the most radical word

My candidate is interdependence.

The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.

Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)

Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.

Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

shapeimage_2Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project

Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:

our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
other cultures
climate change and other urgent global challenges

more on this – an extraordinary documentary

Many people can connect with a restorative approach when the hurt or harm involved is quite minor. In the context of really horrific events, most of us will shut down instantly to even the possibility of this. That’s why the documentary mentioned in the previous post is so powerful. Who could even imagine the scene near the end of the film, in which the mother and daughter of a woman raped and murdered at the age of 26 hug Gary Brown, one of the two men responsible? Who could believe the picture below even possible?

It sounds simply crazy, doesn’t it? Why would Ami White, who was five years old when she lost her mother, Cathy, want to ever lay eyes on either of the men responsible for her death? Why would Linda White, Cathy’s mother? The story is told here, and some testimony Linda gave to the House Judiciary Committee in 2009 is here [currently unavailable, it seems]. The documentary, again, is here, in four parts (about 45 minutes).

For many in a similar position, of course, there is no desire to have any connection at all. But for some there are lingering questions, and for some a connection to the perpetrators of the violence is felt to be a necessary part of healing. They feel a need to communicate to the other person something of the quality and depth of their grief, and to feel that they have truly been heard. They may also have a curiosity about the perpetrator: What drove them to do what they did? Where did it come from? They hope that some kind of more human understanding may help the process of living with almost unbearable loss.

The preparation for this kind of meeting takes a long time, needless to say. This particular meeting took place 15 years after the murder and involved over a year of work I think to bring about – many meetings on each side with the really wonderful facilitator, Ellen Halbert, who is the one in the picture below. The first stage of contact was an exchange of letters, and only some time after this was an actual meeting arranged. The courage of Ami and Linda White that comes out of this film, and also the compassion, is just extraordinary. (Interestingly, Ellen Halbert also came to this kind of work in part out of a violent experience in her own life: she had been raped, stabbed four times, and left for dead in her own home by an intruder.)

Another day later and I’m still demolished by this film, finding it hard to focus on much else. One of the things the Whites discovered when they began to participate in the program was the nature of Gary Brown’s life. His childhood was extremely abusive and he was taking all kinds of substances, including heroin and cocaine, by the age of eight, the year, also, of his first (of ten) suicide attempts… As the prison warden says at one point in the film, looking through Gary’s records: this kid never had a chance. And one of the most beautiful moments in the documentary is hearing Ami in voiceover sympathize with his life over the past 15 years, in prison, as we watch scenes of that life.

Obviously this kind of process is not going to work all the time. But if this could be achieved even in such a horrific set of circumstances, imagine how much more we could do across the board if we wanted to.

empathy is not a zero-sum game

I think part of the difficulty people have in letting go of the urge to punish is the notion that somehow any amount of genuine empathy we extend towards someone who has brought about harm is given at the expense of a recipient of that harm.

And going further: that the more unleashed our hatred of the perpetrator, the greater the love we must really have for the victim. You can see this clearly in the phenomenon of people who cheer at public executions.

I honestly feel the reverse of this to be the case. It seems unarguable to me that the deeper and more fearlessly we can go in trying to understand how terrible actions come to be committed, the deeper our empathy for the direct recipients of those actions too.

A documentary I saw yesterday (in gratitude to Newcomb for introducing me to it) highlights this idea in an almost unbearably moving way. It’s close to unwatchable in the horror and pain that is its subject, but for any who can I highly recommend it. (Just don’t plan on being able to focus on anything else for the remainder of the day…) It’s in several parts, the whole thing being about 45 minutes.)

More in other posts.

restorative practices and compassion

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the restorative practices movement (sometimes called restorative justice, though I think the former has become a more inclusive term) is one of the most progressive and amazing things going on out there. Those who work in the field rightly point to all sorts of problematic aspects with the retributive system we have and more generally the impulse to punish. And they demonstrate all kinds of real benefits to the restorative approach.

There’s a lot to say about this. For now I only want to mention one connection that doesn’t seem to get talked about enough. And this is that from the standpoint of radical interdependence, the understanding that every thought, word, deed, phenomenon comes out of an ultimately illimitable mesh of “causes and conditions,” ie that such a mesh is inescapably coextensive with the mesh that is the universe itself, no other basic approach to reparation or justice can be considered truly compassionate.

When we stop condemning/scapegoating some people as simply “Bad”/”Evil” because simply too much of what they have experienced in their life has led them in certain harmful directions, we are left with the far more difficult task of trying to see those paths more clearly. And that, surely, is the beginning of compassion itself: stepping into the other person’s shoes.

Which, of course, can be extremely hard to do because it dissolves the barriers between “good me” and “bad them.” It forces us to see that, if we were that other person … we would be that other person. That’s a tautology only on the surface. Our “goodness” really does depend on someone else’s “badness.” Both are products of far too many conditions to even begin to hold in our heads at once. A retributive attitude, however understandable in certain circumstances, ultimately doesn’t make sense. I don’t think that in the end we have much of a choice but to keep moving, inch by step by leap, in the direction of love. Into an ever more expansive empathy.