Tag Archives: Words

THREE SHADOWS OF PEACEFUL WORDS

Words of Peace are everywhere. Yet their bright promise seems eclipsed in a vale of shadows that rob them of traction. Perhaps it would be helpful to look directly at the shadows in an attempt to discern what obstructions are blocking the light. On reflection, I can think of three shadows that dim the brightness of peaceful words.

The Shadow of idealism
The first is this: The devastation and human suffering visited upon so many innocent people make sweet and inspiring words seem nothing more than the sentimental idealism of a “bleeding heart liberal.” I am indeed a liberal, and my heart bleeds at the sight of the blind aggression and social injustice that inflicts pain on ordinary men, women and children. Too often, however, the words of Peace are in fact merely sentimental, serving to ameliorate the guilt of the privileged class or of the intellectual left, while having little impact upon the course of one’s life or the betterment of the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. was most disappointed in white liberals who consoled themselves with the right words, but had little follow through. How sad it is that words of love are so often anemic, while words drenched in hatred fairly burst upon the world in violent action.

It should be noted that idealism is not restricted to liberals. A few years ago, in a New York Times op-ed column, Bill Keller worried about the idealism of the Right, the Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz variety, which led us charging into Iraq to annihilate the evildoers. Idealism on either extreme tends to espouse beliefs that are global, righteous, and sure. Both tend to be rigid, clinging to a worldview that hovers in some sort of Platonic heaven. The Left, however, often speaks moving yet impotent words, often dithering under the circumspection of a watered-down version of post-modern epistemology. The Extreme Right plows ahead, applying its visions to the real world like a carpenter with his ruler.

I find myself on the Left, wanting to use words like “grace” and “transformation” and “Love,” but sometimes feeling effete and ineffective. Thich Nhat Hahn has said that “words sometimes get sick, and we have to heal them…we have to use language more carefully.” Those of us who are dedicated to peace need to find a way to add vigor to our words and grit to our dreams, so that our beliefs do not evaporate in the mists of self-justifying Idealism.

The Shadow of Verbal Inundation
This leads to the second shadow that seems to be leaching the brightness from inspiring words: we seem to be drowning in them. The academic field of conflict resolution has performed impressively over the past fifty years in analyzing the causes of conflict, the various points of intervention, and the techniques of mediation and negotiation most likely to de-escalate tensions before violence erupts. Beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors have been examined. The dynamics of intercultural communication, the varieties of conflict of interest, and the depth of identity needs have all been schematized. I am sure that all who hear or read these words are quite familiar with this literature. But for all the ink that has flowed into our books, the flow of blood continues at flood tide.

Albert Camus called the 20th century the “century of fear.” So far, the 21st century seems equally mired in the destructive loop of fear that engenders hatred that engenders violence that engenders fear, ad infinitum. War has one end, and only one end: and that is to kill people. Since World War II over 130 million people have died in over 150 wars. Violence seeks to end conflict by breaking the bodies and spirits of those on the other side. It is always a failure of imagination, a failure of intelligence, a failure of love. Camus longs for the day when words will be found more powerful than munitions. I believe in Camus’ dream, and to serve it, I believe we must do our very best to find the words today which will empower the actions of tomorrow.

The Shadow of the Known
The third shadow is this: everybody already knows all the important stuff. Teachers from Moses to Plato, from Jesus to Rumi—hundreds of enlightened women and men—all have taught love and wisdom as opposed to hatred and violence. Lord knows this is nothing new, and I wonder what I can possibly add. Lao Tzu says in verse 70 of the Tao Te Ching: “My teachings are very easy to understand, and very easy to practice, yet so few in this world understand, and so few are able to practice.”

I have always thought that the Ten Commandments were not all that astounding a revelation: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t kill each other: all common sense behaviors for a viable society, and all incredibly rare, even today. Pope John Paul II uttered clear words against the war between the US and Iraq, yet a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that a full 66% of American Catholics supported the war, only 14% of US Catholic priests spoke out against the war, and that support for the war was highest among those who are most regular in church attendance. These are the some of the same folks who nod approvingly at the inspiring words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hurt you; turn the other cheek; love your enemies,” but of course these words would sound ludicrous delivered from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Or would they? Would it not be wonderful to hear a President read these words of Lao Tzu in verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
All decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
A decent man will avoid them
Except in the direst necessity.
And, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
How can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
But human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
And delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
With sorrow and with great compassion,
As if he were attending a funeral.

