A conversation with Kris Vanspauwen[i]
BP. Kris, you are currently a mediator with Moderator, but carry an intense academic background and an important experience of management as director of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ). I would like to know about all these different experiences in comparison, how does it feel to embody them all, and in which way you treasure each of them (or perhaps not)?
KVSP. I see all this from a somewhat different angle. It is maybe a treasure to be able to look back at all these “experiences” – as you put it – but obviously a mere series of experiences doesn’t necessarily lead to a fulfilling quest for a happy life. Therefore I have always tried to take certain steps in my life as part of a life-long strive for personal growth and transformation. What I did in life has been for me always less relevant than why I did it.
In my 7 years at the KU Leuven I have been researching with a critical eye the possibilities of bringing together victims and offenders of gross human rights violations in the aftermath of Apartheid in South Africa. At the same time I witnessed in my own country the gradual process of instrumentalization of restorative justice practices, and I was particularly disturbed and astonished by the way the restorative paradigm was merely recuperated for widening the net while the more significant cases were being neglected. At that time, that was for me the main reason to make a shift from the academia to the field of practice, and to become a mediator at Moderator. I felt the need to be among those foot soldiers and to challenge the mainstream thinking about how restorative justice could or could not have an impact on the lives of victims of serious crimes. As a mediator – apart from the practice of bringing victims and offenders around the table – we were privileged to also literally challenge and influence the criminal justice policy in the local districts where we were operating. We were in constant dialogue with the Chief Prosecutor. These were exciting times.
After more than a decade I was offered the opportunity to be part of the wider European restorative justice movement. As an executive officer of the EFRJ, I had a unique chance to facilitate initiatives for and among the different EU Member States, always in relation to their respective restorative justice developments. In retrospect, however, I realize that the real challenge of this position as a director was to manage – and the some extent re-orient – a small-scale European NGO with very limited financial and human resources. The latter has appeared to be one of the most life-enriching experiences for me.
During my frequent travels in these years to numerous European cities I have mainly listened to the stories of practitioners and policymakers. I soon realized that my mission as a foot soldier was far from completed. Among other factors this has made me decide to return to field again. That is how my second career at Moderator started. At the end 2017 I was privileged to be among the invited experts at the UN panel to discuss the revision of the UN Basic Principles of Restorative Justice as decided in the 2016 resolution on Restorative justice in criminal matters. The report of that meeting was presented last May in Vienna.
When I addressed this international meeting I realized that my “collection of experiences” in the past two decades as an academic, a mediator and a NGO director has offered me a broader set of tools to be able to draw a much more complete picture of the state of affairs of restorative justice in Europe, and in Belgium more particular. But most importantly, I came to the conclusion that each of these individual fields have to potential to create more impact on the developments than they have now, if more intense and in-depth dialogue among them would take place.
BP. That is absolutely unique, to be embodying research, practice, and policy, and each with great skill and dedication. I agree with your assessment I must say, as I have witnessed you ‘at work’, indeed it doesn’t seem to matter what you do, you give the same amount of passion to your work (and to the people around you). You know I am not a practitioner, but practitioners are what motivate me to keep doing my work, and as you say, there is plenty of important work to be done at all levels. That means I am mostly curious about your practice. What is it like to be a mediator?
KVSP. As a mediator, you bring together victims and offenders, sometimes of the most horrendous crimes. It speaks a lot to the imagination of people. I remember I often joked and compared my job of a mediator with a waiter in a good restaurant: you create the ideal setting for two (or more) people but you don’t interfere much in the talks. After having facilitated in more than 250 cases ranging from break-and-enter to murder, I admit that the metaphor of the waiter is a too simplistic image. Being a mediator is a highly reflective practice, where one facilitates a process whereby you carefully seek ways to find a common ground between two or more realities. It is a reflective practice in the sense that you continuously scrutinize your own behavior, first and foremost as an active listener, but then gradually as a careful challenger, and so on. This way experiencing the job of a mediator as a reflective practice is for me a very fruitful method of creating knowledge and hence also accumulating expertise in the phenomenon of bringing together victims and offenders.
