Non-violence is not for sissies.

May 27, 2012

I remember as an infant there being an imposing portrait of Gandhi over my bed. My mother had been deeply moved by him when he had passed by her home during his famous Salt March. As an adult I am, like him, a British-educated Indian from Africa.  And the only movie star I have ever been compared to is Ben Kingsley. But here ended the resemblance. I am sure my mother must have been disappointed that I had quick temper. Other boys in school thought not fighting back was weak and cowardly. Part of me agreed. But as I grew intellectually, I admired Gandhi’s brilliance, his tenacity and the ideal of non-violence. It made perfect sense. It is rational and civilized to abide by the truth, to return love for hate, to stand your ground without a sense of ‘the other’. Practically, however, I struggled against the force of my own reflexes. It was instinctive to reply racial insults with equally caustic ones. It was natural to bark at shopkeepers who cheated me. It felt normal to assert my presence when strangers treated me as though I were invisible. People in a big city tend to move about with a sense of entitlement that always trumps everyone else’s needs. Intellectually I understood that these problems were minor compared to those of people in war zones or very poor places. All the same, when I felt threatened, revenge came effortlessly. All of Gandhi’s wisdom and truths would return in a flood of guilt afterwards.

I should not have retorted. But what was the alternative? To meekly accept the scorn and disrespect of others? I imagined Gandhi would have. However, that did indeed feet weak and cowardly. There developed in me an intense  conflict between the ideal that Gandhi represented( as I then understood him) and my own inability to live up to it.  The loop was vicious: provocation, retort, regret, self-condemnation. There seemed no way out.

Then one day I realized that I had misunderstood Gandhi rather profoundly. The principle of satyagraha, was not simply a doctrine of passive resistance. It was really about actively engaging in non-violent conflict resolution. Far from being a weak doormat, Gandhi challenged injustice when it was appropriate (usually for the benefit of the many). He questioned people’s basic assumptions without belittling or insulting their intelligence. He put forward his case, only he did so without malice or hatred. This was a very transformative insight for me. It gave me such strength. And strength was what I had been lacking. To be stubbornly polite in the face of hostility  requires enormous spiritual muscle. To stand your ground calmly and objectively when your instincts tell you that there is danger requires great courage.

I began mustering every ounce of strength I could to restrain any impulse I had to react. All that is needed is a few seconds of will-power for the adrenalin rush to subside. Then the rational thinking steps in. It assesses the situation, it gauges the degree of danger and then formulates an appropriate response. I discovered that by not reacting externally, I had the upper hand in any conflict (rude bank clerk, racist shopkeeper, ignorant name-callers on the street). I was seen by others as the morally superior one. The perpetrator was exposed as the one in the wrong. This exactly what Gandhi had done against the British. His behavior was so unassailable that in the end even the British themselves agreed they were morally corrupt.

Initially breaking this habit loop felt like pretending. Inside I would be seething. But the tone of my voice was measured, my speech was polite and truthful.  The more success I had with this new habit, the more natural and effortless it became.

Very often in a conflict, when one complains to authority, it is your word against the other’s. I see now that by always taking the moral high ground, one gains a respect and a reputation for being truthful and fair.

It is true that doing nothing is weakness. It is cowardice. But I see now that a sissy fights injustice with his fists. A weak man fights with violent words. But a strong man fights with reason.


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