Val’s View: Making Peace

Making Peace

By V.J. Leventhal

Though my musings often tend toward the more metaphysical, I feel the need to say something about the place where inner peace meets the outer world.

This is an old question: how does an enlightened being, or society, survive when confronted by unenlightened, violent practices? How do we engage violence without becoming the very thing we are trying to fix? The only way this has ever worked is through passive resistance. South Africa, India, the American civil rights movement all are examples of non-violence winning the day. Yes, people are injured, jailed, and even killed, but the group, in remaining persistently non-violent, eventually prevails against a seemingly immovable, all-powerful adversary. In fact, violent response to violence usually only creates an excuse to crack down and increase the brutality. In the long view, non-violence is the better answer. In the short term, however, each individual must decide how they will respond when attacked or oppressed. The argument is sometimes made that if Gandhi had been dealing with someone like Hitler, as opposed to the somewhat more civilized British Empire, all resistance would have been futile. And of course, all the inner peace possessed by the Dalai Lama could not stop China from overtaking Tibet. This is where seeing the big picture helps. Where Tibetans have responded aggressively, they have been jailed or destroyed. The Dalai Lama and many of his countrymen had to flee. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor. Because he is free, he can continue to inspire and lead the world toward peace while working tirelessly to free his people. So too, did Mandela continue working from jail to free South Africa. There are no easy answers, but if you desire a more peaceful world, you logically must learn to be a more peaceful person.

That having been said there are times when you may have to defend yourself or others from harm. The Buddhist monks developed martial arts to defend themselves against a violent world. The spirituality behind these fighting techniques intends violence toward none, and requires a focused and calm mind. One is never to strike in anger, but simply to deflect the attacker without maiming or killing him. The masters considered that the highest level of wisdom was knowing when not to fight. In the modern world, there are people hard at work creating non-lethal weapons such as sticky webs (just like Spiderman) and stun guns, which will become the standard for police and maybe even military use. Imagine bombs that put the enemy to sleep or make them temporarily too sick to fight, with no lasting injury. The way of an enlightened society in response to violence will be to disarm, not to kill.

There are many other examples of non-violent solutions. One story I read happened on the subway. A large man was threatening another passenger, and as the situation began to escalate, a small, elderly man walked right up to the aggressor, looked him in the eye with a smile and asked him brightly for directions to some office building. He laid a hand gently on the man’s arm, and simply diffused his anger by distracting him. In seconds, the energy changed, the attack was deflected, and the incident over. The old man had used great sensitivity to change the moment. In the same way, my friend stopped a potential bar fight by putting his arm across the shoulders of an angry drunk and soothing him with a sympathetic manner. Instead of confronting violence with violence, which creates more violence, sometimes the whole situation can be transformed by a more subtle approach. Aggression is generally based on fear if you look deeply enough. That information, plus the fact that the aggressor is still a human being like you, can mean that acting with a more compassionate understanding rather than anger or fear will bring a better and more lasting resolution than fighting.

A powerful image from the peace movement of the Vietnam era was a flower placed in the barrel of a rifle. I remember when some of us knew this was the way out of violence to respond with love. One of my favorite books, The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk, deals with this dilemma. The people in this novel have created an enlightened society peaceful and sustainable. One day the warlike enemy comes. The people do not resist the invaders; neither do they give up their core principles. Some of them choose to fight through covert action – sabotage of equipment, hiding of wanted people, giving of misinformation. Some engage in passive resistance refusing to harm another, rather giving himself or herself in another’s place for punishment or interrogation. Some are killed and some are jailed. Through it all they treat the invaders with love and kindness: bringing them water on a hot day, sharing their food and philosophy, asking about their homeland. Slowly, gradually, the enemy soldiers, who were, after all, only young men a long way from home, mostly conscripted against their will into a brutal war machine, begin to be converted by this compassionate society. They see that love is a better way to live, and the invaders become one with the invaded, joining the villagers and protecting them from the worst elements of their former society.

That was a fantasy, a story, but there is a model in medicine that helps make my point. When my friend had a large, open wound as a result of a massive infection, the doctor told us before we went home to deal with it, that we didn’t have to worry about keeping it sterile, only clean. He said that the wound was already colonized with bacteria some good, some potentially harmful, but that his body was now healthy enough to slowly push out the remaining bad bacteria as the wound healed. The metaphor stunned me. We can’t eliminate all the evil in the world without also destroying the good, but a healthy society can gradually diminish the evil as it heals itself. This is done through loving kindness, not through violence. If we could find a better way in 98% of cases, we would be in a much stronger position to deal with that irredeemable 2% that remains. There are ideological fanatics in the world who just want to kill Americans, for example, but their numbers are small compared to the people with legitimate grievances who have become violent through desperation. If we approach the world, intending to help solve problems for people in terrible situations, we will diffuse the anger and resentment which are used as recruiting tools by the few true crazies out there, and then we would be in a better position to make international agreements to capture the real criminals who threaten the peace and safety of all of us. Most terrorism experts in the world have come to this conclusion, just as they agree that torture not only doesn’t produce good information, but also deepens anger and hatred against the torturer.

There may be times, however rare, when the only choice is kill or be killed. In this instance, each person must decide, but for any action there will be a cost. Jesus said we should turn the other cheek; Jehovah said we should not kill; devout Hindus and Buddhists believe that all life is sacred. We must decide what we believe and what price we are willing to pay. If you decide you must kill to defend yourself or others, then that act will affect you for the rest of your life. While it may seem a justifiable choice, and may even serve the greater good, you are still responsible for a terrible act. The warriors among us deserve our great gratitude for their sacrifice not only in putting themselves physically in harm’s way on our behalf, but also for the spiritual and emotional harm they risk. Just ask anyone in the police or military about the aftermath of taking another person’s life. The world is struggling to emerge from thousands of years of tribal hatreds, and territorial and ideological conflicts. If we are ever to have peace, we must learn that violence is not the only way. According to Doctors Without Borders, since the advent of modern warfare, we now kill far more civilians than soldiers in every war. Therefore there is no longer any justification for war as a means to resolve conflict. As for justifications for violence, I can’t find one. Violence is an evil to be avoided period.

This is even true in our personal relationships. When my S.O. and I were first living together, we used to have raging arguments each hurling insults and feeling badly treated. Personal growth led to the understanding that you don’t have to defend against every perceived slight; you can instead, forgive the other person for their flaws, understand that their behavior is probably not even about you, but about their own stress and agitation, and accept whatever your own responsibility may have been in creating the situation. Not defending oneself is sometimes the most courageous and most effective act. When confronted with anger and potential violence, the best response is to de-escalate, not to provoke. Then healing is possible. Violent people are already wounded in some way. We must learn to deal with them without causing them further injury even as we prevent them from harming themselves or others.

We teach our children that two wrongs don’t make a right. The hardest thing for most people to accept is that defense can also be an offense. We cannot make peace until we believe it is possible and learn to take personal responsibility for our choices. We can’t make peace until we learn not to make war.

Until next time: Believe in peace, and believe in the power of love, because the alternatives will surely destroy us.

Contact Val at valsview@ltsaloon.org

2009 V.J. Leventhal. All Rights Reserved.