In the more than 10 years as a mediator I have seen many researchers passing by our services trying to observe the different aspects of victim offender mediation. All very promising, but there was no single research – except for Judith Leest’s work perhaps on a deliberative ritual – that managed to capture properly the attitude, the thoughts, the behavior (or their interplay) of the mediator. I am increasingly convinced that these aspects are important and under- researched aspects of the practice of mediation. In other words, the decisive role of the person of a mediator in the outcome of the process is an underestimated aspect in the mediation process. In recent years I have increasingly become a researcher of my own behavior as a mediator, and it is fascinating to see how certain skills and techniques can turn an adversarial and hostile situation between two parties into a setting where common ground is gradually established and a future perspective for both becomes possible. In this sense I could witness – and to follow my own reasoning I partly also created – some remarkable processes.
BP. This is fascinating Kris. I have also noticed that not much attention has gone to the figure of the mediator, who is indeed so central in restorative processes. I would love to do research about it, let us think about this and let’s encourage others to think about it. But I would also love to read your reflections about the reflexive practice that you are describing, so I would be your first reader in case you decide to write about it. I hope you will. You also mention that you have witnessed and created some remarkable processes. Can you tell us something about them?
KVSP. I appreciate that question Bruna. And I also recognize your curiosity and your attempt as a critical academic to stay engaged with the practitioner. Stories are in that sense powerful modes of a transferring knowledge from one field (practice) to another (academia). To begin with, let me be clear about “remarkable cases”. They aren’t always the successful textbook examples where a remorseful offender meets the victim and they sign a binding agreement in which a full restitution plan is agreed upon. I remember a face-to-face encounter where a victim literally refused to be compensated for the loss, but on the contrary demanded the offender to meet again in June to prove he had managed to obtain his diploma at school, and hereby showing the victim that he is back on track with his life. So a truly remarkable case is where some degree of (restorative) justice is established. And for me that goes a step further than the broadly accepted definitions of either simply “bringing parties together to resolve the conflict”, or “restoring the harm caused by crime”. What is the restorative justice value when a victim of robbery is fully compensated and it turns out the offender commits crimes afterwards?
For me a remarkable case means that there is a general sense of justice established after a process. I remember that case of a perpetrator convicted for raping multiple victims under the age of 14, including one of his own children. An indirect mediation process developed slowly and with difficulty between the perpetrator and his ex-partner (and mother of his child victim). At first, there was no perspective at all for the victim as to how some sense of justice could be achieved for her and her broken and traumatized family. How on earth could a mediation process with her ex-husband establish some sense of justice or satisfaction to her family and her child in particular? That was for me a challenging question as well. So I made abstraction of what we had learned so far about “setting up a successful mediation process”. I put the victim in the seat of the expert (a deliberate reflective intervention) and asked her: “Imagine an ideal world, how would justice and satisfaction look like for you and your family”. I ran the risk of ending up in a situation where I needed to apply some unknown resources and tools as a mediator outside of my comfort zone. In the months that followed, and long hours of conversation with her, she drew that image of how a nearly ideal world could look like. It became crystal clear for me that it wasn’t about bringing the victim and offender together, let alone involving the child victim in this encounter. It wasn’t about establishing a form of restitution plan or agreeing on a payment scheme. It was about creating an environment in which the victim and her family could start a new life where safety and guarantees for non-repetition could be established, that this would never happen again. Not to her, not to the ten other families, not to anyone in society. She was convinced the time serving in prison would not make him a better person, but at least his punishment meant a period of safety for the victim and the society. Therefore, it was of key importance for her that they both agreed during the mediation process to communicate openly about the entire detention process, i.e. the parole board meetings, the early release procedure, the switch to a rehabilitation center for treatment. Originally very suspicious about benefits offered by a restorative process, the victim slowly but surely regained power about the uncertain situation, and more importantly she regained some hope and trust for her future and that of her family.
For me it was an eye-opener to take distance from our often taken-for-granted framework (of bringing parties together and setting an agreed agenda), to set aside my so-called expertise (what do I know what a victim of such crime needs!), and to lay the process in the hands of the victim with the approval of the offender. Starting from “the ideal world situation” defined through the eyes of the victim has proven to be a powerful intervention. Giving her the steering wheel was key. Further in the process, it was a challenge for me as a mediator to explore and create tangible and realistic options that work for both parties. It is cases like these that have taught me a lot. I find this remarkable.
