A Really Inconvenient Truth

Climate change is real. It is also essential.

“I like storms.”  -M.K. Gandhi


Eleven days without violence. This was the stunning result after the California Institute for Women (CIW) joined in Compassion Games, a worldwide experiment in social uplift drawing from Karen Armstrong’s work with the Charter for Compassion. The CIW is not a privileged feminist utopia– it’s a 120-acre prison in Chino, California.

Violent institutions rarely, if ever, promote the true well-being of those within its walls, and prisons are a prime example. Dehumanized people will treat each other with cruelty and violence, and CIW was no exception. So when a volunteer chaplain brought the games to the inmates, no one was certain how or if the experiment would work. But the women rose to the challenge–strategizing, resolving tensions, and taking care of one another in a way that affirmed the humanity of their sisters and themselves in the process. Simple acts like taking food trays to harder ones like holding back a fist ready to hit.

Maybe they’d try it again next year?

No. They wanted to try again in three months. Every three months, in fact. The climate in the prison, for those eleven days, changed. Prisoners became self-labeled “compassionistas.”

These are the kinds of stories I seek out when I turn to the media. Except what I find usually is very different. A gunman on the loose in Las Vegas. Booing at athletes for kneeling during our National Anthem. Stock prices rise in munitions. Flight costs out of Puerto Rico rising to $3,000 during a State of Emergency. Neighbor undermining neighbor. Violence is our national spectator sport, and guess who are the losers.

Our inability to act on and transform the violence we witness daily in the United States isn’t so much because we don’t want to support the myriad solutions that are available. It’s because we lack the will to put those solutions into practice. And we lack the will because we lack the awareness of what we’re really up against. It’s not a person. It’s not a law. It’s not even a system, (even if all of these contribute to the problem). It’s ourselves. We don’t know what we’re really made of.

According to the greatest experiments in human consciousness throughout the ages, the human being has various drives – all of us. Three in particular can lead to havoc if they are not harnessed and transformed: fear, greed, and anger. One angry man unleashes his anger and fear onto a terrified crowd, and gun sales soar. Over and over, the ‘perfect storm’ of unharnessed fear, greed, and anger explodes, wrecking our security and our life.

At the root, however, these forces are not inherently destructive. They’re a bit like fire: out of control it can burn down a city; harnessed, we can use it to light a candle, read a book. Remember Martin Luther King: “We did not cause outbursts of anger, we harnessed anger under discipline for maximum effect.” This is, after all, a basic, defining aspect of nonviolence.

While it may seem subtle, because it’s unfamiliar to our conditioned way of thinking, it’s not rocket science, as the women in the CIW can show us. The way we refuse to work with, even acknowledge our inner environment is beginning to look just as outlandish and short-sighted – and dangerous – as denying climate change. When Gandhi said that he likes storms, he wasn’t talking about monsoon rain. He meant conflict itself—the mirror it holds up to us.

The first step, as I hinted earlier, is to be really careful about what feeds our inner drives; in other words what we take in about ourselves from those around us as well as from the mass media. We have to face our “storms.” But we have to face them with the right kind of energy, the right kind of power. Inconveniently enough, this means maintaining a higher image of what is possible in a given conflict even if people give us bad advice about retribution and revenge. It also means seeking out saner sources of news and good entertainment, which are often small and out of the way. These cultural changes require discernment and effort, but are doable—and essential.

The second is to inform ourselves about the potentials of nonviolence (talk about out of the way!): how it can change a climate of fear and frustration into one of creative, cooperative action. How an argument can be turned into a constructive dialogue; how two former enemies can work together for collaborative ends after years of hatred. What the women of CIW discovered is one of thousands of examples out there, from restorative prisons to unarmed protection of civilians in some of the most violent situations on the planet.

The cumulative result of taking deliberate charge of our inner environment is that we would develop a whole new way of thinking about what is possible. We’d know that if greed is at the source of a conflict, we’d need to address that. We’d know that if fear is being used as a tactic, we’d need to develop skills and strategies for security that uphold security for everyone—victim and offender alike. We’d know that if we are experiencing anger, we’ve got a precious resource that we can harness for transformative change and we’d treat it as such. We’d be careful with it. We’d be gentler with one another without relenting on a cause. Without this awareness, however, we will keep escalating from one violent crisis to another. It’s time to confront and overcome our denial and work out the necessary change in our climate once and for all.