Dr. John Young 9-5-08
Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville
Violation or Courage
‘Do no harm.’ This seems to be the self-evident ethical precept for interpersonal relations. A violator is a person who is obviously harming others; violation is usually considered sinful, unlawful and unethical. Courage is generally lauded as especially virtuous. Far too often throughout human history, courage has been associated with the violence done by warriors, prototypically the violent actions of men for good causes: just wars, self-defense, killing the savage or even inhuman enemies. We are facing a central ethical paradox: courageous actions often have been violating one person in order to protect or defend others.
Gandhi’s birthday was October 2. It is 139 years since he was born, and 60 years since he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic, who did not think Gandhi’s non-violent activism and respect for all religions including Islam were sufficiently fundamental Hinduism. Gandhi taught millions of people a different way of being courageous. He proposed an ethical path that promoted a kind of courage that was not dependent upon violating other people in order to demonstrate your bravery, to save your nation, or to defend your sacred principles. Gandhi knew that non-violence required genuine courage and vision because it had to be nurtured in the heart through slow growth and long and regular practice. War needed to be overcome by changing our children’s consciousness, their presuppositions about how you treat other people and what you expect from yourself. We will need vision and hard work in the near future in order to turn our futures from despair into hope.
People violate others because they are afraid. Violators are cowards. Violent people live in fear; they see danger lurking every where. They anticipate the worst from others, and so they come to any encounter armed to defend themselves against savages. Fearful people nurture cultures of anger. Angry people breathe antagonism. They are always ready to become indignant. They are often proud that they tend to lose control of themselves, to lash out with rage and to simmer with wrath.
Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls realized that much of peoples’ anger was rooted in grief. In their pasts, angry people had felt violated, and so they go forward with the shield of antagonism and the constant threat that they might become violators themselves. Those who remain in the wells of fear and who train themselves to live as angry people become hateful. They are caught in cycles of hostility, aversion, and loathing. They turn their perceptions of injury into lives fueled by anger and almost always find something to fear. Often, in their hearts, they loath themselves, but they take it out on others.
Last week in our Sunday morning spirituality group, UUCJ member Gwen Cooper, perhaps Jacksonville’s foremost portraitist of children shared a book with us that had become important to her. It is by Martin Seligman who has been President of the American Psychological Association and who is head of the Positive Psychology Network. The book is Character Strengths and Virtues; it provides psychological findings about primary human virtues like wisdom, love, justice, forgiveness, and gratitude. It has most of one hundred pages on courage.
Seligman defines courage as “the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, both external and internal.” He considers four aspects of courage. The first is bravery, “the ability to do what needs to be done despite fear.” Courageous people are not fearless, rather they are people that face their fears realistically and overcome them. For instance, millions of people face their fears of speaking in public by speaking in public. You help people find their courage by teaching them what needs to be done when they actually do face specific dangers. I learned about the outdoors in Boy Scouts. At Jacksonville’s beaches, the signs tell you what to do when you are pulled away from shore by a rip current. A courageous person does not banish fear; rather she simply overcomes its debilitating consequences. As a young boy who was afraid of the dark, I forced myself one summer to spend a few more minutes in the dark each night by myself, and by the end of the summer I felt comfortable in the dark and had overcome my unnecessary fear of the dark. Millions overcome their fears of illness or death by spending time with ill or dying people, and by making arrangements so that they are as prepared as they can be when their own illnesses and dying arrive.
Seligman’s second courage is the three related traits of persistence, perseverance, and industriousness. Here, it is not fear that threatens action but boredom, tedium, and frustration. Often in any life, it would be easier or more pleasant to do something easier than it is to act more courageously. Few people spend much of their lives being actively evil. Most human evil is the good that we fail to do. It is usually not that we are being consciously harmful but that we are too lazy to do the good that we are capable of doing. Seligman tells about a 16 year old John D. Rockefeller who finished a 3 month bookkeeping course in Cleveland, Ohio, made a list of all the firms looking for bookkeepers and applied and went to interviews at every one. None of them hired him, ‘too young and no work experience.’ For most people, it would have been a crushing setback. Rockefeller simply requested interviews with everyone again until some one gave him a chance. In 30 years, he was the richest man in the world. Seligman warns us that persistence needs to be used judiciously. Almost every one of us has loved someone who just was not willing to respond with equal love. Part of the courage of persistence is learning when it is time to give up. Giving up in a timely fashion is not cowardice but simply prudence.
