Contemplating human life with its infinite variability requires us to consider what a life fully lived might be like. How can we live creatively, and outside the arbitrary dictates drawn by society, and what might that life be? We admire those in history who dared dance outside the lines. Who had the courage to say, “yes, I was unwilling to be a paint by numbers artist, because I saw the stars, the beauty of the leaves of grass, and felt the freedom of the wind. Those things cannot be duplicated in the spread sheets you accept as art.”
Yet at the same time we vilify those who have broken those rules in our own time. We kill the prophets and then make them beautiful tombs. They do not fit into our understanding of the safe life. They do not fit into our neat “how to” books, or our guidelines and “best practices” manuals. Conventional society wants to love Jesus at a safe distance, but they are afraid to imitate his disregard for those who held the rules above human need; “the sabbath laws were made for humans, humans were not made for those laws.” We admire and write biographies of Buddha, Napoleon, Emma Goldman, and others, but we vilify their modern children. Why? Why do those of us who love life, who love the stories of these “heroes” of the past, fear living in their loving creative freedom ourselves? Why do we despise or fear those around us who do?
A quote I recently came across, from Donald Miller, seems to make the opening argument for what I wish to write;
“I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims instead of grateful participants.” “
Unwilling victims,” perhaps we lack the courage to be anything else. Perhaps we truly need to be able to blame others, or the rules, so we do not have to be responsible for our freedom. Yet, maybe, just maybe, we can do something else, something better, higher, more loving, freer?
I wonder how we got to this place, wishing for the freedom that love requires, and yet believing it to be impossible. We believe there is no way we can truly live fully in love and kindness, and yet the heart demands that it find a way. It is a false antinomy that we face. Love and kindness undermine the rules, and the rules destroy love and kindness. What if love and kindness WERE the rules? We can imagine it.
Often, we have begun our journey to this loving empire of freedom and chance, filled with excitement and hope – then, just as we arrive at its gates, decided it will be too much for us to bear. Why is it that we cannot find a way to release ourselves from something as seemingly powerless as love and kindness, yet also remain bound to follow the cruel rules of a society that wars against that love and freedom. A society that demands we live as if life is an IKEA instruction manual. We are constantly being torn on the rack of these competing claims to our loyalty. Between the freedom of love and the cruel order of the powers. Yet, it is a false dichotomy, in our hearts we do believe that love wins. That the weak and foolish kiss on the cold bloodless lips of Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” spelled not only his doom but the doom of his power and the might of his empire. Even small weak acts of love, kindness, and gentleness in the face of a powerful and cruel social order, expose the weakness of the order and spell its doom.
But love is mixed in human hearts. In these cruel apelike beasts, lost and far from Eden, love can be both selfish and completely giving – sometimes at the same time. This mixture in us is the dilemma; we are susceptible to the fear of punishment, misunderstanding, and a lack of our own self-awareness. Yet, despite those flaws, it is better to have been known as someone who attempted to live in the freedom of love and kindness, even if it fails to be completely pure, than to be known for enforcing law and cruelty. Attempted love, attempted kindness, these things are greater than the will to power. The pain of love is hard but the hope we find in that love makes the pain worth it. We hope.
With this introduction in mind, I wish to tell a parable. This parable is a tale of the human condition, it may be all of us, or none of us, or some of us. To write this tale, I need to step away from my own humanity and looking backward, tell a tale for us all. If you recognize yourself here, it is because you too are human, all too human. If you do not recognize yourself here, then I wish you good passage on whatever journey you are on.
He awoke from his dream, as he had so many mornings before. The sunlight spilled gently across the brightly colored wall paper in his room. The coffee smell came in from the next room. All seemed well, all seemed right, the morning routine pushed the trouble that dream posed into the background. For now.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are facing the very real possibility of the annihilation of human life as we know it on planet earth. Perhaps no other time, have we needed to find each other and work together to save our lives and planet. And yet, millennia of conditioning, reinforcing our tribal impulses, have made us as divided, hate filled, and destructive as we have ever been. The damage being done to the environment by greed and consumption, is neatly matched by the damage done by the constant endless undeclared wars being waged globally. One estimate in June, 2019, was that the US alone dropped a bomb every 12 minutes. This on top of years of environmental destruction and waste is tipping us all toward extinction. The rest of the world is not without blame either.