BP. It is indeed remarkable. And this is the reason why we need qualitative and respectful research into restorative processes, as this case exemplifies so much of what I think are the depths of these encounters. You know recently I have worked on images of restorative justice and I must admit the field -mainly NGOs and perhaps training institutes- is also to blame for proliferating the illusion of ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ solutions, handshakes, hugs, and the like. Nothing like that is more alien and more removed from humans that go through suffering, that have caused pain or gone through pain. I think you, and you colleagues at Moderator and Médiante might have a special view given that restorative processes here are constructed unconditionally from the regular criminal procedure, which means that the cases you deal with are also so-called serious cases. In relation to that, I am curious to know based on your experience from practice, how is in fact this relation and flow between what goes on within the restorative processes and the criminal justice system. On the one hand, the independence from the system has opened these possibilities of constructing restorative processes as a right offered to everyone, regardless of what they have done, but on the other hand this might be criticized then for renouncing the desire and the aim to shrink criminal justice, including imprisonment. What are your thoughts on this?
KVSP. I have very clear thoughts on this. But first a comment on the fact that you praise “us”, Moderator and Médiante. There is still a steep learning curve ahead of us. I can only speak for Moderator of course, but I think that ‘the on-the-job-training’ we get is sometimes also too uniform, too general and does not go sufficiently in-depth. We often tend to forget the value of the reflective practice as a resource of mediator knowledge. It is the work and experience “beyond handbooks” that would actually make us better mediators. And my feeling is that these out-of-box thinkers and doers are sometimes labeled too easily as the pariahs among the mediators.
But then to come back to your question on the relationship of restorative justice with the criminal justice system. Restorative justice – as stipulated in the Belgian Mediation Act (2005) – is a private process complementing the criminal proceedings whereby the professional secrecy and confidentiality of the process is highly secured and regulated. Nothing – unless the parties agree differently – can be disclosed in the framework of the criminal proceedings. I do however have a slightly different view on this element of ‘secrecy’. Inspired by my work on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which was a very public process, I would plea to make an restorative justice process more public. Crime and its aftermath concerns or should concern a broader society. At the same time there lies a responsibility with the society to engage with, to be more caring for its harmed victims and harming offenders. So in my mediation cases I often advocate to get the state and the society more involved or at least informed about what is happening in the mediation process.
For me that the dilemma you pointed at, is not about a monopoly game between the criminal justice system and restorative justice. ‘We’ and ‘them’ should not be fighting over ownership of the victim and the offender. It is instead about seeking complementarity and giving ownership to the victim and offender over a process. So in the particular case of the perpetrator I described earlier, I have tried to involve the Victim Assistance Program (the State service that protects victims’ rights during criminal proceedings) as well as the Sentencing Court (a court that decided on the early release of the offender) in the process by informing them about what victim and offender have agreed upon. It gives me a chance to reflect and see what I am doing in a ‘private mediation’ is in line with victims’ and offenders’ rights and duties. At the same time it is an opportunity to make the mediation process complementary with the justice system. Clearly for me, it is not a question of how much ground can restorative justice gain at the expense of the criminal justice system. We will always need a criminal justice system to publicly denounce a reasonable amount of criminal acts. At the same time we need to see victims and offenders as responsible citizens taking up the talking piece. So, yes, a restorative justice process should at least become a right for every citizen that has become a victim or an offender. And I think Belgium is a good example for the rest of the world in that regard.
BP. Among many interesting observations you are making Kris, I still want to push a bit further on this relation to the criminal justice system, as you know the research I am currently trying to develop, investigates exactly this tension between the more utopic claims of restorative justice and reality let’s say. It seems to me that we can speak of different visions. If I look at very problematic criminal justice reactions such as the USA, the restorative discourse reaching us from there, is often strongly abolitionist, which means that no meaningful purpose at all is articulated by that strand for the criminal justice system, except as marginalizing even further already marginalized communities, especially the black community. Whereas the way you articulate the vision here, but indeed it is particular feature of the Belgian system, is heterotopic rather than utopic, meaning that it proposes something different, but which coexists with the justice system, instead of replacing it. If I understand your point well, you seem to adhere to the idea that criminal justice should have mostly a censuring function, but you also argue that restorative justice should expand towards publicity and take up some of that censuring function?
