Newcomers To God’s Country

move to country bad idea, angry rural neighbors, rural life hilarity, rural living problems, religion as a weapon, angry Christians, We left behind gangs and sexual predators when we moved to the country. After city living, settling our family on a small farm seemed like coming to the Promised Land. Even the weather was welcoming as we made more and more repairs to the house we could barely afford. No matter. We hiked through the woods and crouched by the pond, watching frogs, fish, and goggle-eyed insects with a sense of gratitude that felt as solid as a good decision.

Then we got to know our neighbors.

Though we’d moved less than an hour away it seemed we’d crossed an unmarked border. Lovely pastoral stillness was regularly broken by target shooting, 4-wheelers careening around pastures, and barking from what sounded like a dog breeding operation. Some neighbors chose to burn garbage rather than pay the requisite fee for trash pickup, which explained the toxic stench of burnt plastic that sometimes hung in the air. And we quickly learned that some neighbors didn’t talk to other neighbors due to longstanding feuds. Allegedly these conflicts had escalated to bodily harm, lawsuits, and the biggest threat — eternal damnation.

This was the most overtly foreign to us, religion right out front as a beacon or bludgeon. Religious paraphernalia was evident everywhere; on bumper stickers, yard signs, and lapel pins. “Where do you go to church?” was the question people typically asked upon meeting us, right after “Where are you from?”

Realizing the only correct answer would be the exact denomination of the questioner, I gave vague relies. If pressed I said truthfully that we headed back north each Sunday to go to our old church before spending the afternoon visiting relatives. Then I quickly changed the subject. This conversational maneuver seemed to leave my new neighbors unsure of whether to save my soul or shun me. Left in the dreaded middle ground, many of them parted with helpful advice about sins I should take care to avoid.

“Don’t vote for the library levy, because you know the library is an agent of Satan. It has that Internet thing.”

“Don’t celebrate Halloween. That pleases the devil’s minions.”

But we couldn’t remain anonymous for long. Our children ventured down the street to scout out playmates. They returned quickly. Apparently the neighborhood children posed a single-question quiz before agreeing to make friends with newcomers. When our children didn’t know the answer to “Are you born again?” they weren’t allowed to stay.

Soon after we arrived, I was invited by a neighbor to her home. I brought muffins. She nodded as I handed them to her, saying, “God told me not to bake.” While ranging around her kitchen swatting flies and yelling at her children, this woman crisply explained why those who didn’t ascribe to her exact version of Christianity were destined for hell. With joyous fervor she started listing houses on the street by the sins of the occupants, from her next door neighbor (“She’s a Catholic, you know, one of those so-called Christians.”) to the woman who lived at the end of the street (“Don’t talk to her, she uses a hyphenated name. Probably a feminist.”) 

I demurred, saying something about seeing the light in each person. She swiveled her full attention in my direction, fly swatter in hand, and asked me where I went to church. No middle ground left, I told her that I attended a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

She was shocked.

“Oh, you people believe anything goes,” she gasped.

“Not intolerance,” I said.

She kicked me out of her house.

It seemed that my admission branded me, and not in the correct tattoo-for-Christ way. Word spread quickly. A man who lived a few doors down called soon after. When I answered the phone he asked to speak to my husband.

“Let your wife know she shouldn’t be hiking in the woods,” he said before adding gruffly, “I target shoot there and I don’t look first.”

I hoped school presented better possibilities.

Our children were assigned to two different rural elementary schools, miles apart. I picked our kindergartner up every day at lunchtime. Other parents also waited in the school hallway. It was immediately apparent that two factions leaned against opposite walls. This presented a difficult choice. If I spoke to the woman with frosted lipstick and tight shirt who stood on the less populated side, the woman with the heavy necklace and shag haircut on the other side would glare at me. And vice versa.

Frosted Lipstick talked to me more often. She told me about her well-muscled prayer partner and how she felt called to meet with him alone even though this made her husband jealous. She told me that Jesus gave her too many challenges. She told me I would be cuter if I wore lipstick.

Shag Haircut was more interesting, or maybe I just enjoyed her sardonic commentary. One day Shag Haircut told me what was behind the hallway glaring. A group of mothers were trying to remove Frosted Lipstick from membership in the school’s parent/teacher organization over a dispute concerning craft supplies. Ribbon and scissors worth something like $36 had not been returned. Shag Haircut and her cohorts considered Frosted Lipstick a thief.

I made what I hoped were reasonable suggestions to solve the problem. No luck.

I’ve taught conflict resolution for years but apparently peace wasn’t nearly as enticing as the entertainment value of scandal. A few weeks later the superintendent acted. Weary of the dispute, he threatened to eliminate the entire parent/teacher organization. Both sides of the hallway were deliciously shocked.

Frantically, Frosted Lipstick asked me to babysit after kindergarten so she could meet with him and solve the problem. I was relieved that she seemed to be taking my advice about talking the issue over, finding common ground, and healing the breach. I agreed to babysit, but explained that I needed to pick up my third-grader at the other school by three-thirty for a dentist appointment.

I assumed that she would drop off her kindergartner to play with my child. I was wrong. She appeared at my door with three additional boys. When she saw my surprise she said, “Everyone knows I operate a home daycare business.”

Everyone but the newcomer.

She went back to her minivan and returned with a woman she called Grandma. This woman was not her relative. Frosted Lipstick was branching out in the daycare business and had taken in an elderly confused person who needed supervision. Frosted Lipstick left quickly after I reminded her I needed to leave at three sharp. I made additional places at the table and invited these guests to lunch.

It became apparent that the boys were not accustomed to eating while sitting or eating without throwing food. They also used God’s name in vain frequently, surely a habit they didn’t indulge in while in the care of a woman who talked so much about her prayer life. I gave up the silly idea of showing them how to make sandwich shapes with cookies cutters and simply tried to impose order. It wasn’t working well.

Grandma wouldn’t sit. She smelled as if she might have damp undergarments but her waistband was fastened with some kind of dementia-proof catch. I couldn’t figure the thing out.

The afternoon deteriorated rapidly. My five-year-old normally enjoyed eating while I read to him, then he played Legos after lunch, but these boys were only amused by diversions such as hitting each other and slamming themselves into furniture. Grandma sidled along the walls with her hands up touching everything as if she read a form of Braille expressed in window frames and light switches. At one point she nearly escaped through the locked front door. Like hostages, my son and I exchanged repeated sympathy glances at each other as the home invasion dragged on.

Despite the chaos around me I was cheered by the knowledge that a greater good was being served — the conflict was being talked out at the superintendent’s office. In fact I was beginning to feel a sense of peace about the whole ordeal. Three o’clock was approaching. Frosted Lipstick would ring the doorbell and then I’d be free to retrieve my third grader. By now my son had retreated completely from the boys, who were bouncing around in a frenzy like ping pong balls. I couldn’t imagine the inner clamor their behavior was expressing. I also felt a generous amount of sorrow for Grandma, left here with strangers when she’d already lost so much.

