I was riding my bike the other day thinking about this question of nonviolence. A woman was walking toward me on the same narrow sidewalk. I could tell by her expression that she was already deciding to be unhappy and to do me violence. Not in the sense of throwing me off my bicycle, but in that head shaking, finger wagging, hip cocked way that we Black women so frequently substitute for conversation. Due to my skillful ridership, she and I ultimately passed one another without incident, but the encounter crystallized my thinking.
Nonviolence is a concept. People whose names are recognized around the world represent its principles: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother Theresa. Real nonviolence is the ability to move from the abstract concept of greatness to everyday life. It is about ordinary people making everyday choices, or it is not about anything.
It’s people whose names will never be recorded in history books: the woman who runs the soup kitchen even though she is rousted every month by the local gang; the sister who can fill a city Commission meeting to capacity before a crucial vote on housing discrimination; surrogate mothers who have taken in a young person and are teaching them alternatives to lashing out at the world.
As straightforward as this sounds, the process is convoluted, protracted, and often just plain tedious. The reason is almost cliché: because we’re all in this boat together and if we don’t row together we’ll sink together; because if I don’t speak up when they come for my fellow person, who will protest when they come for me; because the world is a global village and it takes a village to raise a child.
When that woman was walking toward me, daring me to battle for her side of that strip of concrete, her challenge triggered something in me. For the briefest instant a very real and totally primal impulse rose and replied in kind. She heard the howl. It was clear in her stride. For the span of a breath – two breaths at the most – the morning balanced on the knife edge.
Then I remembered the sanctity of anger. I was raised as a military brat during the early attempts to integrate the armed forces. (I am here to testify that the Great Social Experiment was deeply flawed.) Because my father’s career field was missile defense, his assignments were mostly in the back waters of the back woods. That’s where they keep the missiles and that is also where political correctness isn’t even a late night television show.
I learned over those years that not every battle deserved my fiery attention. Anger has transformative power, especially when it morphs into rage. It can purify, preparing the way for something new to be rebuilt. In this process of creation, my anger — and when unleashed, my rage — is sacred. I can choose when to engage.
When the red veil lowers, time shifts into Matrix-slow-motion. I visualize a clearing, open and grassy if it is in the forest; if it is by the sea, an open expanse of sand, encircled with large, flat stones. It is a circle existing outside of time and space where neither physics nor metaphysics apply. It simply exists. In the middle of the Clearing is my Guide, sometimes in human form, sometimes not. I enter the circle hearing the first question, Whose problem are you bringing to the Clearing?
If it is my problem, as in something that I can control (and, therefore, can change), my Guide invites me into the Clearing. Together, we explore options, examine motivations, and I probably cry more than once. When I have done the work laid before me, I know because I can leave the Circle with a sense of purpose. If I am holding back or avoiding or lying to myself, my leaving is shadowed with doubt and disquiet.
If the answer is that I bring someone else’s problem to the Clearing, the next question is, Why? If my problem with someone else is me, then I am the source of my own anger and frustration. In these instances, my time in the Clearing involves many tears and unsettled leavings before the day arrives when the work is done.
All the activists I know — and I include myself in this company — are driven individuals. We are dedicated to the ideal of social justice. We are willing to work tirelessly, without ceasing (and many times without pay) to bring about the world that we envision in the seventh generation beyond our own. This, our greatest strength, is also the razor in our collective apple.
How do I balance on that knife edge? How can I choose peace in the moments before confrontation seems not only inevitable but also a biological imperative?
By being in the heart of myself. I was riding my bike, legs pumping, hair flying, coat flapping. And even though that ordinary moment had brought me up close and personal with one of humanity’s most potentially destructive traits, I still chose to believe.
I believe in truth and honesty and faith and hope.
I believe in love and honor and loyalty and mercy.
I believe in compassion if there can be no forgiveness.
I also believe that sometimes compassion must roar and that spirituality can — and should — use teeth and claws. I believe that being nonviolent means living in paradox: to be a woman of peace who is not afraid of a knife fight.
But it was not going to happen that day.