Leonard Cohen, Slavic Melancholia, Mediation

I became borderline obsessed with Leonard Cohen in 1989, while teaching English at a university in Poland, as the Berlin Wall fell and velvet revolutions broke out all around.  As oppressive regimes peacefully collapsed, people weren’t dancing in the streets as one might expect.  They were listening to the sad, insightful, haunting ballads of Leonard Cohen and his Polish song-poet analogs.

My students schooled me in the idea of Slavic Melancholia, a state of being in which sadness, nostalgia, longing, joy, gallows humor, celebration, and hope are mixed together in a kind of psycho-romantic goulash, informed by years of oppression, cold weather, high starch diets, and soulful poetic traditions.  You kinda had to be there.

This idea hit me full force years later while working on Roma (aka gypsy, though that’s a pejorative term) rights issues throughout Central and Eastern Europe.  I spent some late evenings and early mornings with amazing local Roma musicians, whose tunes were full of plaintive joy.  (I subsequently learned to play the accordion, attempting to emulate this musical worldview.  I am not a good accordionist.)

Anyway. I got into the peacebuilding field having witnessed how nonviolent social protest led to facilitated dialogue which led to the end of oppressive regimes.  Mr. Cohen taught me how one can embrace the paradox of sorrow and joy.  And this, I think, is key to mediation. On our road to reconciliation, peace, and understanding, there are potholes of sadness, loss, and pain. We see this again and again with our clients, and the ride is most worthwhile.


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