ISIS this week brought its bloody bully show to the world media stage in the City of Light. We are saddened and disgusted by the loss of innocent lives in Paris, guilty only of being different. We grieve with the bereft and hurt with the wounded. We are twisted with angst that people disparage their own lives for the sole purpose of doing violence to others. How can this happen in the modern world? Will it happen to me? How can we stop it? What can it possibly be about?
Ultimately, all fights are about dominance. We perceive someone or something to be a threat to our wellbeing. Something about them makes us afraid that our particular way of life, our daily existence, is at risk. We respond with force.
A toddler wants control of a toy. Another toddler takes possession. A sense of violation takes over. Words or blows are exchanged, followed by tears and rage employed to elicit the intervention of a higher power to enforce justice.
Really, that is all there is:
- A fundamentalist wants their god to dominate all others.
- A mining company wants a peasant’s land.
- A racist wants safety from and control over people of different skin pigmentation.
- A man wants to dominate a woman.
- A consumer wants the latest gadget for a life of no bother.
Violence ensues, whether in person or by proxy.
Good teachers and parents show children the value of sharing and cooperation. But the world around us teaches other lessons. At the end of the day, people are wounded and die. Some are beheaded or torn to bits in a suicide bombers’ blast. Most, truly, are the innocent casualties of another’s war. Iraq Body Count estimates somewhere between 146,000 and 166,000 violent civilian deaths since the 2003 United States invasion. When combatants are added in, the toll rises to 224,000. When secondarily related deaths are counted (a person in need of medical services or other life necessities they cannot access because of the war), the toll rises to over one-half million (see Huffington Post). And that is just one of today’s many wars.
Whether we are a toddler, a religion, an economic system or a nation, we see dominance as the antidote for our fears. And we set all good teaching and rationality aside, spending any resource to preserve our wounded ego and supposed safety through the use of force.
It does not work. Hitler rose to power by channeling collective fear into violent domination. The whack-a-mole response of World War II put an end to that only to yield the greater horror of nuclear annihilation and the super-power struggles of the Cold War. And no military or terrorist action by anyone in any place since then has achieved a lasting peace as a net result of the violence applied. Humanity ultimately seems cowed only by the insanity of mutually assured destruction.
Is that what we want? Whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Atheist; whether American, Iraqi, Malaysian or Saudi; whether capitalist, socialist, communist or military dictator; whether retiree, school teacher, cashier or toddler on the playground, we make our choices. We make them in each breath.
Will we make the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil choice, the one that says there is not enough and that every other being is a competitor and a threat to our existence? Will we strike out in violence, large or small, overt or subtle, to secure what is never more than a temporary chimera of control? This happens each day at every level, from the battle to dominate our little vehicular turf on the highway to the unfathomable resources thrown into the assertion of military force.
Or will we learn the Tree of Life lesson of all our good teachers – everyone from the Buddha to Jesus to Mohammed to Mr. Rogers? Life works when we listen to others and share. Life works when we give up dominance, altogether, in favor of mutually assured satisfaction.
Life works, in fact, when we are willing to suffer the blow delivered by another and return only compassion and kindness. There is never a victory through violence. There is never ultimate security in threat. We win only when we give up the fight altogether and show another way. And so we teach our children. But we refuse to believe it and live it in every breath and aspect of our adult lives.
Love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. Walk the second mile. There is nothing passive about these things. All are active assertions of a better way. The Tree of Life grows surely at the end of that road.
© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden. Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.
Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype at Two Trees Center for Spiritual Development. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone or text to (970) 217-6078. Click FOLLOW in the upper left menu bar to be notified of future posts.