill told me. “You sit there, you don’t say a word. The lawyer does all the talking. Then you go out in the hallway and the lawyer explains what the judge said.”

Though Bill and his daughter’s mother were not married, they lived near each other in Chicago and he saw his daughter, Alyssa, every day. When she was 10, Andrea, the mother, was offered a temporary job in Hawaii. While she was there with Alyssa, she was offered a permanent position and decided to take it. Suddenly Bill, who was paying child support, was without contact with his daughter, unless he flew to Hawaii on a regular basis, something he could hardly afford. Bill’s father, who loved his granddaughter deeply, was also devastated. Bill’s friends said, “Get a lawyer!”

So Bill and Andrea fought the case out in court, and ultimately Judge Martha Mills decided in his favor. Legally speaking, the mom couldn’t make the case that Hawaii, where she had no support system, was a better place to raise Alyssa than Chicago, where the youngster had a large support network in place. But at a human level, the judge also felt uncomfortable with the ruling. She could see that its impact was devastating and that it would probably be contested. “I knew an appeal would take a long time and rip the family apart,” she said.

So she called Bill to the stand and offered him another option. This is the wonder: Judge Mills saw beyond the current system. She was a passionate advocate of a process called restorative justice — justice based on healing and transforming, not victory and punishment. There are no external decision-makers, just interested parties, who, unlike in court, have a chance to talk and be heard. A restorative justice movement has been welling in the Chicago area for years. People sit in a circle as equals; they speak when they hold the talking piece and otherwise listen. A circle keeper helps maintain the integrity of the circle. It must be a safe container, because people will speak from the deepest reaches of their hearts.

She asked Bill if he’d be interested in exploring a way to work things out. His lawyer stood at the bench with him.

“Lawyers — they just complicate a whole lot of stuff,” Bill said. “If you’d seen the look on my lawyer’s face. He spoke up: ‘My client’s not interested.’ I said, ‘I am interested.’ My lawyer got pissed and walked into the hallway.”

And this is the world we understand, right? This world of winning and losing. It’s our default setting, the unquestioned assumption of a million new stories and TV shows. More to the point, it’s embedded in our social infrastructure. We call it justice.

But Bill knew he was being offered something bigger than that. He was being offered a chance to work out the parenting complexities of this matter, which the ruling hadn’t touched. Alyssa actually loved Hawaii and was prospering there. While he couldn’t bear losing her, he knew that winning her back at the cost of tearing her away from her mother and friends would be disastrous. But he had his victory. “I could have walked away,” he said, “and suffered the long-lasting effects.”

He decided, instead, that he hadn’t really won anything — except perhaps the opportunity he had in this moment, precious beyond all reckoning, to save his family.

At the time, Judge Mills was new in Parentage and Child Support Court. She’s now the supervising judge, and she and other judges have referred dozens of cases to Elizabeth and Peter since 2008. Bill Heenan’s case was the first — indeed, it may be the first child-custody case in the country to move beyond the legal process to . . . the healing process.

“What makes the process magical is that it’s voluntary,” Peter said.

It’s also what makes it complicated, of course. You can’t be ordered – legally compelled – to enter the realm of deep honesty, the realm of listening, the realm of love. Welcome to the Chicago RJ community. Those who are part of it are quietly weaving a radically ancient, remarkably effective, social healing process into the city’s legal and educational systems. It begins with a circle.

When people sit in an RJ circle, they do so in a state of what you might call vibrant equality. Circles have keepers, not leaders, not judges, not bosses. The idea is to build trust and develop an honest communication between people as they sit together.

One of the rituals of the circle is the talking piece — any object one can hold in one’s hands. Often the talking piece is a rock. Whoever holds it can talk without interruption, while the others listen — such a rarity, especially in a child-custody case! “This prevented it from turning into a bicker fest,” Bill said.

The circle was held shortly after Christmas. Elizabeth and Peter were the keepers. The participants were Bill, Andrea, Alyssa and the young girl’s two grandfathers. It lasted about eight hours, far longer than most subsequent circles (the average length is two hours), but it ended with an agreement between Bill and Andrea. “I got more accomplished in eight hours than a year in court,” he said.

Alyssa herself was the key player. At one point, according to Bill, she said, “I love both of my parents. I can’t make a decision. I don’t know what to do.”

“Everyone,” he said, “was crying.”

And Bill agreed that it was best for Alyssa to remain in Hawaii. Because he was paying child support, he couldn’t afford multiple yearly airfares to bring her to Chicago, so he and Andrea devised a plan to share that cost without overburdening either of them. By the end of the day, an agreement was printed out and signed.

“Not in legal language,” said Elizabeth, “but their language. Their spirit and their language and their content.”

And maybe this hints at the social change RJ represents as much as anything else. Something written in “legal language” is under the auspices of, and represents the interests of, an outside, controlling force, usually called the state. The idea is that the ultimate source of social order is an outside, objective, pseudo-omniscient force. RJ gets that order is . . . well, voluntary.

Four years later, when I talked to him, Bill was still overflowing with gratitude for the circle that saved his relationship with his daughter and allowed her to prosper. She’s an A-student in Hawaii; in Chicago, she’d been struggling. Dad’s heart bursts with joy. It’s not about custody. “It’s all about her,” he said.

In the early 20th century, Mary Parker-Follett, a visionary business-management consultant, wrote an essay called “Constructive Conflict.” She explained that there are three primary ways of dealing with conflict. One is domination, a process that leaves a winner and a loser. The second, also very familiar, is compromise; everyone gives in, no one gets what they want. The third is what she called integration, or transformation, where both sides acknowledge what they need and create a new structure that satisfies everyone.

Since conflict is inevitable, maybe, she suggests, we should figure out how to use it intelligently. “All polishing is done by friction,” she wrote. “The music of the violin we get by friction.”

Elizabeth, reflecting on the case, said of Bill: “He knew in his heart this was the best thing. He called Judge Mills a genius and a saint. He told other firemen: ‘Just get a rock and talk!’”

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