Yesterday news message after news message stunned me with the continued violence happening in France. I didn’t think more would happen after Thursday’s drama. But it did. And it fires up conversations between me and my colleagues. Of course those terrorists’ acts are unacceptable and our individual input leading to this situation as well as our current capacity to do something about it are completely insignificant.
But is it? I try to argue otherwise. Bits and pieces of some kind leave my mouth:
‘Think of what led to this situation today. Our societies are a part of that.’
‘Don’t make the hate and separation between us and them grow. This only accelerates the vicious circle of hatred and violence we already created.’
‘What’s happening now is going to serve as a justification for more war. And there are people behind this war earning lots and lots of money with it. They want this dichotomy to happen and discrimination to grow. Intentions have never been peace; they have been war and money all along.’ But my words get lost in confusion of the others: ‘But what those terrorists did is terrible.’ And in phone calls that keep interrupting me and my colleagues; I work at a call center.
Biking home after work yesterday I felt powerless. I don’t know enough of this situation anyway to set up a strong argument, to make a statement or write an article about it. Shit, isn’t that exactly what makes me, and many others, be quiet in urgent situations? The way some people know how to act as an authority dismissing any other arguments and voices as too naïve or ignorant is working. It makes many of us shut up.
We shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. Even a child knows that what’s happening is wrong. And I’ve been alive and participating in this world for long enough to know that this situation is far more complex than the black and white, right and wrong, us and them choices that mass media and politics want us to swallow.
This is not just about what happened the past couple of days. This is about what’s been going on for years and years. It hasn’t touched our daily lives really, until now at least. However, think of the violence, loss and pain our fellow human beings have had to suffer for so many years now in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Seeing children die, homes destroyed and freedoms obstructed is tough. So many people are dying every week. Just today many people died in Nigeria and Lebanon. It’s so easy not to notice. It’s so easy to forget. The world is not at peace today and the US and Europe are thoroughly involved.
Closer to home our neighbors, classmates, colleagues and friends, who are born on the same grounds as we, suffer from increasing discrimination and angry looks. Think about how it must feel to not be considered as a true fellow countryman but as tolerated strangers that were allowed to borrow some space in ‘our’ countries until we decide it’s enough? No wonder more and more young people feel marginalized and groundless. No wonder more and more young people deal with the feelings of exclusion by tipping over to the point of sheer violence.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to justify by any means the violence of terrorist attacks, or any other violence for that matter. These violent acts are wrong and no-one should be allowed to impose such harm upon others, ever. What I do wish to do is to put the current events in a larger perspective of causes and conditions that have led to it. I wish to bring in the complexity of it all hoping we will not fall for the easy to consume black and white vision of the world.
Stand on the shoulders of giants
Let us stand on the shoulders of giants that went before us. Let us remember the wise voices of those who have faced war, division and hatred before. Let us be worthy of their causes, of their faith in human kind. Let us listen to those we awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Because the time is now to be truly bold, to be truly courageous and dare to stand in the middle. Stand in between black and white, stand in between right and wrong, stand in between good and bad and take the middle way, a new way, a new thought pattern, new solutions, create a new path to walk, together.
Martin Luther King, in his talk “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” on April 30th 1967 at the Riverside Church, New York, called for a genuine revolution:
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”
His talk could not be more relevant to us today as he urges us to open ourselves to the other to try and understand the situation as “it is clear to [him] that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know these people and hear their broken cries.”
Peace activist and Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has himself experienced the Vietnam War, lost close friends and seen the destruction of the violence and hatred. His close experience with war makes him an even more determined practitioner of peace. He’s not talking about some ideology or theory; he has walked the talk right in the midst of war. This is what he has to say about terrorism and peace:
“You are children of Christ, of Mohammed, of Moses, and of the Buddha.” You have to return to yourselves and look deeply and find out why this violence happened. Why is there so much hatred? What lies under all this violence? Why do they hate so much that they would sacrifice their own lives and bring about so much suffering to other people? Why would these young people, full of vitality and strength, have chosen to lose their lives, to commit such violence? That is what we have to understand.
The fire of hatred and violence cannot be extinguished by adding more hatred and violence to the fire. The only antidote to violence is compassion. And what is compassion made of? It is made of understanding.
We often think of peace as the absence of war; that if the powerful countries would reduce their arsenals, we could have peace.
But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds – our prejudices, fears, and ignorance.
Even if we transported all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the reasons for bombs would still be here, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we would make new bombs.
Seek to become more aware of what causes anger and separation, and what overcomes them. Root out the violence in your life, and learn to live compassionately and mindfully.”
We are what we consume. If we consume our anger, hatred and jealousy, we become that and we create that. We create the societies that we already are. We are the hatred we see around us. We are the violence we see around us. We also are the peace and love we see around us. We also are the beauty we see around us. Choose what to nourish and it will grow. Thich Nhat Hanh has written a powerful poem on the fact that it could be either one of us. Had we grown up in a different place under different circumstances would we not have become violent, a terrorist, or as in his poem a sea-pirate? This is how he introduces his poem:
“When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.
After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The tide of the poem is “Please Call Me by My True Names,” because I have so many names. When I hear one of these names, I have to say, “Yes.”
Call Me by My True Names
Poem by Thich Nhat Hanh
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
Are we, as individuals, as communities, as societies and nations prepared for peace when times become difficult?
This question keeps coming back to my mind these days. When watching France dealing with the grieve, shock and anger that comes from the horrible events I fear the worst. The recent events grow the gap between the Muslim and Arabic population and the other French citizens. Fear and hatred grow, as is the narrow-minded believe that getting rid of certain people will solve all problems. War has been there in French society already before Charlie. And war is also present in our own societies wherever we live. War is present in our own minds and our thoughts can lead to acts.
I live in the Netherlands, and I cannot deny there is discrimination, fear and hatred present also in my own city and country. When it comes down to it, when the moment is there that we will have to deal with a similar situation, I do not think we will be better able to deal with it than France. Anger is an incredibly strong emotion, I know it from experience. Anger can take over my whole inner world and cloud my vision. How are we going to be able to stop, take a step back, calm our minds and clear our visions when tragedy happens to us, when we are not trained in doing that in times of peace? We are not prepared for peace; we are only prepared for competition. How resilient is the peace in our society today if it’s not grounded in a strong training of inner peace and anger management? Therefore I call upon you today to start building peace in times of peace. Start training yourselves and others to be able to stop, take a step back and make sure we have a clear understanding and perception before taking action in challenging situations.
I’m inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions organized in South Africa by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. We could organize dialogues for peace citywide, before anything happens, to get to know our neighbors, understand each other’s differences, and hear each other’s struggles so that once times are more difficult we feel we can approach our neighbors and listen and talk to each other. We need to train ourselves in listening, to ourselves and to others, to grow understanding and by extension grow compassion. Only when we are trained as a society, only when we are prepared for peace, when our peace is resilient, will we be able to respond wisely to crisis situations. As Nelson Mandela says:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. We must learn to hate, and if we can learn to hate, then we can be taught to love, because love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
It’s up to each and every one of us to create the conditions for inner transformation and social change. One little step, one little action at a time. Yesterday, I felt powerless and I thought my voice was not powerful enough to even use it. Now I know this was a wrong perception and that’s why I’m writing to all of you today. We all have a contribution to make, and we don’t have to do it alone. To end with Peace Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai’s words, the time to act is now!
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.
It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.
We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!”
http://www.quietspaces.com/poemHanh.html [consulted 10-01-2015]
http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/pacificaviet/riversidetranscript.html [consulted 09-01-2015]