(portions of this article first appeared on positive psychology news daily: http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/sean-doyle/2013032525681)
In my first post on this topic, I concluded that in the face of hardship, injustice or deep trauma, the only answer was love and holding even tighter to kindness. This seems naive, trite. However whether in the workplace, our personal lives, or even the tightest spots in life, both research and experience prove this to be true.
I remember as a five or six year old child, going to visit an elderly relative with my parents. Alcohol, anger, and hardship had ravaged her for years. I don’t tell this story to shame or blame her in any way. We don’t get to choose the angels or demons that take up residence in our lives. We wrestle with the torments as best as we can, but sometimes we are overwhelmed.
My parents would send me to the playground or to the next room to watch reruns on a black-and-white television as they helped her with her taxes, her medical issues, and other troubles. Over the static of the TV, I remember her screaming at them, and my father gently handing her groceries or money to help with her bills. I don’t know what was said. I don’t know what my parents wrestled with internally or together back at home. But I did see that under duress, they fed her kindness. At the time I was too young to notice, but it was my first lesson in subtlety.
Conflict is inevitable. The weak will be exploited. You will be hurt by your friends and loved ones. Coworkers and strangers will insult and belittle you. People can be remarkably cruel. But none of this means that violence in inevitable; not physical violence, not emotional violence, not verbal violence, and not even an anger held in our hearts. There is one response that is both effective and allows us to maintain our sense of integrity, humanity and respect: Love.
You are cut off in traffic. A coworker sends you a snippy email. Your teenager rolls her eyes at you. You are passed over for a promotion. The homeowner’s association sends you a certified letter complaining that you left your garbage at the curb too long. At the church fish fry, a neighbor spreads gossip about a friend. When the other responds to us with a poke in the eye, it is easy to feel hurt, frustrated, and angry.
Sometimes we try to persuade them with reason. Sometimes, we want to hit back. When a cyber-bully lobs condescending or incendiary bombs at us in public, it feels good to beat them over the head with their own stupidity or triteness. A violent repartee to violence feels justified. In our counter attack, we feel vindicated.
But hours later, back home again reliving the experience with friend or spouse, our heart is still racing and blood pressure still climbing. So often, any trace of a positive feeling that accompanied the sense of justification falls away, and we feel a little dirtier, even a little cheaper, that we allowed ourselves to be dragged through the mud too.
Further, it is unlikely that the hostile response even worked. After disabusing the bully, does he have a moment of clarity and insight, apologize, and thank you for showing him the error of his ways? Of course not. Maybe he tucked his tail between his legs and briefly stopped his public ranting, at least for now. However, the only thing violence really does is dehumanize the other. While it may have appeared to work in the short term, it does not really work.
Violence always hurts someone, somewhere. We know it hurts the recipient. But tragically it also hurts us, and it injures any witnesses to the carnage. How we treat one another spreads outward through networks and effects strangers and loved ones alike.
Cacioppo, Christakis, and Fowler have shown that happiness, loneliness, altruism, and whether people cheat all spread through networks. If people cooperate, it is more likely that strangers, three degrees removed, will also cooperate. Like an event cone, one act, whether it inserts humanity or hostility, changes and alters unrelated events.
It is this dynamic that lay behind what Gandhi called satyagraha or soul force. The strength of non-violence is not in weapons or numeric advantage, but in clinging to truth. It is not easy or soft or passive. It does not involve ignoring injustice or wishing it would go away. Rather satyagraha’s steadfast commitment to humanity and refusal to inflict harm can take tremendous strength, courage, and stamina. It requires you to stare unblinkingly in the face of hostility for extended periods of time, under extreme conditions, with no guarantee that you will be successful in the immediate situation.
Very often, increasing humanity in the midst of crisis might not feel like it works. Cheaters sometimes get away with it. People who stab us in the back or suck up at work, sometimes get rewarded. However often it does work in the short term. As a lawyer who has negotiated close to 10,000 disputes, I have seen this again and again. An invitation to understanding, empathy, or respect, gives the other a backdoor out of their own hostility and a pathway to resolution.
Importantly, as peace scholar Michael Nagler points out, while nonviolence only sometimes works in the immediate moment, it always Works. If we interrupt the violence and insert humanity into inhuman situations, that goodness, kindness, and love will also spread and affect how others deal with one another. We might not be immediately aware of how or why. However when we increase the humility, compassion, understanding, vulnerability, kindness or love, somewhere it will heal and build.
For psychiatrist George Vaillant, we were meant to be bound together. Our brains are wired for social connection: for love, respect, appreciation, acceptance, sympathy, empathy, compassion, and tenderness. These are the things that connect us. These biologically-based, spiritual emotions reach the other at levels that pure reason can never touch. Satyagraha does not change the positions of the parties. It changes their relationship.
When my parents responded to a drunk, despondent and aggravated old woman with compassion and respect, they did not know that this kindness would reach the child quietly listening in the next room, plant seeds in his soul, and continue to grow outward for forty years.
Whether we are seeking peace in middle school or the Middle East, whether the bully is in the lunch room or the board room, in most circumstances, the most effective strategy is the one that increases the amount of humanity between people.
Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 977-991
Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York: Little, Brown.
Nagler, M., (2001). Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future. Berkley Hill Books: Berkley.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.