Violence, in my family, is a kind of tradition. We tie integrity and honor and courage to the ability to wreak havoc in the world. When I was young, I learned to read people’s hands and shoulders. I learned to see the punch before it was thrown.
I got older though. After years of fighting, I learned that it was, in fact, kind of pointless. Fighting only guaranteed more fighting. No one thought better of me because I could kick ass. No one thought I was cool because I could make others smaller. I learned that it was much harder to forgive, to work with people to solve problems. I learned that refusing to stoop to force to change the world was much braver than pounding my point home with fists and feet.
Violence is more than brawling. It is using power, verbal, economic, or physical, to shape people’s lives. In the short run, it works. People pay attention to those who offer the most immediate threat to their wellbeing. They either rise against it or they acquiesce and a cycle begins. Nothing new or better evolves. Existence spins around survival. Even if people give in on the surface, there is almost always an underground movement against the imposition of an outside will.
When I was young, my father, a soldier, wanted me to rule under him. He wanted me to be a pillar of courage and honor and in his eyes, the only way to do that was to fight. When I failed to fight, he called me yellow. He called me a pantywaist. If I lost a fight, I was weak. My entire self-image was based on picking fights and winning them at all costs so I could come home to Dad and share my exploits. It seemed he loved more when I was a warrior. He loved me more when I was a bully.
As I got older, though, I learned that words worked better and lasted longer than fists. I learned to listen. I learned that it often took more courage to pay attention to people’s needs and wants than it took to dictate them myself. I learned to stand up to my father without hurting anyone.
Nonviolence is not cowardice. It is not refusing to participate in conflict. People’s wants and needs often clash. Nonviolence is taking in every angle, putting yourself in someone else’s position, and sitting down to build a system in which the most good can be done for the most people. Nonviolence is having the courage to stand up for what you think is right and what you think needs to happen without discounting the rights and needs of the people around you.
Nonviolence is not simply refusing to fight. Nonviolence is refusing to cause harm. It is the refusal to assume that my way is the one and only right way. It is the use of power to provide for the needs of the world, rather than just ourselves and those around us.
In my work, I deal with violence on a daily basis. My students are all young and mentally ill. They have been in institutions and programs their entire lives. They come from shattered and warped backgrounds and they have learned that the only way for them to feel safe is to be the biggest, meanest kid in the school.
Every day, I sit with them and we talk. I try to show them in more than words, in my own actions, that respect and honor, is earned better through cooperation and the courage to see the world through other’s eyes. Sometimes, when things get wild, I have to restrain my students. I have to keep them safe. I have to keep the other students safe.
When I am involved in a restraint, I am careful not to damage anyone. Even when I am on the floor with a student who is throwing punches and kicking, I use words to guide them through the crisis and when things calm, when the student is back in their right mind, I sit with them and have them walk me through the incident. I have them explain step by step what they were hoping to accomplish. Then, I explain my job. I tell them that I will always do what needs to be done to keep everyone safe, but that in the end, I will also be there to talk to them. When the student is capable of listening, I help them build a plan around their behavior. We identify triggers. We talk strategy. I pre-teach the situation. It always takes time, but most of my students get it. They see the value of communication and cooperation. When they stumble, I re-teach the situation and when they soar, I praise it.
My job and my life are all about filling the world with as many people with the courage to stand up to violence in all its forms with reason and rationality. My goal is to fight violence with compassion and logic. I admit, it is easier and more immediately satisfying to force our views and beliefs on the world through violence. Violence, in our culture, is sexy. Our heroes are warriors. I have found, however, that using thought and empathy are far more sturdy building material. With them, I believe, we can build a world in which more people get what they need and fewer people have to turn to get hurt.
Try it. Put yourself in the skin of people who hurt you, who drive you insane, who challenge everything you stand for, and have the courage to admit that they have a right to their world the same as you. Stand up and refuse to perpetuate harm. Have the nerve to find a way to talk through conflict and see where it takes you.