Mention the Middle East, the Congo, or Northern Ireland, and eyes roll, shoulders rise, and expressions of helplessness take over as people contemplate what seem to be irreconcilable conflicts.
The talk begins and can go something like this:
"Well, it’s built into human beings to fight back when they’re attacked. Call it a takeover by the hunter-gatherer genes they carry. The code says they can’t survive if they don’t shoot down the tiger or the grizzly bear. When it comes to life on the streets, some people are so far out, so bubbling over with rage that a bullet is the only answer."
"Maybe so, but aren’t there other ways to deal with out-of-control types?"
"What do you mean? Guys like Hitler or Stalin or Pontius Pilate deserved to die. If we’d gotten to them before they did all that damage, the world would be a different place."
"People let them be in charge. Suppose the overlords tried giving a war and no one came. Citizens could begin to line up behind all kinds of passive resistance like sit-ins, boycotts, efforts to negotiate with those in charge. They could stand up and refuse to carry out orders."
"They’d be shot, wouldn’t they?"
"What if there were too many to shoot down?"
"That doesn’t sound practical."
"How practical is all-out death and destruction?"
This imagined conversation grows out of seeing the PBS program, "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict" and a replay of the movie Gandhi. They both challenged the idea that humans are inherently aggressive and have no choice but to act on that instinct. To bear this out, there have been societies where the word "war" was not in the lexicon. In our time, Costa Rica gave up its standing army and urges other countries to do the same.
For ourselves, we can be sure that violence leads to more of the same. Whether it occurs in households, on the streets of cities and towns, or on the preplanned battlegrounds our leaders devise to ward off threats, it will build in intensity. No matter where it occurs, we need to understand that whoever is injured carries the trauma of that for life. Whoever inflicts the injury is acting out of fear that isn’t relieved by the violent act, but only gathers strength. Very soon, his or her world seems to grow more disobedient and chaotic in answer to a closing down of parts of the personality that provide a balanced view of every situation.
It’s said that the two primary emotions are fear and love. If people perceive that they are not taken seriously and if they’re deprived of material and emotional supports, they begin to feel like nonplayers in their particular surroundings. As time passes and their fates seem more and more out of their control, fear gives way to resentment and can change to anger so that measured, constructive responses to what is happening are lost in the shuffle.
Psychologists say that it’s harder for a child to be ignored than to be yelled at. To wonder if he even exists is a fearsome experience and can translate into behaviors that range from depression to all-out assault. If whole populations feel overlooked or taken advantage of, resignation can be countered by gathering rage that demands an outlet. People begin to abuse each other with words, fists, and guns.
Mahatma Gandhi said that violence springs from seven root causes:
- Wealth without work.
- Pleasure without conscience.
- Knowledge without character.
- Commerce without morality.
- Science without humanity.
- Worship without sacrifice.
- Politics without principles.
All of these speak to a lack of regard, respect, and caring for one another even as these qualities provide the essence of love. To counter them calls for living lives that take others’ fates into account, that hear the drumbeat of sorrow and loss and can, at the same time, celebrate our commonalities and special gifts.
As this occurs, lethal outbursts would fade. In time, nonviolence would seem as natural a choice as a walk on the beach or hugging a needy child. This isn’t something that can be prescribed by others, a convenient pill to be swallowed when threats to our equilibrium arise. It’s an inner process, a lengthy prayer that can lead us toward fearless acceptance of the law of love.