Like Walking Through Water Without Getting Wet, Part 3: Keep Your Feet Dry

"Whatever you do, keep your feet DRY!"

I've never served in the army but apparently, keeping your feet dry is is the first thing newcomers are warned about from the very beginning.

To the uninitiated it seems a silly thing: There is all this mission-critical stuff going on all around, you may even be in the middle of a war. And yet it's being incessantly drilled into you that if you don't keep your feet dry, there will be hell to pay. You must take care of your feet at all costs.


Peacebuilders: Wet Feet = Trench Rot!

Self-care in peacebuilding is the way we keep our feet dry.

Maybe with some coaching and accountability, maybe just on your own, but the fact is that if you don't keep your feet dry -- if you don't go to the effort of caring for your mind, body, soul, spirit and heart, applying the necessary time and resources to keep them resilient -- you're going to regret it.

Trench Rot. Scary.

Trench Rot. Scary.

Because it's going to cost you at lot more in the end, like it or not. The relatively unimportant discomfort of cold feet will then grow into jungle rot or trench rot...and then you've got a real health hazard on your hands. Then you've placed not only yourself but your whole team in harm's way by not doing the most primary and basic of things: keeping your feet dry.

You must take the time for something so basic as keeping your feet dry.

Even in the midst of battles. Even in the middle of a war.

An image comes to my mind of soldiers wading through chest-high swamps, weapons raised above their heads to keep them out of the water.

This image tells me a couple things:

First: It tells me there are times when some of the other tools related to our mission may briefly take precedence over our own feet. Prioritizing your gear at the moment you're wading through chest-high water is more critical than keeping your body or clothing dry.

But this is critical to remember: No war can ever be fought being stuck in chest-high water. It's a short phase. You need to get through that water as soon as possible, and then the first thing when you're on the other side is to dry your feet and change your socks and boots.

Using the excuse that your feet are always wet because you're always wading through high water isn't valid, sorry. High waters, often unforeseen, must be treated as being temporal. And if they're not temporal, you've got a bigger problem than just keeping your feet dry.

If you're always chest-high in swamp water with no way out, you can't win that war, whether your legs are dry as a bone or your feet are rotting off your legs.

Second: This image of wading through high water tells me that it's not possible to never get your feet wet. Your feet will get wet, in fact I'm sure they get wet all the time. The work of peacebuilding that is done in the jungles and trenches of the world's communities means you'll definitely get wet feet, regularly. It will be a constant issue.

The question is, How quickly do you dry your feet and change your socks afterward?

A 3rd important issue: How much time do your superiors give you and your team to do so? Are you expected to jump out of the water and continue running indefinitely, hopping on one leg while you try to change your socks and shoes while still advancing?

Are they expecting the impossible from you?

And do you expect it of yourself?


Does Your Unit Value Your Dry Feet Like They Should?

You should always have plenty of supplies in your pack -- at the very least some dry socks and a change of boots. Get them out and do what's necessary. If you don't have enough supplies, ask for them. Insist on them. The response to your self-care requests will be a good indication of how much your role in that unit is valued.

If you are provided the supplies but you aren't given the time needed to implement the actual care for your feet, you may want to consider whether or not this is the kind of team you can work in. You believe in your mission. Of course you do, or else you wouldn't be here. But at what cost? Are you willing to remain in a position of constant vulnerability where your well-being is being sacrificed for the mission?

These are hard questions that any peacebuilder must be ready to answer. All true humanitarians and peacebuilders deal with this at one point or another.

How much are you willing to take? What sacrifices are you willing to make in good conscience?

And more importantly: To what end?

If dry feet weren't so important, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be a priority in the army where there are a thousand other pressing issues in a conflict zone. But it's the same in your own life and in your own peacebuilding context when it comes to your own resilience and health, isn't it?


Find the Tools & Supplies You Need

There's a reason why keeping your feet dry is so utterly important. So listen up, pay attention and then do it. There are good tools and supplies available for helping keep you resilient. If you don't have them, find them. Get them at whatever cost. Your life and that of your team may depend on it. 

And if you're not allowed to for whatever reason, ask yourself the difficult questions above. See what you come up with.

Please hear me when I say that no price paid in the present will have been too much for future health and wellness leading to long-term resilience.

Besides, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, whether your supervisor realizes it or not.

Trust me on this one.


Like Walking Through Water Without Getting Wet, Part 2

Our first Like Walking Through Water" blog was about the difference between mental toughness and emotional toughness. At Petra, we believe that the most effective peacebuilders have learned to balance mental toughness with emotional vulnerability, a tricky yet necessary aspect of the very human work we do.

Can we make an analogy to love here?



Love is like peacebuilding. You want to be open but not stupid. You want to learn from your mistakes but not close the door to a great opportunity. You want to responsibly protect your heart without being held back unnecessarily by fear. Love requires risk-taking that takes into account the wisdom of past experience.

Love Hurts 01.jpg

As with peace, it is in heart of every human being to want love, though some people are more skilled than others in the art of living it out in our lives.

True love often hurts because it always requires vulnerability and you always have to open yourself up to another imperfect individual. Like peacebuilding, love is messy and dangerous, yet ultimately the whole world wants it because of the blessings and benefits. 

But how we go about seeking the love we each desire as human beings is very telling.


The Ever-Wounded

In love, there are people who give no thought to caution or reason, to whom every new encounter or relationship is another opportunity to lose themselves and get carried away in the feelings, the emotions, the connection. This is all fine until you look and see that the last 20 years of their life is nothing but a string of short-lived relationships that started with fun, beautiful sparklers and ended in disastrous explosions. Perhaps they have the ability to quickly turn the page and they might not harbor bitterness toward all their past partners (an admirable quality, I might add) but I question the depth that this person might bring, for example, in advising me in my own relationship with my partner. This is not the person I'd seek out for advice with my relationship of 10 or 15 years. This person has no idea what it's like to be with someone for 10 years, regardless of how much positive feeling is in their hearts for the person they're currently with.

