writing on suffering and awakening

How to stand up to violence

Over Memorial Day weekend, sixty-four people were shot in Chicago. Six of them died. Later that week in California, as people left a campaign rally held by Donald Trump, they were attacked by other people angered by the candidate’s message. Several were beaten.

There is violence every day in the world. Except to the people hurt or killed, and their families and friends, I suppose there is nothing particularly special about these events. But I found them striking and scary nonetheless.

People are dying on the streets of a major American city with a frequency and brutality we would expect to see in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria, not within a few miles of Wrigley Field. It’s normal to read headlines about violence in the name of electoral politics — when headlines are coming from Egypt or Russia. We can ignore this stuff when it happens overseas, but what about when it starts happening here, to us?

What are we supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?

I think a good place to start is by asking: what’s my part in this? Almost none of us had anything to do with these specific acts of violence, of course, but what about the little acts of violence we all commit every day?

I get crazy when I can’t find a parking space. It all comes from fear: I start to think that the whole world is against me, and there’s no room to breathe. I tense up, and other drivers begin to look like enemies. If I’m having a good day, I’ll start swearing in my head. On a bad day, I start yelling in the car.

That’s an act of everyday violence I think most of us can relate to. Nearly all of us commit them, in one way or another. When we get angry with someone, or judge them, or do anything to put them out of our hearts, that’s violence.

It might not seem like a big deal, and on one level, it isn’t. But even small acts of violence impact the people around us. When I blow up over a parking space, it affects my partner and our dog. All of us experience a level of stress that we otherwise wouldn’t.

That small violence radiates through our space, and outwards into the world. It makes everything a little less peaceful, and feel a little less safe. Over time, that adds up. Even the lightest touch on a spider’s web will eventually rouse the spider.

If we start committing small acts of love instead of violence, those too begin to add up. They can and should be simple. We can set the intention to act with kindness towards everyone we encounter, choose to be generous and forgiving in our relationships and business dealings, and say hello to our neighbors on the street. I do none of these things perfectly, or even well sometimes. The point is to practice, because over time, we can get better at it. The more we practice, the more things change.

That doesn’t mean we never get angry or judge other people — that’s a normal behavior of the human mind. What it does mean is that we can learn to not take it seriously when we start to do those things — to not buy into our own violent instincts. We can learn to watch the anger and the judgement, to feel it in our bodies, and to leave our hearts open the entire time.

If we act with an intention of love and kindness, what we’re really doing is telling the truth. We’re being honest about the love we all have in our hearts. That love can be covered up by fear, as clouds cover the sun, but it never goes away. It’s always there, waiting to be set free.

When we set our own love free, that spreads. Other people feel safe to do the same and the clouds begin to break up. The sunlight burns right through them.

Ian Cooper