16 January 2014

Peace, the Elusive

by Eve Fisher

I swear to God, I wrote most of this before I heard the story of the Florida theater shooter who is claiming that he had a right to stand his ground and shoot to death a man who threatened him by...  throwing popcorn at him.  So...

As you regular readers know, I do Alternatives to Violence Project workshops that at the state penitentiary.  Most people think I do them in order to help the prisoners - which I do - but what most people can't grasp is that I've learned an awful lot about violence and non-violence from these workshops:  violence and non-violence in my world, my state, my town, my self.  And as I say to the guys, each and every workshop, I need all the help I can get.


There's a lot of talk about peace - in the Middle East, in Africa, on our streets, and during the recent holidays the whole "peace on earth, good will to men" thing was, as usual, trotted out regularly and OH, how I wish there was more hope of its coming.  Every time I hear about another shooting, massacre, war, double-homicide, mass shooting, etc., all I can say is "How long, O Lord?  How long?"  To which the Lord might very well reply, "How long, O people?  How long will you keep beating your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears?"  Because we could stop.  We could try to stop.

Why don't we?

That's why I do AVP.  Because I'm wrestling with why we do not stop.  Why I don't stop.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't own any guns, and it's been years since I punched anyone.  But I can rage, inwardly, with the best of them, with the worst of them, and that troubles me deeply.  Why can't I stop?

Now back when I was a child, in the late 50's, early 60's, there were significant differences in how boys and girls were raised, especially about emotions, especially about anger.  We little girls were rigidly trained to NOT express anger.  We didn't have the right to yell and scream, throw temper tantrums or hit people - it wasn't nice, or feminine, or ladylike, and if we did, we'd get punished for it, usually by being yelled and screamed at and being hit.  Whereas the guys - well, they were brought up to "prove they were a man", by standing up for themselves, which often meant everything from verbal sparring to fighting to assault to killing.

Now you get a bunch of guys sitting in prison, they usually know they messed up somewhere, because they're there.  If nothing else, they got caught.  But if their crime was violence - say, beating someone to death or shooting someone who pissed them off - it takes a very long time for a lot of them to realize that killing that person was actually wrong.  That they didn't have the right to do that.  After all, they were just expressing their anger and/or standing up for themselves and/or defending themselves and/or their loved ones and/or the guy had it coming.  It takes a long, long, long time for some of them to grasp the concept that just because you are experiencing anger does not mean you have the right to take it out - verbally or physically - on someone else.  And your anger definitely does NOT mean you have the right to, say, kill the person who pisses you off.  (Yes, that includes people who text inappropriately and/or throw popcorn at you.)

That's why I enjoy doing AVP workshops:  because at least we discuss these issues and other issues of fear, jealousy, violence, pride, manhood, control, and what to do about it.  And I mean a real discussion.  Political and religious platitudes, slogans, etc., break down very quickly.  Instead we walk the guys through it:
For example.  I am angry.  At that person over there.  I have the RIGHT to make him/her aware of my anger, and change what they're doing to piss me off.  What do you mean, I don't?  What do you mean, I don't have the right to tell them to obey me, and if not to yell at them, cuss them out, hit them or kill them?  Why not?  What are the options?  What can I do?  I can't just sit here, feeling all this anger and fear and crap, I've got to DO something about it, right?  I'm a man, a man's supposed to DO something.  What do you mean, walk away?  Suck it up?  Think about it?  Work through what I can actually change and what I can't?  I'm a man.  Men don't do that.  Yeah, I'm sick of getting jumped, shoved, pushed, decked, punched...  I'm even scared of it.  But what the hell else am I supposed to DO?

Walk away.  Turn away.  Move on.  Suck it up.  Do something different.  Lead with your mind, instead of your emotions, at least until you have more emotions on tap than fear and anger.

The very idea that there is such a thing as a non-violent alternative is alien to almost everyone in the pen (unless they've been to our workshops), and it is, apparently, alien to a whole lot of people who have not yet reached incarceration.  We revere Gandhi and Mandela and King - but you know, our society reveres them the way you would admire saints in a niche.  Nobody studies them.  Nobody takes a look and analyzes how they managed to choose an alternative to violence.  We don't teach our children how to practice non-violence.  We don't teach our children self-control, or meditation, or how to recognize the emotions and thoughts that are running through their minds and how to deal with them.  

AVP has lots of exercises, from role-playing to community building to meditation.  In one exercise, we're divided up into pairs, A and B, and for two whole minutes, A tells B the things they like about themselves.  B has to listen, no comments.  Then they switch and repeat the exercise, with A listening to B.  99.9% of the time, what they say they like about themselves is what they do.  "I like to hunt, to fish, to play sports, to draw, to play music, to read, to watch TV, to hang out with friends, to work on cars, to..."  It's all about doing.  Almost never do you hear anyone say, "I like that I'm a loyal person, that I'm brave, loving, kind, hopeful, a dreamer, a hard worker..."  And never yet have I heard something like, "I like that I am a human being.  A child of God.  A man.  A woman.  Alive."

