What if we had the kind of society in which if we saw someone abusing or harming someone else. Wouldn’t we be totally committed to making sure they stopped, as well as to protecting the vulnerable and understanding how the brutality began in the first place? Imagine if our approach to ending violence was determinedly nonviolent. Imagine if instead of rushing to punish and vilify the offender, we paid equal attention to knowing the story of the abuser. That would make it possible to mete out punishment appropriate to the guilty while also addressing the causes and conditions that led to that behavior. What if we directed our animosity toward the crime instead of the criminal? Rather than losing ourselves in personal outrage, what if we directed our outrage toward the systems that help create such disaffected, abandoned, and angry people?
Anger is our default emotion when we’re not getting what we want, but the principle of transformative action requires us to think more creatively. We learn that it is possible to respond to grief and fear in ways other than resentment. It is indeed natural to be outraged in the face of injustice or cruelty. But when anger becomes a steady presence, it narrows our perceptions and possibilities.
Remember that anger, like fear, constricts our field of vision. Our practice is to feel outrage when it arises, without allowing it to become our overriding motivation for seeking change. If our goal is to stop a war and end violence, then outrage—no matter how righteous—is not the way to sustain that effort in the long term, with all the uncertainty, hope, grief, and twists and turns we can experience in the process of trying to affect the world.
Ordinarily, we tend to think of pacifism, like kindness and empathy, as a form of weakness. But that misses our need to take a good look at what strength really is. It is possible to be absolutely committed to stopping abuse or injustice and protecting the injured, while tempering outrage with compassion.
My Friend Ethan Nichtern, founder of the Interdependence Project, a non-profit dedicated to Buddhist-inspired meditation and mindfulness in psychology, activism, media, and the arts, has written eloquently about why we are often blocked in maintaining this fine balance. If we examine the view of human nature that lies beneath our social niceties, Ethan points out, we find “a fearful sense of what it means to be human.” According to the prevailing Western philosophical perspective, put forth most pessimistically by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, human beings are naturally inclined to a “war of all against all.” Ethan lists “three S’s” that, in this view, characterize us above all: Separate, Selfish, and Scared. Dominated by this philosophy, he explains, life becomes “a perpetual battle against the Other, a self-absorbed and fearful fight to protect ourselves and our families against constant threats.”
Ethan offers an alternative perspective for a wholly different, more fulfilled and effective life, defined by three C’s: Connection, Compassion, and Courage. He and his colleagues named the shift from the three S’s to the three C’s “Transformational Activism.” It calls for the re-visioning of our inner work as individuals, our interpersonal conduct in relationships, and our collective efforts to transform society. In Transformational Activism there is a seamless, reciprocal exchange between our inner life and the expression of our values in the larger world.
All these strategies would nourish our communities and offer lessons for moral and spiritual growth, instead of creating more violence. Albert Einstein said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking. . . .” How we think, how we look at our lives, is all-important, and the degree of love we manifest determines the degree of spaciousness and freedom we can bring to life’s events. It takes strong insight and a good deal of courage to break away from our habitual ways of looking at things, in order to respond from a different place.