We Have Room

 

refugee children, host border children, welcome the stranger, angels unaware,

All images thanks to wikimedia commons.

There may be no more powerful image in art, no more important message in scripture, than open arms. Welcoming the stranger is a basis of civilization, especially if that stranger is a refugee and always if that stranger is a child.

“You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Christianity, Deuteronomy 10: 19

“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137

“When the Holy One loves a man, He sends him a present in the shape of a poor man, so that he should perform some good deed to him, through the merit of which he may draw a cord of grace.” Judaism. Zohar, Genesis 104a

“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1

“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”  Islam. Quran 4:36

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu

“See to it that whoever enters your house obtains something to eat, however little you may have. Such food will be a source of death to you if you withhold it.” Native American religions. A Winnebago Father’s Precepts

“`0 Ke aloha Ke Kuleana o kahi malihini. Love is the host in strange lands.”  Hawaiian saying

Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor. Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way

 

child 2

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Whether scripture or statue inscription, we all know it’s easier to state our principles than adhere to them. I’m as weak as the next person in actually living up to what I believe.

I’ve vowed to keep politics out of this site, so I won’t be talking about lies fostered by divisive media or shockingly cruel attitudes toward refugees of any age. I’ll only say that it takes an extraordinary act of love to scrape together the coyote fees to send one’s child away in hopes of a safe haven. It takes inestimable courage for that child to walk through deserts, ride the tops of trains, and face down thieves along the way in hopes of real freedom.

My husband and I did some soul-searching. We talked to our kids. And we decided we cannot stand by while refugee children turn themselves in at the border only to be treated like criminals. We have room to host refugee children.

We applied to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We were told placements might be for a few months or they might be permanent. So we re-imagined our lives. Now that our kids are college students and young adults we thought we were done raising children, but we can go back to homemade popsicles and toys on the floor and books read aloud. We have our own problems with unemployment and a not-remotely-profitable small farm, but what we have can always stretch. There’s a place in our home and our hearts.

That doesn’t mean we have a greeting card view of this. These children will be traumatized, experience culture shock, and face learning a new language. We’ll have plenty of adapting to do as well.

Lately before falling asleep, I look ahead to rows of family pictures stretching into the future. Those pictures seem to hold two dark-haired faces newly dear to me, and eventually, more of their relatives joining them and becoming part of our extended family, on for generations, with babies in arms growing to stand tall, my husband and me fading into old age and beyond. It’s a good vision.

Right now it looks like that vision won’t come true. I just got an email from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It said, in part, 

After exploring the nationwide LIRS foster care program network, I am sorry to share with you that LIRS does not have a foster care program in the geographic area that you are located. If at a future time an opportunity arises, we will reach out to you at that time.

I wrote back, asking if there was some way I could help set up a program in our area. Apparently the only option is applying for a grant through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which I admit is probably past me. So now I’m applying to other agencies.

I only mention our quest in hopes that someone out there may qualify even if we don’t. Here are resources to investigate.

Office of Refugee Resettlement

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bethany Refugee Care

Texas Interfaith Center
refugees, host border children,

 

Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

Politeness Recovery In Progress

 

politeness recovery, good girl syndrome, kind versus nice,

deskridge.deviantart.com

Politeness is the dodo bird of our times. No one is quite sure what killed off civility but it’s obvious that two-year-olds aren’t growing out of tantrums or a sense of entitlement. Instead they just get bigger, becoming toddler adults. They drive like idiots, foster workplace stress, simultaneously overindulge and ignore their own kids, feed on the negative energy of angry pundits, and blame everyone else for their own problems. They need to learn a little empathy, or at least the rudiments of feigned empathy we call politeness.

But some of us are way on the other side of the spectrum. We’re so empathetic that we tremble with concern for the feelings of other people. And animals. And plants. (I even tremble with empathy for spiders.) It wouldn’t occur to us to put ourselves first or to act rudely (although my good intentions may come across as annoying, just ask my family).

Some may have been hardwired this way from birth. The rest of us were trained to be too polite for our own good. Right around the time we started crawling we were taught to be respectful and considerate at all times. No exceptions. If asked how we are, we learned the answer should always be affirmative followed by a kindly inquiry about the other person. Never mention any peril you may be in, the object is to focus on others. This means if you’re bleeding, you deny there’s any real problem (oh it’s nothing), don’t bleed conspicuously, and God forbid, don’t complain about whatever caused you to bleed. If you are offered a favor, graciously decline. Even if it’s chocolate. If someone is actively causing you difficulty, either put up with it without complaint or extricate yourself in a way that doesn’t embarrass the other person.

