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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Peacemaking and Voluntary Simplicity (p. 187)

From chapter "Insatiability"

Last spring, at the workshop where I first read the opening pages of this book, and where a woman later approached to wish me healing, we all performed an exercise entitled “Peacemaking and Voluntary Simplicity.” We sat in a large circle, candles burning in the center of the room, each person speaking in turn as a “talking stick”—a piece of wood with a feather on one end dangling from a leather thong—was passed hand to hand. As the stick made its way around, I considered what I was going to do or say. My first inclination was to not touch the stick: the person in charge of the exercise was not traditional Indian, and had the night before shown herself willing to exploit indigenous traditions. My second inclination was to simply tell the truth, that I was uncomfortable with our unauthorized use of a symbol belonging to a tradition that has explicitly declared itself off-limits to us.

As the stick came closer, I found myself increasingly agitated, at least as much by what was being said as by the cultural appropriation. Person after person stepped close to the edge of outrage, then stopped to turn their anger and shame regarding our culture on themselves: “Sometimes I find myself getting angry at the heads of corporations or at politicians who design and implement murderous policies. But then I always have to realize that I am part of the problem, because I, too, drive a car. I realize that most of all I need to have compassion for politicians. They must suffer, simply being who they are.”

What about compassion for the murdered? The comments around the circle took me back a few years to a panel discussion I heard at an environmental law conference. The panelists were Buddhists, addressing much the same topic, and saying much the same thing. There was talk of compassion for wounded wretches who wound us all, of taking pleasure in the dailiness of our lives, of living simply, but not much talk about how to slow or stop the destruction. Afterwards, a woman from the audience stood to ask her question: “Everything you say makes perfect sense, but what do you do if you are standing in front of someone who is aiming a machine gun at a group of children, or is holding a chainsaw in front of a tree?”

This is the point at which virtually all of our environmental philosophizing falls apart. It is the central question of our time: what are sane and appropriate responses to insanely destructive behavior? In many ways it is the only question of our time. Future generations will judge us according to our answers. So often, environmentalists and others working to slow the destruction are capable of plainly describing the problems (Who wouldn’t be? The problems are neither subtle nor cognitively challenging), yet when faced with the emotionally daunting task of fashioning a response to these clear and clearly insoluble problems, we generally suffer a failure of nerve and imagination. Gandhi wrote a letter to Hitler asking him to stop committing atrocities, and was mystified that it didn’t work. I continue to write letters to the editor pointing out untruths, and continue to be surprised each time the newspaper publishes its next absurdity. At least I’ve stopped writing to politicians.

It is desperately true that we each need to look inside, to make ourselves right—as a poet friend of mine writes, “The Old One says you must put your house in order before you can have guests”—but it’s also true that because we are embedded in and dependent upon this planet, and because we owe the planet our lives for having given us life, and because (one hopes) a deep spring of love lies hidden within us, this making ourselves right, this inner work, if it is to mean anything at all, must of necessity lead us to effective action, to actions arising from the love and responsibility we feel toward our neighbors.

The members of the panel on Buddhism blew it. Each in turn stated that the most important thing is to have compassion for the killer, to my to see the Buddha-nature in each of us. That was a very fine, enlightened position, I thought, but one that helps neither the children nor the trees, nor for that matter the murderers. Nor, in fact, does it help the bystander. Enlightenment as rationalization for inaction. Pacifism as pathology. As Shakespeare so accurately put it, “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.”

…The stick came to me. I took it, despite my earlier misgivings, and suddenly calm, said, “There can be no real peace when living with someone who has already declared war, no peace but capitulation. And even that, as we see around us, doesn’t lead to further peace but to further degradation and exploitation. We’re responsible not only for what we do, but also for what is in our power to stop. Before we can speak of peace, we have to speak honestly of the war already going on, and we have to speak honestly of stopping, by any and all means possible, those who have declared war on the world, and on all of us. Those who destroy won’t stop because we live peacefully, and they won’t stop because we ask nicely. There is one and only one language they understand, and everyone here knows what it is. Yet we don’t speak of it openly.”