By Elizabeth De Sa
Dear President Obama, I am writing to you concerning your budget request – $585.2 billion for the Pentagon. If approved, it will be the largest military budget in U.S. history. I would like to ask you to ear-mark some money for finding alternatives to war.
War is a tragedy and I mourn the loss of lives. Yet recently my longing for peace has evolved beyond a sadness that wars continue, to an outrage. Yes, I am outraged that we still resolve conflict in a way that feels so destructive, inhumane and even evil. What are we learning from the past? We look back at wars with a simplicity that belies the complexity of the context and root causes. Hitler was evil, right? Yet he was elected in a climate of depression after punitive measures had been taken against Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. People voted for him as an act of hope. Nazi guards at concentration camps committed acts of atrocity, yet they showed kindness to their children.
When we go to war, we are acting on the belief that people are good or bad. Change your relationship to one ‘bad’ person, and you will see that your belief is no longer true. Over 16 million people died in WW1. Military leaders ordered their troops to advance and they were shot down in waves. I wonder about the leaders’ sanity. Were foot soldiers pawns? Why were politicians so committed to this way of warfare that guaranteed an immense loss of life when they had not explored all other options?
And who am I asking to do that exploring when most governments are so committed to this way of resolving conflict? You, Mr. President, you! I want to explore strategies that don’t mean your child or mine is sent to fight in a war when other possibilities haven’t yet been tried. I don’t want anyone to be a pawn for anyone’s cause.
When I was a teenager, like many, I wanted to make a difference in the world. Yet my belligerent opining changed little. Few people respond to blame and shame with joyful cooperation. I heard a quotation attributed to an unknown bishop: “When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But, it too, seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it. And now as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed my self first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country and, who knows, I may have even changed the world.”
I learned the obvious from this. I practiced aikido and meditation, and I became a “good” person. Then I had children. They were born experts at showing me exactly who I am, no hiding behind a veneer of goodness. They pushed me to my absolute edges and made me face myself. I had another realization at an airport. I wanted to change the world through small acts of kindness, yet I looked around and saw I was rubbing shoulders with hundreds of people who had been raped, more rapists that I cared to imagine, corporate criminals, murderers even. What good were my self-awareness and kindness when I was facing pain on such a huge scale?
I saw that the answer to the world’s problems doesn’t exist entirely within myself, though the bishop wasn’t saying that it all stopped there either. He realized that in changing himself, he would change others. And there lies the problem – believing that others are wrong and wanting to change them. Trying to understand others might be more effective. Mr. President, remember the last conflict that you had. Did you or the other person feel blame or shame? These common responses to conflict mean that one or both of you is existing in a dualistic paradigm of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad. If we want to change others through blame, shame or power over, then that paradigm is the one to choose. However there are other paradigms that might be more helpful in resolving conflict with compassion and positive motivation, seeking to understand self and the other, a way that heals the pain of the conflict without retribution, and a way that leads to greater connection.
The crucial consideration is one of needs (from Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication). In all we do, we are motivated by the desire to get our needs met. Universal human needs include food, shelter, air and water, but also others that enable us to thrive, e.g. connection, to be seen for who we are, harmony, ease, autonomy and more. If we are present with the pain of an unmet need, then we can consciously choose strategies to meet those needs, strategies that do not negate the needs of others. There are no conflicting needs, only conflicting strategies to meet our needs. War, terrorism and criminal acts are tragic and unconscious strategies to meet unmet needs.
In the 1988 presidential debate between George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis, Dukakis was asked if he would oppose the death penalty even if his wife was raped and murdered. Dukakis gave a wooden response, that he opposed the death penalty whatever the circumstances. When former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, heard Dukakis’ response, he was furious. He turned to those around him and said what he believed Dukakis should have said to win the debate: “How dare you speak about my wife in that way? You should be ashamed of yourself for dishonoring her like that. But I tell you this. If I caught the man who did those things to my wife, I’d grab him by the neck, rip out his throat and tear him limb from limb.” Cuomo said that day, “there is a subtext of violence in American politics.” After all, Mr. President, you are commander-in-chief for the largest military force in the world. Dukakis was being asked if he would defend his country’s honor.
Yet how would defending his ego have helped anyone heal? So would I have chosen retributive justice or violence for the teacher who molested me when I was 14? I lived in a climate of blame so I didn’t tell anyone about the incidents for years. If he could be blamed, so could I. But if I had told, then this is what I would have wanted. I don’t believe that prison or even castration would have deterred him or others like him from reacting to whatever pain they held inside them. I wanted the abuse to stop and I wanted to heal from the pain. We don’t heal pain through revenge. We heal pain through feeling it and mourning our unmet needs for safety and trust.
I would have liked to express to him my outrage and hurt, and my desire to hurt him back. I would have liked for him to have been given the opportunity to feel regret for what he had done. Most of all, I wanted the disastrous vortex of pain and more pain to be broken, to know that steps were being taken to heal those who abuse others so that they could stop. This is not pandering to criminals. This is spending time, energy and resources to make change because retributive justice does not work.
It’s time to question why people do ‘bad’ things and what needs they are trying to meet, to question why we engage in so much warfare and what needs we are trying to meet, and it is definitely time to invest some of that time and money in finding alternatives. I long for our leaders to be in a place of wholeness and compassion, connected to a life-spring within. The pain that clouds our perception blocks us from living in that place.
If you were there, you would be as likely to kill your own daughters as you would the children of another country. Not before you’d explored every other option at least. So, Mr. President, I invite you to call me some time. It’s not my intention to blame you or shame you. We all choose strategies to meet needs, and as leader of our country, you’re responsible for trying to meet the needs of millions. Through deep listening and understanding, we can allow a way to open for creative strategies to emerge and find ways forward that build connection.
Elizabeth De Sa
Elizabeth De Sa is a Quaker, writer, mother, teacher and Non-Violent Communication practitioner. Of Indian descent, she grew up in London, has lived in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and California, and now lives in intentional community in North Carolina. She is passionate about creating a culture of compassion and deep listening, where inner peace makes outer peace. Her website is: innerpeace-outerpeace.org