Listening recently to an NPR segment on the high number of deaths in Chicago, I found myself agreeing with all of the perspectives offered: loss of hope, poverty, gang wars, access to guns and lack of opportunity. But I wondered about the elephant in the room; the ever present American cultural message that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems. It’s in our films, on television, in video games and everywhere in the news while our Department of Defense budget exceeds 600 billion dollars. Bullying and the psychological violence that ensues has expanded from the grade school playground and made it all the way to Presidential politics. We seem to be obsessed with violence and aggressive behavior.
My feeling is that until violence can be looked at and treated like an addiction, any change in external realities will have a limited effect. This is a soul issue and has to be dealt with like any soul issue… internally.
Wrath, or anger, is considered one of the seven deadly sins. It’s counteracting virtue is patience. Unfortunately, the human values of patience and caring have often been replaced by the technological values of speed and efficiency. But this isn’t really working out. “Compared to twenty-two other high-income nations, the United States’ gun-related murder rate is twenty five times higher.” (CBS News) We also rank thirteenth in the World Happiness Report. If it’s OK for a U.S. Senator to use the psychological violence of shame and blame, then why shouldn’t it be OK for me?
So where does this issue get muddled? The message I get is that violence portrayed in entertainment media and in the implementation of foreign policy is acceptable yet violence that takes away real lives near to us, in our schools, movie theaters, airports, night clubs and streets, without reason, is not. Can we really have it both ways? How does one discern between the two? Until violence can be viewed, taught and lived as an unacceptable alternative in all venues, why should things change?
The question, for me, is not about external realities but about how do we as mutual members of our culture decide to shift from a fear and violence based reality to one that leans towards connection, compassion and caring?
“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds— our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.” — Thích Nhat Hạnh, Living Buddha, Living Christ
My point is that until we can look at the root causes of violence, the symptoms will not change. We approach the issue with the usual contemporary western mindset of going after the symptoms (how can we fix it?) rather than dealing with the cause. In this sense, spiritual traditions from Buddhism to Christianity are far ahead of our time. These traditions teach that the first place of change is always within.
“At the end of the talk someone from the audience asked the Dalai Lama, “Why didn’t you fight back against the Chinese?” The Dalai Lama looked down, swung his feet just a bit, then looked back up at us and said with a gentle smile, “Well, war is obsolete, you know.” Then, after a few moments, his face grave, he said, “Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back… but the heart, the heart would never understand. Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside you.”
In my own life, I decided over twenty years ago to no longer see films where a weapon of some sort is displayed on the advertising poster. I’ve also given up watching television; specifically football and boxing. Mostly, I didn’t like the hidden messages in advertising that I could never be good enough which, for me, was a kind of violence to my self-esteem. When the political rancor gets too loud from Washington, I simply turn off the radio and put on music. And when personal anger erupts, I make the time for reflection to try and track where that anger is coming from. Is it an old abandonment issue or some current situation where the disguised voice of my father is telling me what to do without justification?
I can only offer more questions than solutions. Fear beyond instinct, is something we learn. What would it take to unlearn those false beliefs? How do we wean ourselves off of violence? Are there other ways to access the emotional body that are satisfying and do not cause harm? Are we willing to consider teaching anger management as part of our schools’ curriculums? How does a culture shift away from shame and blame? Are we willing, as a culture, to give up violence as a form of entertainment in order to save actual lives?
Until each one of us does the work inside, how will things shift? At the end of the NPR piece, a former gang member who is now helping other gang members change their lives offered his solution coming from experience; love and compassion. If I was to offer anything, I think our culture has lost sight of one of the most fundamental things about being alive. It is not about meaning, celebrity, happiness, success, relevance, validation or approval. It’s about each of us finding our loving, how to care and cultivate it, and what do we do when we fall out so that we can return to that loving again and again? That’s the real work.