Three o’clock got closer and closer. Frosted Lipstick still didn’t arrive. My smug sense of peace was evaporating. A few minutes after three, she called. Her tone was casual. She said she couldn’t get to my house but had made other arrangements. I was to drop off the kids and Grandma at the school’s aftercare program, she knew everyone there.

I had no time to express my indignation. I loaded the boys and Grandma in the van, checked seat belts, and turned onto the road. In moments the boys had taken off their seat belts and were beginning to crawl over the seats. That did it. I pulled over, trucks hurtling past, and told the boys to get their seat belts on using the slow dispassionate voice that my own children know indicates true rage. As I merged back into traffic I realized my vindictive thoughts were an indicator of how far I had to go before calling myself a pacifist.

In moments I was hurrying across the school parking lot holding many hands at once. We crammed into the tiny school office. I stood at the counter assuring the secretary that arrangements had been made for the boys to stay in the aftercare program. She seemed entirely unaware of such arrangements. Then I uttered Frosted Lipstick’s name. The school secretary’s face slackened into disgust. I leaned over the counter, trying to hear her response but the boys were arguing and shoving the hard-backed chairs back and forth on the linoleum. Grandma was running her hands along the corporate-sponsored posters on the walls. Clearly none of us wanted to be in this office but my own child was waiting miles away and I needed to assert some control over the situation. A chair tipped over, one boy slapped another.

I turned to the boys, hissing furiously over the din, “Stop it right now or I’ll tie you to those chairs!” Unfortunately just at that moment the principal came through the door with what appeared to be a new family. Upon seeing her, the boys stopped their noise immediately. Sudden silence turned my threat into a broadcast. Grandma strolled right into the principal, her upraised hands roaming across the guests’ bodies, along the door hinge, and onto the next wall. I’d been in the township less than two months and now was heard threatening to use restraints on a confused woman and three disorderly little boys.

The secretary said there was no protocol for leaving the boys without parental consent slips, and of course the elderly woman whose name I didn’t know could not stay. Trying to keep from hyperventilating, I asked the secretary to call the other school about my child, now surely left in the office. She tried. She told me no one was answering, Her tone assured everyone in the room that I was indeed a bad mother.

I did what I had to do. I subdued my hysteria, gathered my charges, and walked down the hall to the aftercare program. Both women working there said they knew the boys and the Grandma, as most people in the township seem to know everyone else. I informed them that Frosted Lipstick had told me to leave them for just a few minutes till she got back.

“Even the old lady?” asked one of the aides.

I nodded, wishing I had never stopped in the school office.

“Okay,” said the other aide. The first woman looked skeptical, but the moment the word “okay” left the mouth of a human being able to watch these four I took my son’s hand and ran from the building—past a janitor, several parents, and a blur of faces in the school office. I wondered if I abandonment charges were possible.

We pulled out of the parking lot and almost immediately found ourselves behind a line of traffic on the way to the other school. Cars, vans, trucks, and at the front, a school bus. It takes a single school bus to clog a rural road for miles. Worse, directly in front of us was a tractor pulling a manure spreader. Dark clumps fell onto the road and the heavy odor drifted in through our closed windows.

That drawn-out stinky scene wasn’t the final act of our little drama. Nor was it the sight of my third grader waiting for me in front of his school building, his face confident but his backpack sagging. No, it was the phone call from Frosted Lipstick later that evening. At the sound of her voice I was confident I would hear that the day’s calamities had been for a good cause.

“So did you resolve your differences?” I asked her.

“I went there to serve them with papers,” she said. “I’m suing the superintendent, the school, and the officers of the parent/teacher organization. God told me to seek vengeance.”

Peace Meeting Disrupted By Vegetation Attack

bad behavior at restaurant, eating fail, FML meeting, peace meeting screw-up, gagging in front of people,

Image metaloxide.deviantart.com

I once worked for a peace organization headed by a man I regard as close to sainthood. I have no saintly aspirations of my own, but when I was anywhere near John I wanted to live up to his example or, at least behave myself.

John and I met at an eco-conscious lunch spot to discuss a new project. There I drank coffee stronger than I’d ever tasted in a mug larger than I’d ever seen. Too late I remembered that caffeine gives me the jitters.

A third person joined us for the meeting. John was effusive in his praise for my accomplishments as he introduced me to this older gentleman.  Way too effusive. It’s hard to live up to such superlatives, especially while trying to keep one’s hands from caffeine-related jitters.

The men ordered soup and sandwiches. I quickly ordered the first salad listed and turned my attention back to the meeting. When my meal arrived I was alarmed. Dark, unfamiliar vegetation loomed over the plate. The leaves looked quite a bit like invasive weeds. I dug in bravely, hoping that once I’d gotten some nourishment the coffee shakes would wear off.

My tablemates had charming manners. They took small bites, wiped their mouths carefully, and added wonderful insights to the conversation only after swallowing. In the meantime I discovered the giant plants on my plate couldn’t be cut in pieces with ordinary tableware. Instead I had to bend them in half with my fork and hope that dressing didn’t dribble on the table, my clothes, or chin as I drove each bite resolutely into my mouth. To cope, I listened intently and kept my comments to a minimum.

Just as I was inserting a neatly folded plant leaf in my mouth John addressed a question to me. A serious, lengthy reply sort of question. I was in trouble. Not because I had no response. No, because the process of shoveling in a huge bent leaf took longer than a sip of soup or bite of sandwich ever could.

Worse yet, the leaf was larger than my coffee-addled brain anticipated. As it headed toward my lips it seemed to grow. Because the food was already partway in my mouth it was too late to throw the whole action in reverse. So I shoved the rest of it in, afraid that I looked like one of those mulching machines grinding a tree branch.

A conversational pause developed around the table as my lunch companions politely waited for me to answer. I hurried, hoping after a few quick chewing motions I’d be able to respond.

No such luck. As I pulled the fork out of my mouth the unexpected happened.

That hulking leaf unfolded. Like an angry vegetable on a rampage it sprung fully open and leaped to the back of my throat, instantly triggering a gag reflex.

There was nothing I could do.  Reflexes do not respect politeness nor honor the presence of a saint. My eyes widened in horror as my mouth involuntarily flung open. The entire lettuce leaf emerged at top speed from my gaping maw right onto the plate.  Gag related tears sprung to my eyes and gag related saliva hovered with great drool potential on my lower lip.

It is a testament to the training of those involved in the peace movement that my companions didn’t bolt from the table.  They didn’t even blink.

John looked at me kindly. As if his wording had caused me some discomfort, he said without a hint of irony, “Let me rephrase the question.”

Making Beauty From Bombs

melt bombs into jewelry, fund peace through gifts, cluster bombs into gifts,

peace-bomb.com

Every time I hear of armed conflict taking place somewhere on this blue green planet I want it to reverse. If these intractable conflicts could somehow go back to the starting point, back to the earliest signs of difficulty, they could more easily be resolved instead of leading to destruction, refugees fleeing a ruined homeland, and death. That’s what the non-violence principle of de-escalation clearly shows.