Maintaining this level of politeness rarely leads to an authentically lived life. It’s more like an affliction. We do our best to avoid winning games, getting the best grades, pushing ahead at work, sticking up for ourselves, saying what we mean unless it’s “nice.”  Being too polite actually put me in dangerous situations more than once. Nice at all costs has got to go. Kind, yes. Honest, yes. Nice, not always.

Politeness recovery is a slow process and often difficult. It’s complicated because I’m naturally opinionated, sardonic, and forthright. And sometimes silly. Suppressing that side of myself has never been easy. But I’m not giving up my polite side by any means. Politeness is essential if we’re to live together in any kind of harmony. I’ve found genuine politeness has a surprising way of bringing out the best in other people. It presumes they are basically good (a core principle of non-violence) and many times, that’s all that required. (Now, if only that principle were applied on talk radio and in snarky web threads.)

More importantly, I want to be authentic. Treating people with respect and understanding simply feels right. It comes from true compassion, far richer than any thin soup of poor self-worth. The generosity and love of kindness stimulates more of the same.

I aim to give up only the parts of my Good Girl upbringing that hold me back from my eventual goal of becoming a rowdy old lady. My politeness recovery is still ongoing but my friends are amazing role models. They’re well ahead, evolving before my eyes. Some days I’m swimming in the muck, other days I join them on land. I’m often awkward, occasionally splattering mud as I go, but I’m a creature in progress trying to be polite as well as real, empathetic as well as centered, serious but silly too. Like a dodo bird who hasn’t given up on her wings.

 

Who We Are In A Crisis

how people act in disaster, survivor, true survivor behavior,

Versions of Survivor are watched all over the world. Forty-five countries have pitted contestants against the odds and shows are still filmed in Denmark, Croatia, Italy, Norway, Serbia, France, India, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. These series drop people in inhospitable places with minimal resources and ask them to cope successfully with unexpected challenges. It’s called “reality” television, although people in the real world face harder challenges every day.

Survivor shows have to be carefully structured with authoritarian rules and imposed competition. Otherwise contestants might resort to a very natural state. Not Lord of the Flies levels of cruelty and exclusion. No, something far worse for ratings. Cooperation.

In our non-reality TV lives we don’t live as separate entities battling for limited resources like wanna-be stars on an island bristling with cameras. We humans are wired to live in interdependent networks of people based on mutual support and compassion. Ninety-nine percent of humanity’s time on earth took place while we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, a time when we did not make war against each other. Anthropologists tell us that our species never would have survived without structuring our lives around sharing food and resources. This responsive caring is basic to who we are.

But somehow, after years of schooling where collaboration is redefined as cheating and recreation where play is turned into supervised competition, we adopt the idea that people are essentially selfish. Popular culture feeds this concept by elevating what’s superficial and materialistic, the better to shape us into perpetual consumers. Worse, we seem to think that selfishness can easily erupt into brutally dangerous behavior when disaster strikes. According to a remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the opposite is true.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Disaster is often compounded by those who believe that human nature is selfish and cruel. In many cases this is the drumbeat sounded by the media and acted on by authorities. An analysis of disasters shows that official efforts to deal with disaster tend to focus on this aspect, suppressing the efforts of ordinary people to help one another while increasing militaristic control. This deprives people of helping one another and compounds the crisis.

Solnit says that the enlivening purpose that truly comes to the fore as a result of disasters tells us something about ourselves. “Each of us enlarges the world by idealistic passion and engagement. Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most people’s lives. The tasks that arise in disaster often restore this meaning.”

No one wants their blessedly ordinary lives wiped away by something unimaginably horrible. But it’s good to know, as Solnit says, who we are in a crisis gives us a “glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

who we are in a crisis, humanity at its best in crisis,

This article first published in Wired

Natural Antidote To Bullying

antidote to bullying, free play prevents bullying, bullies made by restrictions, nature prevents bullies,

Wikimedia Commons

Children are drawn to challenge themselves. They need to take risks of all kinds—physical, social, emotional, intellectual—in order to grow into mature self-reliance.