This type of person gets wounded in conflict all the time. Their heart is constantly being 'put through the wringer' and hung out to dry. The fact that they bounce back and get into another relationship might give the illusion of resilience, but it's clear to those around them that they're not really dealing with their wounds.

Furthermore, they're not putting systems in place to prevent future wounding, which is a huge part of resilience. Sure, it seems they never lack for love since there's always someone new to fill the need of the moment...but how can they be sure that the current love isn't just covering the wounds of the past that weren't properly tended? Likewise, they might have the love they need for today, but how well do they do love in general? What love have they built that has withstood the test of time?


The Jaded Skeptic

Then there's the person who has been hurt and who doesn't want to get hurt again. This person, in order to avoid the inevitable pain, has allowed the soft, permeable inner wall of the heart to be fortified by all kinds of strategies. Love becomes a head game, where the what to do overrides the how to be, a game where one's own survival is as important as the true-love benefits which the individual hopes to receive from the relationship, which of course can only come with taking significant risks which this person really isn't sure they're willing to take anymore. You can't blame them; they were hurt really, really badly. But what does this mean for future prospects of real love?

We then become too guarded, too robotic, too skeptical and jaded to be able to say that we're truly putting our whole heart into the endeavor. We have good reasons for being this way, yes. But we can't be classified as being abandoned to love, can we? And when abandonment is missing, so is the accompanying bliss which is the reward for taking risks in love.


The Mysterious Balance

I see clear comparisons between how we pursue love in our personal lives and how we pursue peacebuilding in our vocations and professions.

I want to be the kind of person who lives in the mysterious balance. I learn from the past, from my own mistakes and the mistakes of others, and go into love with my eyes open, with neither the naiveté of the first type nor the over-guarded protection of the second. I want to take the calculated risks necessary for a one-of-a-kind love story, one where I'm in it for the long haul and can then walk alongside people who approach love the same way, and positively contribute to their experience based on my own.

I want to live in a way in which all of my experiences, even the painful ones, are transformed for good in my life. In cases of regret from something in the past, I actively work to change it with my current partner, and without allowing that regret to harden into a shell around my heart. I want my heart to be open, soft and pliable, and I want the lining around it to be as permeable as possible, in order to give and receive love in the most life-giving of ways.

After all, if I didn't go into peacebuilding for love -- love for the world, love for our fellow men, women and children, love for the planet and for ourselves, love for the vision of something better and more meaningful -- then what am I doing it for?


Vulnerable Yet Resilient

The million dollar question for us at Petra, then, is this:

How does this affect resilience in peacebuilders? If effective peacebuilding means balanced yet vulnerable peacebuilders who are at risk of being hurt, how do we best anticipate and protect in order to help certain injuries that are preventable?

To us, that may be the most important question of all.


Like Walking Through Water Without Getting Wet, Part 1

We'd love to know whether you agree or disagree with this interesting assertion:

Those who are best at true peacebuilding are also the most at risk for burnout, depression and other negative effects of peacebuilding work that would threaten to pull them off the field.


What about being tough, experienced and equipped to deal with all the challenges that 'normal' people can't cope with? After all, not everyone is cut out for this work. Very few are, in fact.

Yes, I agree with the need for mental toughness, no question. But I agree much more with the initial assertion.


The False Message We Hear and Believe

I often feel like we all (which includes the onlooking world, the peacebuilding & humanitarians sectors, and even ourselves) expect peacebuilders to do their work without being traumatized, whether directly or vicariously, in the same way that we'd expect people to walk through a waist-high flood of water without getting wet.


That's ridiculous, and impossible.

But this seems to be the subconscious belief most of us hold once we dig below the surface and talk about what we really believe about post-traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, intervention, counseling, or our general attitude toward any kind of help.

Yes, of course we need the qualities of experience combined with toughness in order to survive...absolutely! But being tough mentally and being tough emotionally are two different things.


Mental vs. Emotional Toughness

The problem comes when we value 'toughness,' thinking we need it to survive, but we confuse mental toughness with emotional toughness. Before you know it, we are sacrificing that soft lining around our hearts, the one that makes us deeply empathetic...and vulnerable...and open to being hurt on a very deep level.

These emotional attributes are actually great for positive peacebuilding, and they work precisely because we don't wrap ourselves in all kinds of protective emotional armor when in the field.

Yet we are well aware of the emotional dangers we face, and we won't be caught being naive about them.

So how can we combine mental toughness with continued emotional vulnerability? Is this combination even possible?

I believe it is, and my experience has led me to believe that the most effective, the most 'human' peacebuilders, have found a functional balance between the two. The open-hearted risks they take in their work leave them open to emotionally and even mentally wounding. And they often are wounded, even though they're not idealistic or naive. It's simply the price they're willing to pay for the work they do (a price not every peacebuilder is willing to pay, by the way). The effects of this sacrifice of sustained vulnerability is seen in the wounds and scars they bear.

This doesn't make them bad or ineffective or incapable peacebuilders. In fact, I believe it's quite the opposite, that those who have this kind of capacity are amazing peacebuilders.

At the same time, their wounds also need important attention.


Tough-Minded, Open-Hearted

It's similar in the world of mediation and negotiation, isn't it? Those leaders who take great risks for a dialogue with the enemy -- the ones who really stick their necks out politically and socially -- are the ones who we remember as the brave heroes without whom peace wouldn't have been possible. They are also the ones with much to lose, however, since they take the risk of being vilified by both sides even when the outcome is eventually positive!