Although our world is indeed more peaceful we humans are still learning hard lessons from the tragedy of war and military aggression.

These lessons are particularly poignant when we look at people who manage to transmute horror into beauty.  That’s the case with Project Peacebomb.

Between 1964 and 1973 the U.S. secretly bombed Laos. The equivalent of one B 52 bomb load showered on this thickly forested country every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Thirty percent of the bombs dropped did not detonate, continuing to injure and kill people today.

In 1975 a Laotian man traveled back over the mountains toward home. He collected shrapnel and melted it in an earthen kiln, then cast it in hand-sculpted molds to make spoons to earn a little money. Eventually he taught the craft to his son. Today, ten families supplement their farming income by repurposing the shrapnel that still scars their homeland.

Now the spoon makers are collaborating with sustainable development groups to make ornaments and jewelry from bombs.  Each bracelet purchased helps support artisan families while also helping to fund the clearance of unexploded ordnance fromLaos.

The simple beauty of this jewelry, creation wrought from destruction, reminds me of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, where the novel’s character sees American bombers in WW II flying in reverse.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over Francea few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground., to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

peace ornament

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Take action against today’s use of cluster munitions.

Purchase PeaceBomb items.

The Bomb & Me

alive because of the bomb, believe in fate, anti-war, nonviolence, anti-nuclear activist,

Why do we take any one path in our lives? Perhaps a mix of choices and abilities are simply stirred in the cauldron we call childhood. Or maybe there are elements we can’t fathom.

Here’s one reason for my wonderment.

I was one of those kids who worried about every chained dog and crying baby. I wanted to understand why the world contained cruelty and more, how I could fix it.  When I was ten years old I learned about the splitting of the atom. It struck me with cold horror, although I couldn’t articulate why. Before that I assumed most adults were looking out for the welfare of kids and trees and animals under their care. But once that information sank in I was afraid that grown ups were terribly misguided. When I asked questions I found out my country had dropped two atom bombs on Japan and that it now used nuclear power. Adult logic suddenly seemed like a fairy tale. It wasn’t until years later that I heard what J. Robert Oppenheimer, called the “father of the atomic bomb,” thought when the first one was detonated. A verse from the Bhagavad Gita came to his mind: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Cold horror indeed. Even on sunny days I thought about death.

As the child of conservative parents, I don’t recall any family discussions about nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, pro or con. The few times I asked I was told the bombs had to be dropped to end the war and nuclear power was a safe, clean form of energy. I kept to myself the chilling fear I felt whenever I thought about the splitting of atoms. That is, until my father’s old college roommate was in town. Before his visit I was told he was a smart man who had done well for himself. (In other words, little girls must be extra polite.) And I knew my father hadn’t seen this friend since before I was born. All good reasons to mind my manners and listen quietly to the adults talk. Which I did, until I heard him mention he was an engineer for a nuclear power plant. I gasped (not a polite response) and asked him about the dangers of radioactive waste.

He gestured to the light switch on the wall dismissively, asking, “Do you expect the lights to go on or do you know how to generate your own electricity?” As a child still afraid of the dark, I didn’t have much to say. But his response didn’t ease my concerns. That experience taught me to get the facts before I introduced a subject and also to do something about my concerns. Thank you sir.

I’m sure my ten-year-old self would be disappointed with me. I haven’t devoted myself to freeing the world of nuclear waste and nuclear weapons, nor to advancing peace. But it’s an issue that has resounded in my life. I worked with anti-nuclear weapons activist groups for years and taught nonviolence workshops even longer. I campaigned and testified against the opening of two nuclear plants in Ohio (unsuccessfully) and against a five state radioactive waste dump (successfully). When my children were small we attended Hiroshima Day observances each year, floating traditional lantern boats with messages of peace to commemorate the lives lost.  We also hosted a child from the Chernobyl region for five summers, a child we grew to love and whose health is still threatened by elevated background radiation in her homeland.

Then I learned what splitting the atom meant to me, personally.

My father never had much to say about serving in the U.S. Navy in the closing months of World War II except that he had been a radar man. But in the last years of his life we heard more. He told us about one day in particular. He and the entire crew of their ship were called on deck. They thought it was to formally welcome a new commander. Instead they were given a classified briefing.

They were told all leaves were cancelled and all communication with home would be heavily censored. Their ship was being retrofitted to leave for an upcoming top-secret coordinated air and sea attack on Japan. Their ship would be third in line of the first fleet. It was considered a “sacrifice” ship. My father, a quiet religious teen who got drafted right out of high school, faced certain death along with the rest of his shipmates.

A very short time later, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. My father lived to attend college, become a teacher, get married, and have a family because of the unspeakable violence wrought by those bombs. I am alive because of those bombs.

That I’ve felt driven since earliest childhood to advance a peaceful, nuclear free world now seems to have roots more mysterious than I can comprehend. I don’t know if that’s destiny at work,  but it calls me to believe that our paths are far more complex than we imagine.

fate, destiny, predestination, peacemaker, Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Get Involved When It’s None Of Your Business

peace through non-violence, take a stand on violence, intervene in conflict, conflict resolution,

 Working in a retail job, you think you’ve become accustomed to bad behavior on the part of children as well as parents. But you are appalled to see a mother use an umbrella to spank a small boy.

Will intervening threaten the child or endanger your job?

Walking through a grocery store parking lot, you notice a crying toddler in the grocery cart and a woman screaming at the child as she loads packages in her car. She slaps the child’s face and arms as you walk past.

If you say anything will you make it worse?  

 

Looking out your apartment window you see a young man standing next to a motorcycle, pushing and yelling at a teenaged girl from the building who seems to be his girlfriend.

Would the police consider this abuse if you called?

 

Leaving work later than usual on a wintry evening you have the feeling you’re being followed. As you turn a corner you see an ill-dressed youth close behind you. He holds out a gun and asks for money.

Are there any options that don’t leave a victim?

 

Driving past a cluster of youths on a city street, you realize that they are clubbing a boy with a piece of wood. It’s safer for you to continue in traffic, but you want to defend this teen from his aggressors.

Can your heart and head agree on a course of action?

peace through pacifism, tactics of non-violence,

Violence is familiar. It’s highlighted in news, movies and video games. It erupts in our homes or homes nearby, even if few people admit it. It’s insidious and damaging. Violence at all levels, from the personal to the global, is highly ineffective in creating lasting positive change.

Yet we know very little about nonviolence. We may be aware of Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha. This philosophy, which Gandhi called “soul force,” inspired the passive resistance successfully used in the U.S. civil rights movement and the healing honesty of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But most people don’t think these approaches are relevant. In fact, pacifism is often confused with those who are passive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonviolence requires a level of conviction and inner strength that makes violence look easy.

Nonviolence doesn’t imply lack of anger or conflict. Strong emotions like anger can be a catalyst for change; rallying us to become more aware, to take action or to seek help. Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction. Dealing with conflict constructively, creatively, and with mutual regard lets conflict serve a useful purpose.

