Creating Change: Toward a Better Society

I don’t remember the year, but the memory is very clear.  I’m guessing it happened in 1968 or 1969.  My classmates and I took a school field trip to Washington, D.C.  We visited the monuments and one or two of the Smithsonian Museum buildings. What stood out most was the encounter at the Capital.  As we made our way up the steps, at the top was a man sitting in a bamboo tiger cage.

The US war in Vietnam was being fought and demonstrations occurred throughout the country. Of course, demonstrations were a daily event in D.C. As I recall, the man in the tiger cage was on a hunger strike.  He was living out the experience of prisoners of war in Vietnam.

As we walked around the Capitol building, a demonstration began on the lawn below our vantage point.  People sang, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”  They had signs and blew whistles.  A socio-drama was acted out with people playing the roles of airplanes bombing villages.  Demonstrations like this went on for years.  Finally, in April of 1975, Saigon fell and the US left Vietnam.

This was just one of the historic threads woven into my youth.  There were many others like the Civil Rights marches I watched on TV with my parents.  Walker Cronkite brought the events into our living room each evening at 6:30.  We were shocked by what we saw.  There was also the moon landing.  Sitting on the floor near the TV, I was wrapped in awe. How amazing what we, as a nation, had done.  Of course there was the development of computers. I remember using a kind of typewriter used to make key punch cards and then feeding them into a machine as big as my bathroom.  In my lifetime, computer technology grew much smaller, much more intuitive and became part of our phones, cars, and, well, most every device we use today.

I’m very much aware that these events have shaped the way I see the world.  I grew up in a world in which it was evident that social change was possible.  People made change happen. People brought about improvement for the good of society.  We dreamed dreams and aimed for the stars.  Yes, our dreams came true.  There was forward progress in society.

This belief in the ability to bring social change continued to be part of my life as an adult.  Around 1982, while working as a hospital chaplain, I met the first person I would know with AIDS. This encounter would lead me to begin organizations that provided services to people with AIDS and become an activist.  I worked for change.  I lobbied, demonstrated with ACT-UP, spoke on radio and TV, and did all that I could to change government policy, funding, medical treatment, and end social stigma.  I was part of the change that occurred despite the odds being stacked against us.

I recognize that others did not grow up in my era.  Younger people haven’t been inspired by activism that resulted in Civil Rights laws, the ending of a war, or turning a pandemic to a chronic illness.  For many people younger than me, this is all just history and is disconnected from life today.

Yet, we live in a time when social change is needed.  While the ways in which social change will occur may be somewhat different from the past with today’s advantage of social media and networking, the basic lesson is the same:  change occurs when enough people take a consistent stand to demand something different.  It’s not about one march, one phone call, one letter, but years of multi-dimensional advocacy.  Change does occur.

It’s my assessment that effective strategies for change are not born out of anger.  That’s the important lesson of the tradition of non-violent resistance rooted in Gandhi’s life and mirrored by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Rather than violence, consistency and resolve lead to change.  That’s because anger rises up, explodes, and is gone while leaving a trail of damage.  To be consistent in a non-violent response and resolved to see the change occur results in persistence that provides opportunities for actual change.

I believe that we all have a moral responsibility to work toward the common good for all people.  The common good likely means that people who are used to privilege and the benefits of the current social structure will see their privilege and benefits diminish..  It will be difficult for them to let go of these benefits. They will do all they can to stop change. That’s evident today.  But with persistence, change will occur and the outcome will be a society where people are valued for their humanity rather than for their social status.

Yes, I believe that social change is possible.  After all, it’s been part of my life.  In these troubled times, I am looking forward to see more positive change for the common good become a reality.

 

Photo credit: elycefeliz via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Up-Rooting the Cycle of Violence

I was stunned when I read the meme.  I found it mind boggling.  It read: “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.”

I did a little research and found that the quote is originally from the Simpsons, the animated TV comedy show.  As I searched online about this statement, I found a range of merchandise with this saying.  It didn’t appear like those wearing the t-shirts, hats, and other items were joking. Instead, it seemed almost like a rallying cry among some groups of gun advocates.

While Jesus didn’t have a gun, the Gospel attributed to John conveys that when Jesus was arrested, Peter drew a sword and cut off the ear of a member of the crowd named Malchus.  Jesus told Peter to put the sword away.  In a similar passage from the Gospel attributed to Matthew, Jesus says, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  Guns or no guns, Jesus was clear:  violence was not compatible with his way of life.

It’s not my intention to write about gun control or gun rights.  Instead, seeing the meme caused me to think more about violence in society.  I understood the meme as conveying a defensive posture that is fundamentally aggressive:  if someone comes at you, then shoot.  Plan for it.  Don’t let them mess with you.

To understand violence in the world, I think we need to look deeper than issues in the United States related to gun ownership and consider our own values and outlook on life.  For example, the rate of gun ownership in Canada is higher than in the United States, but the levels of violence are quite low.   In other words, the problem of violence is not whether or not one has a gun.  Nor is the problem of violence whether or not one actually shoots another person.  Rather, it is the defensive posture that leads to aggression, which sets the context for violence.  This defensive posture is often rooted in fear of the other and a belief that one needs to protect oneself from the other. This, I suggest, is the foundation for the conviction that we need to get the other person before the other person gets us.  This conviction is what drives the senseless violence we see in the world, ranging in scale from an accidental shooting at home to multigenerational violence in places like the Middle East or Central Asia.