Courageous leadership: Always aiming to reach out

Courageous leadership: Always aiming to reach out

The world might see a strong, fearless risk-taker who took a gamble that eventually paid off. But I would venture that there is a lot of woundedness behind the scenes.

Yet that's what courageous leadership does: It takes wise, calculated, well-informed and eventually bold risks from a place of competence while remaining soft and supple enough to reach out to all sides with compassion and empathy, for the good of the whole community or nation.

In my opinion, the best peacebuilders know how to work both oars on that boat equally well.

Our job at Petra is to tend to your wounds as best we can. If it's beyond our capacity, we'll help you find someone who can.

And we aim to walk with you until you're in a place of effective, ass-kicking peacebuilding again.

"My Water Just Broke!"

by Bianca Neff, Executive Director

A 4-Year Pregnancy?

I'd been pregnant for a long time.

Believe it or not, Petra Peacebuilders was actually conceived back in 2011, just as I was finishing my research and dissertation in the UK (Bradford) as a Rotary Peace Fellow. Due to various factors, Petra's gestation turned into a 4-year process, which I learned is actually pretty standard for NGOs with such magnitude of vision for transforming an entire sector. In Petra's case, our vision is to help change the way the peacebuilding and humanitarian sectors approach the resilience and wellness of their staff.

I faced significant challenges during Petra's pregnancy. Severe financial and other capacity limitations led to a false start or two. Logistical and legal requirements of my becoming a dual citizen in Spain pushed the calendar back a good 2 years...and then an agonizing season of clinical depression also decided to rear its ugly head. Sheesh!

There were macro-level limitations, too. I believe there was a fundamental lack of readiness for the sector to receive what Petra has to offer. But I sensed this starting to shift about 18 months ago, in summer 2015.

Jump to June 2015

The noticeable shift happened in June 2015, in São Paulo, Brazil at an event that happens every 3 years called the Rotary Peace Symposium.

Rotary flew me and dozens of other Peace Fellow alumni to this strategic event where I co-led a groundbreaking session on the impact of trauma on Peace Fellows and their work. To my knowledge, this was the very first time a Rotary event hosted a breakout session like this. Usually these events highlight the great work that Peace Fellow alumni are now doing in the field, but now we were starting to talk about how often this actually negatively impacts them, along with what their continued needs in the field are well after their time as active Rotary Peace Fellows.

The Rotarians present sat wide-eyed at the gripping stories from Peace Fellows in the field. Kidnappings, bombings, daily life in conflict zones, and living with the resulting trauma and psychological fallout. It was raw, it was real. Meanwhile, the Peace Fellows in attendance could breathe freely in a safe place where they were truly, truly understood.

It was an incredibly impactful 90 minutes.

(For a first-hand account of that dynamic breakout, see this testimonial from UK Rotarian Dick Hazlehurst.)

For Petra, this powerful encounter between Rotarians and Peace Fellows at the 2015 Peace Symposium was an important turning point.

Long story short: Rotary's openness to testing the waters with this type of breakout led to a wave of support from Rotarians who have now caught fire about the need to be more present in caring for peacebuilders in the field -- not just Rotary Peace Fellows but global peacebuilders across the whole sector.

After São Paulo, things back in Malaga began to quickly move forward for Petra in the wake of that Peace Symposium. I realized: "I think my water just broke! It's time for Petra Peacebuilders to finally be born. The momentum is such that now is the time."


a prominent rotarian 'midwife' joins us

Petra's strongest Rotarian supporter is probably Loretta Butts, a prominent Past District Governor from District 5240 in California who immediately linked up with me with a newly-burning passion for this cause ... and so I put her to work! She is now a fundamental pillar of Petra's Board of Directors. Loretta's amazing network and drive have strongly positioned Petra for strategic funding for Ascend, Petra's pilot project which is scheduled for rollout in 2017.

As things accelerated I had to make an important choice, so I took the leap and quit my day job in November 2015 to prepare the legal framework for Petra to be born.

This website was written and built over Christmas 2015 (did you know it's practically impossible to incorporate as a nonprofit without a website?). Our Board of Directors was then solidified by January 2016 -- and what a great team Petra has in them! After officially incorporating in the state of Virginia in March, we soon had our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS in hand.

After 4 years, Petra Peacebuilders was born as a fully-functioning, IRS-recognized nonprofit in April 2016!

First Days of Life

It was the right thing to wait as long as I did -- 4 years! -- before launching Petra. Now a new "mom", I'm thrilled at having birthed something that I know will bring beautiful, positive changes to our world by impacting people doing really important work in truly critical places.

(Read a guest blog I wrote about how launching a nonprofit is akin to pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, ha!)

Is it easy? No! I worry about its health, about how we'll get the resources for Petra to thrive. It's a tricky balance of trusting God that Petra is meant to be, and that I need not fear, while also working hard to be a responsible steward of this precious gift.

The Petra team is steadily making our way as a nonprofit, and the positive momentum continues! Doors are opening right and left. It's a lot to manage, to decide, and then implement. I'm so thankful for Petra's awesome Board to help make strategic, unified decisions.

time to grow!

We all know it takes a village to raise something well, right? If you like what you're hearing so far about Petra's story, would you consider partnering with us with a regular monthly donation, with volunteer services, or with helping us to strategically grow our network with someone in your circles who is sympathetic to our work?

Rotary Peace Fellows at Rotary Peace Symposium, June 2015

Rotary Peace Fellows at Rotary Peace Symposium, June 2015

Drop me a line anytime at!

I welcome you to visit the Petra Peacebuilders website ( to DONATE TODAY.

This is a critical time for Petra -- this baby is growing fast and she needs lots of uncles and aunts to help her grow healthy!


Bianca Neff, Executive Director
Petra Peacebuilders, Inc.


Voices of Leadership, Part 2

by Bianca Neff, Executive Director

This is a follow-up post to the previous "Voices of Leadership" post highlighting the International Peace & Security Institute (IPSI).