Let me give one further example of clear words of perennial Wisdom: in the Dhammapada, the Buddha says: “in this world, hatred is never appeased by hatred; hatred is appeased by love. This is an ancient law.”

Tomorrow I will reflect upon these ancient laws, and humbly add more words in an attempt to understand the elusive enigma of Peace.

THREE SHADOWS OF PEACEFUL WORDS #2

Gentlemen may cry Peace, Peace! But there is no Peace.
Patrick Henry, 1775

More Words??
In yesterday’s post, I quoted some peaceful words of Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu. All were written over two thousand years ago. Almost everyone would agree with them. Yet they are too often honored in the breach. And so I wonder what further words could possibly be said in order to staunch the flow of blood, hatred, indifference, and self-righteousness that threatens to engulf our world? Yet I feel an imperative to have my say in favor of love, tolerance, and non-violence. Otherwise, as Albert Camus has pointed out, in my silence I would be choosing to align myself with the segment of humanity that sees murder as a reasonable avenue to conflict resolution. The only other option would be to fade into the grey tones of apathy.

So what can I say? Perhaps the three shadows I isolated in the previous post might serve as hints or tracks I can follow in order to glean some understanding. All three shadows deal with the enigma of ineffective words: the first with those of liberal idealism; the second with the dry utterances of academia; the third with the gap that lies between the highest teachings of religion and the lives of many religious practitioners. These shadows, these stumbling blocks, have revealed the dimensions of some seemingly universal tensions: idealism vs. realism; rigidity vs. circumspection; righteousness vs. tolerance; words vs. deeds. These incompatible dyads lie at the heart of conflict. They are sources from which spring the unholy coalition of loving words and fearful actions. As long as they obtain, they will inevitably spawn the violence that crushes the body, and the acid of righteousness that corrodes the spirit. As a result, the people of the world groan under a myopic intolerance that mistakes moralism for morality, rigidity for fidelity, and blindness for patriotism.

I wonder where to insert the scalpel of analysis in order to relieve the pressure of these tensions. In this essay, let us focus on the mental rigidity and emotional righteousness that can be found throughout the political and religious spectrum, and which seems to characterize all conflict. In verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes these telling words:

People are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken,
The soft and supple will prevail.

Rigidity, or clinging attachment is a foundational concept in the teachings of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Human suffering (dukkha), said the Buddha, is caused by clinging attachment (trishna). Reflecting on the nature of attachment, therefore, might shed some light on the Psychology of Self-Righteousness.

Attachment
As Fritz Perls said so many years ago, the first job of every baby is to create a world. We are bombarded by the buzzing booming cacophony of our surroundings, and we struggle to make sense of it by forming ideas or beliefs that give form and meaning to it all. We fashion a matrix of ideas, that frame and craft a world. This construct is further enhanced by our acculturation in the home, in school, and in the churches, and it is this construct to which we cling with all our might. Now, the ignorance (avidya) that gives rise to illusion (maya) is not simply that we are unaware of the “real world.” Rather, we cling to the world that is created by our construct as though it were absolutely real. Here lies the destructive illusion: I become addicted to MY world, thinking it is THE world.

Moreover, as I build a world, so I build a self. My I, my ego, is actually a complex of ideas about who I am, what I think and believe, and how I act. I again attach to this self-image (asmita), and will not let go for dear life. Any thoughts, values, or feelings that are incompatible with this constructed self-image are quickly denied as I cling to the self I think and need to be real. Cognitive dissonance tends to produce anxiety if it is recognized. As a result, we often relegate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the periphery of awareness. Have you noticed that there is an active ingredient to ignorance? In ignorance I choose “to ignore,” “to look away from” that which I do not want to see.

This clinging to my constructed world and constructed self is understandable, for it creates a sense of sanity, a hedge against the uncertainties of life. It also acts as a bond of loyalty and fellowship with our parents and teachers and with the broader culture. I would also agree with the American Pragmatists that in the early stages of human development, this clinging is necessary. To become a fine jazz musician, for example, one needs the mastery of technique, harmony, rhythm, and structure in order to ground one’s flights of creative improvisation. It is the same in life. We need a structure, we need a history, and we need facts, in order to function in the world.

