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Do Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures?

By Reed Price


Paul Simon in 2012 – Photo: Wikipedia

Paul Simon in 2012 – Photo: Wikipedia

In the song “Boy in the Bubble,” Paul Simon sings “these are the days of miracle and wonder.” And indeed they are, replete with powerful technology that effectively shrinks time and space, medical prowess that extends and improves lives and a staggering scientific understanding of our universe — from the minute to the magnificent.

But, as Simon also sings, these are the days of “the bomb in the baby carriage,” camo-clad couples firing fusillades, and dictators and military extremists forcing refugees to flee their homelands.

How to respond? Is it any wonder we mostly meet these spasms of violence with bigoted bombast and simple solutions — our animal brains are quick to stereotype and differentiate in an anxious effort to seek short-term safety. We are not unlike the orcas that avoided Penn Cove for nearly 45 years after seven young whales were captured there in the early 1970s. Like us now, the orcas then were confused; they mistook a symptom (dangerous coves where their cousins were entrapped) for a cause (commercially motivated humans who could seek them out anywhere).

Are we making that same mistake when faced with spasms of violence that sear our screens? Are the perpetrators of senseless violence the cause or are they the symptom of a deeper issue: a cultural unrest that killing the killers will not cure?

It may be helpful to compare our global society to a person: what if the violence that is poisoning our world is not so much an incarnation of evil as a species self-injury?

Therapists tell us that when an individual compulsively engages in self-harm, it’s often the result of intense anger and frustration fused with extreme impatience to make that anger and frustration go away. Many people who self-harm describe “being at war” with their bodies. Self-harming is not suicidal; it’s a twisted attempt at self-soothing.

Further, though self-injury is an impulsive act, it’s usually not without preparation. People who self-damage anticipate the action and imagine how to accomplish it wherever they might be – at home, at school, at work. (When I read that the California couple who opened fire in San Bernardino died with a significant cache of weapons and ammo left behind, I thought they must have been compulsively preparing and impulsively acting.)

So what’s the treatment for dysphoria — personal or cultural?

Acceptance, Compassion and Communication

First, radical acceptance. We need to acknowledge our situation; we need to — in Twelve-Step parlance — “conduct a fearless and searching inventory” of ourselves. As the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book spells it out, “we searched out the flaws in our makeup which caused our failure.” Among those flaws in our global body: those in power often abuse that power to selfish advantage; we are inclined to make decisions based on short-term rather than long-term consequences; and we can easily abandon moral principle when faced with physical threat.

Second, cultivate compassion. Seek to treat each other as we wish to be treated ourselves. The implications of this ancient cross-faith directive — the Golden Rule — are discomforting but necessary. Can we still, from our fear/confusion/anger, seek out our enemies’ humanity? Rather than fixating on whether an assailant is “crazy” or “a terrorist,” can we consider that he or she may be a profoundly wounded individual whose actions may be borne out of intense anger and frustration? Can we allow that the desire to resort to violence is universal (look how quickly France and the U.K. unleashed bombs on ISIS after the Paris attacks, or how rapidly the U.S. waged war following Sept. 11, 2001) — and recognize that violence always begets more violence?

Third, communication. Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith Youth Core, says that while we know there are fundamental things we disagree about, we should seek to identify fundamental things on which we agree. Food and safety, for starters. We should build on those. And we commit to listening deeply to those we see as enemies: recognize they can teach us a lot.

There are heartening examples of the movement towards this kind of cultural health — specifically seeing refugees as common victims of violence, not the enemies themselves. Here are two from where I live: the community gathering in support of Muslim Americans at the Japanese Exclusion Memorial on Monday, December 14; and expressing commitments to help Syrian refugees at this month’s Bainbridge Island/North Kitsap Interfaith Council meeting here in northwestern Washington state.

If we can, even for a moment, silence our fears, we may gain perspective and open an avenue for hope.

As Simon concludes his song, “[imagine] the way we look to a distant constellation/That’s dying in the corner of the sky/These are the days of miracle and wonder/And don’t cry baby, don’t cry.”