Lessons Learned


Mazin Qumsiyeh – TRANSCEND Media Service

Bethlehem, Palestine Oct 2008 – It has been ten years since I returned to Palestine after living in the US for nearly three decades. Those ten years in Palestine have been truly phenomenal and inspirational despite the pain and agony associated with them. For example, they are bracketed by an attack on Gaza in 2008 when we saw hundreds of Palestinian civilians murdered and by the attacks on Gaza and on the freedom flotilla trying to break the siege on Gaza in 2018. In between much pain that I relayed in my weekly email messages including losing 19 of my personal friends killed by the Israeli colonization army. But also in between we have much to be proud of in Palestinian community achievement with help of others. Personally I am proud of publishing over 50 articles, books, building a museum and an institute for biodiversity (palestinenature.org). I took time to update the lessons I learned from life especially from those ten years (but also from >40 years of human rights activism):

-Being surrounded by friends, family, and volunteers and working for causes larger than our-selves is the key to happiness. Having family members (wife, children, brothers, sisters etc) who are also friends and confidants are gifts but I know many people who lead a beautiful and meaningful life without a family, only friends.  We can all make friends and the best friends are created as we work together for good causes that serve fellow human beings.

-Diversity is good and a sign of health. This is true in nature (Biodiversity) and in people (languages, cultures, backgrounds, religions). Societies and ecosystems dominated by one or two forms are instrinsically unstable and about to crash. So our taks is to maintain and strengthen diversity.

-The only forms of successful colonization and occupation are those that occur in our own minds. What determines things is how we react to adversity and to goodness.  Our free will gives us the ability to react in different ways and choose to internalize or resist repression, to appreciate or ignore kindness, to be engaged or be apathetic. Real freedom is the one that no one can take away from us. Some people can take away our jobs, our family members, our friends, our homes, our lands, our belongings and much more but as long as we do not get infected with their hate and fear, we will continue to love and be content and hopeful. In this lies the fact told by many philosophers that secrets of our happiness is WITHIN US not in those ephemeral things that happen TO us. You can think those who do evil things are guided by evil forces (Satan) or you can think they are guided by their own upbringing and circumstances.  In either case if you reflect rationally on the causes of their actions and cannot convince them of the errors of their ways then what can justify hating them or fearing them. Isn’t that the only real way they can harm you and rattle your tranquility.  Corollary: things and events and people cannot make me lose tranquility or happiness.. only I can do that! (I have a chapter on mental colonization and happy to share that if you are interested).

-When I came back to Palestine, I thought I could help liberate Palestine. I learned that there is so much great work and so much injustice that we each do what we can to help but we are small drops in this very large ocean. We do have roles and things we can do. Finding those out and doing our small parts is important.  So we must carry on our duty with energy and humility.

-Watch carefully these things that happen in your presence and take mental and physical notes of everything. This I regret not doing much of in my youth. This is immersing yourself in life to the fullest.  It is also sometimes the prepared mind that captures the opportunities that are presented to us. I cannot count the times (in the thousands) where I found success by paying attention and following the clues left for us (by God or fate or mere chance).

-The journey itself and how we conduct ourselves along the road are far more important than the destination. We may arrive at the destination (freedom and return and self-determination) but at least three generations passed before us who helped propel us along the way.  We may or may not live to see the end of this colonial system but it is inevitably coming and our personal victories is that we contribute in small ways. As the Buddhists say: let us work to “have joyful participation in the Sorrows of this world”.  Doing our duties and expecting nothing in return other than the privilege of participation IS our path to joy.

-Change is good. Life is good. The two are the same.

-No person is worth more than any other. Some people are more fun and far more worth hanging around with (to me) but this is due to my own circumstances and life. You can sometimes learn far more from someone “uneducated” (e.g. Bill Hill who drove the Wheels of Justice bus tour or a farmer in Al-Walaja) than from a president of a university or a governor or a professor.