The tactics of nonviolence have worked throughout history. But, as it’s often said, history is written by the victors. Scholar Antony Adolf writes in Peace: A World History, “The champions of peace, momentous and everyday, intellectual and activist, expert professional and lay, have for too long been considered exceptions that prove this rule, when in actuality without their efforts there may not have been a history to live, let alone write.”

Nonviolent principles work today, although they continue to be little known. According to the Human Security Report, from the University of British Columbia, peacemaking efforts by the United Nations as well as voluntary activism continue to have a powerful impact. Although little reported by the media, the world has seen a significant decline in violence. The overall number of armed conflicts has declined by 40% in the last 16 years with the deadliest conflicts dropping by 80%. Three decades ago 90 countries were governed by authoritarian regimes; now fewer than 30 suffer this oppression.

volunteers save the world, non-violence in action, peacemaking, pacifism tactics,

The efforts of individuals may make the biggest difference. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World about the efforts of caring people everywhere around the world. Before the abolitionist movement there were pitifully few groups working on behalf of others. Since that time the number of people collaborating for the greater good has grown at an unprecedented rate. Now there are over a million organizations seeking environmental sustainability, social justice, cultural preservation, and peace. Hawkin says that never before in history have there been so many people working on behalf of others.

In fact the success of humankind is based on peaceful person to person, group to group interaction. The unwritten span of prehistory makes up 99% of our time on earth. Most anthropologists affirm that cooperation was pivotal for survival during this long stage, when people lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands. A lone human would not last long. No claws, fangs or heavy fur protected them. Interdependence was key. Together our forebears developed language, healing arts, and methods of procuring food. Cooperative efforts in child rearing, protection from predators, and shelter from the elements gave them a survival edge. This entire period of our development was characterized by generally peaceable human interactions. There’s minimal evidence of warfare in this span of prehistory. Planned aggression against others likely developed around the start of agriculture.

From the larger perspective of time we are barely out of prehistory, still adjusting to the complexities of civilization. As anthropologist Douglas P. Fry notes in Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, cooperation and empathy accurate represent our species. Violence is not “human nature.” We flourish best with gentle nurturance and continued cooperation.

violence tends to escalate, non-violent tactics,

So what’s the first nonviolence principle we should know? De-escalation. A major characteristic of violence, verbal as well as physical, is that it tends to escalate.  It is most easily reversed at the beginning and becomes progressively more difficult to stop as it spirals into more intense violence. Those who study the effects of intervention in violent situations have found when others object or actively intervene, their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence.  Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany began their campaigns of genocide with small persecutions which citizens allowed to continue.  He reports that action by “bystanders” (those who are not victim or perpetrator) empowers the victim and diminishes the power of the aggressor. But ignoring the suffering of others allows the violence to escalate.

That’s true in our daily lives as well. When we deal with signs of conflict right away, firmly and with compassion, we don’t permit problems to get worse. That’s just one principle of nonviolence. The more we know about nonviolence, the wider the range of options we have to choose from in each situation.

a

Comparison of violent versus nonviolent responses, developed by the late John Looney, founder of the Peace Grows course, Alternatives to Violence.

What about situations you might encounter at work, in a parking lot, in your neighborhood, while driving or walking down the street? All of the circumstances described at the beginning were actual experiences. Fortunately the people facing these situations had studied nonviolence and they decided to take a stand.

The store clerk who witnessed a mother using an umbrella to hit a child intervened quickly. She stepped next to the mother and said quietly, “You have to stop that right now.”

The mother was furious. She protested that she had the right to discipline her child. The clerk agreed, keeping her voice low and calm, “Yes, you do. But how you do it makes a difference.”

She listened as the child’s mother continued to argue with her, then said, “Can I tell you something? I’m sure my mother took good care of me. But she got mad easily and hit me a lot. Not one person ever stuck up for me. When I grew up I decided I’d never speak to her again and I haven’t. I’m not saying it’s the same for you and your child, but I just had to say something.”

The mother responded by describing to the clerk the many ways she was a good mother to her son. The tone of the woman’s voice as well as her attitude changed as she focused on her parenting strengths. On her way out of the store she picked up the child and said, “Momma loves you even when she’s mad, you know that don’t you?”

~~~~~

The man about to walk past the woman slapping her toddler in the parking lot had an idea. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a ten dollar bill and covertly dropped it near them. He made a show of leaning over and finding the bill.  He held it out to the woman and asked if it might be hers.

Although she insisted it was not her money he gave it to her, considering it money well spent. As they spoke he made some positive observations about her child. He sympathized with her difficulty, mentioning that when his kids were young he found it easiest to take along a few snacks and small toys to keep them busy. They talked and by the time he walked away the woman and toddler were both smiling. His simple act stopped the violence and for that moment he’d brought a positive element to the situation.

~~~~~

The neighbor who witnessed a motorcyclist pushing and yelling at his girlfriend decided he couldn’t stand by. He walked casually out of his apartment and just as he was about to pass the couple he paused. When the boyfriend noticed his glance the neighbor made an admiring comment about the bike. His attention disrupted the abuse. He and the young man struck up a brief conversation about motorcycles. His observations on treating the bike well may just as easily have been about treating a person with loving attention. By interrupting the abuse he offered the girl time to leave, if she chose, and he hoped it established a rapport that might be helpful if the girl wanted to talk at a later time.

~~~~~

The commuter walking late along a cold, dark street confronted by a gunman was afraid he might lose his wallet, coat, and perhaps his life.  He also empathized with the poorly dressed youth. Ignoring the gun and disrupting the man’s plan to make him a victim, he said, “It’s cold. Why don’t you take my jacket?”

As he took off the coat he kept talking about the wintry weather. He offered to purchase food, even give the young man money. The aggressor was confounded by the man’s generosity and lack of fear. Acting embarrassed, he refused the food, money and jacket. The commuter insisted the youth take the jacket as a gift. He may have gone home without his own jacket but he transformed a potential crime into an encounter of compassion.

~~~~~

The woman who drove past teens pummeling another youth with a piece of wood chose to stop her car in traffic. Standing at her open car door she called to them, telling them to stop what they were doing. They were surprised but held their ground. One jeered at her asking why she would care about some kid who was a stranger to her while the others laughed. She answered that she cared about all of them. And then she said she would stop if she saw any of them being hurt.