Seligman’s third courage is integrity. Here his favorite psychologist and one of my favorites is Carl Rogers who argued that integrity was the foundation of human happiness and fulfillment. Rogers argues that a person with integrity has her feelings available to her, is able to live with her real feelings, and is able to communicate them to other people. Most counselors now use Rogers’ ideas in their therapeutic interventions. Our life-long human development in Unitarian Universalism grows right out of Roger’s ideas about integrity. Seligman argues that two primary things get in the way of people developing adequate integrity. First is controlling social contexts that suppress, oppress, or pervert peoples’ real feelings. Second is passivity and dependence on the part of adults. Many people refuse to accept personal responsibility to make and live with their own appropriate choices. One of the classics is when a couple comes to see a counselor and begins by explaining that ‘we never argue.’ Any counselor begins by wondering who is suppressing their real feelings and/or who is oppressing whom or hiding from themselves in the arms of another.
Seligman’s last courage is vitality, what the Chinese call chi, the vital energy of life, the creative source of life which as you get in touch with it produces correct actions and harmony with the world. Fritz Perls argued that when people adequately resolve their internal and/or inter-personal conflicts and become re-integrated that they regain greater energy and vitality. On the other hand, repression, stress, and unresolved conflicts detract from vitality. People can gain vitality by contact with nature, by success in autonomously motivated tasks, by social contacts, and by any activity that raises their spirits. This is where our chosen spiritual practices, like meditation, walking in the garden, exercise, music, reflection, or fulfilling service feed the soul and encourage people.
On public radio this week, I heard an amazing large, long-term study of middle class and poor parents in America today. By kindergarten the average middle class child had heard a large multiple of encouraging comments [praise, affirmation, gratitude] about themselves from their parents to discouraging comments [blame, dis-respect, anger], while with the average poor child, it was the opposite. They had heard mostly put downs, blame, and anger, and relatively few words of praise, hope, or joy. If you want to teach the people you love courage, you better learn to become systematically encouraging.
Non-violent activism is courage without violation. It encourages people to face and overcome their fears, to deal with their old griefs so that those griefs do not decay into anger, and to refuse to get caught in the spider webs of hate. Non-violent activism uses power with respect for others and responsibility for yourself. It replaces violence with negotiation so that all participants can begin to live up to their best principles and to find solutions that actually resolve problems and transcend the outworn negativity of the past.
The non-violent activist is courageous enough to face his fears and to refuse to continue to live controlled by fear, anger or hate, whether those are within himself or from others. Non-violent activism nurtures the courage of persistence, perseverance, and industriousness. It confronts the most prevalent human evil which is being too lazy or cowardly to do the good of which we are capable. Gandhi built his nonviolent activist policies out of ideas that systematically developed human integrity. He taught people to figure out who they really are, to determine the aspects of who they are that they genuinely want to fulfill in our lives, and to learn how to communicate these priorities effectively. He modeled communities that allow people to become their own best selves and to figure out how to work together with people who were different. Gandhi refused any form of self-defeating passivity or dependence in favor of mutually respectful activism and loving but realistic interdependence. Gandhi was a model of vitality. He developed a life suffused by affirming spirituality; he served those in need as his practical way of serving God.
The 21st century could and needs to become the century of courage without violation. If you want to become courageous: face your fears, mature out of your anger, and refuse to get caught in the despair of hate. Instead, spend your life encouraging the best aspects of yourself and the best in others. If you want to be and to teach courage, be encouraging. There are fearful aspects of any life, but they can be faced, brought down to realistic size and dealt with effectively. Persevere, but learn when to cut your losses and how to move on to new relationships and communities in which you can be more effective. Maintain your integrity by discovering who you really are and learning how to live and communicate the most worthy aspects of your true self. Nourish vitality, we all deserve and need appropriate encouragement.