Doing the Non-violent Thing

"Indeed violence, according to Gandhiji, does not ever overcome evil; it suppresses it for the time being to rise later with redoubled vigour. Non-violence, on the other hand, puts an end to evil, for it converts the evil-doer."

Bharatan Kumarappa, Editor, M. K. Gandhi Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha). New York: Schocken Books, 1950.

"I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one's opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy."

Mohandas K. Gandhi

Life can be dangerous. It can be filled with pain. Each of us has something we are afraid of. Maybe many things. We have felt pain and we draw away from the people and things that cause it. Our fear can blind us to doing the right thing, and even to doing the smart thing. Our natural tendencies are to flee from danger or to attack the source of our fear. This works to some extent. If you are afraid of spiders, you can run from them, or you can squish them. Easy solutions. But what if the danger is bigger than you and you can't run away? What can you do?

According to Greek mythology, Prometheus gave fire to man and was punished by the gods for it. He was chained to a rock, and every day for 30,000 years an eagle was to swoop down and feed on his innards. Prometheus' situation sounds pretty hopeless, but 30,000 years is a long time. Long enough to work through just about any problem and try lots of solutions. Maybe Prometheus, being the bright guy that he was, would come up with a plan. If you are chained to a rock tormented by an eagle, the smart thing to do is learn all you can about eagles. Once you understand the tormentor, you have a better chance of subduing them, even taming them. Let's imagine that Prometheus found a way to charm the nasty bird and even make friends with it. This would require becoming accustomed to the daily pain of being bird food and moving beyond the horror and aversion. He would need to align himself with the mind of the predator to understand its needs and motives. With that understanding, he could begin to mold its behavior. Prometheus could either lie there perpetually tortured or become an expert bird trainer.

Jesus taught that if someone strikes you on the right cheek you should turn and offer the left. This was quite a novel approach in those days, and it hasn't become much more common in our time. It certainly goes against Dad's advice, which was to "poke 'em right in the nose."

Turning the other cheek is not a natural response. It does a couple of interesting things though. It makes the aggressor less likely to continue the beating, because it is no fun beating on someone who isn't fighting back. Opossums know this instinctively. Also, turning the other cheek puts one in a psychological position that is aligned with the aggressor, but not sharing in the psychological state of aggression. To maintain one's equanimity in the face of assault is a remarkable accomplishment. It requires strength of will and character. That strength illuminates the lack of character in the assailant. It puts them at a disadvantage. You may still get beaten up, but following this guideline you maintain your own equilibrium, dignity and peacefulness.

Mahatma Gandhi articulated a strategy of non-violence in his doctrine of Satyagraha or "Soul Force." In a very simple form, this is a strategy of "clinging to truth"-- doing the right thing regardless of the consequences to one's physical safety. Using the force of his own integrity and the coordinated non-violent action of the people of India, he was able to free India from colonial domination. This was a very difficult struggle and it was not over quickly. It took many years. People exerting their "soul force" were injured, and even killed. By persistently placing themselves in the position to do the right thing despite the contrary intentions of their oppressor, the Indian people made the colonial power face it's own transgressions. In time, the true nobility of the Indian people made it obvious to their rulers that they deserved to chart their own destiny as a nation.

Each of us daily faces our own challenges. Maybe they are less dramatic than the freedom of a nation, but they may eat at our guts like Prometheus' eagle. We may feel chained to a rock in a job or family situation we can't see how to get out of. We may feel under attack by bosses, co-workers, relatives or others. It is in our power to adapt our response. It is possible to minimize conflict and even improve our circumstances by using "soul force." Soul force is not passive. It is not co-dependent. It does not enable evil doers to continue to do bad things. It confronts evil with truth. Evil arises from ignorance and persists only where there is no love. It cannot co-exist with truth and compassion. When we examine our responses to difficulty and ensure that they are informed by truth and compassion, we have the possibility of transforming evil.


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© 2002 Tom Barrett