But we must not stay too long at the fair. If the jazz musician remains dependent upon the tune as written, she will be unable to discover the true miracle of music. What she plays may be very right, but it will never be very good. Her playing will lack “soul.” Likewise, it is this clinging to our received world-view as we mature that causes the greatest human pain, a pain that often escalates conflict into violence. This is so because our constructs are usually not ample enough to include the breadth and depth of life as it unfolds. When we are confronted with the demands of a complex and fluid world, and with the frameworks of other people and other cultures, we are sometimes too terrified to let go of our own secure mental constructs. This fear leads to a defensiveness that breeds stereotyping, anger, and violence.

Listening and Looking
Clinging to one’s own ideas in this way traps one in the cave of the mind. Dialogue becomes impossible, since the fortress of the closed mind renders many people incapable of truly looking and listening. In the Buddhist tradition, listening is seen as the essence of compassion. In a similar vein, the Uruguayan thinker Eduardo Galeano points out that America had elected a deaf President: “a man incapable of hearing anything more than the echos of his own voice. Deaf before the incessant thunder of millions and millions of voices that in the streets of the world are declaring for peace against war.” (“un hombre incapaz de escuchar nada mas que los ecos de su voz. Sordo ante el trueno incesante de millones y millones de voces que en las calles del mundo están declarando la paz contra la guerra.”)

Annie Dillard powerfully underscores the importance of looking when she says: “We don’t know what’s going on here…we don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” Healing words, that is, need to grow from the still ground of our looking and listening. Conflict, on the other hand, is always characterized by glare and noise. When people care more about being understood than understanding, they simply shout louder, thus making themselves impossible to hear.

Education
I am going to put the following quotation from Mahatma Gandhi in bold letters because I think it is so central:

IF WE ARE TO ACHIEVE TRUE PEACE IN THE WORLD, WE MUST START WITH THE CHILDREN.

I am thinking of education here both in the Spanish sense of educación: upbringing, and in the thought of Plato as “e ducere:” to be led out of the cave of one’s own mind. As Teilhard de Chardin taught, we human beings might be terribly imperfect, but evolution is not finished with us yet. We are works in progress, as individuals, as societies, as a human family. Liberation from the illusions that underpin righteousness takes tremendous courage. In my experience I could never have found even a smidgen of this courage without the caring nurture and inspiring example of friends, teachers, and guides to help negotiate the uncharted–and unchartable–territory of life’s mysterious surprises. As Parents, Friends, Psychologists, Educators, and Peace Activists, we must find a way to help people (including ourselves) loosen their dependence upon their constructed worlds and constructed selves. Early acculturation need not be indoctrination. It can be taught gently, lovingly, with a gradual opening to the visions of other cultures and new ideas. As education progresses and as the student matures, there comes a time—-an exhilarating time—-when the kaleidoscope of the mind shifts, and new patterns of thinking emerge. This happens again and again, as simple clicks of the wheel reveal unimagined vistas of thought and attendant feelings that have the power to transform the world and the self forever.

I believe the world’s deepest need today is for great teaching and great learning. Teaching Peace, however, does not fall only on the shoulders of the Gandhi’s and the King’s of this world. We, too, are the gatekeepers, blessed with the awesome responsibility of inviting those we meet on the quotidian byways of life to the adventure of greater conceptual amplitude and emotional intelligence. We are all teachers who stand at the threshold between love and fear, kindness and violence. George Fox, the Founder of the Quaker movement, beautifully expressed this ideal in a statement of 1656:

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may [teach] among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…”

Finally, only the teacher who is herself engaged in the risky and exhilarating process of daily creation can effectively invite other people to this journey of discovery. If we are to stand before the world as teachers, we must be willing to wear the heavy mantle of self-confrontation and self-knowledge. As Gurdjieff said: “If you wish the best for your children, you should seek it for yourselves. In fact, if you change, they will also change. Thinking of their future, you should forget them for a while, and reflect upon yourselves …Only in knowing ourselves can we look to someone else.” Thus we are challenged to strip away all pretense of certainty and all the protection of rigidity. But it is only here, in this posture of naked vulnerability, that our words and actions might coalesce into a beneficent synergy. Then, to quote an ancient Zen poem: “without trying, our smiles will heal withered hearts.”