What right do I have to do this? Ethics of love and kindness already exist. They are found in the more noble passages of most religious texts, they are found in the higher ideals of many great leaders. The ethic can be found in my own, religious tradition as one who likes to think he follows the teachings of Jesus. But, despite this, we do not as a world, and seldom as individuals, follow these better angels of our nature.
I am spending my time on this because it has become deeply personal. I wish to write this down for me. To evaluate my own path and how I wish to treat others. To evaluate how I have deviated from this path, what triggers cause my own tribalism, and what I can do to make my little part of the world better. If my journey helps others, and if they chose to join me, all the better. But I am not leaving a set of rules for others to follow. I am simply writing from the heart of one pilgrim soul, who hopes to one day see his little corner of earth look a little more like heaven. If this seems like too much dancing among the stars for you, I bid you well fellow traveler and wish you Godspeed.
The earth is full, and we have filled it. The question is, what have we filled it with? The entire idea of “culture” is related to the idea of cultivation. The word culture comes from the word “to cultivate” which means “to care for.” So, our “culture” is the way in which we care for the world we live in. How do we care for the world? How do we care for humanity? These are the most important things that we must face.
First, we have filled the earth with art, with beauty, with hospitals to care for the sick, with love, music, and laughter. We have made parks and trails into the forest where people can go and love the beauty of this world. We have created awe inspiring temples, cathedrals, museums, and castles. We have filled the world with picnics, birthdays, holidays, grandparents, and familial love. But we have also filled the world with anger, hatred, bombs, terror, and bitterness. We have poisoned the rivers, we have filled the oceans with additional seas of plastic, we have cut down the forest and let the life-giving earth run into the sea. This earth could be better because of human culture, but right now it is worse because of it. We could replant the earth with forests, we could find ways to clean the seas, we could spend centuries in healing this beautiful planet. Or we can kill it and ourselves in a generation. What will we choose to fill the earth with?
One thing we have filled the earth with is prisons. We have put millions in prison. Our nation, the United States, loves the idea of punishment. We have come to believe that punishment is the solution for all crimes and even some small deviations from social norms. We imprison people who do desperate acts without hope. Instead of giving them hope, food, rehab for addiction, mental health, education, job training, social skills, we put them in prison. As a result, punishment has become big business. We have the most people in prison of any country in the world. Corporations and states make and spend great sums of money housing people in prison. Creating, through punishment, a permanent underclass. Creating by that punishment no means by which the offender can return, make it right, or find life again.
Setting aside for a moment the exceptional individuals that need to be held apart from society for the safety of society, most prisoners in this country simply would not be if we had the imagination and care to envision other ways of healing the lawbreaker. Particularly in the case of crimes of hopelessness. It is time that we consider the idea of punishment obsolete and unhelpful. The idea of punitive justice simply breeds a greater desire to punish. Nothing feels better and more ego boosting to the person inside a group than to see someone who is following a different path “get what’s coming to them.” But, this merely adds to the cycle of pain. The culture gets filled with pain. When you punish, you add more suffering to the world on top of the suffering already experienced. On the other hand, when you love and try to understand, you add more love and understanding to the world. What do we want more of, love and understanding, or pain and fear?
A famous line from holy writ tells us that “perfect love casts out fear.” This is an idea as true for an Atheist, a Hindu, a Pagan, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, or any human being on the earth. Love does better than fear. It transcends our “in groups” and our “out groups.” We fear the unknown, we fear punishment, we fear being abandoned, we fear being ridiculed. We fear hunger, we fear poverty, we fear pain and suffering. We do not fear real love. Imagine if we could take each fear, turn it around, and ask ourselves, what lack of love has produced this fear? What if we then found a way to love ourselves and others out of the fear. I fear rejection, so how about I show love and accept those who are rejected? How about I learn to accept everyone as much as I am able? The more I am accepting the less I fear rejection.