KVSP. My introduction to the restorative paradigm dates back at 2000 when I first met Louk Hulsman. I attended an intensive summer course and we were rather privileged to spend some days with this inspiring abolitionist. From an intellectual point of view those were important times in my development. The vision of a radically different paradigm was inspiring. Years later – after leaving academia and having worked as a mediator in serious cases, and at the same time having worked together with the judiciary, my views gradually shifted into a more realistic and perhaps more pragmatic approach. It is perhaps akin to what writer Amos Oz has said: “you no longer have to choose between being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. You have to be pro-peace”. The radical – utopian if you like – approach to overthrowing the criminal justice system has made room for a more realist view – heterotopic perhaps – where I believe increasingly in a peaceful coexistence between the two systems, if we may call them such. I regard this solution also as the ultimate metaphor for a mediator. In spite of all the risks for restorative justice to becoming merely instrumentalized, I see an enormous potential in the fact that the restorative values and principles can be adopted gradually into the criminal justice system.
My hope in based on experiences in my own casework. Throughout the years I have seen prosecutors become increasingly sensitive about the role of the victim. Not referring cases to mediation is often due to the prosecutor’s fear of revictimizing the victim. Cases of sexual violence are obviously a good example. At the same time a fragmented referral policy is often also due to the fact that the Belgian Mediation Act protects the mediator and the mediation process. A prosecutor is often wondering what happens with “their” cases after handed over to a mediation service. The valuable – and remarkable – outcomes are most of the times not reported to them, unless there is written agreement in which both parties agreed to do so. Storytelling (in an anonymous fashion of course) has shown to be a powerful tool to inform prosecutors, and the judiciary in general, and thus make them enthusiast about the value of a restorative process, but at the same time it has also become an incentive for them to incorporate some restorative values and principles in their own work with victims and offenders.
However, if I try and draw that picture for the future of restorative justice more in general – and not only looking at our own practice – that hope does not seem to very realistic. Further development is not likely to happen tomorrow. Belgian’s recent history (at the turn of the century) has shown that the justice crisis in the aftermath of the post-Dutroux case created space for change. It was the time that pioneering restorative work on the ground – supported by action research from the KU Leuven – has eventually lead to an established restorative justice practice, and later also the Belgian Mediation Act in 2005. More than two decades later the climate has changed, with the rise of the right-wing nationalism in bigger parts of Western Europe and also in Belgium. It is obvious that we are therefore witnessing a status quo in the restorative justice statistics in Belgium. They fill up a rather marginal space in the whole spectrum criminal justice cases today. This climate creates a situation where contradictions re-emerge, and where we seem to be moving further away again from that peaceful coexistence. But still, I am hopeful and I believe that the tide will change again at some point. But that’s food for historians.
BP. It is amazing in fact Kris, how much time and effort is required to do the hard work of “working through”, the building of trust, and coexistence between professionals, and how quickly things can precipitate and regress due to political developments. And speaking about political developments, it is clear that in the face of rise of populist and right-wing movements throughout Europe, among other things, like human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, which will be the first on the list of things we have been trying to achieve that will be endangered, the restorative movement might also come under threat. And yet, a restorative movement seems to be needed more than ever to counteract this sort of extreme societal polarization and the lack of respect for truth and dialogue that it has unleashed. In that respect, what do you think about restorative initiatives like “restorative cities”, or projects that tackle larger community issues, such as conflicts, radicalization, hate crime, and the like. Do you yourself see the usefulness of a distinction in the cases that you deal with, in terms of whether they are criminal or civil, community based or individual?
KVSP. I don’t believe in a doom scenario where the restorative movement would come under threat. But I agree that in a complex society certain norms and values are questioned. Given that you ask me about my thoughts on the various different restorative initiatives, I would like to say that despite my sympathy for all of these promising applications and innovations in the different fields, I think it would be wise for the restorative justice movement to not try and claim these new territories. I have experienced this when studying the application of restorative justice in the field of transitional justice. So I basically think that there is a bigger need for deepening our knowledge about the restorative justice practice. We need more research on topics that I raised earlier, on the quality of the process, the role of the mediator, on policy transfer and implementation. At the same time a continuation of the research on the impact for victims (such as Daniela Bolivar’s research) must be welcomed and supported as well.