Because I've been doing some further reflection on that post.

It's so easy to simply place organizations, people, cultures, nations into one of two camps, isn't it? For example, "those who contribute to international peacebuilding" and "those who thwart it"? But isn't this simplicity precisely what we're so tired of because of how it polarizes people and societies?


When Entrenchment Becomes Irresponsible

I could write a long time about my frustration with the politics in my own country of origin, the United States. Simply put, I see the US Congress and the American people as largely divided into two camps -- right and left -- who, rather than work through their differences, simply allow themselves to get so entrenched that they do little apparent good at all.

We've all rejected nuance as politically inexpedient. The result: A barely-functioning legislative body who spends more time hunkering further down in their entrenched differences than governing its citizens.

Yes, of course it's critical to take a stand, and to stand firmly when necessary. It's OK to spend time arguing, passionately if needed, as we work through disagreements. But none of us -- and here I mean from individuals in families all the way up to nations and regions in disagreement -- can afford the polarization that comes from you being in your camp and me staying in mine, keeping us from working together. Especially where we have a common interest!


Build Bridges Through Common Interests

Basic anthropological study shows us that as human beings, we have plenty in common. This is not to discount real differences in culture or worldview; they definitely exist and we are right to grant them the respect they command.

But as peacebuilders, how can we best connect to the human side of the other, the "other" who would jump in front of a train for their child or best friend just like I would for mine, who shares the same human needs for significance, for physical needs to be met, the same need to raise families and live in communities within a more peaceful and understanding world?

We must keep working our hardest to build bridges instead of retreating into our more comfortable camps. 

I was encouraged to hear this kind of talk, even just a little bit, at the Rotary Peace Conference (cross-link to 1st blog) from my colleague Cameron.


Peacebuilders On the Road Less Traveled

I like the fact that the Peace Activist guy in the other blog asked his challenging question and didn't simply take IPSI's work at face value. I probably agree with many of his views and would work really well with him as a kindred spirit on common issues.

But when it comes down to it, if I was forced to choose, I think I like Cameron & IPSI's approach even more. It's different, it's more inclusive, and we need more of it.

Peacebuilders out there who are using this type of proactively inclusive approach: Do you feel alone in this? We understand you.

How can Petra help maximize your work as you reach across the aisle so that your impact is felt even further? Remember that we're here to process life with you and to accelerate your work.

Voices of Leadership

by Bianca Neff, Executive Director

Courageous peacebuilders taking the road less traveled: Those are the kinds of people we here at Petra love to invest in and empower.


In January 2016 I participated in the Rotary Peace Conference in Ontario, California. There's plenty I could report many organizations and committees and plans for action. So many speakers who moved us and spurred us on with their courage and commitment. But I want to tell a brief story about my friend and colleague Cameron Chisholm, President of the International Peace & Security Institute ( , because it stuck with me.

Moderating Cameron Chisholm's breakout at the Rotary Peace Conference, Jan 2016

Moderating Cameron Chisholm's breakout at the Rotary Peace Conference, Jan 2016

So there we are in Cameron's breakout session of about 100 people, which I'm moderating. Cameron and his colleague have just given a great talk about the work they do at IPSI, which is dedicated to training peacebuilders in the practical nitty-gritty of international peace and security.

IPSI works closely with the US military. Some of their staff have spent significant time on the ground embedded with the US military in places like the frontlines of Afghanistan. In our session, there were the typical questions from the audience about ISIS and other global violent extremist elements, questions about exactly how the organization's work differs from the standard training and equipping and academic prep out there.



And then came the question I was waiting for, put forth by a man who, by all appearances, seemed to be quite far removed from the military stereotype.

You could easily imagine that this guy was a long-time peace activist. At the risk of placing too much importance on appearance, he had the typical look of an aging hippie-turned-hipster, a 50-something year old with dark short-cropped hair, earring, wire-rimmed glasses. Trendy, attractive, and with a look in his eye that said he'd seen a lot of the world and has put in plenty of time on the frontlines of peace activism. Frankly, at first glance I really liked him and felt drawn to him as a social non-conformist with whom I probably had a lot in common.

He had his own perspective on the conversation at hand that Cameron was leading, and so he asked for the microphone to put his thoughts out there; in fact I could practically read it in his body language and facial tone as he stood up, before he even posed it out loud:

"It seems you guys do really good work can you possibly work so closely with the US military? Especially after 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan? Surely you don't agree with all can your approach possibly be good for the kind of peacekeeping you're talking about?"

[That's a paraphrase since I don't remember his exact question/comment, but that was the gist as I understood it.]



I loved Cameron's much that I'm now blogging about it.

He answered:

"We're peacebuilders, first and foremost. You might see on the surface that we're 'working with the military' but the reality is much more nuanced than that. Besides, there's a critically important element to our work as peacebuilders which many people don't realize, which is: Being a true peacebuilder requires you to work with those with whom it's not necessarily easy for you to work.

There are a lot of things I disagree with when it comes to the US military. But when it comes to international security, it also happens that we have goals that do align. Our job as an institute and as the individuals within it is to find and maximize those areas where our paths do overlap without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Trust me, I definitely understand where you're coming from. But finding those nuanced approaches is what comprises successful peacebuilding."

And that's why I love IPSI!

(I also find it quite interesting that 'IPSI' also stands for both
1) the India-Pakistan Soldier's Initiative for Peace and
2) Instituto de Psicoterapia y Salud Integral (Institute of Psychotherapy & Holistic Health)!

Linking the 'What' to the 'Why'

All my fellow idealists out there: This blog is for you.

This 4-minute video that is the perfect example of the importance of knowing why you do what you do. Check it out:

Let's bring this back to you.