We fear the other, the unknown, the political foe, the refugee. What if we took time to get to know the fear that the other has? What if we found ways to love them and understand? What if we took time to change our minds on things? If we did, we would little by little fill our culture with love, acceptance, and understanding, instead of fear, rejection, and the othering of those we do not know or understand.
We must realize that to do any of this we must be vulnerable. We are hurt, and tired and weak. We are ourselves lawbreakers, lonely, scary to others. We must deal with the desire to punish that resides in us. But, oh, oh if we do, we just might bring light to this world. As Leonard Cohen so aptly stated, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Maybe we can find the cracks in our souls and let a little light shine in? Maybe we can be the answer to some hurting persons prayer.
So, what triggers my tribalism, my hatred, my fear? One answer is the weakness I encounter in others. Their weakness of tribalism, hatred, and fear. We all have a tribe, or will find one, that is because we must have meaningful community. It is not “tribe” that is bad, it is “tribalism” that is damaging. The way in which we use our tribe to hurt or exclude others. The fear and contempt we feel to those of other tribes. The failure to consider that they are us and we are them.
I am, for a time, a man without a tribe. This has been a gift. Without this time, I would not be able to make this journey. As Stan Tyra said; “It seems that until you are excluded from any group or system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies, and self-centered righteousness of that group or system. There seems to be a “structural blindness” for people who are content and satisfied on the inside of a group. They do not recognize it’s largely a belonging system they have created for themselves.”
I, like all people, grew up in a system. When I was young, I found myself in the warm cocoon of rural life, with devout and loving parents, and the warmth of a safe home. The “in group” rules were clear. As I began my journey from this quiet rural, devout, patriotic, libertarian, conservatism, I was exposed to new ideas. They were exciting, and they taught me the joy of questioning. The joy of uncovering the truth. I was exposed to new beauties and joys that were outside of my tribe. I began to see that love was not the drawing of circles to keep others out, but the embrace of others to bring them in.
But, on my journey I also sat in the seat of power. I was in the place to pass judgment on others. I did this faithfully as I saw fit. I reflected upon myself, unreflectingly, believing that I was doing good. I developed the habits and values of my tribe, I saw myself as being faithful, I believed God was proud of me. I no longer believe that. But habits are hard to break. I now look back with shame on those times. I too loved punishment, I too wanted my enemies in hell. To the lost, the lawbreaker, the person committing crimes of hopelessness, I offered punishment instead of love and healing. I was what I now loathe.
It is my shame about this that is one of my triggers. When I observe others continuing in these destructive tribal judgments, I become their judge. I feel the anger rise in me, toward me, but directed at them. I realize it is an anger at myself but I vent it on them instead. What is needed at these moments is the reminder of kindness. I needed time and different circumstance to create distance from the habits of power so that I could see. Until I became the outcast, the one they saw as the lawbreaker, I could not see my own judgments. Until I chose to love and care for those that they viewed as “other” and felt their quiet wrath and abandonment, I was just like them. In fact, though they would not believe it, I am still just like them.
The first rule for helping calm my triggers is to realize that I am them. You are them; we are them. I am the lawbreaker, I am the refugee, I am the judgmental person, I am the fearful one, I am the selfish one, I need love and care as much as anyone. So, do we repay evil for evil, abandonment for abandonment, judgment with judgment? Or do we counter evil with kindness, whenever we can, and disarm it by not allowing it to reproduce? For me that moment of distance and reflection was a holiday, utterly alone, in a far country, with no tribe, no family, no feeling of hope. I raged alone at the pain, I ranted at the despair, I felt the anger, the loathing, the suicide. But, it broke something that needed breaking. I emerged, with a new set of eyes, they are still trying to focus. That is what this writing is about. And, for those reading, maybe, maybe just once, we can learn this lesson without being the outcast.
