Exhaust the Limits

The Life and Times of a Global Peacebuilder

A memoir by Charles F. “Chic” Dambach

“A gift to humanity.” – Aaron Voldman, Executive Director of the Student Peace Alliance

Inspired by the leaders, causes, and music of his youth, Chic Dambach set out to change the world. This is the fascinating life story of a ’60s antiwar and free speech leader who remained true to his values and helped build a more peaceful world. Along the way, he witnessed the torture of a black football teammate, he led a strike for his Peace Corps training group, his best friend and mentor was murdered, he donated a kidney to save his son’s life, faced financial ruin, helped end two major wars in Africa, and created the first Global Symposium of Peaceful Nations. Exhaust the Limits is a compelling adventure story and road map for idealists young and old.

The horrific racism Chic witnessed during the 1960s changed his life forever and inspired him to become a student activist and join the Peace Corps, and eventually become an Olympic Games Official, visit 55 countries, help put an end to the most deadly war since WWII (the Congo civil war), and become one of the premier leaders in the peacebuilding world. This is his story.

Exhaust the Limits is published by Apprentice House at Loyola University Maryland and edited by Melissa Henderson.

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Exhaust the Limits (Excerpt)

Charles F. “Chic” Dambach


“Chic, my friends are killing each other, and we have to do something about it.” John Garamendi was terribly concerned about the brutal border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. John had the audacious notion that we might be able to help stop the death and destruction. “I have no idea what we can do,” I replied cautiously, “but let’s give it a try.”

We formed a team of former Peace Corps Volunteers, and over the next two years we worked regularly with the leaders of both countries. We pressed the case for peace, and we became a primary conduit for communication between the adversaries. When the kill­ing finally stopped, they invited us to the treaty-signing ceremony in Algiers, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawe, thanked us, “for creating the momentum and the spirit which made this historic achievement possible.”

My life and career have careened from one passion and cause to another, but my commitment to peace has been constant and consistent. I can’t stand the notion that some human beings believe their nations, tribes, gangs, or congregations have a right or obliga­tion to kill and destroy others in order to advance their cause, ideol­ogy, faith, or economic interests. I know mankind has always done it, but that doesn’t make it right, reasonable, honorable or acceptable.

We don’t allow our children to settle their disputes with knives, guns and grenades. Neighbors don’t plant landmines to mark prop­erty lines. We would never tolerate people in our cities and states who destroy life and property to fulfill their desires. We arrest them, put them on trial, and, if convicted, we incarcerate them. Why, then, do we accept, even canonize those who fight, kill, and destroy on the national or international scale under the pretext of patriotism and national interest? It makes no sense. So, I’ve spent most of my adult life tilting at the pervasive war mentality with my tiny lance made only of goodwill and firm determination.

Early experiences and influences at home, school, sports and summer jobs provided a solid foundation for a life of meaning and adventure in the pursuit of important social causes. Like so many of my generation, I was moved by President John F. Kennedy’s chal­lenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The momentous music of the great folk singers like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as well as Peter, Paul and Mary inspired me to care about the human condition. Close encounters with blatant racial brutality compelled me to act, and several writers caught my attention and shaped my beliefs and values. The murder of my best friend and mentor made my own life all the more intense.

In Essays on the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus quoted the Greek poet and philosopher Pindar, “O my soul, do not aspire to im­mortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.” Sisyphus, accord­ing to Homer, was condemned to forever push a rock up a mountain only to watch it roll back to the bottom where he must start again. An eternity of futility was the ultimate punishment imposed by the gods for Sisyphus’ impertinence. Camus, however, saw in Sisyphus the existential human condition—striving for survival and meaning only to fail, die, and disappear into the void. But Camus found some­thing far deeper, more powerful and profound. He saw existential meaning, value and virtue in the very act of putting one’s shoulder to the rock and pushing with all of one’s might—rebelling against the inevitable, rejecting futility. Camus ends this compelling essay:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too con­cludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Sisyphus is the perfect metaphor for the peacebuilders of the world. We are often maligned as delusional idealistic fools, pursu­ing an impossible dream. Yet, we push back against the cynics with the same joy Sisyphus must have known. We are building a more peaceful world, and the frequency and severity of violent conflicts has actually declined. Like pushing the rock, building peace is hard work, but it makes life safe and secure for innocent people. We are neither delusional nor foolish for trying to make it happen. We don’t always succeed, but we achieve something magnificent on the way to the top. When the rock falls back, we pick ourselves up, dust off and always try again.

Inspired by Camus, I was determined to find a meaningful rock and exhaust the limits of my possibilities—to see as much as I could see, do as much as I could do, know as many people as I could know, and fill every day with value and the joy of life. It meant staying on the move physically, intellectually, and spiritually—always explor­ing, always searching, always open, and always asking questions and looking for answers. Since college, I have held fifteen different jobs, lived in thirteen cities, and traveled to fifty-seven countries.

I have been incredibly fortunate to connect on a deep level with some of the world’s most intelligent, dedicated and talented people. They have made my life a joy and they are responsible for anything I may have achieved. This is my tribute to them, and it is their story as much as my own.

President John F. Kennedy often said, “One person can make a difference, and every person should try.” I have tried, and perhaps, I have made a difference. Not by plan but rather by happenstance, I found myself immersed in peace activism, and that evolved into Peace Corps service and then peacemaking initiatives in Africa. From there a peacebuilding career emerged. This is the story of the early experiences that shaped my values and ambitions, and the ad­ventures, challenges, opportunities, triumphs, tragedies, failures and successes that made it all worthwhile.