A Very Convenient Truth

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“Modern scientists recognize the potency of thought…as a man thinks so does he become.”

-MK Gandhi

THERE ARE TIMES when you can see a familiar scene with fresh eyes.  I had just returned to the U.S. when I found myself in a definitely familiar scene: a local shopping center. The night before I had been on a transatlantic flight where I kept catching glimpses, despite myself, of four private viewing screens shimmering in front of my nearest fellow passengers on the long flight home. They sat there watching ten hours of uninterrupted violence: fights, machine guns, wild explosions – all four of them.  You have to wonder, what does that do to a person’s mind?  You have to wonder, exactly, because in the barrage of detail that floods over us in response to “the latest massacre” you will never hear it mentioned.
It’s sometimes difficult for me to contain my anger when people fail to see this obvious connection, but I try turning it into a kind of amazement: how can people of otherwise normal intelligence think that we can absorb images of violence but never act them out?  Is it because so many watch TV without going out to kill?  Perhaps, but consider this:

  • we’ve proven utterly incapable of predicting who will go over the edge, so we know we’re killing some people though we don’t know whom;
  • violent imagery adds to the general atmosphere of demoralization; they devalue life and normalize its wanton destruction – that is the main reason we have not been roused to do anything about gun control.  And finally,
  • these images hurt, whether you act them out or not.  They alienate.  They demoralize.  Psychologists have demonstrated this repeatedly (with no response from policy makers or the general public).

As the Buddha said, “What we think, we become;” another piece of scripture from ancient India wraps it up in three words: “Mind, remember deed.”  The word for ‘mind’ in this phrase is kratu, for ‘deed’ kritam.  Even the pun emphasizes the point: ‘mind’ becomes ‘deed,’ or as our own tradition puts it, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs, 23:7). How have we so utterly forgotten this?
There in the corner of the shopping center were two storefronts, side by side, that gave me at least part of an answer: a GNC store and a Halloween store – everything you could need for a healthy body alongside images of horror, sexualized violence, and death: everything you need for a sick mind.  We have become blind to the fact that our mind is our most precious possession, infinitely powerful for good or ill.  That blindness is what’s preventing us from seeing how we got into this culture of death – or finding our way out.
More shootings will not open our eyes: “Somehow this has become routine,” President Obama said last week after the Oregon shooting.  “We have become numb.”  The tentative gestures toward sensible gun control that have become part of the routine do little else than evoke cries of righteous indignation from frightened people, clinging to their weapons for a security weapons can never furnish.  The reason we’ve granted these people far more political influence than they deserve, instead of trying to reason with them (by and large you’re far more likely to be killed if you have a gun on you, or in your home), is again because our culture has normalized, not to say romanticized killing.
Let me evoke what may seem like an extreme parallel.  When Captain James Cook “discovered” New Zealand in 1770 the Maori had been carrying on a ritualized form of combat for many centuries that allowed them to have “wars” with extremely minimal casualties (usually a fight ended with the first injury).  Cook thought to give them a wonderful gift of modern civilization: guns!  Within a few years one tenth of the male population was dead.  The Maori sensed they could not go on like this: but what to do?  The escape that they hit upon was to “discover” Christianity, and the killing stopped.  New converts take their religion seriously, and it takes time to weed out the awkward features of a new teaching, like nonviolence; it had taken the Romans some three hundred years to sanitize Christianity and get rid of this awkward feature.
Now, we can no longer “get” Christianity: we think, rightly or wrongly, we already have it.  But it’s possible that we can reawaken it, in other words take seriously again the lessons it shares with the other wisdom traditions that informed civilization from the dawn of history.  It wouldn’t be the first time; “Truth pressed to earth will rise again,” and “Christian pacifism,” as it’s called (non-different from Jewish or any other pacifism, of course) has been rediscovered in waves since the third-century sanitization.  What would such a discovery look like, for you and me?
We possess the vision that consciousness, and consequently individuals, matter.  We would take a basic step to protect our own consciousness, namely to shun violence and vulgarity of the mass media.  Yes, there might not be much left! So much the better. Real life and real relationships are what we really want, anyway.  And we can also do it positively, by familiarize ourselves with the great achievements of science that are putting to rest the sensationalist model of  “nature red in tooth and claw” that held the field for about three centuries (and still dominate the mass media).  This “new” science, or positive science, is demonstrating incontrovertibly that cooperation and compassion are hallmarks of our species – and that the imagery we put in our minds determines whether or not we can mobilize cooperation and compassion  (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/ might be a place to start). It’s worth telling this “new story” whenever we get a chance, and if enough of us do we are bound to reach a tipping point.  As philosopher-scholar Max Muller said, “There are some truths that are worth repeating until everyone believes them.”  So here we have two practices that will make us feel better and steadily reorient the world that is currently reeling from its own violence.

Michael Nagler is director of the Metta Center for Non-violence in Petaluma, California and author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future and Our Spiritual Crisis: Recovering Human Wisdom in a Time of Violence (2005).