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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Thoughts about civility, love and positive change

Martin Luther King Junior wrote:

"The ultimate weakness of violence
is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate....
Returning violence for violence multiples violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is now a rehab facility to learn how to walk and talk again and the families of the folks killed in Arizona are trying to put the shreds of their lives back together and to make sense of what happened on January 8th, 2011. The angry rhetoric and reflex blaming is quieting down among politicians and political commentators. Martin Luther King Day has come and gone and the sermons and speeches that attempt to make sense of his life and death are fading again.

Bloggers have pretty much ceased to argue about whether civility is practical, and about who is the least civil and ought to apologize to whom about what.

Things in the world remain pretty scary, as they mostly are most of the time if one chooses to look at them that way. They are a bit scarier than when the economic indices were looking pretty, because we can all hear the wolf howling at the door of the metaphorical drafty cabins that are our lives. The fear turns to anger, as it often does in the movers and shakers of history, and the anger fuels action, which is more comfortable than inaction when things look grim. The action seems important and the anger seems justified, in such dire times. We talk about civility, but frightened and angry people have trouble with patience and respect and empathy and kindness.

The action that is fueled out of the anger that is fueled from fear can fight a battle or repel an attacker, but it can't build a community or create an idea that unites people to do the hard and complex work of nation building.

Martin Luther King Jr. could get away with talking about love because he was a preacher. The rest of us, writers, politicians and such, can barely squeak out the word "civility" without embarrassment. But it is love, not civility, that gets the job done. Anger, hate, blaming and name calling, righteous indignation and insincere apologies are truly and unavoidably human, but they are counterproductive in a situation where creativity and hard work are what is needed.

I'm not entirely sure how we get there from here. On the subject of health care reform, members of congress and the political parties who influence them continue to argue about which side has the best interests of the country in mind, who wants to help the working poor receive medical care, who is spending the money of the American taxpayer and raising debt, who wants to cut services to those who depend on Medicare and Medicaid to fund their medical expenses. But this is not an issue that is well suited to party politics. It is an issue that requires good ideas and an agreement to compromise and try new approaches.

Psychologists have begun to use the concept of deliberately cultivating gratitude as a way of increasing happiness (  Organizational change can be more effective when an approach called "Appreciative Inquiry" is used, re-framing a situation in positive terms and moving in the direction of what is good in contrast to moving away from what is bad (  It is clear to me that, as a country, our focus on what we don't like, don't want and don't feel is acceptable has been partly responsible for the conflict burdened paralysis that we presently see in our government. A paradigm shift in the direction of love and gratitude is what will allow us to move beyond bickering to forging cooperative solutions to problems that we all want to solve.

And on that subject, on this Sunday morning I am exceedingly grateful for the time I have to sit and think and write, for a full stomach and a warm house and for all of the social reformers who have felt strongly enough about what is right to devote their time and words to their respective causes.

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