Another ancient text tells us “Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth.” Conquer! What a beautiful and violent word. Yet in this context it is a violent gentleness. The weapon is kindness. Life has such a savage beauty, and kindness and love make all its savage beauty worthwhile. Why do we worry about those who love others that we do not? Is love limited? Must we run out of love? Is love a pie with only a few slices left? No! Love is a never-ending fountain with a daily new supply. Love is eternal. When the writer of John’s first letter in the New Testament contemplated the most eternal, unending, limitless being he could imagine, he wrote so simply — “God is love.” How quickly religion and tribalism forget this one sweet beautiful truth. Elsewhere we learn “love never fails,” never runs out, never loses hope. This love is not religion, this transcends religion and counteracts the evils of tribalism. The essence of love is kindness. So, for today, let us be kind.
Kindness In Social Practice
So how does this work? We often jump to the actions of the individual. Certainly, that is where we must begin. I cannot control others so I must deal with my own responses and thoughts. Again, I am writing this for my own clarity, not as a rule book for others to follow. If these thoughts help you then I am glad. If they do not, I wish you well. I would like to begin with the idea that all individual action ultimately connects us to social action because we are all part of each other, and everything we do impacts others, just as their lives and suffering impact us. As John Donne so famously said; No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend’s Or of thine own were: Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
For the past few decades, at least since Albert Eglash’s 1959 article; “Creative Restitution: Its Roots in Psychiatry, Religion and Law,” we have had alternatives to the retributive justice system that we live in. One of these alternatives is the idea of Restorative Justice. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Restorative justice like this:
Restorative justice views crime as more than simply a violation of the law — an offense against governmental authority. It violates human relationships and injures victims, communities, and even offenders. Each party is hurt in different ways, and each has different needs that must be met in order for healing to begin. Crime disturbs society’s sense of trust and often results in feelings of suspicion, separation, and discrimination. Crime creates rifts between friends, relatives, neighbours, and communities. It often produces a hostile relationship where no previous relationship existed. An often-overlooked result of crime is that the victim and offender have a relationship — they have a painfully negative experience in common. Left unresolved, that hostile relationship negatively affects the welfare of both. Justice requires restoration for victims, offenders, and communities affected by crime. To promote healing, society must respond to the needs of victimized parties as well as to the responsibilities of offenders.
Imagine if you will, a rift you have had between yourself and someone in your community. So long as they, or you, are punished, the rift remains. But what happens in those times where you can come together, where both sides understand why the other took the actions that they did. Where you, and they, can make restoration where it is possible, and get the brokenness set right. If it can not be made completely right, at least you can both be understood. The offense that created the break, the rift, is now gone, or if not gone, it no longer has the same power. Families and friends practice this all the time. Without restorative justice in the home, families become fragmented and dysfunctional. Without restorative justice in our communities we grow more isolated and polarized. Again, what do we want to add to our communities? More punishment — or as much restoration as is possible. When we repay anger with anger, when we treat all offenses with punishment, state sanctioned violence, and retribution, we merely become angrier, more violent, and most of all more fearful. Fearful that the one we punished will come for revenge, fearful that we may one day fail and suffer punishment ourselves. While we must deal with the crime, the damage done when one person hurts another is not fixed or eliminated by punishment. As quick, simple, and satisfying as it may seem, punishment weakens rather than strengthens society. It leaves the reason for the crime in place, and ultimately produces more crime, shame, and pain. As has been said, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth [is] a fair, satisfying, and rapid way to a sightless, toothless world.”