As with most problems, our tendency is to view the problem as something that’s wrong with another person.  We blame gang members, police, terrorist, dictators, and people we label as crazy for the problem of violence in society.  To this end, we view the problem of violence in society as a problem caused by somebody else.  Instead, I believe that the truth is that violence resides in each of us. It’s as though we are poised to respond violently.

Violence often begins as a feeling.  We want to fight back.  We want to stop the other, correct the other, and impose our way on others.  Violence erupts when drivers cut us off.  We want to make sure they know they did wrong, so we honk the horn, yell, and salute with a middle finger.   Violence erupts when an employee at the drive-thru doesn’t provide enough ketchup for our fries, when the clerk askes that a form be filled out another time, or when someone blocks our way in the aisle of the grocery.  Yes, we’re angry.  But more than anger, we want to lash out.  We want the other to feel the frustration we feel. We want to hurt the other who inconvenienced us by erupting with raw emotion.

Wanting to hurt the other, to make the other feel what we feel, is an essential part of the cycle of violence.  Often, this cycle begins because we ourselves have been treated violently in life, even if in some smaller way. Not being able to express the hurt, it builds over time. It builds and is released on another.  It is this cycle of violence has led to senseless harm around the world.

How does the cycle end?  Simply, when we decide to end the cycle of violence in our own lives, then the cycle of violence begins to end. The best way that I know to end the cycle of violence in our lives is to admit that it is present.  Then, in order to root it out, we can use deep practices like meditation.  In meditation, we delve deeply into our inner experience where the root of fear, defensiveness, and violence resides.  In meditation, when we hold our very selves with compassion, these darker aspects of our lives begin to melt away.  That is how we learn to view others with compassion rather than as aggressors from whom we need protection.

Yes, in the end, the cycle of violence isn’t about extremists, gang members, police, or anyone else. It’s about ourselves.  To end the cycle of violence requires that we heal the violence in ourselves with compassion.  Bringing change to a violent world requires that the change begin in each one of us.

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Spiritual Practice: A Prized Inheritance

Sometimes I’m surprised at how much I am like my parents.  I suspect that as we age most people come to this realization.    Yet, in the moments when I have insight about these similarities, I’m truly surprised.

Some of the similarities I’ve realized are small things.  When I sneeze loudly or laugh really hard, I can hear my father’s sneeze or his deep laugh.  It’s a bit uncanny.  Other similarities are deeper, like the habits and patterns I witnessed in my parents that have become my own habits.

Each morning, my mother was the first one up in the house.  She’d begin her day making coffee.  Taking her first cup, she would sit in a chair that sat beside a picture window that looked out over the backyard.  The chair was positioned so that she faced a maple tree.  For about twenty minutes, she would sit quietly, drinking a cup of coffee, focused on the maple tree.  As a kid, I didn’t think much of it.  That was just what she did.  I learned that when she sat there that she wasn’t to be disturbed.  She said that she needed her time for coffee.

When I became an adult, I realized that this was not just a matter of having coffee in the morning to get the day started.  This was my mother’s spiritual practice.  Those were words that she would not have used.  But she started each day in silence, gazing at a tree in the backyard.  It was a still point for her.  This time nurtured her spirit.

This morning, I went to the kitchen and made coffee.  Like I do every morning, I poured a cup and went to chair that sits near a window.  It’s from this vantage point that I begin my day.  For twenty or thirty minutes, I sip on my coffee, pray and reflect.  I don’t have a maple tree.  But I observe squirrels and birds that are oblivious to me.  In that time, that regular spiritual practice, I find that I become focused and nurtured…..and ready for the work of the day.

One of the greatest gifts my mother gave me was the example of quiet spiritual practice.  Yes, we attended church and there were religious objects in our home.  While those things played a part in my development, perhaps more profound was this simple habit or practice.

Thinking about it reminds me of a woman I knew when I lived in Miami in the 1990’s.  She was of Indian descent, had grown up in Columbia, and moved to Miami.  She was a pastoral counselor who did outstanding work integrating spirituality and counseling while using meditation and guided imagery.  I remember asking her how it was that she learned to meditate. She laughed and said, “I’ve done it all my life, since I was a little child.  Each morning, my father would sit for meditation in the living room.  I’d see him and I would sit down beside him. I just tried to imitate him like a child does.  That’s how it started.”

I suspect that many people who value spirituality and spiritual practice were influenced by values held by family members or mentors seeking something deeper in life.  Like me, they received spiritual practice as an inheritance.

Just as my mother left me an inheritance of spiritual practice, I wonder how it is that we can bequeath to others something of the wealth we experience from the spiritual dimension of life.  For my mother, it was teaching by example.  Perhaps we, too, can teach by example — simply sharing the ways spirituality and spiritual practice transform our lives. I suspect that by being living examples of the ways spirituality enriches life can be a significant benefit to others. After all, if spiritual transformation is just for the individual, then it’s a form of egoism.  But when shared, that same transformation is life-giving for others.

 

Photo credit: dlco4 via Foter.com / CC BY

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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