Someone I’ve known for a long time was recently accused of ‘preaching’ because he asked a community to remain calm, kind and peaceful during a spree of vandalism in the neighbourhood.d
No one was hurt during these incidents, and it transpired that young children were responsible. Despite their young age, several residents in the community said that, if the children were caught, neighbours would (and I quote) “break their legs” for the damage they caused.
My friend insisted the police should be notified of the vandalism, and called for measured action amongst the residents. He reminded them there was more to what happened than just kids running riot. He maintained there must be a reason children would behave this way, and it was the cause that needed to be addressed, not just the actions.
He wasn’t saying the children’s actions shouldn’t be understood, and it’s important the children were spoken with appreciate why they did what they did. But, he emphasised, “teaching them a lesson” could not – and would not – involve any form of abuse, and anyone suggesting violence as a solution would be reported.
Needless to say, my friend was surprised that his good intentions had been received so negatively. We wondered how a society would perceive his plight to protect the children from being “lynched” (their words) and interpreted his stance as a sign of weakness, interference and, as one woman put it, “silliness”. The residents maintained they were right, and that my friend was wrong.
In the wake of the incidents in Charlottesville, and the powerful speech given by Susan Bro in the video below, I was reminded of our duty to challenge wrongful behaviour. Bro is the mother of Heather Heyer who was murdered during those protests. She appealed to us that we should explicitly call into question those who insist on creating a divide.
Is it possible to understand behaviour peacefully, and open dialogue with people whose actions and beliefs are directly opposite to our own values? Can we – and should we – truly love someone who causes hurt, or whose opinions are so far removed from our own; who won’t even contemplate that there is another point of view?
As part of my work, I raise awareness of issues which predominantly affect the mental health of women, including those escaping Domestic Abuse. It’s a challenge for anyone – including me – to feel compassion for those who wilfully and often severely harm another. As someone who also follows a Buddhist way of life, I have battled with the concept that I must show kindness to all, even those who behave so badly. Don’t I have to like everyone? As it turns out, no I don’t.
I was heartened to read this article in Lions Roar about spiritual activism, which explains how love doesn’t mean you have to like someone.
In the article, both Sharon Salzberg and Revd. angel Kyodo williams recognise that we naturally resist the idea of loving someone, especially if they’re the cause of our pain.
The suggestion that we should show compassion to someone unkind may seem ridiculous under those circumstances, and it feels almost intuitive to fight that idea.
I’ve seen this resistance for myself. When I have tried to encourage a more compassionate and loving approach in others, when they only see the bad in people around them, I’ve been told I’m the one who is wrong. ￼
I’ve been told emphatically that power is what’s needed, and that the definition of power is to ‘show them who’s boss’. I still maintain it’s not.
“Facing the reality of this suffering, we remember that peacefulness does not mean passiveness and non-attachment does not mean non-engagement.” Lions Roar
Naturally, there is an aversion to loving someone when we really don’t agree with what they say, they have hurt us deeply, and we really don’t like them at all. And the article cited explains that’s absolutely fine.
What matters – and only if the time feels right – is to consider that a person who has caused pain didn’t reach that point without a lifetime of experiences. This is not to excuse their hurtful behaviour (although many see it that way, or struggle with the concept), but to be free of our own suffering, we must acknowledge someone isn’t born to hurt – they’re taught. In the same way, we can consider the possibility that in order for us to be okay, we don’t have to forgive anyone if it doesn’t feel like it would help.
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. ~ Nelson Mandela
For whatever reason, circumstances brought them to a place where they chose different, unhealthier, coping mechanisms and behaviours to your own. There is a cause to their negative behaviour which ultimately only they can address and be responsible for.
It doesn’t mean we endorse, support, collude, encourage, allow, or live alongside harmful behaviour. A person must be held accountable for the poor, dangerous and devastating choices they make, and the consequences they have. It also doesn’t suggest we make it our job to ‘fix’ the person we believe is ‘wrong’, or that we get to decide what their ‘punishment’ is. As Elizabeth Gilbert once quoted, we can love everyone but some we must love from a safe distance.
This is where spiritual activism comes in.
Spiritual activism is a commitment to safely educating – if we choose – about accountability, connection and empathy (amongst other things) through peaceful and compassionate actions, including dialogue.
That doesn’t mean it’s passive. It doesn’t mean it involves sitting back and letting the world implode. What it does mean is challenging harmful behaviour, whilst realising there is a much bigger picture. It’s about recognising that you don’t have to pick a side and then blindly stick to it.
Just as you can change your mind about how you vote, you can decide what causes or campaigns you support. It’s not self-righteous judgement or “preaching” to encourage a peaceful world to live in for all of us. It’s not ‘negative’ to address someone’s hateful behaviour towards another human being, if you challenge it in a positive way with good intentions. And that every action has a consequence.
“Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.”
~ Maya Angelou, poet and activist
It’s about treating the cause of a problem, rather than managing the symptoms, compassionately.
As Sharon Salzberg reminds us, “The Buddha told a king, “You should be just, you should be fair, and you should be generous.” But the king forgot to be generous and so people started going hungry and they started stealing. Then the Buddha said to the king, “The point is not to start making laws against theft. The point is to look at why people are hungry.”
So in the case of Charlottesville, Paris, Manchester, Barcelona, Syria and all the other places around the world where we have seen death and devastating destruction we, as compassionate humans, have to ask why these events keep happening, rather than just treat the symptoms they create.
In the case of my friend, he had a valid point. It turned out that the children responsible for the recent vandalism were ‘acting out’ because their father was struggling with poor mental health and had turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. He and the children are now being supported through various agencies.
There is nothing “silly” about reaching out to people in an effort to understand their pain, as long as we maintain healthy, safe boundaries and a compassionate approach to the solutions available. And, of course, those individuals must take responsibility for the damage they’ve caused. In the case of children, leading by positive example and teaching them the value of empathy (how would they feel if, as an adult, someone damages their property?), is one place to start. It makes forgiveness possible.
If someone behaves ‘badly’ we can find a way to articulate that without matching hate with hate, and starting the cycle of revenge. We can recognise the cause of their behaviour without making it our problem. If we want to offer help or be there during their recovery we can, but sometimes just showing someone there is another way can be useful. Remember though, only they can transform and heal their life by wanting better for themselves and others.
What if we opened a meaningful and peaceful dialogue, where we choose being kind over being right, and our goal is a peaceful outcome for everyone. As Waylon Lewis says, let’s disagree agreeably.
One person can change the world, by giving people hope, so if you want to change the world…step up when the times are the toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the down-trodden, and never, ever give up… if you do these things, the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a far better world than the one we have today, and what started here will indeed have changed the world for the better. ~ William H. McRaven
If you or someone you know may be – or thinks they are – in an abusive relationship, organisations like Refuge can help. You can call their freephone helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247.
Copyright Delphi Ellis, updated 2021