-Just like if you have food and do not share with those who could use it, it is also with having “wisdom”. But it is wise to remember to be humble and that the old teachers taught us well only when we wanted to learn.

-Palestinian politicians are just as corrupt as Israeli or US politicians. Do not look for leadership from supposed “leaders”. Look to yourself and fellow activists for change. Organize.. ORGANIZE

-There are really very few people who know how to live with love. Love makes them act in courage and speak truth to power. These are the teachers we should learn from.

-Some people can eat a tortured lamb while treating their cats and dogs better than children are treated. Others go pray in a church to the prince of peace (Jesus who asked us to love our enemies) and then drop a 1000 pound bomb on a city obliterating hundreds of lives. We could cite hundreds of other such things that make good material for stand-up comedy (or drama). But my responsibility is to reflect on my own behavior and change and help.

-Strive to live life free from hypocricy, envy, self-indulgence, jeolousy, vanity, and frivolty.

-As the sages wrote “eveyone dies but not everyone lives” so live life to the fullest.

When given a chance to eat good food- do it
When given a chance to drink good drinks- do it
When given a chance to dance- do it
When given a chance to have fun- do it
When given a chance to help others- do it
when given a chance to do all the other things that life gives us to do (love, share, laugh, etc), do it!


-Activism is the best antidote to despair. I learned through participation and close work with activists that popular resistance as practiced is rather different from popular resistance “as projected”. I summarized some of these issues in my book on “Popular Resistance in Palestine.” When I lived in the US and came to visit and participate in actions, I had certain impressions about things and people. But being here gives you a very different take. I discover major weaknesses and even corruption among local Palestinians I used to admire (based on superficial contact). Those were highly visible abroad. By contrast I discovered people who I never knew existed and who do amazing and inspiring work. Some of them suffered, some were killed, some in jail now. All are true inspiration.

-We need to start with a change in the way we educate children. We need critical thinking, questioning, and much less rogue memorizations. The museum we started (see palestinenature.org) aims to create environment to foster more RESPECT: respect for ourselves, respect for others, respect for nature.

-A million dollars can make some men feel poor while a few essential belongings or a good meal can make another feel rich. Thus it is not what I have but how I feel about what I have. No one and no comfort or pain can make me feel as happy or as unhappy as I can make yourself. It is all under my ultimate control.

-Correct your errors, repent (and if harmed others provide correct recompense and apology) and then forgive yourself. If you are able to do that and understand your circumstances then why would you ever think ill of anyone else.

-To quote Howard Zinn “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A personal history of our times, p. 208)

-Don’t take yourself too seriously :-)

-There is evil and goodness in all human traditions and strains of thought (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Western Civilization, socialism, capitalism). If we learn to look honestly at each thing on its own and not on the box it was contained in at one time, we will not be in the least bit harmed but be enriched by the knowledge.

-An old saying in the fight against segregation in the South was “free your mind and your ass will follow”. Shakespeare wrote: “assay the power within you, our fears make traistors of us all”. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”

-The highest purposes in life is doing our duty as human beings, part of this social network of human beings.  That is why doing something good for another should n=be its own reward.  Looking for and receiving thanks and recognition actually diminishes the goodness of the act. When tempted by our petty egos to do that, it is best to remember that these things do not add one thing to what you gave.  When death comes and afterwards, all these things will be forgotten only the ripple effect of the actual action might persist.

-First do no harm, second, third.. and last do no harm. In between do some good.

-A touch, a tear, a smile, and a facial expression are far more powerful than any words in expressing ourselves. Do not thus be afraid to let your emotion express itself in these higher forms of expression.

-Most of us are more scared of our abilities than disabilities. We are scared of success more than of possible failure.  Failure is used an excuse but it is only a lesson. We can do far more than what we even imagine if have courage (in its true decent sense).

