Compassion the Radicalism of This Age

The new sciences support insights of the ancient mystics-that we are fundamentally interconnected, that the diversity of cultures provides "unlimited richness," and that each of us contain the seeds of the whole world order.

Nonviolence is not meant to be a tidy compartment, the habit of an occasional activist, a musing on the margins of “the real world.” Nonviolence is and must become a science, a way of life, a worldview – finally, a culture.


Because nonviolence in this larger sense has received so little systematic study, and precisely because it is so universal, one tends to find the events and people who make up its as-yet untold narrative tucked away in apparently unrelated corners. As with anything this new (and this enormous), you must somehow run across these events and people and hold their story together with the glue of your own insight. This is what I will try to illustrate, weaving the emotional and intellectual dimensions of the nonviolence story from some seemingly unrelated leads.

The science of nonviolence
The German occupation of Denmark was an uneasy business. The underground was well organized, bold, and extremely vexatious to the occupation with their occasional executions of collaborators. Among other things, the Danes did not at all like the Nazi plan for their Jewish population. That plan edged to its climax one fall day in 1943, when a fleet of German ships stood by in Copenhagen harbor to take the Danish Jews away. Their time had come – or so it seemed.

What the Germans did not know was that someone had tipped off the underground. During the night, 7,200 people – virtually the entire Jewish-Danish population – were smuggled out under the noses of the waiting ships to make for safety in neutral Sweden. The motley flotilla, made up of fishing vessels and everything scroungable, pitched and tossed in the rough sea, but it made Sweden with its huddled, seasick cargo by morning.

Then it suddenly looked as if all had been in vain; the king of Sweden wanted to grant asylum to the Jews, but he was frightened of the Nazi presence. Perhaps he feared jeopardizing Sweden's neutrality.

As it happened, however, a famous Danish physicist was just then hiding out in Uppsala. When he heard about the dilemma, he calmly sent word to the king that if the Jews were not given asylum he would turn himself in to the Nazis. The famous physicist was Niels Bohr, and the king immediately accepted the refugees.

I am drawn to this story about Bohr because I sense a connection between his science and his courage. Bohr was the genius behind the “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum physics, the interpretation that even Einstein could not accept, namely that the new physical results were telling us something of the nature of reality, and that reality is surpassingly strange. There are suggestive, intriguing parallels between the universe of the new physics and the universe of the timeless mystics. The deep sense of interconnectedness and privileging of consciousness over matter supports – indirectly – the worldview of the nonviolent.

In contrast, the universe opened up by Newton's world of “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable Particles” exhibits depressing and somehow inevitable parallels to the world of violence against nature and creature that we are now struggling to escape. That world of material mechanics, which still holds sway over most minds and is the official science ‘story' of the mass media, is a world of scarcity (because matter is finite, because it has a limited capacity to fulfill us). It spawns violence by telling us that we are separate: “I can hurt you without hurting the larger whole that includes myself – and since there isn't enough for both of us, we have a reason to fight each other.”

The high priest of technology
The painting on this page captures beautifully the central contradiction of the world in which it was created. It was done by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1768, near the beginning of the industrial age, at a time of a decisive break with the West's millennia-old tradition of human connection with the Earth.

The man facing us is a travelling science lecturer, and he is demonstrating a vacuum pump to his rapt onlookers. He is pumping the air out of a glass cage, and to make that visible, there is a bird inside the cage. By watching the bird gasp for breath, in other words, you could see that there's no more air in the cage and be impressed with what technology can do.

But what other impression are we, the painting's audience, to receive? Where is the real dramatic interest in the picture; what takes and holds our eyes? It's the children. They do not follow the explanation of the pump and the air; they see a man killing a little bird. The real story of the painting is in the contrast between the scientist holding the audience spellbound and the distress of the children – and the fact that they are ‘just children' and that the adults ignore them. When we hurt nature, it is not that we lack warnings. Not everyone loses sensitivity all at once. The real tragedy is when we ignore those who – like the children in Wright's painting – are aware of what we're doing with their heart.

We now stand at the other end of the arc that began when Wright painted his high priest of technology demonstrating the vacuum pump and the rights of man over nature. Technology – technologism, shall we say – rose in triumph, and now at least some of us stand aghast at the results. What we have done to the environment could not have been imagined in 1768, or 1968. We desperately need to look at life with the sensitivity of children and protect it with the sophistication of very well informed adults.

