On compromise

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

As part of my Certificate in Nonviolent Studies, I’ve been studying the conflicts going on in places like Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.  In almost every radio and podcast interview I’ve heard, the following question is asked:

What will it take for the two sides to reach a compromise?

I have studied the Ukraine conflict most closely, so I’ll use that as an example.  Naturally these things are always much more complicated than what you hear on the news, but in a nutshell the problem is this: ethnic Ukranians want to become more closely allied with the EU, while ethnic Russians living in Ukraine want to maintain close ties with the Kremlin.

Within this context, what would a “settlement of differences by mutual concessions” look like?   Either you are of Ukranian heritage or you are ethnically Russian.  Either you are from the city in the west or from the countryside in the east.  Either you think the economic future of Ukraine lies with the EU or you think security will come from Russia.  These things are mutually exclusive and stable.  Concessions may lead to a cease-fire, but they are unlikely to lead to a decrease in hostility.

As long as we frame this issue in such either-or terms, compromise seems impossible.  But maybe it’s all about perspective.  Looked at in a different way, maybe the chasm isn’t quite so wide.

Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing.  All Ukranians, whatever their ethnic heritage, want economic security, freedom and self-determination.  While they may have differing opinions as to how this can best be accomplished, the dispute is in the details.

What is true writ large on the global stage is also true in the microcosm of our personal relationships.  We all want the same thing out of life.  We want to feel cherished, important, worthwhile, safe, happy.

While we may choose to employ vastly different strategies for getting these needs met and we may not understand the choices other people make, we ultimately aren’t so different.

I have this conversation with my 8-year-old daughter all the time.  There is one girl at school who really rubs her the wrong way.  This girl always wants to be the center of attention, always has to one-up the other children, always has to be an expert on everything.  While I understand why Bess finds this annoying, and I don’t expect them to be BFFs, my daughter has to learn how to get along with all kinds of people.

So we talk about it.  We discuss how, just like Bess, just like all of us, this girl wants to feel special and loved.  Obviously she has decided or learned that the way to get her emotional needs met is to seek attention and approval from others by any means necessary.  We may not like or understand the behavior, but certainly we can understand the motivation.  That’s not to say that one must be willing to be a doormat.  If this girl is doing things that are hurtful or dishonest then it is okay, even necessary, to speak up.  But even though she is frustrating, doesn’t she also deserve our compassion?

And after having had this conversation eleventy thousand times, gradually, my daughter is gaining the skills she needs to compassionately deal with difficult people while demanding respect from them.

The world isn’t made up of right and wrong, me and you.  As long as we think it is, we will continue to have all sorts of unresolvable conflicts.

But when we see that the world is actually made up of 7 billion other people who are just like me these conflicts become manageable and compromise becomes truly possible.  Maybe all those people don’t look, talk, act, eat, or worship like me, but they are just like me in the ways that count

The New Story

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

I have had the great good fortune to be accepted into the Metta Center’s Nonviolence Studies Pilot Program – yay!  Our first assignment was to consider the paradigm shift that be required if we are to achieve a nonviolent society and to write our own New Story.  Here is mine:

My 90-year-old grandmother recently called to discuss a documentary she had seen on PBS.  “They said that all the corn is cross-contaminated with corn from other fields, so there’s no point in spending all that extra money on organic food.”

I launched an explanation of GMOs, pesticides, sustainable farming, farm workers’ rights, animal welfare, human health, and the fact that it takes more calories to ship a strawberry from Mexico to New Jersey than the strawberry is worth.  I may as well have changed the subject to the weather (sans mention of global climate change).

I can hardly blame her for her point of view.  She grew up on a farm where she pumped water from a well and carried it in a bucket.  She washed, hung and ironed the laundry for her family of nine by hand.  Every meal was prepared “from scratch” without microwaves, cold food storage, an electric or gas oven, or even Hamburger Helper.

I often say that she is from the Better Living Through Science Generation.  The washing machine meant that laundry took a couple of hours instead of a couple of days.  New cleaning products meant less time spent on her hands and knees scrubbing floors and bathtubs.  Medical advances all but eliminated diseases like smallpox and polio.  Her telephone and medical alert system allow her to continue living independently.  She is by no means “rich” but she lives a life of comfort she never could have imagined as a girl.

She simply cannot fathom why I would create unnecessary work for myself by line-drying my clothes or canning my own pickles.

To my grandmother, who watched her husband, brothers, and sons go off to war and who now lives in a middle-class suburb of New York City, it looks like violence is steep declining.  The women’s rights and civil rights movements have been successful.  The world is full of democracy and no one need fear a midnight knock from the KGB or the SS.  Human rights and international aid organizations build more wells and medical clinics every day

These points are hard to argue, yet they gloss over a great deal of complexity.  While she, like many others, is surrounded by items manufactured halfway across the globe, she has very little knowledge of the lives of people a few miles away in cities like Newark or Camden, never mind the people in China who made her slippers.

Violence is largely more subtle now, making invisible unless you go looking for it.

There may be laws to protect people from discrimination, but centuries of systemic, habitual oppression cannot be easily cast off in the oppressed or the oppressors.  The Iron Curtain may have fallen but people from former Soviet-Bloc countries who are ill-equipped to compete in the global marketplace now live in poverty.  The period of European colonialism has ended, but it has been replaced by neocolonialism which simply uses money instead of guns to wield power.  Americans reap the benefits of outrageously expensive medications while children are orphaned by AIDS or die of diseases that cost pennies to treat.

Violence against humans is just the tip of the iceberg.  Sitting at the zenith of the Industrial Age that has given us washing machines and cell phones, we can see the exorbitant toll it has taken on the natural systems that maintain us.  We use increasingly destructive means to extract resources,  diminish biodiversity daily, manipulate our food systems with chemicals and genetic modifications, all in the name of turning a profit but without a clue as to the effects on our health in the present or our ability to exist into the future.

Lest I leave the impression that my grandmother is an enemy of nonviolence, I will share my youngest uncle’s favorite story about her.  When he was maybe six years old, she took him to visit her sister in Paterson, which was once a thriving industrial city but had begun to descend into urban decay.  They stopped for ice cream on their way home, and while they sat at the counter an African-American man came in and sat a few seats away.  My uncle was nervous and asked if they could leave; in response she sat next to the man and started chatting about his children, where he lived, what he did for a living, and what he liked to do with his spare time.  She never lectured about racism or equality.

She simply respected the dignity of each human being she met.

I see myself as part of a growing movement towards sustainability and harmony, and my grandmother played a huge part in starting me on this path.  My hope is that I will find the grace to live the message of peace and love that is in my heart to show my own children – indeed, everyone I meet – that we have a choice.  We can make world into a place of beauty and nonviolence.

What is the legacy you hope to leave?  What stories about you would you want your grandchildren to tell?