You got into this work for reasons that are best known to you. Everyone has a variety of reasons and motivations, but there's a big chance you got into your work, at least in part, to make a positive difference at whatever level and in whatever area you felt most passionate about or best suited.

But there's something that happens along the way, and it happens to most of us. And I don't mean 20 or 30 percent...I mean most of us who have been in it a while. We get tired. We get frustrated. Then we get angry. If that anger doesn't get expressed in a constructive way, sometimes we turn that anger and frustration inward upon ourselves. We get to feeling cynical and hopeless. We start questioning, maybe asking ourselves the hard or ugly questions that never seemed to be allowed during our early years for fear of not being seen as committed or dedicated enough. We don't want to face those questions, and we don't want our boss and colleagues to know they're there, either.

But there comes a time when the questions inside are too strong to be ignored or pushed down anymore. They keep arising and, quite frankly, they can be embarrassing. We feel ashamed, and sad too, that the painful, despairing questions are now stronger inside us than the hope we used to feel.

Perhaps the hardest part is that the questions reveal a lot about who you've become and -- perhaps more importantly -- who you might no longer be.

I've been there.

Just speaking from my own life experience with this: If I sit with that reality long enough -- the fact that my dark questions revealed a lot about who I'd become and also about who I wasn't anymore -- it doesn't take long for me to feel that pang in my heart, the constricting of my throat as the tears well up. It's happening right now as I write this. Because I clearly remember the first season in my late 20's when those questions assaulted me, forcing me to deal with them...and I remember what it did to my perception of my identity.

And it wasn't fun.

In fact, it was one of the most painful transformative processes I've gone through yet. That was almost 10 years ago, and my emotions are still affected today by remembering that season. It was the beginning of the end of the strong idealist in me.

I loved that idealist. I missed her terribly once I found out she'd left one night under the cover of darkness. I woke up one day, and she was gone. And I grieved her absence.

Maybe something similar is happening or has happened with you? You surely wouldn't be the only one.

You were powered by that idealist, the voice of hope and life inside you that provided the fuel for so many of your dreams. But now, years in, it's been a while since you saw or heard from that person. If that idealist is still present, maybe it's stuck in a back office not seeing the light of day. Or maybe that side of you is bound and gagged somewhere, stifled by your survivor/realist/practical alter ego...or by your boss...or by the weighed-down structure in which you find yourself laboring which hasn't "budgeted" the nourishment and resources that the idealist needs to keep going strong.

It's a very difficult thing to come to terms with the hampered or disappeared idealist.

And this is why, in my opinion, it is so fundamental, so absolutely critical, to know exactly why we continue to do what we do. 

The What can take a thousand different forms, all of which can be helpful to some degree...but not to the same degree as when we have a powerful, compelling Why. The lack of a crystal-clear Why motivation behind the What of our work then makes it empty energy expended. (Really, watch the video if you didn't watch it at the beginning.) Our What becomes empty resources being spent. The wheels are spinning to propel an empty vehicle.

The man singing in the video -- his What song was OK. You may have even thought it was quite good...until he brought forth his Why song! Wow!

That is when people sit up and take notice. It's then that people get energized and inspired. Then you're part of an energy that actually gets people up out of their chairs. And then we can really start talking about impact.

Keeping your Why in front of you can keep you successful in the field, and in your life in general. Losing it can turn you into a shell of a person. The same applies to organizations.

My experience inside one large notable INGO left me with the distinct feeling that there's plenty of What in the system, but there's a serious lack of Why to fuel the important task at hand. And this is a big problem.

I think a lot of us don't even realize what a big problem it is.

This lack of a passionate, enduring Why to fuel the What is, I feel, what has led so many outsiders and onlookers to be frustrated by the international aid and development sector. Excessive bureaucracy, questionable management of funds, flippant mistreatment of employees through the systematic (conscious or subconscious) neglect of their needs -- perhaps you have firsthand experience with some of these?  There are a thousand realities that the onlooking world sees in the current "humanitarian" system that, combined, lead to a lack of faith on the part of so many people inside the system and outside it.

It could be that we as a sector are prioritizing the What over the Why. We may not realize how it has happened or how to put things right, but it doesn't mean we aren't suffering from the effects.

In my view, we start to lose our Why when we fail to deal with the ugly questions that rise up to painfully challenge what we thought we knew, what we believed about our work. We continue plowing ahead with the What -- I mean, we don't just throw it all away and go home when there's still good work to be done in the world, right? -- but undealt with, the questions continue eating away at the Why, ultimately crippling it.

It takes an exceptional person to know exactly what to do with the ugly questions when they arise. It's confusing, difficult, exhausting work. Besides, we truly don't see the peril that comes from the risk of losing our Why. So most of us respond by telling ourselves that there are other more important things in life on which to focus our limited energy. And we consistently fail to prioritize getting the satisfying answers to the questions that our Why needs to stay strong.

The problem is, the questions aren't going to go away because we simply ignore them. Yeah, they get in the way of our work -- a lot. But we disregard and discard them to our detriment. 

Because, rather than disappear, they sit there in the room with you until they are addressed. 

They will not be ignored indefinitely.

In a work context in an organization or community, it looks like this: Every single person brings their own ignored ugly questions, and some people have an entire stack of them. So as the ignored questions are stacked up in the corner, like heavy file boxes, they form stacks and stacks, rows and rows, until they actually start crowding out you and your team, the very people who need to operate out of that office to do meaningful things.

We think it's OK to place the questions in the corner, they're not a priority. And then before you know it, the onslaught of unaddressed questions has crowded us out of the room and has made life totally dysfunctional. We're being crowded out of our own mental and emotional working space, and we don't even realize how it got that way.

Deal with your questions. If you've lost the Why, it's alright. Go out and find it. Get it back. Take the time and energy to do so. Because you're spinning your wheels (and, dare I say it: you might not be doing as much good as you think you are?) until you have that Why firmly back in place.

