A letter to my loved ones, on Nonviolence.

I originally wrote this post during the Baltimore riots in April 2015 and posted it to Facebook. I’m reproducing it here because it’s a topic that is so important to me. I would even go so far to call it a manifesto on my intention for approaching challenges and conflict in life.

The events in Baltimore, and the subsequent social media hullabaloo, have got my heart and stomach twisted in knots. I’m sitting up here in Connecticut, so far from my family and friends in Baltimore, on pins and needles. I love you all, and I’m nervous for you and for my city, and I’m feeling a lot of pain. I’m scouring the internet for news and scrolling through Facebook in horror. I’m texting my sister. Her block is on fire, but she is OK. I’m thinking about empathy and vulnerability and how violence got us here, how violence has erupted in our streets, how violence shines through in the dehumanizing words of so many wealthy Baltimoreans that condemn the riots, and how even the rhetoric of nonviolence can be wielded like a weapon.

There is a lot of violence in Baltimore tonight.

I thought I would write a bit about true nonviolence, and where I am coming from when I say that it could heal our old wounds that bleed fresh with each eruption of anger.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Jesus, the protesters in Tiananmen Square, and the millions of advocates of nonviolence across the world have a lot of differences. Their religion, their spirituality or lack thereof, and their specific cause all vary widely. I come from a spiritual background of Christianity, as you all know, not entirely unlike Dr. King. My current seeking has led me to read widely across religions and traditions, seeking common truths. I have found that the concept of nonviolence crops up in every faith, at the very core of it, and so I have been looking to explore it more deeply in my own life.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, ahimsa, translated in the negative as non-harm or nonviolence, is a spiritual concept that extends much more deeply than the mere lack of physical altercations. It is also translated, in the positive, as compassion. Compassion, in this tradition, is about stripping away ego and seeing the light of God – and ourselves – in all beings.

This is not unlike Jesus’ direction in Matthew 22:39 to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not unlike Jesus’ assertion in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

So what I find is that this is hardest to practice in moments of provocation, when I want to shut down and defend my vulnerability. But I also find that the key to preventing damage and in fact building a relationship up in strength is the ability to open up to the possibility that what I am facing from the other person is a reflection of myself. If one can find empathy for one’s adversary in that moment, it is possible to find a courageous, empathetic solution to the problem – even if that involves challenging that other person to do better.

In Matthew 5:44, Jesus said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

In Buddhism, this is referred to as the way of the bodhisattva – the warrior of compassion.

It is easier to dehumanize, to otherize, to alienate, when we feel threatened or attacked. We use violent, demeaning, objectifying language, like “savage,” “thug,” “animal,” “piece of shit,” “pig.” This language lays the groundwork for physical violence. It is harder to practice compassion when we feel pain, threat, and attack. But that is the heart of faith, whatever religion you may practice. If we do not have a faith, secular humanism and the psychological needs of the human mind still guide us toward empathy. And that is where we find love for our adversaries.

It is interesting that in all these religions, there is a history of the tremendous violence of war. Some find this to be a contradiction in terms, but typically you will find that the love and compassion that is counseled in these instances in mostly inwardly-focused. It does not typically mean that you do not defend yourself against attack – just that in your defense, you refrain from anger and hate towards your adversary. Pray for your adversary – see them as your brother – but that does not mean you allow them to harm you. It is harder to overreact, harder to take a life, and harder to cause harm, when you see yourself and your family reflected back in your attacker. It might actually hurt to fight back, even as it is necessary. That is why a bodhisattva is called a warrior – because this practice opens us up in vulnerability to experiencing physical and psychic pain.

Jesus’ actions of physical destruction when he upended the tables of the vendors in the temple were based in compassion, recognizing that a challenge was necessary to gain the attention of folks whose “business as usual” was an affront to God. Just as the actions of the Freedom Riders’ sit-ins were a challenge to the “business as usual” of Southern segregation.

So I do not say that this means the riots nor the response of the police was justified. It is hard to know who is right, since I was not there and I never know what is in someone’s mind. But I can say that in our reaction of pain and threat, in this situation, we have a choice – to act out in our anger, whether that is directed at the police and society that we feel threatens us or if that is directed at the rioters that we feel threaten us, or to engage with compassion. Perhaps we are insistent in refusing to allow harm to come to us and our children, and we keep our voices loud, but we do not reduce police to “pigs” or rioters to “animals.”

I have been angry, in my life. I have wanted to destroy things. I think this is because I am human, and I have experienced unfairness and injustice. And so I am a rioter.

I have been overwhelmed with fear and the desire to protect my family and livelihood, in my life. I have overreacted to perceived threats. I think this is because I am human, and a family member. And so I am the Baltimore Police.

But what does it mean to engage with compassion? Does it mean that we do not hold people accountable for their actions, or defend ourselves against violence? Absolutely not, but we do need to recognize that our judgment should come from empathy, not from hate and anger. It means we seek to truly put ourselves in the shoes of the people in the midst of the struggle, and try to understand the challenges they face. It means – and this is perhaps the hardest part – that we allow others to hold us accountable, where we engage in or are complicit in violence. There is a place to look at the data, to formulate grand theories about life and societal structure, but those really don’t mean anything if they discount the lived experience of the people on the ground. What deep need is triggering our reactions? What can we do, on a personal level, to understand the struggle of others and to get at the root of the problems they face?

I truly believe that the only way forward is compassion. We will debate the statistics and analysis, the pundits and the activists and the politicians will face off, and we will see endless furor nationally. But if we can just keep coming back to this core of empathy, we will find a solution and a way forward.