As a mediator, I am very hesitant to claim expertise about conflict resolution aspects in the fields of education, radicalization, transitional justice, etc. For the “restorative cities” project in Leuven, I had the opportunity to be involved in the startup meetings of the steering committee. In this conceptual phase, it became clear that the academics and the practitioners were important instigators for this project. But the core of the concept for Leuven Restorative City lies for me in the ownership and leadership of the project. Thus I am convinced that success and sustainability would mean that the city government should lead the project.
I think Bruna, that from my comments it is clear that I see a distinction between criminal and civil cases. It is true that there is not always a clear distinction but certain crimes do have a broader impact than only the individual victims and offenders. Domestic violence, drug-related crimes, protracted neighborhood conflicts are clear examples of crimes that have a broader impact on the context, the community and the society. These cases require a different approach, and research has shown that more inclusive methods such as peacemaking circles could be a promising adaption of the classic model of victim-offender mediation.
BP. I think these are -fortunately I would say- bound to remain open and contested territories, especially because the restorative movement has so many diverse sources, which are geographical, cultural, political, historical, and intergenerational, and the most that can be done is to put them into dialogue with each other and with other movements. To illustrate perhaps what I mean, I think we can draw on the concept of ‘natality’ of Hannah Arendt. In The Human Condition (her magnus opus, which she had wished to call Amor Mundi), dealing mainly with the philosophy of human action, Arendt argued that action is not something which is preprogrammed with a set of calculable, fixed consequences, but is highly impossible to predict or anticipate, otherwise would not qualify as action. Human action brings something new and unique into the world, because of ‘natality’ and therefore ‘plurality’. In other words, Arendt argues that the world is constantly being renewed by birth, as it is refilled by strangers, outsiders and newcomers who act and react in unforeseeable ways, which cannot be calculated or predicated by those who are already here, and who will eventually leave and be replaced by others. Just to give an example from the Youth for Climate actions, who would have foreseen those actions? Although the governments continue to proliferate paranoiac and conspiracy theories, the truth is, they didn’t see this coming, and that is exactly what I think is the beauty of actions, including restorative actions: we can research them, and we should, but eventually we cannot either foresee their consequences completely nor their intentions, sources, and so on. Doesn’t the constant reliance on the notion of ‘expertise’ in a way continue to alienate us from undertaking actions for Amor Mundi? How do you relate to this notion in your own practice and where would you place Belgium in a continuum of Christie’s legacy of ‘crime=conflicts=property’?
KVSP. I agree with you that the restorative justice movement is part of a broader intellectual movement. However, it remains a conceptual framework that stems from the rhetoric of the deconstruction of crime, to use Stanley Cohen’s words. So this movement was greatly inspired by the abolitionists as a reaction against the traditional criminology. In this respect it is tempting to use this framework of values in other fields such as the fields that you are mentioning. Earlier on, in our conversation I talked about my work as a mediator and the challenges that remain in the further development in Belgium. I think it’s clear that our work is far from accomplished, and we should not lose that focus by broadening the scope to other fields. Which does not mean that we’re refraining from being responsible citizens. As a member of my community, as a neighbor, as a father of two children, and as a husband I am an active and committed person who is in dialogue with all the social domains of life. Some weeks ago my son told me he wanted to join the Youth for Climate actions. That gave me a chance to get into dialogue with his school, and express my thoughts and ideas. I see that my set of restorative values as a mediator influences my views and my thinking on the climate debate. But that doesn’t change anything in what I do in my job as a mediator. What it perhaps changes is that I have become a more responsible citizen who engages more actively in social life than before.