Where do such challenges most naturally occur? Outdoors. As detailed in Last Child in the Woods, when children spend time in natural areas their play is more creative and they self-manage risk more appropriately. They’re more likely to incorporate each other’s ideas into expressive make-believe scenarios using their dynamic surroundings—tall grasses become a savannah, tree roots become elf houses, boulders become a fort. Their games are more likely to incorporate peers of differing ages and abilities. Regular outdoor experiences not only boost emotional health, memory, and problem solving, they also help children learn how to get along with each other in ever-changing circumstances. Free outdoor play with others, especially when it’s not hampered by adult interference, teaches kids to interact with others while also maintaining self-control. Otherwise, no one wants to play with them. It’s the best sort of learning because it’s fun. Sounds like the perfect way to raise bully-proof kids doesn’t it?

But the opportunity for free play and risk is funneled into very narrow options for today’s children. They are shuttled from one adult-run activity to another. Time between these obligations is often spent indoors. And children’s outdoor play is restricted by excessive rules designed to keep them safe from dangers out of proportion to any real safety issue.

So kids don’t get natural challenges like climbing trees, exploring fields, building forts. They are deprived of the rich lessons of cooperation and self-control found in free play. And they don’t develop biophilia, that essential sense of connection with nature. Then we expect them to get along and recognize real risk. Any wonder that bullying is a growing problem?

Here are examples of playground designs that, in institutions like schools and daycare programs, foster free play using natural materials. Sensory play, places for solitude, and opportunities for physical risk are built in and, no surprise, children get along better.

It’s a step in the right direction. A few steps farther and we’ll let kids back in nature herself, playing in woods and fields and beaches. Too bad all the money thrown at anti-bullying programs aren’t used to fling open the doors to the natural world. “Go out and play,” may very well be the best anti-bullying advice yet.

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.”

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.

Personally Violent Approach                  Personally Nonviolent Approach

Avoid or ignore signs of conflict.                       Speak up early, before conflict escalates.

Suppress problems. Allow tension

to build.

Slander others, incite anger,                              Show positive regard for others

distort truth.                                                        as well as oneself. Maintain honesty.

Highlight differences, provoke                          Find common ground, ways to agree.

defensiveness.

Show impatience                                                Act with patience and high regard for the

                                                                              process. Recognize change may be  slow.

Attack the other person, typically                   Be open to ideas, different perspectives,

escalating situation.                                           possible changes.

Inflict suffering on others.                                Refuse to inflict suffering even at one’s own 

                                                                              expense. 

Aim to “win” or destroy others.                      Accept only equitable solutions fair to all.

Ends justifies the means.                                 Process important as outcome. 

Expectations not fitting circumstances.          Act with integrity and understanding,

                                                                              instilling  respect and empathy.  

                                                                               Operate with openness, justice, compassion.  

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.

Peace Means Renouncing Islamophobia

Islamophobia

The principles of non-violence are little known and desperately needed. Here’s a simple take-away lesson. One 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 that 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, 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.

We’ve seen this principle in action more recently. Hate talk spread unchecked across all forms of media played a major part in creating the horrific ethnic violence in Serbia, in Rwanda, and in the Congo. Yes, there were reasoned objections but they weren’t loud enough or frequent enough to turn the tide.

Hate talk and repressive policies put into place sounds familiar. Today Muslim headscarves are banned in France, the construction of minarets are banned in Switzerland, Muslim travelers are profiled, and pundits advance the cause of prejudice unchecked. And now, the recent horrific acts of violence by Anders Breivik, an anti-Muslim terrorist.

How do we, the bystanders, intervene?

Be informed. Get your news from widely acclaimed Al Jazeera. Read Islamophobia by Chris Hedges and No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan.

Step beyond a limiting cultural framework. If you have no Muslim friends, seek to make them in your community.

Take action when newscasters and pundits utter anti-Islamic rhetoric. Contact the network with your objections. Also let the sponsors of the show know you’ll boycott their products if these violations continue.

Take action when politicians use anti-Islamic rhetoric. Contact them to explain you’ll be voting them out of office.

Actively object if you hear anti-Islamic rhetoric in a personal conversation. Silence is generally taken for agreement.

Actively object if you witness prejudice against any Muslim person. This means intervening in your school or workplace as well as in public. Here are some tactics for non-violent intervention.

What other ways can we de-escalate Islamophobia?