My parents would send me to the playground or to the next room to watch reruns on a black-and-white television as they helped her with her taxes, her medical issues, and other troubles. Over the static of the TV, I remember her screaming at them, and my father gently handing her groceries or money to help with her bills. I don’t know what was said. I don’t know what my parents wrestled with internally or together back at home. But I did see that under duress, they fed her kindness. At the time I was too young to notice, but it was my first lesson in subtlety.
Conflict is Inevitable, But the Response is Not
Conflict is inevitable. The weak will be exploited. You will be hurt by your friends and loved ones. Coworkers and strangers will insult and belittle you. People can be remarkably cruel. But none of this means that violence in inevitable; not physical violence, not emotional violence, not verbal violence, and not even an anger held in our hearts. There is one response that is both effective and allows us to maintain our sense of integrity, humanity and respect: Love.You are cut off in traffic. A coworker sends you a snippy email. Your teenager rolls her eyes at you. You are passed over for a promotion. The homeowner’s association sends you a certified letter complaining that you left your garbage at the curb too long. At the church fish fry, a neighbor spreads gossip about a friend. When the other responds to us with a poke in the eye, it is easy to feel hurt, frustrated, and angry.
Not by Reason Alone
Sometimes we try to persuade them with reason. Sometimes, we want to hit back. When a cyber-bully lobs condescending or incendiary bombs at us in public, it feels good to beat them over the head with their own stupidity or triteness. A violent repartee to violence feels justified. In our counter attack, we feel vindicated.
But hours later, back home again reliving the experience with friend or spouse, our heart is still racing and blood pressure still climbing. So often, any trace of a positive feeling that accompanied the sense of justification falls away, and we feel a little dirtier, even a little cheaper, that we allowed ourselves to be dragged through the mud too.
Further, it is unlikely that the hostile response even worked. After disabusing the bully, does he have a moment of clarity and insight, apologize, and thank you for showing him the error of his ways? Of course not. Maybe he tucked his tail between his legs and briefly stopped his public ranting, at least for now. However, the only thing violence really does is dehumanize the other. While it may have appeared to work in the short term, it does not really work.
What’s Done Spreads
Violence always hurts someone, somewhere. We know it hurts the recipient. But tragically it also hurts us, and it injures any witnesses to the carnage. How we treat one another spreads outward through networks and effects strangers and loved ones alike.
Cacioppo, Christakis, and Fowler have shown that happiness, loneliness, altruism, and whether people cheat all spread through networks. If people cooperate, it is more likely that strangers, three degrees removed, will also cooperate. Like an event cone, one act, whether it inserts humanity or hostility, changes and alters unrelated events.Soul Force
It is this dynamic that lay behind what Gandhi called satyagraha or soul force. The strength of non-violence is not in weapons or numeric advantage, but in clinging to truth. It is not easy or soft or passive. It does not involve ignoring injustice or wishing it would go away. Rather satyagraha’s steadfast commitment to humanity and refusal to inflict harm can take tremendous strength, courage, and stamina. It requires you to stare unblinkingly in the face of hostility for extended periods of time, under extreme conditions, with no guarantee that you will be successful in the immediate situation.
Very often, increasing humanity in the midst of crisis might not feel like it works. Cheaters sometimes get away with it. People who stab us in the back or suck up at work, sometimes get rewarded. However often it does work in the short term. As a lawyer who has negotiated close to 10,000 disputes, I have seen this again and again. An invitation to understanding, empathy, or respect, gives the other a backdoor out of their own hostility and a pathway to resolution.
Importantly, as peace scholar Michael Nagler points out, while nonviolence only sometimes works in the immediate moment, it always works. If we interrupt the violence and insert humanity into inhuman situations, that goodness, kindness, and love will also spread and affect how others deal with one another. We might not be immediately aware of how or why. However when we increase the humility, compassion, understanding, vulnerability, kindness or love, somewhere it will heal and build.We are Bound Together
For psychiatrist George Vaillant, we were meant to be bound together. Our brains are wired for social connection: for love, respect, appreciation, acceptance, sympathy, empathy, compassion, and tenderness. These are the things that connect us. These biologically-based, spiritual emotions reach the other at levels that pure reason can never touch. Satyagraha does not change the positions of the parties. It changes their relationship.
When my parents responded to a drunk, despondent and aggravated old woman with compassion and respect, they did not know that this kindness would reach the child quietly listening in the next room, plant seeds in his soul, and continue to grow outward for forty years.