-I learned that I am able to evolve my writing and speaking skills much more than I can my managerial skills. I learned that it is OK not to be good at everything and to admit limitations and failures.  In the issue of writing, I now know what Edward Said meant when he stated that: “I think an author should continuously attempt something new, centering on all that he has, to prevent a reduction of his works. Knowledge of all an author�s different writings leads to understanding the developments in their thinking and research from one area to another. It is important to me that people read my books, but my major interest centers on writing rather than revising what I have written. I mean, I want to continue my journey a little bit further.” Edward Said http://www.aljadid.com/content/edward-said-discusses-%E2%80%98orientalism%E2%80%99-arab-intellectuals-reviving-marxism-and-myth-palestinian

-Making many mistakes is the price of learning so we should not fear making them.  Just m,ake sure we learn from them.

-It is for a good reason that many religions and traditions hold patience and hope as the highest virtues (ofcourse when accompanied with doing what you are able to do). For the alternative vices of impatience and dispair only lead to destruction. Further, patience and hope are virtues associated with freedom because the outside world can enslave us only if we internalize our external difficulties and exude the negative.  Negative waves can only be countered with positive ones.

-Those who support racism (though think of themselves as not racist) and those who support war crimes (though they justify it in their mind) need to be challenged with facts and figures but if they chose to remain where they are then we should neither assign blame to them or to us for failing to convince them.  They are like patients who refuse to recognize their illness or its treatment, they are only to be looked it with compassion.  This is true even when those people try all sorts of techniques to cause us harm.  For again, they can only alter the circumstances external to us and if we are well grounded, they cannot cause us any harm (a real harm is one that I can only inflict on myself by accepting that which I claim to reject).

-Others may hate me, despise me, be jeolous of me but these things should only concern me if they are based on a real defect in my behavior. In that case, that should not distress me since I could/should correct such defects. If they are not based on real defects, then that also should not cause me distress.  Similarly, some may love me and admire me. If that is based on real good characters in me then why should that please me. Isn’t having good character a reward in itself.  And if they are mistaken then also why should that please me?

-Do not seek the convoluted explanations. Sometimes the simple ones and the first ones are more correct. This is called parsimpny and follows Occam’s razor. It applies also to your thinking about others and their behavior.

-Let us contemplate our lives and always strive for maximum humility. What I do not like about others, they may not like about me. As a scientist, I believe there is no certainty in anything.  In fact, the definition of scientific hypothesis (e.g. that there is gravity, that the earth is spherical, that speciation by evolution occurs) is that it is FALSIFIABLE.  So if someone asks me if I have considered that what I think of this or that matter today may be entirely wrong, the answer is: yes! Maximum objectivity is not equivalent to maximum certainty. The only people absolutely certain of their positions are actually those who lead us to wars, oppression and destruction. Make sure to increase your love and diminish your hate. Increase your kindness and diminish your selfishness. Increase your hope and decrease your scepticism. This will make you live better.

-Real change and the one that is most significant is what happens within us.  Change in our circumstances is of far less importance.  Because of this it is also true that people can change circumstances of other people but only people themselves can affect the more important change within ourselves. For those who were there along our path and whose actions helped us reach the correct internal change, our debt is great.

-Many of these lessons were available to me as child if I chose to see (e.g. how my grandfather lived). It is the nature of things that we absorb things with age and only fully understand them when the ripeness of time and with other experiences they come to to the forth and become clearer.


Mazin Qumsiyeh, associate professor of genetics and director of cytogenetic services at Yale University School of Medicine, is founder and president of the Holy Land Conservation Foundation and ex-president of the Middle East Genetics Association. He won the Raymond Jallow Activism Award from the national Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1998. He is co-founder and national treasurer of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and has written extensively about the Middle East. Qumsiyeh is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, author of Sharing the Land of Canaan and Popular Resistance in Palestine, a professor at Bethlehem University and director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem. http://palestinenature.org

Go to Original – qumsiyeh.org



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