The evolution of science
Science has for almost 100 years now bolted from Newton's world of “primitive particles.” The physics that came from the astounding breakthroughs of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Bohr views things not as matter at all, but energy-changes, fundamentally involving consciousness. Nothing and no one is separate from “us”; all are co-involved with our being.

I wish that we were closer to understanding how this view of interconnection, which ties back so unexpectedly to the earliest myths of our culture, is to be aligned with the ethic of interconnection behind nonviolence and ecology. We cannot follow that intuition with our rational minds as yet – but I feel that it is there, that Bohr the scientist cannot be separated from Bohr the human being who refused to be safe while his people were in danger.

Complementary cultures
Here is perhaps a trace of that connection. Just before his flight to Sweden, in the summer of 1938, Bohr addressed an international gathering of physicists in Copenhagen. The “grandfather of quantum theory” was best known to the general public for his famous doctrine of “complementarity.” This doctrine holds that there is a built-in limit to human understanding of the outside world such that to describe anything “out there” completely we always need at least two mutually exclusive models. A common example is that a photon of light or any other quantum entity is neither particle nor wave, but will appear as either depending on how we look at it. On the occasion of this distinguished international gathering, he applied his famous idea to things a bit bigger than the electron:

“We may truly say that different human cultures are complementary to each other. Indeed, each such culture represents a harmonious balance of traditional conventions by means of which latent possibilities of human life can unfold themselves in a way which reveals to us new aspects of its unlimited richness and variety.”

At this shocking suggestion, the German delegation walked out. They were, after all, Nazis first, and “scientists” afterward. This was a worldview utterly inimical to Nazi values, a challenge to their whole doctrine of intolerance. That human differences are part of a natural scheme to be cherished, that every race and community and even every individual has his or her role in the scheme of things, and that we need one another if any of us is to be fulfilled as a whole family – all this is gall and wormwood to fascists. If you believe that every sentient being has its own invaluable meaning and purpose, you cannot be a fascist.

The latent potential of each individual
The Nazi attempt on Europe implied several unsavory things that go along with the will to use brute force to get what you want. The first is its image of the human being. Hitler was blunt about this. Explaining his success over lunch one day to William Shirer (one of the few people who knew both Hitler and Gandhi first hand) he said, “You know, every man has his price – and you'd be surprised in most cases how low that price is.”

Violence is keyed to the lowest image of the human being, nonviolence to the most exalted. Violence drives us apart; nonviolence appeals directly to the mysterious unity among all of us, which is the hidden glory of each of us.

Bohr's Nazi-scattering words were ahead of his time in 1938. He saw that the fascist worldview rested on a concept of order that might be called “disunity through uniformity.” They held that only one race, political order – really only one person – was valued, real, clean, while everyone and everything else was inferior and threatening, to be dominated or eliminated if not subordinated to the One Right Way.

A direct antidote to fascism, therefore, was the idea that Hegel had called unity in diversity. Note Bohr's expression, “the latent possibilities of human life can unfold themselves.” This was to be echoed by a fellow-Northman, Johan Galtung, some years later as a now-famous definition of nonviolence: “the fulfillment of the latent potential of each individual,” while violence is any “avoidable compromise of human needs” which inhibits that fulfillment.

In this spirit, the Dalai Lama, speaking from the margins of the UN NGO Human Rights Convention in 1993, said, “If we are prevented from using our creative potential, we are deprived of one of the basic characteristics of a human being.” And he added, “It is very often the most gifted, dedicated, and creative members of our society who become victims of human rights abuses. Thus the political, social, cultural, and economic developments of a society are obstructed by the violations of human rights.”

Unity in diversity
I am trying to draw a connection between a feeling and a concept; between compassion – which is really the deep wellspring of spiritual awareness that has held the family, society, and the planet together since the beginning of time – and the concept that all life has to be accepted in its diversity. I am trying to trace out the legitimate extension of biodiversity, which we understand, to cultural and individual diversity, which we do not. I am trying to do this because this two-sided and apparently contradictory concept – unity in diversity – goes hand-in-glove with nonviolence. If you will, it is the theology of compassion.