BP. I wonder Kris if you have read some of the work of Albert Dzur. Dzur has developed the notion of a ‘democratic professional’. As I understand this notion, it seems partly to be a way out of the constant debate within the restorative movement between so-called ‘lay’ or volunteer mediators and ‘expert’ mediators. Dzur recognizes both the importance of democratic participation in public debates today but also the importance of bringing ‘expert’ knowledge to support solve social problems. In a way, ‘the attack’ that Nils Christie launched on experts in the 1970s, cannot be launched today, as we see everywhere an attack on intellectuals, experts, and so on coming from the extreme right and populist drives. Besides, the ‘attack’ of conflicts-stealing was not addressed at mediators as they didn’t yet exist at the time. With all if this in mind, would you say that the notion of a ‘democratic professional’ is perhaps closer to the way you as a mediator think of your work, and perhaps a useful concept to develop further for our field?
KVSP. Thanks for sharing this concept of ‘democratic professionalism’. I think it explains even better my struggle to explain you why the mediator, in Belgium at least, should continue and harvest (and maybe even seed again) a bit longer in his own field, and should not start seeding in other fields. My concern has little to do with an attempt to protecting a so-called public space that could well be opened up for citizens or lay people. On the contrary the Belgian practice is in need of more second-phase professionals – to paraphrase Dzur. However remarkable some of our stories of mediation may sound, we are not there yet at all despite our important accomplishments. On the Flemish side we’re talking about 1000 cases that we facilitate every year, that’s barely 1% of all the cases that were prosecuted by the criminal justice system in 2017 (approximately 92.000 criminal prosecutions). This is a marginal statistics. I understand very well your excitement and that you see golden opportunities to build bridges between the public domains, but right now, to be honest, the restorative justice community in Belgium would welcome the support of the thousands of enthusiast climate protesters for its own cause. So maybe you overestimate the power of the restorative community, but we are in need of more public support.
So do we need more ‘democratic professionalism’ in our field? I think it is clear that I would be in favor of that movement. From cases I described it is clear that I find it important to build a bridge – not only with the judicial partners – but also with the broader community by making the mediation process more open to stakeholders and bystanders, to seek ways in which a community can be more involved and take up a greater responsibility than it does now. As a society we tend to turn a blind eye to vulnerable groups of people who become victims and offenders. At least for a select group of people in our society we even categorize some groups of victims and offenders as our “human waste”, to use the words of Zygmunt Bauman. Poor people, foreigners, refugees, the families of (ex-)Syria fighters are some of these groups that are dumped too often and too easily. As mediators we are very aware of these societal processes. In a sense involving these vulnerable groups in our practice is another way of creating remarkable stories, by upcycling the so-called “human waste” to valuable citizens who feel part our society rather than alienated or discriminated.
BP. All that is very interesting Kris, but let me take you away from the Belgian situation. You have also been Director of the EFRJ for some years. What do you carry from that experience?
KVSP. My passage at the EFRJ was rather short but intense. I was one among the three directors that the EFRJ had in a period of 9 years, a period in which the organization went through a transition. After a pioneering phase of 10 years after its establishment, in which the EFRJ initiated quite some important research projects for Europe, the organization has become increasingly a network organization that focuses on mutual learning and bringing people together. During the transitional phase as I witnessed it, the focus was primarily on organizational restructuring and becoming more sustainable as an organization. I still remember the first day at work, I was the only permanent staff member working with a half-time volunteer. The others were researchers working on projects. When I left the organization three years later, we were staffed with 5 permanent members in a framework of a 3-year operating grant from the European Commission. Apart from the excellent Belfast conference, that was certainly a major achievement, I had little experience in managing people, but I look back at this experience with fond memories. I left a group of good friends at the EFRJ, and I am quite confident about the next phase. Its current director, Edit Törzs, is the first director after the transition, and the stability she has established and the long-term strategy she has developed makes me feel confident about the years to come.
BP. I think the EFRJ has recovered to its full potential thanks to your contribution Kris, it is not just an intuition, but a conviction. They are many people in the EFRJ who are very close to you, appreciate you enormously, but also at the moment are worried about you and your health Kris, if I may. You and your family are going through very hard times, but I personally want to bring to light something I have noticed since we have received the news of your illness, for which you were offered a palliative treatment for about a year. Differently perhaps from the medical world, I remain someone who believes in fate and in the unknown, convinced, due to my Albanian (but also perhaps my Turkish) upbringing, that no one can know his or her death, and therefore no one can announce it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this proximity to death, whether real or imagined, can bring a new intensity to the act of living. Since what you have been going through cannot be didactic, but only lived, I think it allows for a very precious, perhaps even sacred, however extremely painful experience. I think of it perhaps as something of a supranormal dimension, not in line with the time and place of others, not outside, not inside either. How do you look at everything from this special ‘place’ Kris?
