by Evangeline Wisner |  Cedarville University

“Thank you, and I would firmly but respectfully ask for a negative ballot at the end of today’s debate round.”  

It was all about how you ended your speech, how you influence the judges into believing that your plan and policy is best.  Eventually, you start to feel like you know exactly what you’re talking about. Trying to convince the judge you’re an expert imminently leads to you convincing yourself you’re an expert on matters that you didn’t understand until two months ago.  “I ask for a negative ballot because I know exactly what I’m talking about so come at me,” was the more accurate internal dialogue.

After 3 years in speech and debate in high school, I became convinced that with enough research, I could formulate an adequate solution to any world problem presented to me.  Domestic or foreign, it didn’t matter. I had explained well how the Federal Election Commission should be restructured and why the 17th Amendment should indeed be repealed to grant states their rights back.  My last year in debate, I convinced numerous judges that I knew exactly what to do in regards to Iran’s cyber attacks on the U.S., America’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the Syrian civil war, and the Israeli-Palestine conflict.  

Fast forward 4 years, and I found myself sitting in the Golan Heights, realizing that I knew very little, and I understood next to nothing about not just the Syrian civil war as a whole but also the people living amidst that war.  

That situation and the Israeli-Palestine conflict was so much more extensive than a four-page brief constructed by a 15-year-old homeschooled American who had no idea either situation existed until she had to research them for debate.  

I thought America needed to pull back its arms supply from the Syrian rebels and no, we should not recognize the state of Palestine. That would be detrimental to our relations with Israel. With those positions backed up by Lord knows how many sources and articles, I won several debate rounds which I assumed solidified my position as a scholar of all conflicts regarding the Middle East.      

On Mount Bental, I sat, shivering from the wind and spotted rain, trying to pay attention to the tour guide, trying to absorb what information I could.  But mostly just glancing longingly at the little coffee shop on the top of the mountain that looked much warmer than the cold, wet rocks I was sitting on.  But when I looked forward again from Mount Bental, I saw an abandoned Syrian town, a picture I thought only belonged in an old Western movie. It should have been a cliche, not something in real life.  I heard someone in our group say that one Passages group saw the Syrian government testing various bombs and other weapons as they stood overlooking the border. But I didn’t need to see missiles or bombs being tested.  I saw the effects of war in front of me. Suddenly, all of the stories of the Syrian refugees became more real as I could now picture what the country looked like with its people gone. What they left behind them in their search for protection and rescue.  How thin the border looked between the two countries, where Syrians could go to Israel to actually receive medical care and healing.

After pretentiously arguing for months that America had no obligations to provide foreign aid unless it directly served our interests, I was confronted with a question from our tour guide that I still mull over in my spare thoughts:  What do we owe other countries?

Later, I heard a Palestinian tell his story.  How unfairly he’d been treated by the Israeli government and how much he desired peace for himself and for his brothers on the other side of the wall.  I saw that wall with my own two eyes. I saw and heard a witness testify to the separation of life that the wall had caused. How something that looked so easily destructible could determine someone’s future and quality of life to such a strong degree.  In those moments, it all became real to me. I wasn’t reading someone else’s words off the computer or a paper in front of me on a lectern. I was confronted with the countries and the people in front of me. And the border between the countries appeared very thin.  I had to make a decision for myself about what I believed about the situation. What could actually be the best course of action, not just what was the popular one that would get one more check mark in the “won” side for my team? What truly could bring peace, stabilization, nourishment, or most importantly hope for people living on either side of those borders?  

I don’t know.  I do know there are always two sides to every story, and each side had some truth and some lies behind it.  I know that statistics and data represent actual humans and that data does not represent their experiences or the situation in which they find themselves.  I know that I misrepresented those people for months in order to further my own agenda. I know that I was severely humbled in recognizing that I am not equipped to provide a stable solution for foreign conflicts.  I know that sitting on Mount Bental, looking over a thin white line separating two countries made me wish I could go back to debate and do it all over again with more compassion and humility for the people for whom I was trying to fix the problem.  And I know that one day when I have to take a stand about a political conflict confronting me, it’s not up to me to selfishly solve the problem, but it is my job to listen well and look for the best ways to help those hurt and in need.