By Tim Hjersted
Jan 13, 2015
When every cultural force beckons us to hate, to harden our hearts and vilify the other, we must have the courage to look, deeply, with an intention to understand.
To ignore the rage of the dispossessed, to dismiss it without understanding its roots, will not bring us any closer to ending this world's mad and endless cycles of violence. If we ever want to end this, we've got to seek out that place in our hearts where we can find compassion for both the killer and the killed. This may sound extreme, and in this world, I know it does. But for me, it is possible when I realize that it could have been me - in either situation. If I had been born into their situation, lived the life they did, been conditioned by the same environmental circumstances they had growing up, and been exposed to the same suffering, it very well could have been me who fired the gun. The same holds true for some soldier sitting at the Pentagon who flies the drones which kill little specs of grey and black pixels on a screen. If I had been born into a military family, with patriotic friends, surrounded and immersed in a culture where I believe my self-worth and goodness is upheld by pushing that red button, I could have become that kind of killer as well.
Fortunately, I was not born into a family, economic situation or cultural environment that would lead me to pick up a gun or join the military. While I was born into a wider culture which from all directions compels me to hate and justify certain forms of violence, my family and friendship circles (my immediate cultural environment) allowed me to escape the pressures of the dominant culture. I see this fortune as random luck. It was by chance that I was born into my family and not some other family. It is by random chance that I am me and not someone else. It is by random chance and good fortune that I was exposed to alternative values and knowledge which led me to spend my days reading books like Teachings on Love by Thich Nhat Hanh rather than some dogmatic book or newspaper that defends the violence of Western imperialism or religious extremism. I see this mental freedom as a form of mental and spiritual privilege which tragically so many in the world do not enjoy. It makes it easy to love, easy not to kill or want to be violent. But that is my conditioning.
I know that the same human potential that allows me to be compassionate and non-violent is the same human potential that leads others to commit horrible acts of violence. That is because we are all born with the same spectrum of human potential. We all start out as seeds that can ultimately grow healthy or toxic fruit, depending on how those seeds are nourished or poisoned. No child is born wanting to bomb people from afar or shoot them down with bullets. No child is born racist or sexist or hateful. All of this suffering is inherited from the suffering of those that affect our lives.
It is this understanding that allows me to have compassion for every victim of this world's brutal cycles of violence and conflict. Because it could have been me in their shoes. It could have been me who drew their last breath last week on the floor of a newsroom. It could have been me who died with so much pain and suffering in their heart, who lived a life that is unimaginable and incomparable to ours.
When I look into their eyes, I see myself. and it makes my heart ache beyond description. This pain is only a shadow of what others feel, but it is enough to make me not want to give up loving and striving for a world where this madness has come to an end.