“Next time I might need to stop for you,” she told the youth who questioned her. Anger defused, they walked away. She left when she saw the youth who’d been hurt get up and walk in the other direction.

~~~~~

These people chose action over despair.  Their creative, unique solutions served as peaceful de-escalations of violent situations.  They may not have eliminated the causes or “solved” the issue but they pointed a way out.  Making a stand does make a difference.

Our anger and our concerns about violence can be shaped into purposeful, peaceful action. This is the greatest antidote to despair.

conflict resolution, de-escalation of violence, teaching non-violence, pacifism,

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Natural Life Magazine.

Creating A Better World

“We become what we think about all day long.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

positive thinking, the shift, better world attitude,

Anastasiya Markovich

Long before I became an adult I launched a quest. This was inspired by a something that weighed on my childish mind, an urgent calling to alleviate the suffering of others. Even when I was a misbehaving little girl who ignored her chores and fought with her sister (often), I still felt the weight of this obligation. My parents cancelled their subscriptions to news magazines to avoid my questions as well as my despair over every sorrowful photograph. And my entire family dreaded driving past a chained puppy or crying baby, knowing that I would agonize the rest of the day over this momentary glimpse out the car window.

For some reason my quest took the form of trying to understand why people acted cruelly. So in my spare time I read everything I could find on the history of suffering, evil, and misery. I learned about the Inquisition, U.S.betrayals of Native Americans, the Holocaust, the genocide ordered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—if it was awful I studied it. I worked my way through every book and resource possible.

right thought, optimism changes world, hope,

Fritz Fuhrken

This project of mine stretched well into my teen and early adult years. It was grim. It haunted my dreams and colored what should have been youthful optimism. I began to realize that every single human has the capacity for cruelty. We just pretend we don’t. A bad mood may be contagious but the shadow we hide can wreak havoc on a personal and even a global level.

One day as I sat in the sunshine while my firstborn played nearby in the grass, my dear friend Leslie came over for a visit. She found me reading yet another horrific book, a stack of similarly dire non-fiction at my side. And she’d had it. She told me I was ignoring the beauty all around me to immerse myself in misery. She told me to look at the light shining on my child’s face, the bright green grass, and all the love in my life.

She was right, of course.

Still I defended my quest. I told her it was an obligation to know what was wrong with the world in order to right it. I waved around books that described the evils of pesticides, the horrors of factory farms, and the title I was currently reading, something about political prisoners.

She disagreed. She said it was time to focus on what was good.

I told her I was I finding good. What I read exposed me to heart-expanding accounts of people who demonstrated the best of humanity no matter their circumstances.  Those who were dying of hunger, yet gave their last bit of food to others.  Those who had no reason for hope but who kept art and music alive.  Those who faced the worst despair, but did not give in to it.  The best lesson I learned from years of study? Every single person has a choice, even if it seems there are no choices. That choice is the attitude they take.

the shift, making the shift, the secret in action, the secret applies to peace,

Fluxx

It was time to work on my own attitude.

Gradually I stopped trying to understand and fight against all the reasons for suffering. I also became a little less frantic about doing everything possible to counterbalance the wrong I saw everywhere. I noticed that people in activist groups I belonged to faced the world with the same despair I felt, battling evil so fiercely that they had no way to expand on all the good that also flourishes.

So I began volunteering less time to lost causes, marched in fewer protest rallies, and gave up stomping around with petitions. I did more that seemed to boost the positive—gardening, singing to my babies, and guerilla acts of encouragement.

I became certified to teach non-violence workshops which I taught to school systems, incarcerated teens, and senior citizens. As I taught, the lessons sunk in ever more deeply. The long and life-affirming history of non-violence can’t help but heal a heart heavy with the world’s troubles. The process of non-violence—reacting with love rather than hate—is more empowering than any other force we humans have ever used. It transforms greed, intolerance, and cruelty. It’s humanity’s way forward.

peace through non-violence, achieving world peace, optimism,

Solveigamundsen

Growing more positive, I began to find value in mistakes, doubt, crisis. A lifelong insomniac, I started sleeping a little better. Always one who tried to laugh rather than cry, I found myself laughing more— about falling downawkward encounters, and my near constant ability to embarrass myself.

It may seem difficult to sustain a positive outlook these days. My own family has been through grief, injustice, unemployment, and other sorrows. And our world struggles while formerly stable structures crumble. Just look at what’s happening to prescribe-and-placate medical models, inflexible financial institutions, condemning religious frameworks, and rigid corporations. But I believe these current conditions of breakup, economic chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which are (slowly) leading to beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the weakness of limited thinking and short-term fixes. Hopefully we’re also waking up to the reality that we’re in this together—rich and poor, developed and developing nations, young and old, left and right.

signs of hope in the world, peace emerging,

Jules Henri Lengrand

I’ve come to believe a better world is made by building on what works rather than focusing on what’s broken, as long as the truth is told about that brokenness and healing is sought.

I see beings on this planet linked in ways that defy description and see my fellow humans as heroes in the making.

And I see SO much good happening, good that’s too often overlooked. Consider:

1. War and global violence continue to decline.

Armed conflicts aren’t going up, they’re going down.

The world has seen a 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War era. Genocide is down 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished by 33 percent and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent. Even measuring from as little as 15 years ago, the number of armed conflicts has dropped from 44 to 28.

Why? Project Ploughshares credits peace building efforts.

Chances are, the reasons for peace are complex. Yet a stronger international resolve to focus on peace building and basic human rights is taking place. Imagine the far larger potential for enduring peace if we intentionally educate our children and ourselves in the proven methods of non-violence—-negotiation, mediation, reconciliation, even basic listening skills.

2. Freedom is stretching across the planet.

By evaluating variables including civil liberties, democratic institutions, and independent media it’s possible to assess how free each nation in the world really is. Back in 1973, 29 percent of nations were deemed free, 25 percent partially free, and 46 percent not free.

In a little over 35 years, the number of nations ruled by authoritarian regimes dropped from 90 to 30. Countries around the world considered to be free increased by 50 percent while those not free had dropped by more than half.

Independence has a long way to go. But positive signs—protests, dissent, political upheaval show us that ordinary people are speaking up for freedom.

3. Longevity is improving yet total population faces a downturn

Fulfilling the cherished hopes of their parents, more children around the world are born healthy. Mortality rates for those under five years of age have fallen by 60 percent since 1960.

Meanwhile, life expectancy has risen 21 years since the mid 1950’s. Try to suppress your optimism while looking at this analysis of longer lived well-being around the world.

This doesn’t mean the planet will be too crowded. Overall population will continue to rise for several more decades but we’re facing a major downturn. Already birth rates are near or below replacement rate in countries all over the world. Increased education and affluence tend to inspire women, no matter what country they live in, to invest their time and resources in fewer children. As Fred Pearce clearly explains in The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, our little Earth will likely reach a (painful) peak of 8 billion people around the year 2040, then the total number of human will begin to decline so rapidly that nations will struggle to keep their populations levels from slipping too low. They may create perks for becoming parents and incentives to attract immigrants.

