This year I’ve felt confronted and shaken by watching war unfold in Ukraine, covered in heart-wrenching detail by Western media. This is not the only conflict in the world right now but it’s the most vivid and easy to imagine our family in. The war in our pocket. I felt guilty when I stopped watching the news to protect my mental health. I’ve also felt confronted just dealing with small conflicts in my daily life, ashamed of my privilege at being annoyed for chores not done or the milk running out.
I kept imagining what we would do if we were invaded, if we were trying to homeschool camped in the subway system or fleeing over the border to Europe or even across the world to Australia. How would I cope, faced with watching my loved ones be tortured or killed? It staggers me how humans can be so inhumane. Would I still suggest love as a response to conflict? Is there a place for violence in self defence? How can I help from the other side of the world? I felt powerless and anxious.
I would like to live in a world where humans look after each other and work together to solve big problems like climate change, instead of dividing into teams and trying to kill each other. Why! I’m so over trauma. There are many positive movements, events and humans in the world today but to ignore the existence of violence doesn’t seem like a wise move in terms of safety. Sticking my fingers in my ears and humming doesn’t make it go away. How can I reconcile existing in this and witnessing this pain?
At a permaculture workshop with Cecilia Macaulay in 2015, I saw a vivid example of what it looks like to greet force with love. Since then, I demonstrate this live in all my Nonviolent Communication (NVC) workshops as a concrete way to show the difference between power over/power under (this is the same thing, one up/one down in a relationship) and power-with (where both parties are held equally). One person volunteers to be the monster and is asked to stand and roar at the facilitator three times. The first time, the facilitator shrinks back. The ‘monster’ usually swaggers and looks satisfied. The second time, the facilitator roars back. The monster usually roars louder, egged on. The third time, the facilitator stands their ground, places their hand on their heart and beams lovingly at the roaring monster. This time the monster falters and drops their threat. Try it yourself and see what happens. While I’m not suggesting that meeting physical violence with a sweet smile will guarantee your safety, I’m super interested in how humans perceive and react to threat, how we can read each other’s intent and which actions are most likely to de-escalate a situation. Reading intent and channeling energy is taught in varying degrees in many martial arts practices.
I started learning Brazilian jiu jitsu a year ago as a strategy for personal safety. It’s been a really valuable experience for me, far beyond just physical skills. It felt ironic signing up in the same month that I signed up to a NVC parenting course – if my words don’t work, I’ll just choke him out. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the culture, I was intimidated by the male-dominated environment and I felt small, slow and uncoordinated at first. But it’s turned out to be an interesting way to explore power and consent, to be held (physically and emotionally) in a safe male space without the complexities of an intimate relationship, to put myself back into beginner’s mind and observe my own learning process, to be respected by males for my physical sporting skills for the first time in my life as I gain my stripes, to get regular touch, to really experience my own power in my body and to talk with the guys about relationships, feelings and mental health in a space that is safe for them. I’m so grateful to the guys at this gym for holding space for me, celebrating with me and supporting my learning journey. I feel more freedom and confidence in public because I have some options now, rather than just scream and run. I can stay dancing on the dance floor at the pub with the creepy older guy because I know I can choke him out if I need to. Knowing I can overpower someone else’s body doesn’t mean I’ll do it. And if I did, I would use the least force possible to stabilise the situation. Having the skills for physical violence makes me less violent, because I have more confidence and more tools.
In NVC, there are times when protective use of force is the best course of action. For example, if a toddler runs towards a busy road. You don’t allow them to do what they want or try to talk with them. You grab them with loving force regardless of their reaction, and connect with their needs later when you’re both physically safe. Knowing BJJ gives me more ability to do the same thing with adults. I’m realising that force, fighting and violence are not the same thing. So I guess there is definitely a place for force in self defence – I won’t let you do that to me, my loved ones or yourself.
Even the Dalai Lama advocates prayers plus action. He doesn’t say just think nice things and everything will magically be solved. “Individual prayer is relevant and useful. For society and the world, though, prayer is not meaningful. Peace comes through actions.” Pray and visualise peace, and also send money, boycott, vote, protest. I find that reassuring. It expands the either/or paradigm; I can practice setting a peaceful intention and also how to lock my arms around someone’s carotid arteries and use both these things to move towards nonviolence.
How does one live a peaceful life in a violent world? Ursula le Guin explores this ‘The Word For World is Forest‘ (I read this short but violent novel to my 13yo this year as a homeschool readaloud). When strong, well-armed intruders are breaching, raping and seizing your peaceful homeland, what options do you have for resistance and at what cost? The paradox she describes is that meeting violence with peace enables a swifter takeover, yet using the tools of the invader against them destroys the peace within – you become the enemy. Starhawk has also written several novels about this dilemma, starting with ‘The Fifth Sacred Thing‘ (then a prequel and sequel). Le Guin’s book ends rather more darkly than Starhawk’s, where the characters in the latter meet violence with love similar to the monster demonstration above – ‘there is a place set for you at our table, if you choose to join us’. It’s not a naive strategy but a well-debated and deliberate choice to hold onto integrity even in the face of armed violence. ‘The Word For World Is Forest’ is an uncomfortable read both because le Guin takes you inside the brutal mind of the invader, and the cost of resistance is very high. Closer to home, Claire Coleman’s novels ‘Terra Nullius’ and ‘The Old Lie’ do a brilliant job of playing with point of view to explore power, colonisation, invasion, gender and race from an indigenous Australian perspective. Interestingly, like le Guin she also takes the story into intergalactic space in ‘The Old Lie’. I find these novels a useful way to reflect on what could be emotionally overwhelming themes, within the safe distance of fiction.
Although the real war is visible, vast and terrible, there are also humans living in my own city who are struggling with both visible and invisible threats to their wellbeing. If I stay connected and listen, I’ll find ways to help folk right where I am. Finding ways to help reduces my own sense of powerlessness. I feel less anxious if I can do something. Even writing this is doing something. I volunteered to doorknock and hand out voting slips for The Greens this election and it was a huge relief to see so many Greens members gain seats and a Labour government. I have a lot more hope for Australia’s future now.
Here are some of my solutions so far:
• be the change. Live how I want things to be, instead of collapsing because we’re not already there.
• trust the ripple effect. Just keep putting out love, support and kindness. I never know how much it might impact someone or how far it might reach.
• notice where I am violent, hurtful or uncaring. I am the person I have the most influence over. Own my stuff so I can move towards resolving it. Recognise when I am ‘othering’ people.
• keep learning how humans work and how I can heal myself and others around me. Get skills. Learn about trauma and self-regulation, because it affects all of us.
• care for myself. Build my own capacity.
• pray, meditate, send lovingkindness. Come back to my intent and keep checking in. Is my intent to connect, heal or love right now, or is my intent to blame, judge or punish?
• send money to charities on the front line, and charities close to home. Go where the need is.
• attend an anti-war or climate action protest. Be visible. Put the colours up.
• vote for parties that support refugees, social justice and climate action. Be counted.
• boycott companies that profit from violence. Move my money to banks and companies who are tackling social and environmental justice.
• start conversations about violence, consent and trauma. Listen and hold space for those who need it, when I have capacity.
• make space for grief. It’s human to be affected by this collective trauma. Grief needs to be shared in order to heal. Like shame, it’s a social emotion.
• be fierce in my love.
The world needs your compassion more than ever.