Whether we are seeking peace in middle school or the Middle East, whether the bully is in the lunch room or the board room, in most circumstances, the most effective strategy is the one that increases the amount of humanity between people.
Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 977-991
Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York: Little, Brown.
Nagler, M., (2001). Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future. Berkley Hill Books: Berkley.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.
Photo Credits, via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Angry woman courtesy of j?c
Not by reason alone courtesy of david_shankbone
Making Peace courtesy of Kate Ter Haar
One person’s connections courtesy of jurvetson
Really lovely Sean. Wish I’d had more “peaceful” coping mechanisms at various earlier points in my life. Never too late to learn, of course, but how much easier it would be to not have to unlearn as well! 🙂
Beautifully written . Very inspiring. Always struck by how the negativity bias attracts attention and overly activates people into the very states that destruct versus heal.
Love wins. Thanks for the reminder about the contagion aspects too. Your parents sound like great role models.
This article reminded me of the following poem. (Thinking of you makes me think of poetry.)
by Judyth Hill, September 11, 2001
Wage Peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists
and breathe out sleeping children and fresh mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Play music, memorize the words for thank you in 3 languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
as the outbreath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Never has the word seemed so fresh and precious:
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
*Judyth Hill is a stand-up poet and teacher of poetry, living in amazing beauty, where the Rockies meet the Plains, in Northern New Mexico. Her six published books of poetry include Presence of Angels, Men Need Space, and her collection of poems of her land, Black Hollyhock, First Light, from La Alameda Press.
Thank you Sean for these beautiful thoughts and for the reference sources to learn more! Also loved your poem Kathryn.
Great article- it definitely offers something of value to us all. I’m hoping that peace and love will become more contagious than evil and conflict. Thanks for sharing!
One of my favorite motivational quotes comes from a poster I have framed on my wall: “Our lives are not determined by what happens to us, but by how we react to what happens; not by what life brings to us, but by the attitude we bring to life. A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events and outcomes. It is a catalyst…a spark that creates extraordinary results.” (Unsure who the author is…)
Your story reminds me that wishing others blessings is much more productive that wishing them harm. However, the trap of fault of blame seems to be easier to accept than encouraging others grow their positivity. We cannot affort to fall into that trap.
Thank you for sharing hope. I am inspired to pay it forward!
Thanks Lisa, I think it is a constant learning process. We do pretty well sometimes, stumble, pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and do our best again.
Thank you Kathryn – It made me smile that I got you thinking of poems. That is a great one. I had not seen it. It does remind me of Adam Zagajewski’s Try to Praise the Mutilated World, which was published in the New Yorker the week of 9/11. Both poems say something so very important about life:
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Thank you Trisha. I am glad you enjoyed it. A lot of the readers of this site are probably familiar with “Connected” and George Vaillant’s work. I don’t know whether people have come across Nagler’s “Is There No Other Way?”. It was one of the most thought provoking, powerful books I’ve read in a while.
Donna, you are always spreading hope. Thank you!
Sean, this is beautifully written, presents the realities and offers a way forward for any of us who would like to ‘be’ in this world in a way which promotes well-being for others. Thank you. A few timely reminders!
Thank you Amanda. I appreciate your kind words.
Thanks, Sean, for writing so beautifully about what the world needs now! I saw a quote today from Thich Nhat Hanh that I hadn’t seen before, “The next Buddha will arrive in the form of community.” Your vision of humanity is one view of how “enlightened communities” might take shape. Thanks for commiting to your writing process. Your voice is needed.
Thank you Jan. I love that idea! I had not heard it before either, but I love it.
Thank you Fiona. To quote you back again, “Love wins”. 🙂
Thank you Jenn, The thing I find so inspiring about Christakis & Fowler’s work is we get to choose what we insert into the networks. There is hostility and cynicism out there, but we can keep injecting peace and kindness and love so that those are the things that spread.
I really enjoyed your article. If more people would think this way the world would be a better place. We all need to remember the word “unity” is in the word “community”.
Thank you Carmen. I am glad you enjoyed it. Keep putting kindness out into the world.
It always helps me to know we(I) are not alone. Thank you for that. Something that also helps me is laughter. Saw this on funny or die about psychobabble and it made me laugh so thought I’d share:)
Thanks Lula. I totally agree about the laughter. The lived experience of life that is so important. Laughter helps us navigate the tough spots while enjoying the ride. Love the link. Thanks for sharing it!