It might take a long time. Are you willing to prioritize it?

At this point, there exists another possible dynamic: There's a strong chance that reestablishing a strong Why will look different from your original Why when you started out years ago. It can be scary to say goodbye to the original Why, but there's actually some really good stuff going on inside if that's your case.

The issue isn't that you recover your original Why; in fact, blindly clinging to the original can actually sometimes get in the way of maturity and transformation. (That's a whole other story!)

But whatever your case: Please don't keep on merely functioning without a strong Why. The world needs better, from you, from me, from all of us.

And you as an important individual within that world also deserve more.


You Are Not Your Car (But You Kind of Are...)

by Bianca Neff, Executive Director

My poor car is crying for attention.

On top of the regular insurance payments and the technical inspection costs, it's also requiring additional work, which of course means more € out of my pocket.

It's a great little car, a 2003 Opel Corsa and I love it because it's simple, hard-working and doesn't ask hardly anything from me.

But when it needs help, I'm often not ready for it. And right now, these things have all converged at the same time... I'm feeling annoyed.

It's not my car's fault, but I'm annoyed anyway.

So what's going on inside me to annoy me? It's as if I expect this vehicle to last to infinity with nothing more than a full gas tank and some oil changes. Even though I know in my mind that this thing requires regular maintenance (and that I should set aside some money each month for the care I know my wonderful little car eventually will require of me), my emotional response has little to do with what I know. It has much more to do with what I as the driver want, or what I think is best for me -- not my vehicle -- at the moment.

My annoyance at my car's needs could mean one of two things:

1) Its exemplary past behavior of excellent reliability disqualifies this little machine from the right to get regular maintenance (or more expensive intervention when necessary).

2) My car's excellent reliability has caused me to become spoiled.

I think it's pretty obvious that I've become spoiled.


Peacebuilders Need Maintenance, Too

You're asking: What's this got to do with me?

The link to peacebuilding professionals as beings needing maintenance -- always regular, and sometimes serious -- couldn't have been more clear as I sat staring at my car and pondering my adverse reaction to its declaration of its needs.

I have a few things to say about this, imagining you as both the driver and the vehicle of your own life.


You as the driver

The driver is the voice that says "I can't believe you're breaking down on me now, are you serious?! This is terrible timing. I have no money to deal with your mechanics. Your needs are stressing me out more than I'm already stressed out. You need to stay in operation regardless of what's going on inside, there's simply no capacity to consider other options. I'm really sorry."

We all know, of course, that the driver's circumstances don't change the fact that the vehicle needs attention in order to continue functioning and serving the driver.

Here's the thing: The driver's wishes and expectations are almost always too high.

To complicate matters, they are often connected to work and to other people's expectations of you (that is, from other external drivers).

The driver has a choice to make: Take care of the problem by finding the resources to cover the perfectly appropriate costs, or take a gamble and continue driving, realizing that the clock is now ticking.

This is the driver side of you.

Now what about you as the vehicle?


You As the Vehicle

The vehicle is the voice saying, "Something isn't right." Maybe it's not shouting; may it's only whispering. Whatever the case, the vehicle side of you could be any number of components:

Your Brain: "I'm not functioning well mentally, something is definitely wrong.”

Your Body: "I'm not getting younger and the physical demands placed on me are not letting up; how long can I keep this up?"

Your Soul/Spirit: "The work isn't what it used to be; I am not who I used to be; I don't like who I'm becoming (or have become).”

Your Heart: "My significant life-giving relationships are being affected by this pace; either I change something or I will regret it one day.”

The voice of the vehicle inside you can come from the many different things you are driving in order to meet the driver's expectations.

And here's the thing about the vehicle's needs: They are almost always exactly what they need to be, in line with how we are designed and built.

Like I said, the vehicle's voice may be a small whisper, and only you recognize it when you hear it. But then again, maybe you don't! Quite often, the people around you recognize your vehicle's needs even before you do. The driver in us, with our fears of failure and high expectations, would love to just ignore the vehicle's voice. And subconsciously we do, frequently, over and over again.

We'd do well to listen to the key people in our lives to help us with our own awareness. Pay attention to what those around you are saying about your vehicle's needs. (And I'm not talking about your boss, I'm talking about your best friend.)



When it comes to the costs involved in keeping the various elements of our vehicles in good condition, the driver's voice of protest in most of us is loud and clear. We don't want to be disciplined in self-care. We don't want to have to take time off from our work, duties and free time to care for the invisible undersides -- our hearts, our souls, the unseen physical processes -- that are negatively impacted by high-stress work.

The driver responds by saying there are no financial, mental or emotional resources to deal with it. We say, "Sorry, but maintenance is a luxury I can't afford. Besides, you're not totally crumbling apart yet, are you? Enough with the whining."


...But Your Vehicle Will Make Itself Heard Anyway!

The next time your car breaks down (after years of faithful service, no doubt, when you've barely paid any mind to proactively taking care of its insides this whole time), see what kind of response you get from it with the above rationale.

I can just hear my own car's response in my mind:

"You don't expect to continue driving me with this flat tire and the eventual damaged rim, do you? And you complain that fixing my timing belt is a luxury you can't afford? Sorry, but I'm not moving an inch until these basic things are taken care of to my satisfaction. And it's not because I don't love you or want to serve you (I've always thought you were awesome) but the fact is, mechanically I was not built to go on like this. I literally cannot. And you shouldn't expect me to."


Are You Not Worth Infinitely More Than a Machine?

This leads to the most important question of all:

If we as human beings understand that our cars were built in a certain way and require maintenance, what stops us from providing our own self-vehicles with the same necessary care? We who are intrinsically so much more valuable and with a mission that is so much more important?