4. Literacy rates continue to improve.

Global adult literacy rates have shot up from 56 percent in 1950 to nearly 84 percent today, the highest ever.

Women’s rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularlyEast Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health and greater financial stability.

5. Intelligence is on an upswing.

From generation to generation, we’re getting smarter. In fact, to accommodate continuously increasing intelligence the IQ test must be renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100). This is called the Flynn Effect.

Between 1932 and 1978, mean IQ scores in theU.S.rose 13.8 points. If your grandparent received IQ score results of 98 back in 1932 they’d have been deemed of average intelligence. That same grandparent, if administered today’s tests, would be considered to have a borderline mental disability by current scoring standards. IQ scores have risen even higher in some other countries. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.

Plenty of explanations have been proposed, but the increase can’t be definitively pinned on genetic improvements, improved nutrition, greater familiarity with testing or better schooling.

According to Cornell professor Stephen J. Ceci, the most direct gains are not in subjects that are taught (math, vocabulary) but are shown in parts of the test that seem unrelated to schooling (matrices, detecting similarities). In fact, test gains have been enormous in areas requiring the child to apply his or her own reasoning, such as arranging pictures to tell a story or putting shapes in a series. Although teaching children does return positive results, what a child learns through the natural stimulation of everyday life has a more profound effect. For example, a study to determine the effect of schooling on rural children inIndia found that the increase in overall intelligence from a year of age is twice the increase from that of attending a year of school.

IQ test scores don’t relate to what truly provides satisfaction in life. But the Flynn Effect is intriguing. Factors we can’t completely explain are giving us the intellectual capacities to deal with an ever more challenging world.

6. Compassion is huge.

Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming that the abolitionist movement was the first major movement by human beings to advocate on behalf of others without seeking advantage for themselves or their particular social or political group.  Since that time, such efforts have grown with astonishing vigor.

There are now over a million organizations on the planet working for environmental stewardship, social justice, the preservation of indigenous cultures, and much more.  These groups don’t seek wider acclaim, they seek to make a difference for the greater good.

Humanity, which is clever and kind enough to bring about so much improvement, is also awakening to the vital importance of living more sustainably on Earth.

I know we can live more peacefully and wisely.

Thank you Leslie.

global indicators of hope, better world emerging, the shift happening, the secret on a global scale,

Salvatore Di Giovanna

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth
and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and
for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.
Think of it … always.”   Mahatma Gandhi

Gentle Nurturance=Gentle World?

why we shouldn't spank

Image courtesy of courtnee.deviantart.com

A little girl about three years old trails behind her mother in the store. She seems tired and distracted, as if it’s difficult for her to keep up. Her mother is busily shopping while pushing a cart with a baby in a carrier at the front, oblivious as her daughter lags farther behind. Every minute or so the girl says, “Mommy,” but her mother doesn’t look back so the girl hurries to catch up. Not long after the mother turns to another aisle the little girl loses sight of her and wails loudly. Her mother, surely distracted and now embarrassed, hustles back to grab the child, shakes her, and through clenched teeth issues a threat. The child cries quietly and resumes following, more closely at first but again lags behind in the crowded store. A few aisles over she loses sight of her mother again. This time the mother picks the child up by the arm to smack her fiercely.

The problem continues to escalate. The entire time this family is in the store the mother repeatedly threatens and hits a child who may be ill, or needing a nap, or simply isn’t able to keep up. No one intervenes. In the checkout line they stand under an overhead TV screen blaring with news. Crime, war, and looting at the scene of a disaster are shown in vivid video clips. The little girl, tears still drying on her face, reaches up to the baby sleeping in the carrier and squeezes his toes until he too is crying.

Many of us probably see such scenes on a regular basis. Those of us who are parents know full well that gently nurturing a child’s growing body and mind isn’t always easy. Sometime days it feels as if good parenting requires sainthood. But gentle nurturance is the way that we adults constantly demonstrate, in hundreds of seemingly insignificant ways, that a child is a person worthy of love and consideration. We wipe a face softly rather than harshly, we take an extra moment to see what a child sees, we find ways to distract a grumpy toddler or a moody teenager, we share real work with our children so they know the satisfaction of a job well done, we turn away from our own amusements to take part in what delights our children, we teach our children to wait their turn, we cuddle and guide and care.

raise children tenderly for a more peaceful world

Image courtesy of faondejade.deviantart.com

This doesn’t mean we empower children to do whatever they want or raise them without limits. It simply means that it’s possible to touch a child with kindness and respect, to consider situations from the child’s point of view, and whenever possible, to listen to what a child has to say.

Gentle nurturance resounds through a child’s entire life, bringing forth a greater potential for happiness and success. Children treated with love and consideration become adults who treat others well too.

no spanking leads to better behavior

Image courtesy of clauclic.deviantart.com/a

There’s plenty of evidence that this is the case. Let’s take one example, that of corporal punishment. Ninety percent of American parents say they have spanked a toddler, 61 percent in the same week they were asked. If it “worked” parents who spank would have more compliant children. But that’s not the case. In fact, children tended to act out again within a few minutes after being spanked or hit by a parent.

Spanking leads to children who are more easily frustrated, have more frequent temper tantrums, demonstrate greater defiance, and who are more likely to physically harm others.

Spanking is also associated with lowered IQ scores. A U.S. study found children who were spanked had lower IQs four years later compared to those who were not spanked. The more frequently the children were spanked, the slower their intellectual development. Researchers speculate one factor may be that regular physical punishment is a chronic stressor for young children.

Negative consequences aren’t limited to childhood. Children who are punished by spanking, slapping, or grabbing even occasionally run a higher risk of growing up to have mental health problems, according to a study of nearly 35,000 people. Those issues include depression, anxiety, and drug or alcohol abuse as well as more complex illnesses such as narcissism and antisocial behavior.  

Even crime is associated with physical punishment. Take time to read this linked article, titled “The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime” by Adah Maurer, Ph.D. and James S. Wallerstein (courtesy of The Natural Child Project) which features data including the following chart:

Degree of physical punishment

Never

Rare

Moderate

Severe

Extreme

Violent inmates
at San Quentin

0%

0%

0%

0%

100%

Juvenile
Delinquents

0%

2%

3%

31%

64%

High School
drop-outs

0%

7%

23%

69%

0%

College
freshmen

2%

23%

40%

33%

0%

Professionals

5%

40%

36%

17%

0%

Corporal punishment is just one factor among many. There are plenty of other elements to consider as we raise children to respect themselves and others.

raising children peacefully

Image courtesy of melaniumom.deviantart.com

It has to do with consistent and fair discipline. (See Positive Discipline)

It has to do with understanding a child’s temperament and informed parenting as Kloppenmum so aptly explains.

It has to do with free play  and plenty of time in nature.

It has to do with our expectations and our ability to listen.

It has to do with responsible media exposure.

It has to do with an understanding that we as a species are innately kind and cooperative.

And so much more.

Image courtesy of cellists.deviantart.com