KVSP. I take your feedback on my role at the Forum as a compliment. The achievements were only possible thanks to a brilliant group of people, and I am grateful for the friendship that grew out of it. The support and friendship I received from them in the past year was truly remarkable. I remember well our gathering in my garden the past summer where we held an improvised circle. This experience in itself was such a powerful happening that spoke volumes about the essence of life. Life after all is not about pursuing big dreams only. When one becomes ill – and life is suddenly not giving you a long perspective anymore – you suddenly realize that the essence of life is to be sought in the small things, often in human relationships. The past year has been intense in all respects, but the quality of my life was sometimes better than the years before. You call it sacred or supranormal. I think for me it was about transcending the rational, the cognitive and the emotional dimension and reaching a certain spiritual level. I have no other option than to focus on the day that lies ahead of me. But I have a choice to cease the day or not. And in choosing for life I realize that it offers meaning, and it creates possibilities. In the path I am walking since a year some small miracles have occurred. Even in situations where there seems no road ahead, I have seen that we can actually make the road by walking.
I would like to refer to only one of these small miracles. Some years ago I established the Ride 4 Peace initiative[ii] with my son. Last year we decided to bike from Stevoort to Bastogne. Since I became ill this second edition was quite challenging and moving. I never thought this bike trip was possible. My oncologist thought I was crazy. But in life you have to take some risks and not be afraid to make choices. Choosing one path, inevitably implies leaving others behind. Being deadly ill I could opt for the safe choice, stay in bed and mourn about all I have lost in my young life. Or I could choose the bike and suffer physically with chemo in my veins while conquering 250 km of the Ardennes with my boy on my side. I haven’t regretted my choice. I will never forget the life-changing conversations with my son Klaas. They helped me to find peace with my situation.
BP. Kris what I am feeling right now is love and gratitude. It’s always been a blessing to have you as a friend, as you are an incredibly generous human being, profoundly so. Of course because you give and share a lot, but most important of all, because you share that precious gift of presence. And that presence of yours feels pretty sacred to me, and I am sorry if this doesn’t sound rational or cognitive, I just do not care. Paradoxically it seems as if in that process of needing healing, you have also become yourself a healer. And as a healer, I learned, you will return to Canada, to Saskatchewan, a place where your restorative journey started. I wish you a wonderful and safe journey!
[i] Kris Vanspauwen holds Master degrees from both Criminology and Social Work. For 11 years he has worked as a senior mediator at Moderator VZW (Belgium), the established Flemish service provider for victim-offender mediation in serious crimes, where he has facilitated more than 250 cases, ranging from murder, fatal traffic accidents, and sexual violence. Between 2002-2007 Kris worked as a researcher at the Institute for Law and Society at the KU Leuven, on transitional justice and the use of restorative justice in mass victimisation in South Africa and the Balkans. He has published largely on this intersection, and contributed with several other scholars in 2013 to a pivotal collection Restoring Justice after Large-Scale Violent Conflicts, published by Routledge on the subject. He is currently an associate researcher at the Leuven Institute for Criminology, and a guest lecturer in the Masters Programme on Human Rights and Multiculturalism at the University College of South East Norway. Between 2013 -2015 Kris was the Executive Officer (Director) of European Forum for Restorative Justice and a very important figure during its transition period.
[ii] The Ride 4 Peace initiative explained on our Facebook blog: “We are Klaas and Kris. Father and son. Two men with a small dream. Everything starts small. Who knows. We will cycle from Stevoort to Ostend. With a goal: to meet people on our way. Famous people, unknown people, big people, small people, our language people, non-native people, working people, unemployed people, strong people, vulnerable people. All people with a story. In return, they also get our story. Stories bring people together. We find solutions in stories, we find peace through stories. We christened our trip into “Ride 4 Peace”! Who knows we meet you somewhere along the route!”