Oct 15, 2023

Break the Endless Cycle of Violence

A few thoughts on a Sunday morning.
By Josh Liveright / filmsforaction.org
Break the Endless Cycle of Violence
Smoke and flames billow after Israeli forces struck a high-rise tower in Gaza City [Ashraf Amra/Reuters]

The following is a long quote from Rabbi Alan Lew's book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation:

"I think that the great philosopher George Santayana got it exactly wrong.

I think it is precisely those who insist on remembering history who are doomed to repeat it. For a subject with so little substance, for something that is really little more than a set of intellectual interpretations, history can become a formidable trap— a sticky snare from which we may find it impossible to extricate ourselves.

I find it impossible to read the texts of Tisha B’Av, with their great themes of exile and return, and their endless sense of longing for the land of Israel, without thinking of the current political tragedy in the Middle East.

I write this at a very dark moment in the long and bleak history of that conflict. Who knows what will be happening there when you read this? But I think it’s a safe bet that whenever you do, one thing is unlikely to have changed. There will likely be a tremendous compulsion for historical vindication on both sides. Very often, I think it is precisely the impossible yearning for historical justification that makes resolution of this conflict seem so impossible.

The Jews want vindication for the Holocaust, and for the two thousand years of European persecution and ostracism that preceded it; the Jews want the same Europeans who now give them moral lectures to acknowledge that this entire situation would never have come about if not for two thousand years of European bigotry, barbarism, and xenophobia. They want the world to acknowledge that Israel was attacked first, in 1948, in 1967, in 1973, and in each of the recent Intifadas. They want acknowledgment that they only took the lands from which they were attacked during these conflicts, and offered to return them on one and only one condition— the acknowledgment of their right to exist.

When Anwar Sadat met that condition, the Sinai Peninsula, with its rich oil fields and burgeoning settlement towns, was returned to him. And they want acknowledgment that there are many in the Palestinian camp who truly wish to destroy them, who have used the language of peace as a ploy to buy time until they have the capacity to liquidate Israel and the Jews once and for all.

They want acknowledgment that they have suffered immensely from terrorism, that a people who lost six million innocents scarcely seventy years ago should not have had to endure the murder of its innocent men, women, and children so soon again. And they want acknowledgment that in spite of all this, they stood at Camp David prepared to offer the Palestinians everything they claimed to have wanted— full statehood, a capital in East Jerusalem— and the response of the Palestinians was the second Intifada, a murderous campaign of terror and suicide bombings.

And the Palestinians? They would like the world to acknowledge that they lived in the land now called Israel for centuries, that they planted olive trees, shepherded flocks, and raised families there for hundreds of years; they would like the world to acknowledge that when they look up from their blue-roofed villages, their trees and their flowers, their fields and their flocks, they see the horrific, uninvited monolith of western culture— immense apartment complexes, shopping centers, and industrial plants on the once-bare and rocky hills where the voice of God could be heard and where Muhammad ascended to heaven. And they would like the world to acknowledge that it was essentially a European problem that was plopped into their laps at the end of the last great war, not one of their own making.

They would like the world to acknowledge that there has always been a kind of arrogance attached to this problem; that it was as if the United States and England said to them, Here are the Jews, get used to them. And they would like the world to acknowledge that it is a great indignity, not to mention a significant hardship, to have been an occupied people for so long, to have had to submit to strip searches on the way to work, and intimidation on the way to the grocery store, and the constant humiliation of being subject— a humiliation rendered nearly bottomless when Israel, with the benefit of the considerable intellectual and economic resources of world Jewry, made the desert bloom, in a way they had never been able to do. And they would like the world to acknowledge that there are those in Israel who are determined never to grant them independence, who have used the language of peace as a ploy to fill the West Bank with settlement after settlement until the facts on the ground are such that an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank is an impossibility. They would like the world to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a gentle occupation— that occupation corrodes the humanity of the occupier and makes the occupied vulnerable to brutality.

And I think the need to have these things acknowledged— the need for historical affirmation— is so great on both sides that both the Israelis and the Palestinians would rather perish as peoples than give this need up. In fact, I think they both feel that they would perish as peoples precisely if they did. They would rather die than admit their own complicity in the present situation, because to make such an admission would be to acknowledge the suffering of the other and the legitimacy of the other’s complaint, and that might mean that they themselves were wrong, that they were evil, that they were bad. That might give the other an opening to annihilate or enslave them. That might make such behavior seem justifiable.

I wonder how many of us are stuck in a similar snare. I wonder how many of us are holding on very hard to some piece of personal history that is preventing us from moving on with our lives, and keeping us from those we love. I wonder how many of us cling so tenaciously to a version of a story of our lives in which we appear to be utterly blameless and innocent, that we become oblivious to the pain we have inflicted on others, no matter how unconsciously or inevitably or innocently we have have inflicted it. I wonder how many of us are terrified of acknowledging the truth of our lives because we think it will expose us. How many of us stand paralyzed between the moon and the sun; frozen — unable to act in the moment — because of our terror of the past and because of the intractability of the present circumstances that past has wrought?

Forgiveness, it has been said, means giving up our hopes for a better past. This may sound like a joke, but how many of us refuse to give up our version of the past, and so find it impossible to forgive ourselves or others, impossible to act in the present?"