“The more clearly one studies the character of individual human souls, the more baffled one becomes over the great differences between personalities. ... It is, however, precisely through their differentiations that they are all united toward one objective, to contribute toward the perfection of the world, each person according to his special talent.” says Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

The human family is growing past 5 billion individuals. Each of them is invaluable. That foundational, civilizing insight is growing dimmer today; the euthanasia movement, the reinstatement of the death penalty, the countenancing of grotesque human rights violations, even the decline of the family and the support systems that nurture a child – these are all ways we are compromising the sanctity of individual life because we evidently see no choice but to keep redeploying various forms of violence.

For Gandhi, as for every nonviolence advocate from all time, it has been axiomatic that life is sacred, i.e. invaluable; and while the sum total of all life is in a way more precious than that of a given individual, in a way it is not: infinity = infinity. As Augustine said, “because all things are not made equal, they have a goodness [above and beyond their individuality]; each is good, and all together are very good.”

As a traditional Hindu, Gandhi had a solid metaphysical basis for this, and he liked to quote a traditional proverb: “As with the fragment, so with the universe.” Otherwise put, the macrocosm is in the microcosm. Everything that exists “out there,” exists “in here,” as philosophers say, in potentia. Quantum physicists, mystics, the world's faith traditions, and a lurking suspicion in all of us in our more reflective moments keep returning to this vision again and again.

But this belief is much more than an injunction against killing: its real value lies in the entirely positive reason for that injunction – namely that within the microcosm that is each one of us are the seeds of the whole world order. Just as we build our bodies on a ridiculously small fraction of our DNA (and use a similarly ridiculous fraction of our brain), somehow, in the depths of our consciousness, each of us contains enough ‘information' – faith, insight – to regenerate a world.

“I want them to feel what I'm feeling”

Today, as the world is torn at by ethnic and pseudo-ethnic hatreds, it seems necessary to go over these truths, however obvious they may sound. It is obvious that people caught up in such ferocious hatreds as are found in what was once Yugoslavia cannot remotely remember that they might share an underlying unity with those they hate. They see only differences, which then take on monstrous proportions and finally bring about the belief that those “others” aren't human. Today it is terrorists, yesterday communists who were beyond the pale of rights and the “discourse of reason.” Who knows who it may be next.

Early in May of this year, several members of the Iraq Sanctions Challenge stood at the bedside of Mustafa, one of at least a dozen dying children in a crowded ward of the main hospital in Basra, Iraq's southern port city. My friend Kathy Kelly was on that mission. She writes:

“His mother, tall, thin and quite beautiful, sat cross legged on the mattress beside him, waving away flies, as the doctor explained to us that the child, hospitalized for the past 20 days, now suffered from dehydration, diarrhea, acute renal failure and extensive brain atrophy. Lacking equipment and medicine to diagnose and treat Mustafa, the doctors could only stand by, helpless and frustrated, while the child's condition worsened over three weeks time. If Mustafa survives, he will be severely crippled.

“Ima Nouri, his mother, is 35 years old. Her serious eyes followed us as we paused before each bedside. She seemed surprised when we asked her to tell us about herself. We learned that she lives in a rural area north of Basra and has two children at home whom she misses very much.

“We mentioned that people in the United States were celebrating Mother's Day on this day and asked if she had a message for mothers in our country.

“Ima suddenly became animated. ‘Yes,' she said, ‘I have two messages. First, tell them from Iraqi women that these are our children and we love them so much.' Stroking Mustafa's face, she continued, ‘Ask them to please try to help us protect them and take care of them. And, for American women, I want them to feel what I am feeling.'

The word compassion means literally suffering with others, feeling what they are feeling. Of course it hurts, but isn't it better to suffer with others and expand, than to wall off our humanity from them and die within?

In Hebrew, the word for compassion is the plural of the word “womb.” To have compassion is to be towards someone a little bit like every mother is to her own child.

Nonviolence is a way to restore the capacity to, as a student of mine said recently, “Humanize your enemy and let your ‘enemy' humanize you.” You can do this in action, where often the fact that you are being nonviolent – i.e. responding with courage and respect under duress – raises your image in the opponents' eyes. Or we can all do it culturally, by raising the ‘background' sense of humanity that surrounds all conflicts and all relationships.

The kind of hate we see in the Mideast, in Serbia, in Rwanda, Cambodia, and so many arenas would not arise so easily if the worldview in which all these arenas are situated were more human-centered and humanizing. There would still be problems like water rights and social advantages; but they would be just that – problems to solve, not people to fear and hate.

We need mind and heart together to get over this. “Compassion,” says the Dalai Lama, “is the radicalism of this age.” And I would add, nonviolence is its science.

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