Part of the weakness of punishment is that it does not take into consideration what issues lead to the crime. It does not consider what caused the perpetrator to commit his or her action in the first place. Thus the underlying crime remains untouched. Restorative justice looks at the crime, it understands the pain and loss of the victim. But it also looks at the crime that lead the perpetrator to commit the act in the first place. If we are really and truly interested in making a safer better society, and not just enjoying the satisfaction of seeing someone “get what they deserve,” we must look at the whole. We know, for instance, that abused children often grow up to be abusers. We also know that some do not. We should find out what makes the difference. We should look at the contributing underlying crime that caused an abused child to become an abuser. This little bit of understanding, kindness, and love can go a long way to preventing future hurt and pain. We must consider things like drug or alcohol addiction that may have caused a person to go on a robbery spree to support a habit that can no longer be afforded. Perhaps this is due to unemployment caused by addiction. What pain, or emptiness, brought on the addiction in the first place? We must try to understand and defeat the horror of the endless cycle. This simple act of kindness, of not looking down on an addict, but recognizing our own humanity in the broken hurting person before us, can begin a healing process. Seeing ourselves in the outcast, the addict, the lawbreaker, the refugee, is an essential act of humility that allows us to be truly and fully human.
I require a huge change in my thinking. I will have to get away from the notion of “deserving” and “non deserving” poor. We will have to be able to see all human beings as complicated and hurting, like ourselves, in need of love and not merely criminals. I must see myself in their pain. I must see that am the refugee child at the border, I am the starving woman in Sudan, holding her dying child, I am the addict, driven mad by anxiety and hopelessness, in need of the next fix, I am the desperately depressed public figure deciding to hang himself on a June evening in a hotel in northern France. I am part of the whole. Everyone’s suffering is my suffering, the bell tolls for me.
While I am writing this for myself, not a rule book for others, I have already found critics saying that this is too utopian. They feel the need to correct my personal musings, despite the fact that I make no claim upon them to follow me. They have been offended, they say that this will not work in the “real” world. My response is simple. I am not writing it as a rule book for their “real” world. That said, I do not know that these critics are right. Kindness as social policy is seldom tried. Where it has been put into practice, Norway for example, it has had a tremendous effect. These facts, however, do not matter to the one committed to punitive justice. Instead I get hypothetical whataboutism “what about the exception, the mentally ill, the un-reformable narcissist, the….?” My response is, if we are only going to make law, and base our actions on the exception, if we will not try to make kindness a central part of our personal and social policy because there might be someone out there who will abuse it, then we are not committed to trying to find the greater good, or even the least harm to our neighbors, or our society. Again, I am writing to try to understand my own philosophy of kindness. A philosophy I am trying to begin to live up to. I am not sure why the critics are upset by my own personal journey. I am not asking anyone to follow me. If I can even partly live like this myself, that will bring me peace. What the critics do will be up to them. I bid them no ill will.
How can I describe my own transformation on this issue? I was once among these judges, the ones that called for punishment. Even now I find a raging tumult in my soul. I am caught between my hope for all to be set right and my own rage at the human condition. I must admit, watching the news, seeing the hatred and pain inflicted by the powerful on the powerless, seeing the mob following the heartless power mongers in their policies of cruelty to the hurting and powerless, there are days when my rage begins to win. I find myself feeling a bitter anger at the frailty of love, the foolishness of faith, and the delusion of hope. But I cannot shake them. They hold me. I who have felt the sting of being an outcast, the pain of the loss of the beauty, security, and comfort of my own tribe, now understood that faith, hope, and love (kindness) are all we have left, all I have left. They burn within me like the kiss of Jesus on the lips of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. They haunt me like that kiss, and I cannot get away from them. As I contemplate the future, I am captive to the undertow of a life being pulled, at times against my will, into the painful childbirth of a better world. I am having my mind changed, and it is both painful and liberating. I am writing this for myself, but I invite any and all of you to join me, my fellow travelers. I am not asking anyone to follow me, but all are welcome to walk along side of me. Let us consider what an ethic of kindness can do to a dark and hurting world.
I have been trying to decide what to do about my outrage from the recent news report about the attack of two girls on a London bus by a group of boys who were bent on hate. If you have not seen the report, here is a Toronto Sun report, one of the many flooding the internet.