One of the results of my own cycle of abuse (violence) is that I have caused pain to others in the form of verbal abuse – yelling, berating, belittling, shaming and gaslighting. I’ve also blamed others instead of taking responsibility for my actions. I’ve lied to myself about my defects of character. I’ve been unable to own hurtful actions. I’ve rationalized and defended poor choices. I’ve used my childhood trauma as an excuse. I’ve held secrets. I’ve been unable to see those closest to me, hear them, respect them, honor them, comfort them. In the name of healing, of breaking the cycle, I own all of it.


For me, there is no going back. I am only interested in committing to the process of growing up, being a better man, softening with humility and making living amends, all with the ultimate goal of serenity. Catastrophic events in our personal lives and world crises have the potential of bringing forth awareness. We can then embrace the courage to open up the floodgates and let everything move through. This is a challenge and a choice.


As for what’s happening in the Middle East, let’s be honest, we've all seen this movie before, it’s another 9/11 moment, “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”. That crisis didn’t lead to any awareness or acceptance, it led to exponentially more of the same violence in the ongoing “war on terror”. Sometimes we get jolted awake by events like what's happening now in Israel and Gaza. The problem is the jolt can then easily lead us right back into the cycle of violence. Acceptance can be described as opening the heart in kindness to self and others, especially to one’s own reactivity (or vengeance). It’s important to realize that this doesn’t mean capitulating, condoning, or agreeing with our own or others behavior. Acceptance is giving ourselves a positive way to work with our own reactivity. For me, this has been helpful - knowing that I can self-observe and start to see wisdom in every situation. It’s information that can help me to be the kind of person I aspire to be, remaining open instead of shutting down or blaming myself or others when difficult situations occur.


Action requires that we not only look at what our patterns of thought, emotion and behavior are, it informs us that we can actually do something about it. The result is embracing the choices we can make in a different way than we have in the past in order to produce a different outcome. Action is a choice. If we arrive here through awareness and acceptance, we then have a better chance to identify older patterns of behavior and choose to move towards breaking our own cycle of abuse or violence.


In considering the patterns of my own cycle of early childhood abuse and violence, when I make poor choices, I often feel bad about them, beat myself up, act out on those closest to me in anger or blame, feel bad about that, beat myself up again and repeat. Fortunately, I have adopted some strategies to break the cycle. These consist of listening, looking, being present, practicing non-reactivity, discerning between the dark thoughts that arise from the cycle of abuse (the past) and the ones emerging from present moment awareness, making healthier choices and refraining (whenever possible) from making a case for or against. I attempt to engage with others and myself from a place of softness, kindness, respect, gentleness and love. When I'm clicking on all these cylinders of awareness, I generally feel okay and notice that those around me are more at ease. When I veer off the path, the sensors go off and I can then choose to re-adjust. It’s a practice. It starts from the inner and works outward.

We are not alone.

Seems to me that most of us have a cycle of abuse we are struggling with. I can walk down the street here in New York City and see it all around me. Parents yelling at their kids, road rage, mental illness, extreme poverty, depression, anxiety, alienation, isolation, fear and on and on. The movie of the past is likely playing in the minds of everyone, resulting in some form of suffering in our families, in our communities and therefore in the world.


Sunday mornings have become a time of contemplation for me. I just returned from a walk in the park with my dog, Chico. Few folks were out, the trees, flowers and plants were still saturated with yesterday's rain. I had Martin Shaw's weekly "Liturgy of the Wild" in my ears, perfectly timed with the loop. Chico sniffed every leaf, every post and I had to urge him along the paths. At one point, I was overtaken with sorrow for our world and by the time I reached home, was barely able to breathe. I cannot describe what happened exactly because I'm so used to tuning it all out. Something broke I suppose. It became too much. I suppose it has to do with a deep, deep sense of what the hell are we all doing. As I was listening to Martin Shaw he quoted this bit from Brendan Lehane's description of Irish monks arriving in new lands:

"Into an atmosphere of fear and deception walked bands of Irish with a clear and unequivocal sense of purpose. That purpose had nothing whatsoever to do with vendettas or luxury of making money or winning territory; little with emaciating themselves into scrawny and impotent worshippers of a far-removed god. Worship came first, but good worship presupposed good health. They revived long-term farming methods on the land they took over. With the product they fed themselves, gave free provisions to the needy, and sold the rest to expand their activities…they showed how to order things for the best in circumstances that were far from good. And in their dealings with people showed little fear or favour to rich or poor…"

Is it possible the only reason we don't notice what's truly going on around us (ecocide, warmongering, starvation sanctions, destroying social safety nets, increasing wealth disparity, crushing austerity and unconsciously bending to the will of the powerful) is because we're getting used to it? I don't have any clear answers, only a few guiding principles as mentioned above in these musings. I don't know what to do with the big feelings that are coming up around the state of the world, the state of humanity. Perhaps though, instead of internalizing them, I've decided to bring them forth, taking off the chloroform mask at least temporarily, getting uncomfortable with it all for the sake of clarity. Today I soldier on and hopefully become a better human for it. Maybe that's my intention for this Sunday morning. Maybe that's all I can do for now.

Thomas Merton said this:

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”

I pray for serenity and peace.

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