But corporal punishment is the example I’ve used because there are larger cultural factors to consider when force is used on children, whether physical or other forms of coercion. There’s a connection between harsh treatment of children and harsh societies. Researchers Carol and Melvin Ember, in a journal article titled “Explaining Corporal Punishment of Children: A Cross-Cultural Study” conclude that force is commonly used against children in highly stratified societies, societies with low levels of democracy, and those with a propensity toward violence.

And there’s more evidence. James W. Prescott, former administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, analyzed cross cultural data using 20,000 statistically significant correlations from 400 studies. The information included presence of physical punishment, freedom or repression of sexual practices, social status of women, degree of affection toward children. He concluded that societies based on affection were highly unlikely to be violent.

These conclusions are of global significance to you, me, and everyone else in today’s world.

peaceful world starts with parenting

Image courtesy of gel2.deviantart.com

This isn’t easy to see on an individual basis. Plenty of anecdotal accounts contradict these assertions, but individual exceptions don’t prove the point. I was raised by loving parents who, yes, spanked a few times and yes, tended to lose me in stores. I don’t see many after effects . (Well, I detest shopping.) The point remains. A gentler world can emerge from gently raised children.

This starts in our homes, stores, everywhere. I know what it’s like to shop with kids (I have four) so I can understand the time pressure and distraction the mother of that three-year-old girl must have been under. But each moment of parenting provides us with an opportunity to help our kids find positive solutions. This builds inner strength and fosters skills they’ll need to deal with future difficulties. Trouble is, parenting skills take patience, conscious attention, and lots of opportunities to observe other parents we admire. The time required is exactly what’s missing in the lives of busy parents. What are some things that could have helped when the little girl couldn’t keep up with her mother?

Connect. “Mommy needs to see where you are. I miss you when you lag behind.”

Empathize. “Oh Sweetie, you’re having trouble keeping up with Mommy.”

Problem solve. “How can we stay together?”

Engage her help. “Can you help me find the cereal you like? Do you remember if it’s in a yellow package?”

Distract her. “Let’s count all the other _____ in the store today (little girls, women with hats, times the loudspeaker interrupts, etc).”

Celebrate and appreciate. “I’m so glad you’re staying with Mommy and helping me watch the baby. Let’s _____ after we get home.”

And it would have helped if this mother had the resources to avoid taking a child to the store who was tired, or sick, or needing closer attention.

Image courtesy of lilangelsg2.deviantart.com

It’s important to recognize that in our society, parents tend to be isolated. A whole tribe of extended friends and family aren’t there to watch, guide, nurture, and enjoy each other’s children. Cultural forces of work and time pressure and distance divide us. Parenting is too often a solitary venture, performed under the gaze of strangers who judge one’s parenting in every store and sidewalk.

As Urie Bronfenbrenner noted, we need to understand what forces affect family so we can to best enable them  “to perform the magic feat of which they alone are capable: making  and keeping  human beings  human.”

Image courtesy of shikigamis.deviantart.com

Are You A Baboon Or A Bonobo?

competitive parents, parenting one upmanship

I’m waiting in a movie theater line behind two women who are clearly friends. And rivals.

“Max won front line seats to this weekend’s game. It’s the first month the school is offering prizes for the highest overall score and Max is their first winner. Already we can see the advantages of this new school.”

“That’s so nice for him. Jeffrey really prefers playing football to just sitting there watching it. The coach keeps telling us that Jeffrey is a natural and sure to get a Big Ten scholarship.”

“Don’t you worry about him tackling when he’s so young? I heard that high school football players can get brain damage and Jeffrey is only 14, probably smaller than the other players. It’s such a risk.”

“That’s so sweet of you to be concerned. But Jeffrey isn’t taking a risk. He’s learning to look out for himself. That makes a difference in the real world. I’m more concerned for Max, insulated by that private school from experiences that could toughen him up. He’s such a nice guy, I’m worried for him.”

Barbed remarks just kept coming from their smiling mouths.

Yes, I’m a biased observer. I prefer what’s gentle, inclusive, and nature-based. This generally works for me. I say “generally” because I’m hampered when communicating with certain people—those who one-up each over with how perfect their lives are or, conversely, spar about who has it worse. I’m well aware that it’s best to listen with empathy but sometimes I can’t help myself. I just want to get out of the way. That’s because these conversations remind me of angry primates flinging poo.

Turns out there’s something to that image. Biological anthropologist Gwen Dewar noted that the “verbal sniping, snobbery, one-ups-manship, and cruelty” of mean moms has a striking parallel in the animal kingdom. Yup, she’s talking about monkeys and apes.

Females in certain monkey societies live in dominance hierarchies. There are perks for those at the top of the social ladder such as better food and first choice of sleeping places. In bad times, higher ranking females and their offspring are more likely to survive. Social rankings don’t budge. Top monkey moms make sure their daughters share their status. Low-ranking monkey moms can’t do anything to help their daughters move from up from the bottom. And middle-ranking moms can only ensure that their daughters stay in that relatively comfortable spot.

This stratification happens because monkey mothers are pushy. Top monkey moms enlist their powerful relatives in an ongoing campaign to make low-ranking monkeys defer to their daughters. As Dewar puts it, “These girls learn to be snobs. To form social cliques. To harass their social inferiors and toady to their social betters.” At a young age, monkeys know who pushes and who gets pushed. They work hard to assert their own status in order to pass that status (and the survival benefits) along to their daughters.

peaceful versus pushy parents,

The analogy isn’t perfect. Humans are pushy for reasons more complex than access to food and better choices of sleeping spots. Plus, we have even more reasons not to be pushy.

But even primates are hard to categorize. Only certain species, like baboons, live in groups with the female dominance hierarchies that Dewar likened to “mean moms.” Other species are wonderfully egalitarian, with strong female alliances, like the bonobos.

Bonobos live in matriarchal peace-loving groups. One of the many ways they get along is by frequently offering each other casual sexual stimulation, which rules out suggesting bonobo style friendship to moms waiting in line at the movie theater.

Putting that particular bonobo feel-good formula aside, what primate-like politics do you observe in your fellow humans? How about you? Baboon or bonobo?

9 Amazing Reasons To Be Optimistic

world betterment, global optimism, oneness, hope, peace, all will be well,

If you could scroll through history searching for an era where you’d like to spend a lifetime, what would attract you?

Probably peace and prosperity. Probably a time when the arts flourish and science is open to new wonders. Probably too, a time period when people behave morally, care for one another, and uphold higher ideals than selfishness.

Does it make a difference to your answer if you don’t get to choose where on Earth you’ll be born?  Into what class, gender, creed, and ability?

You’ll probably want to stay right here, right now.

Our 24 hour media attention on what’s terrifying and what’s superficial steers us away from the big picture.  That picture, looking at the wider view, is actually pretty heartening.

*

1. War and global violence continue to decline.

Armed conflicts aren’t going up, they’re going down.

The world has seen a 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War era. Genocide is down 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished by 33 percent and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent. Even measuring from as little as 15 years ago, the number of armed conflicts has dropped from 44 to 28.

Why? Project Ploughshares credits peace building efforts.

Chances are, the reasons for peace are complex. Yet a stronger international resolve to focus on peace building and basic human rights is taking place. Imagine the far larger potential for enduring peace if we intentionally educate our children and ourselves in the proven methods of non-violence—-negotiation, mediation, reconciliation, even basic listening skills.

*

2. Freedom is stretching across the planet.

By evaluating variables including civil liberties, democratic institutions, and independent media it’s possible to assess how free each nation in the world really is. Back in 1973, 29 percent of nations were deemed free, 25 percent partially free, and 46 percent not free.