What stops us from stewarding the vehicles of our person -- body, mind, soul, spirit -- with the same dedication that we give to our work and other areas of our life outside us? 

Do we really believe, as Gandhi said, that we must be the change we wish to see in the world? I find this to be really important for peacebuilding. Why? Because ignoring the voice of our own vehicle means that we likely aren't attuned to hear it well in those we seek to help and serve...and how effective will that be in the long run?


The Inner Struggle

Why is it such a struggle, such a fight between our demanding internal driver and the suffering vehicle? Those answers, among others, often come out through the coaching conversations we have here at Petra. They can be deeply revelatory.

Lots of people ignore the vehicle's voice, until one day the sh*t hits the fan and you have a proper crisis on your hands. This is why wise people pay attention to all the voices. Here at Petra, we work with people who value the vehicle's voice. Together we'll forge a path that keeps your vehicle in good condition so that the driver in you can get to where you need to go.

Both are equally important: The driver and the vehicle. Without the driver, there's no vision and you're not going anywhere. But never forget that without the vehicle, you're stuck taking the bus, or hitchhiking, or walking...or even crawling if it gets bad enough.

Walking might not kill you, but it certainly doesn't accelerate your work or your mission when your car isn't working the way it was intended to due to lack of proper maintenance.

So what kind of balance are you striking today in this important area?


Why Are We Even Doing This?

by Bianca Neff, Executive Director


So what is this Petra Peacebuilders? What do we do? And more importantly, why do we do it? What's our story?

The answer, as with so many things in life, lies in the heart of a person. The individual in this case is me, Bianca. I founded Petra with the aim of addressing what many of us feel is a crucial and dangerously neglected element within the humanitarian sector: that of resilience.

Shift of Focus in Bradford, 2010

Here's how it went down:

I was working toward my Masters degree in Conflict Resolution at the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK as a Rotary Peace Fellow in 2010. I had it all figured out: After having worked in Kyrgyzstan and Morocco in grassroots endeavors using my BA studies in cultural anthropology, I was now pursuing an MA in order to combine conflict resolution studies with my anthro degree to provide cultural consulting to high-level mediators and negotiators to understand the radically different cultural contexts in which they operate. I'm a native of the United States, and 30 years of failed or absent diplomatic relations with countries like Iran and Cuba weighed heavily on me. I felt this path would be my contribution to international peacebuilding. My studies centered on applied mediation, reconciliation and dialogue in radical disagreements, mainly in a Central Asian context.

Yup. I had it all figured out!

But then I met someone who changed my entire trajectory...

The story behind the Public face

She was the wife of a student colleague of mine. They are Palestinian. Without going into too much detail, he was involved in a number of well-known grassroots organizations fostering peace in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is a sought-after public speaker and I quickly came to see why: The man is simply incredible. He is a former combatant who, after critical encounters in prison with real people from "the other side," now works arm-in-arm with other Palestinians and Israelis laboring for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

Furthermore, they are one of the many families who have lost a child from this nightmare; their young 10-year old daughter was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper. My friend works closely with one Jewish brother in particular whose 14-year old daughter was also killed, by a Palestinian bomb attack. They work now arm-in-arm as brothers to help transform the conflict.

In my eyes, there are no greater heroes. These people are just on another level entirely. Few people, if any, have the authority to speak to these issues of reconciliation and conflict transformation in the way that they do. And one of them became a beloved friend of mine during our course of study.

I found myself in this Palestinian family's home one evening (in northern England, remember), just sharing some tea and some time together. I had gotten to know the husband as a fellow student and friend in different discussion groups, etc. but I didn't know the wife at all. To my knowledge few, if any, of our cohort did. She had her hands full raising their five children and mainly stayed at home, not to mention that she didn't know much English.


What That Encounter Did to Me

Meeting her changed everything for me.

It was a simple encounter, but in the midst of the few words that were spoken there was so much more that was left untold.

I left that simple tea with a thousand questions about her:

  • Who is this woman who finds herself in a foreign culture so far away from home who, after just 5 minutes with her, I feel a kinship bond where I feel I'd be willing to do anything she asked of me?
  • What is it like for her to be home so long while her husband studies all day and then often leaves on the weekend for speaking appointments throughout the UK with his peacebuilding work? Does she get lonely, and how does she cope with it?
  • What must it be like for her to raise her 5 surviving children in the UK school system, in a strange culture where she doesn't speak the language? The family has followed dad all the way to England as he pursues this valuable degree for the sake of their work back home ... but behind the public face, which is him (whom I positively adore, don't get me wrong), do people see the supportive family members who need attention and resources, too? In short: Who is caring for this woman?? If the answer is "No one," then how can I help change that?
  • Has this precious woman had anything so basic as grief counseling even now, 3 years after the murder of their daughter? More likely she has been left to fend for herself, to put one foot in front of the other for the sake of their critical work, though she may still be dying of grief inside.
  • Does she have any idea there is someone like me who deeply cares about her well-being? Does she know how tremendously valuable her role is in the peacebuilding efforts of that conflict? I imagine that her well-being and resilience are connected to that of her husband's, who is the public face in this operation. Does she know that someone is deeply concerned about their mental and emotional health and is staying up at night racking her brain, asking herself which lasting solutions will make a practical difference?
  • What could I and my networks do to help keep these people happier, stronger, and more resilient against the million challenges they faced daily?

These and so many other questions about this woman and others just like her flooded my mind and they would not leave me alone.

It all started in that one encounter back in 2010.


Fast-forward a few months to summer 2011, when I was conducting my dissertation research on Afghanistan. (If you know me well, it won't surprise you that Afghanistan also plays an important role in Petra's conception...)