If you know me, you probably know that I am a bit of a skeptic (maybe more than a bit), and I require hard evidence to buy into a given theory. You might wonder where the hell all this mushy feelings nonsense is coming from. I do have some strong opinions on the numbers, the evidence, and the underlying reasons for what is happening in Baltimore tonight, but I do not feel it is right to stop there and yell about how right I think I am. We are dealing with people, not just numbers. So when we argue and debate, we have to remember who we are talking to. We have to remember that we don’t know everything, and that it’s worth trying to understand more perspectives than just our own. If we have faith, this is where it counts. We can’t just put it on hold when tough situations come up. This is where, in fact, it counts the most.

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What can be interrupted?

Do I leave my phone on and by my bed so that my sleep can be interrupted by text messages and phone calls? What if they’re urgent, though? What if something happens and my family needs me?

When presenting slides at work, can Facebook notifications interrupt my presentation?

When watching Jessica Jones, should I silence my cell phone? Maybe only if I’m watching with other people? Can cooking dinner be interrupted by a toddler’s dirty diaper? Do I stop my shower if my phone rings? Should I stop playing with my son if my husband calls?

How about reading, writing, meditating, praying? What if someone calls me then? Should I answer? Should it matter who it is? Only starred contacts? Only immediate family members?

What do I allow to be interrupted, and what does that say about what I care about? Who I care about? What does it say about my own distractibility and attention span?

Honestly, these aren’t questions I spend a lot of time thinking about, other than to feel brief annoyance when I have to stop doing something I like because someone wants my attention for themselves. Some of them are easy – of course I turn off my Facebook notifications and all interruptions during a presentation. OF COURSE.

So why isn’t some of the other stuff so obvious?

I’d love it if I had uninterrupted blocks of 3-4 hours at a time to do something. ONE THING. Minimum 3-4 hours sounds perfect. Probably ideally 6 hours, since we’re dreaming. But this is not the world I live in. Since I have work and a husband and a kid and friends and this family has to eat and I guess bathe from time to time and then there’s that other stuff I like to do, “hobbies” they’re called, what do I do about the yawning gap between my ideal life and reality? How do I make decisions about my time?

DO I make decisions about my time? Can I? Or must I be swept up in the wave of distractions and interruptions that constitutes everything I care about in the world?

 

Contradictory statements that are equally true

  • Delay gratification. Also, don’t wait to be happy.
  • People’s differences are small and unimportant. They are also very important.
  • I’m the only person I have to please. Also, doing things for other people is the key to happiness.
  • Sometimes resistance indicates that you should stop doing a thing. Sometimes you must fight through resistance in order to do something important.
  • Believe half of what you read and none of what you hear. Also, you must take some things on faith.
  • You are good enough. And there is always room for improvement.

 

“The opposite of a profound statement is also true.” -Gretchen Rubin

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The Soul of a Place

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of days about the places I’ve lived. I move a lot – always have, ever since I left home for college – and now that I have a toddler and a new baby on the way, I’m thinking about what it would mean to settle down. To really. Settle. Down.

One of the things it means is embracing a place. It means becoming entangled in that place in a way that I haven’t been since I lived with my parents. Places have character, soul, even in today’s increasingly homogenized and globalized world. You can’t take the Puritan out of Connecticut. You can’t take the aristocracy out of the Deep South. Appalachia remains rugged, self-sufficient, and independent. In DC, power is critical and yet inaccessible. While those things are small snippets of the soul of these places, they are there, and they do matter, surprisingly enough.

For the past 11 – almost 12! – years, the average time I have lived in an apartment is probably a bit less than a year. The longest time so far has been about 18 months. I think we might hit 2 years in our current apartment.

The brevity of time I’ve spent in these places has prevented me from really putting down roots anywhere, at least as a fully independent adult. It has also allowed me a comparative look into the souls of these places. You can’t get that in a week’s vacation. A few months in, you begin to feel its character and sense the pattern behind the bustle of everyday life. By a year, the soul has revealed itself, made itself apparent. Then, I get to move and learn about a new place.

The apartment I live in now, quite apart from closing in on the distinction as the longest place I’ve lived in 12 years, is also the biggest place yet, with two roomy bedrooms sporting walk-in closets and a nice long entryway that I’ve hung with pictures and trinkets. It has been quite nice to live in a place where we are close to a network of support – my husband’s family – but still get to make up our own little space, hideout, and routine, with plenty of breathing room. Still, nearing 30, I begin to long for a backyard to grow a garden with perennials and vegetables, a fire pit for fresh, early-fall evenings, a big kitchen to dry herbs, a garage with a workshop so I can engage in some fickle dabbling in woodworking and fixing things, according to the dictates of my tyrannical whimsy.

So now we consider: where will we set down roots? Where will my sons come of age? With what place, with what great and flickering soul of a place, will we enter into this sacred compact?

Perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic. But to me, this feels just that important. Because this is something different from my habit. I specialize in a year-long character study, living in an apartment and scoping out the wildlife at nearby coffee houses and church basements. This, though…this is a commitment. It’s like getting married.

It’s a privilege to be able to choose, of course, just as it’s a privilege to have chosen my own husband or to have birthed a kid. I think that makes its weight heavier, not lighter. And just as getting married or having kids means letting go of one life in exchange for another, this decision, regardless of where we choose to go, is as deeply sad as it is exciting and important. I must let go of the possibility inherent in every other place-soul and commit to just one. It’s no more or less than any of us do, and it is full of hope and potential, but I feel the loss of my nomadic ways nonetheless.

And so I will be both joyful and sad, if and when I enter into this compact. It is no more or less than any of us can ever really be, when you think about it.

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