“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Monday, January 16, 2012

Day 40: In Honor of Martin Luther King Day, Rethinking The Meaning of Peace

Along with being my love letter to Zoe, all dogs, and the natural world, “Winter with Zoe” is a journal in daily mini-essay form of my attempt to live mindfully in a season I don’t want to rush through.  It's about my attempt to find peace and beauty in the quotidian.  I don’t know how long my dog will live, and none of us knows how long we or our loved ones will live, and this blog is my attempt to wake up to my life and not regret, later, that I’d missed too much because of overwork, distracting busyness, and dumb-ass human self-centeredness.

Peace, ultimately, is what I’m seeking, but today, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, I woke up thinking about his idea of “negative peace.” 

In King’s eloquent 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to eight Southern white Christian leaders--and the whole world--he explained the reasons for the Birmingham boycott.  He was responding to criticisms that the civil rights movement was moving too fast, and along with being beautifully written and rhetorically persuasive, this letter is a how-to primer on the four basic steps on civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

The self-purification phase that comes next to last is itself so courageous and selfless that it’s hard not to tear up just thinking about it.  It's when the activist in question "practices" being humiliated, attacked, dragged away by the police, and more to make sure he or she won't retaliate with hatred. To remain nonviolent and passive in the face of blows is anything but passive.  Think of Gandhi’s epic fasts.  Picture that scene, in Iron Jawed Angels, when Hillary Swank as the suffragette activist Alice Paul is forced to break her hunger strike when prison guards violently pour that nasty viscous food down her throat with that scary-looking metal pipe.  And flash back to the early 1960s, to those films of the students who desegregated the lunch counters while withstanding the taunts and assaults of white racists.  Remember the sight of these young people, dressed in their best, sitting tall with composure and grace, even loving their enemies while milkshakes were poured on their heads?

In my own life, I remember visiting an encampment of peace activists on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State who were undergoing their own self-purification rites.  It was 1982, and the U.S.S. Ohio, a nuclear submarine with the dreaded “first-strike capability” was soon to take up residence in this naval base.  The construction and installation of this submarine was evidence that not only was the Cold War escalating, but that the U.S. was publicly pursuing a scenario in which we might launch the first attack—not for self-defense, but as aggressors.  Ordinary citizens were training themselves to take nonviolent direct action, which meant jumping into the cold waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and putting their bodies in between the Coast Guard’s armed flotilla and the nuclear submarine.  Peace activists from as far away as Australia had arrived by sailboat to take part in this David and Goliath struggle.

I was twenty-four, living well below the poverty line, and despite my college degree from an excellent liberal arts college, I knew myself to be mostly ignorant about the history of nonviolent resistance, both in the U.S. and around the world.  I remember being in awe of these brave activists and wishing I could join them, but I needed to work to pay the rent (I was a prep cook at a collectively-owned restaurant then) and all I could do to join their cause was to bring them soup.  Bringing food to the encampment wasn’t even my idea: other people at our restaurant, the Salal Café in Port Townsend, Washington, had thought of it.  I only went out to the camp twice to help.  But I learned something important then: that sometimes just doing one small thing—bringing food, donating money or warm clothes, or lending one’s modest skills—can be our way to take part in a just cause.

King also wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

When King spoke about being “gravely disappointed with the white moderate” who says he agrees with “the goal” of racial equality but “cannot agree with your methods of direct action” he was critiquing both the paternalistic citizen who “believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” and constantly advises that the discriminated group wait for “’a more convenient season’” but he is also explaining the concept of “negative peace.”

“Negative peace” is when law and order, and the status quo, are respected as part of a discriminated group’s passive acceptance of their “unjust plight,” while “positive peace” is the situation when all “men” (hey, it was still only 1963) “will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”  He goes on to explain that the civil rights activists in Birmingham and elsewhere were not the “creators of tension” but were bringing “to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”  They were bringing it “out in the open, where it [could] be seen and dealt with.  Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

On today, Martin Luther King Day, I want to think about all the times I have kept silent, maintaining a “negative peace” when that silence allowed injustice or unkindness to go on unchecked.  It’s true that we have to pick our battles, but sometimes the battles pick us.

This makes me think about a story I found the other day on a former student’s Facebook wall that was written by a woman named Bronnie Ware, who worked for years as a nurse among the dying.  She listed the five regrets she heard voiced most often from people on their deathbed. 

The five regrets on her list are all matters that speak to the idea of living mindfully.

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

All five on this list are worth elaborate discussion, but to close today I want to go to number 3, the courage to express one’s feelings.

Sometimes that means breaking a “negative peace.”   
Ware writes:
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.”
So, gentle reader, whether it means speaking out against a public policy that perpetuates inequality and injustice, or it means speaking up to someone in our intimate lives who hurts us or others who are unable to protect themselves, today is a good day to rock the boat.

It might just mean signing a petition that is going around, or making a donation to a cause we care about, but it could mean finally having "the conversation" we've been dreading or repressing: saying something difficult to someone that needs to be said now, in our own words and our own way.  Especially if that relationship matters to us.

To read the nurse's list, go to this link:"Nurse Reveals the Top 5 Regrets People Make On Their Deathbed."

This view from our back yard gives Zoe and me a tremendous amount of peace; sometimes, though, it's not so tranquil.  When big ice chunks break, the water moves fast, with great force.
I've been writing about India lately, and I always think of these women we met in a small village in Rajasthan, a place of widespread poverty and gender inequality, where many women, like these two above, keep purdah.  But the women we met on our village visit have found strength and dignity through their agricultural work in their community.  They sang a song of welcome to my students and me.  There was much love in the air, in their welcome to us, and the visit was tremendously moving.  The cultural overtones and implicit gender politics here notwithstanding, this picture makes me think of those conversations we are afraid to have with our friends and loved ones--the very idea makes us want to hide under a blanket.  But sometimes when we find the courage and the right words to say what we need to say to people in our community,  we can become closer than ever before.

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