My impossible dissertation topic: Reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban, that is, exploring the ways in which the many actors in that quagmire could and should be looking to include the Taliban not only in political negotiations but also in social reconciliation as major stakeholders in Afghanistan's political and socioeconomic future. (<Whew>) Not a very popular topic, but one I was (and remain) deeply passionate about.

Some crazy stuff went down in Afghanistan during the summer of 2011. I watched that summer -- shocked, horrified and wounded in my heart, as if it had happened to someone I knew personally -- as the Taliban murdered a series of high-level politicians including President Hamid Karzai's brother and also former president Rabbani (who sat on Afghanistan's High Peace Council). These men were seen as ones who could possibly broker a peace deal in the current negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan national government. I was so vicariously wrapped up in that peace process that when these assassinations occurred among all the other mayhem, the effect on me was devastating.

My response after the initial shock and grief came to be a very telling one for my future and the future Petra Peacebuilders. My immediate response was, "Who is caring for those most affected by the assassinations of these high-profile leaders: their wives, sons and family members? Who is walking with them through their grief and loss? Political leadership can be a lonely, scary place with few you can trust -- so who is there to provide the safe place, the shoulder to cry on, who will support and sustain them during dark times so that when the sun shines again, they will hopefully come forth stronger than before with a message of light, hope and reconciliation to share with the world instead of one of darkness, bitterness and revenge?


A Growing Passion for Strengthening Courageous Peacebuilders

As I'd seen in the lives of my dear Palestinian friends: No one has more authority in the message of reconciliation than someone whose flesh and blood has been murdered by the other side. If these people can extend their hand to the other side after what they've suffered, anyone can.

I started to see this work -- that of the carer rising up in me -- as being much deeper than about just these Afghan politician's widows themselves. I saw the seed of the valuable message of reconciliation they might already carry within them, if there are people in place to walk alongside them and help foster it until the time is right to speak that message forth. In my view, there is very important work to be done in preserving and augmenting the power of the peacemaker in so many situations...but first, they must get the personal care they need.

In fact, getting that necessary care and accompaniment as they walk from brokenness toward wholeness may be a key element in the process of preserving compassionate humanity in the midst of pain and suffering.

So the question naturally followed (a question to which I hope Petra Peacebuilders has begun to become a constructive answer): What is the peacebuilding sector doing to preserve in courageous peacebuilders the dignity, the compassion and the capacity for reconciliation in order to grow that irresistibly powerful force for peace? What part can I play behind the scenes with strategic peacebuilders in transforming evil into good, the type of good that no one would have imagined out of the original tragedy?


Pain is Raw Material for incredible Peacebuilding

This long-running dialogue between my head, my heart, my intuition (plus lots of prayer asking for God's wisdom) led to my current stance on all this stuff.

Bad things are going to happen, those experiences are unavoidable. But when difficult things happen in the lives of peacebuilders, whether that's post-traumatic stress that paralyzes, or depression that clouds, or anxiety that inhibits -- these realities aren't the end of the road by any means. They can and must be transformed, because these are actually the raw materials for very, very positive peacebuilding. (There's lots of work that's been done and written about this dynamic.)

The only problem is, no one can do this kind of work alone for too long. Transformation is often most profound -- not to mention safest -- in the context of community. Who is walking alongside peacebuilders, caring for them in their hour of greatest need?

These people are too valuable to lose, and the global peacebuilding endeavor desperately needs healthy, whole people who are deeply in touch with the message of life and reconciliation inside them.

So who is caring for these people?


Answering My Own Question

Petra Peacebuilders was founded to be the answer to that very question.

I've always heard that if you have a strong burden for something, chances are high that you may be the most apt person to be the answer to someone's prayer to meet that very need. That's pretty applicable in this case.

With time, I came to the realization that there are other people who can capably do the kinds of peacebuilding work I thought I'd be involved in. But hardly anyone was doing anything about mental health and emotional resilience, at least not in the way I felt it needed to be approached. It was then I decided to change my current trajectory at great risk in order to address the need.

The need for resilience in this line of work was nothing new to me. I was already aware firsthand of the many hurting, traumatized, grieving, anxious and depressed people in my field. But it got to the point where I felt I personally needed to step out and really do something about it.

So here we are.

Petra went from an idea to something that began to grow and take actual form.

The Solution: humanitarian Coaching for resilience

In addition to my field experience and my academic background in anthropology and conflict resolution, I still felt the need for additional preparation. I didn't see counseling per se as the solution. While counseling is exceptionally valuable (yet notably absent) in the peacebuilding sector, I didn't see it as being proactive and preemptive enough for what I had in mind.

Besides, my research showed me that there are number of quality organizations offering counseling to help combat the plagues of the humanitarian sector. They are doing fabulous work and I couldn't endorse them more highly. But as far as my own fit in the mix: I'm not a counselor. I have the heart of a counselor, but it's not my niche.

So I looked into coaching and quickly realized that was my sweet spot. Coaching was a natural fit, I loved doing it, and every one of my clients benefited from the coaching relationship. Some clients in my early days underwent significant transformation, even coaching with a novice like myself.

After discovering coaching in the years following my Masters work in 2010-2011, I pursued an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential with the International Coach Federation (ICF) which I now hold.

Meanwhile, due to a number of factors, I had my own encounter with clinical depression in 2013-2014. Though horribly painful at the time, I see it as a critical experience, another tool in my kit which only makes me a better candidate for this kind of work.

So that's our story behind how we got here.

The Petra concept is one that has been sat on, chewed on, and worked toward for years. Petra Peacebuilders is being launched now that all the stars have aligned and circumstances have come together to functionally set things in motion.

Beneath it all, there exists an overarching why behind the what that we do, which is to walk alongside peacebuilders toward greater resilience:

1) Because courageous peacebuilders are too valuable to lose, and

2) Because the sector needs it like you can't imagine.

Join us.