Seeing the bloodied faces of the girls fills me with rage. They had gone out together to have a quiet enjoyable evening in London, only to be terrorized, threatened, and physically hurt by a group of boys who can only be described as thugs. In all the outrage going on in the world, this seemed to tip the outrage scale for me. Perhaps because it happened in Europe where I live, and not the United States where I have grown accustomed to this kind of hate. But mostly because I can feel the pain of these two women and feel the desire to do something in return. Their bloody faces in the photo sum up the suffering of so many at the hands of banal hate. Comments on this story range from shock, to “I wish I was there to give those bullies a beating.” I confess I too want to be that “hero” who gives them a beating. How can this happen. I want them to be thrown in prison and locked away forever. I want justice!
In a time of outrage, this is our normal response. The world is divided into hate filled camps, and I too am in one of those camps. But, I am trying to consider what a different world would look like. What it would be like to not hate.
So, I think about the boys. What forces made them decide to socialize this way? What made them feel that they needed to attack two innocent bystanders to show how “manly” they were? What made them think that this kind of cowardly violence was going to make them feel better about themselves? And, why did they feel the need to feel better about themselves? This tragedy is not simply the result of individual choices. We would be comforted by that. We could say they were just bad boys, thugs, deviants. But they are not. They are a symptom of a larger problem. A problem of insecurity, rage, of the idea of retributive justice. They are our problem.
What about the parents? Are they evil? Did they raise these boys to be like this? Are they too people who have socialized into this system of hate? Or are they terrified at what is happening to their sons? Do they lie awake at night wondering if they will be vilified in the news for actions of their children that they cannot control any longer? Every time there is a terrorist killing, a school shooting, there are the victims. But, there is also the mother or father of the perpetrator. No one cares about them, yet they too lost a child. Perhaps they lost them years earlier, but now they are lost forever. While everyone comforts the parents of the victims, the parents of the perpetrator are left to grieve alone, often with hatred and threats directed at them.
And here is my dilemma. Retributive justice simply doesn’t work. Why not you ask? John Wayne, Bruce Willis, every Hollywood film ever made has a hero who gets even and we are rid of the villain and life is returned to good. Indeed this is an integral part of the myth of American rugged individualism. We have individuals who are evil, and heroic individuals can kill them and all will be well.
BUT, what if we do not have individuals who are evil? What if we have a damaged system that runs on hate, that elects the best hater, that demands justice for themselves and no mercy toward its enemies? How will retributive justice work then? When we respond to hate with hate, the world merely has more hate. When we respond to anger with anger the world simply has more anger. When we respond to being othered by people, by retreating to our tribe and othering them, we simply create more tribal divisions. When we go to war to make peace, we merely make more war.
On the other hand, we can begin to fix the system with individual action. Or, if we cannot fix it we can at least rebel against it. When we respond to hate with love we reduce the hate in the world. When we respond to violence with mercy, we reduce the violence. When we respond to evil with good, we lessen the evil in the world. Any other response merely adds to the problem.
But this is not satisfying. We want our anger justified. We feel that to respond to hate with love justifies hate. To give mercy to those who are doing evil will only justify their evil. And there is a degree to which we need law to enforce containment of violence until we can fix it. But, we must hope for something better than more law enforcement. More profits from prisons. More hate. We need to eliminate evil, not by eliminating the people, but changing their way of viewing the world and their place in it, and by changing the system that makes them feel that it is ok to hate. Perhaps there are sociopaths for which this is a lost cause. But the vast majority of men and women in this world simply want peace and safety. We have a world in which the vast majority do not want to live in hate, and we can begin with this longing and build on it.
Love does not condone hate, it negates it. Mercy does not condone crime, it denies it. Love produces more love, mercy more mercy, kindness more kindness. What kind of world, what kind of system do we want? One built for the for profit justice industry? Or one in which it is normal and safe to love, show kindness and mercy? I know which one I want, I also know that love is hard.
As authors, while finding our way, we sometimes must write ourselves into the place that God has intended us to be. These musings will not be everyone’s cup of tea. They are not intended to be. they are my own as I find the path that I am called to go upon. I began writing several years ago, and have always intended to begin publishing it one day. But that day never arrived. It is rough, it needs work, but it is mine. And when I am gone, perhaps someone may find it of joy. To quote my favorite poet W. B. Yeats