In a little over 35 years, the number of nations ruled by authoritarian regimes dropped from 90 to 30. Countries around the world considered to be free increased by 50 percent while those not free had dropped by more than half.

Independence has a long way to go. And what we may not recognize as positive signs—protests, dissent, political upheaval—may very well be ordinary people speaking up for freedom.

*

3. Affluence is on the increase.

A shifting focus away from war, conflict, and chaos means that countries are better able to meet the needs of their citizens. Those 151 countries deemed free or partly free account for 95 % of the world’s gross domestic production (GDP).

The number of people living in poverty has dropped by 500 million people, although most of those successes are in a few key countries.  Since 1975 the world’s poor have seen their incomes grow faster than the world’s wealthy, meaning economic equality is increasing.

Of course, we make a mistake when we confuse affluence with well-being. After certain (surprisingly minimal) levels of health and safety are reached, money doesn’t buy happiness.

Current global conditions of institutional breakup, financial chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which seem to be (slowly) leading to long-term beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the limitations of short-term fixes and relentless economic expansion. Hopefully we’re also waking up to the reality that we’re in this together—rich and poor, developed and developing nations, young and old, left and right. We see in our own lives that what’s important can’t be measured by dollars alone. Things like good health, supportive relationships and a vital ecosystem.

There are plenty of other ways to define affluence. A fascinating measure of wealth lies in a quick look at how many hours of labor it once took the average worker to pay for light.  In ancient Babylonia it took over 50 hours to pay for an hour of poor light from a sesame-oil lamp. At the start of the last century, it would have taken the average worker a thousand hours to earn the money to buy candles equaling the light of a single 100 watt bulb. Today’s high efficiency lighting costs us less than a second of work.

*

4. Fewer people are hungry.

Hunger continues to drop although we have a long way to go. It’s staggering to realize that 925 million people are chronically hungry. But according to The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany, global food supplies increased 24 percent per capita in the last 40 years. In developing countries the food supply increased at an even greater rate, 38 percent more food per person. Since 1950, the real global price of food commodities has declined 75 percent.

No one should go hungry. The future of global food justice relies on efforts to restore and protect biodiversity, stop the spread of genetically modified crops, and assure water rights.

*

5. Longevity is improving yet total population faces a downturn

Fulfilling the cherished hopes of their parents, more children around the world are born healthy. Mortality rates for those under five years of age have fallen by 60 percent since 1960.

Meanwhile, life expectancy has risen 21 years since the mid 1950’s.

This doesn’t mean the planet will be too crowded. Overall population will continue to rise for several more decades but we’re facing a major downturn. Already birth rates are near or below replacement rate in countries all over the world. Increased education and affluence tend to inspire women, no matter what country they live in, to invest their time and resources in fewer children. As Fred Pearce clearly explains in The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, our little Earth will likely reach a (painful) peak of 8 billion people around the year 2040, then the total number of human will begin to decline so rapidly that nations will struggle to keep their populations levels from slipping too low. They may create perks for becoming parents and incentives to attract immigrants.

*

6. Health continues to improve.

Studies conducted by Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate and economic historian at the University of Chicago, show that in a few hundred years human biology has changed in startling ways. We are more resistant to ill health, more likely to recover when faced with disease and less likely to live with chronic disability. We are also smarter and live longer. Fogel calls this radical improvement “technophysio evolution.”

An interview quotes Fogel as saying, “The phenomenon is not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.”

Fogel doesn’t necessary attribute the changes to genetic shifts.  Improvements in medical care, nutrition, sanitation and working conditions may cause epigenetic changes. These are shifts in gene expression that can last through many generations without altering underlying DNA.

Information amassed by Fogel indicates that chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and lung ailments are occurring 10 to 25 years later in life than they did 100 or 200 years ago. Interestingly, well-being may be more strongly affected by conditions each individual faces in utero and during the first few years of life than previously suspected.

These remarkable health gains don’t diminish our current struggles with cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other serious health conditions on the increase. Despite the blessing of bodies more resilient and healthy than those of our ancestors of just 150 years ago we suffer the effects of environmental toxins and nutritionally inferior diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, we need to make the right choices to pass those benefits to our descendants.

*

7. Literacy rates continue to improve.

Global adult literacy rates have shot up from 56 percent in 1950 to nearly 84 percent today, the highest ever.

Women’s rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularly East Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health and greater financial stability.

*

8. Intelligence is on an upswing.

From generation to generation, we’re getting smarter. In fact, to accommodate continuously increasing intelligence the IQ test must be renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100). This is called the Flynn Effect.

Between 1932 and 1978, mean IQ scores in the U.S. rose 13.8 points. If your grandparent received IQ score results of 98 back in 1932 they’d have been deemed of average intelligence. That same grandparent, if administered today’s tests, would be considered to have a borderline mental disability by current scoring standards. IQ scores have risen even higher in some other countries. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.

Plenty of explanations have been proposed, but the increase can’t be definitively pinned on genetic improvements, improved nutrition, greater familiarity with testing or better schooling.

According to Cornell professor Stephen J. Ceci, the most direct gains are not in subjects that are taught (math, vocabulary) but are shown in parts of the test that seem unrelated to schooling (matrices, detecting similarities). In fact, test gains have been enormous in areas requiring the child to apply his or her own reasoning, such as arranging pictures to tell a story or putting shapes in a series. Although teaching children does return positive results, what a child learns through the natural stimulation of everyday life has a more profound effect. For example, a study to determine the effect of schooling on rural children in India found that the increase in overall intelligence from a year of age is twice the increase from that of attending a year of school.

IQ test scores don’t relate to what truly provides satisfaction in life. But the Flynn Effect is intriguing. Factors we can’t completely explain are giving us the intellectual capacities to deal with an ever more challenging world.

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9. Compassion is huge.

Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming that the abolitionist movement was the first major movement by human beings to advocate on behalf of others without seeking advantage for themselves or their particular social or political group.  Since that time, such efforts have grown with astonishing vigor.

There are now over a million organizations on the planet working for environmental stewardship, social justice, the preservation of indigenous cultures, and much more.  These groups don’t seek wider acclaim, they seek to make a difference for the greater good.

Humanity, which is clever and kind enough to bring about so much improvement for one another, is awakening to the vital importance of living more sustainably on Earth. Unless we pull another planet out of the galaxy’s pocket in the next decade or two, we have to stop using up our precious blue green Earth. It’s time to turn our ingenuity to living well within our means. Peacefully, wisely, and with optimism.

world peace, ending world hunger, ending war, ending illiteracy, global optimism, heartening optimism,

Hand Globe image courtesy of HapciuMadam

Hummingbird image courtesy of PhapPuppy