I think this holds true for all of us, not just people in prison.  We do not believe in being, we believe in doing. And yet, that's the most important part, isn't it?  Why is it so hard to talk about who we are?  And how can we change ourselves if we don't know who we are?  If we are running away from the reality of ourselves all the time?  How can we have peace if we do not understand the roots and ribbons and cables of violence that run through not just the world but ourselves?  Our own minds and hearts?

I do AVP workshops because I am working on all of this, and it suits my personality better than meditation or Freudian therapy.  Sometimes I see amazing breakthroughs.  (I'm still waiting for one of those for myself...)  Sometimes I don't.  But at least there the conversation is real.  

12 comments:

janice Law said...

A good piece. I think alternatives to violence is also important to creative people in that it is so much easier to make violence exciting in print or on the screen than it is to present the alternatives as thrilling and worthwhile.

Fran Rizer said...

Eve, I knew you worked in the prisons, but didn't know exactly what you did nor why. Thanks for an interesting enlightenment. BTW, you should have been reared in the South where girls (at least this one) did throw temper tantrums.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Excellent post, Eve. In the exercise you described, do you leave it at what they choose to say, eg "I like hunting," or do you redirect them to "I like my sense of humor" etc. ? As a therapist, I've spent a lot of time helping people get the difference, as well as the difference between a feeling, eg"I feel angry," and a belief, "I feel he started it" or "I feel you should do what I want." And yes, I've worked with clients who were convinced (and couldn't be unconvinced) that they'd been justified in killing someone because "he started it." "It" would be an argument or a bar fight, not an attack with a weapon, but to these guys, it made perfect sense to respond with a knife to the gut.

Eve Fisher said...

During the exercise, we listen without interruptions, but after the exercise, we can and do discuss what was said, and try a little redirection. And we work a lot with "I" messages - changing it from "you pissed me off" to "when I hear something like ___, I become angry..." It's a long, slow slog, but for a lot of them, it's the first time they've ever had any help at all.

R.T. Lawton said...

Eve, nice article. I have always been fascinated with how some people rationalize their actions. (The I have the right to do...) I heard and saw the results of their rationalizing, especially in the criminal world, but never really understood their justification. And yes, most of it appeared to come from emotions. Scary.
Good luck with your project, cuz some of those same people will be back on the streets with us again some day.

Louis A. Willis said...

Your article reminded me of a story I recently read about a middle school student who brought a shotgun to school and shoot an 11-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl. The authorities don’t yet know the motive. As I read the story, I wonder what made the boy so angry that he decided violence was the only way to solve the problem.

Jo Belasco, Esq. said...

This was a wonderful article. It made me think of Thich Nhat Hanh's reply to a Sandy Hook father who lost a child in that massacre. It's here at YouTube. He says that the young man didn't know what to do with his anger and rage, which I think is true of most of our society. I used to be a police attorney in a large city back in the 90s, and I remember my supervisor once telling me a letter I wrote to opposing counsel wasn't "mean enough." I thought that was a rather silly thing to say since we were trying to negotiate something, and the point wasn't to be mean. I now work with fearful horseback riders in seminars and clinics, and mindfulness is one of the techniques I use. It helps people with their fear and anxiety, and it also helps with any anger they have around horses because so much anger is rooted in fear.

Jeff Baker said...

Eve, that was a wonderful article! In my encounters with inmates I was initially surprised to find out how much they and I had in common.

Leigh Lundin said...

Eve, I don't recall if it was the Northwest Passage or another, but the explorers were looking for an obvious way through a mountain range. They weren't seeing obvious signs of a pathway. Frustrated and on the point of giving up, one of the men noticed a stream running westward rather than eastward. They had made the passage without realizing it because it was subtle.

Perhaps that's the same with your own breakthrough.

Leigh Lundin said...

The Florida theatre shooter not only shot the popcorn man, but shot through the hand of the man's wife who'd put her hand on her husband's chest.

It's sickening, but a lot of local people blame the popcorn man, saying he deserved what he got.

Eve Fisher said...

Leigh, there definitely is a trend today that if you are angry, you can do anything you want to the person who "caused" you to be angry. And the idea that your anger is your responsibility is beyond them... It's frightening, sickening, and especially at a time when prisons are turning into private cash cows, with all "amenities", like anger management classes, cut for lack of funds. And there is no education given in schools about anger management at all, as far as I can see...

Robert Lopresti said...

I used to read a journal about General Semantics, which is not a field of semantics but more like a philosophy (some have called it a cult). There was an article about a practioner who worked with prisoners and the point he tried to make is: if you let someone make you so mad that you break the law (by hurting them) you are giving that person power over you.

YOu talk about the way we treat saints. Dorothy Day, who a lot of people called by that name, used to say with typical irritation, "people call you a saint when they don't want to follow your example."