I recently wrote an article linking NVC to the legacy of Gandhi in which I identified seven principles that are common to both. I consider the third principle – seeing others’ humanity – as core to the practice of nonviolence, and at the same time as profoundly demanding. It is so much easier, on so many levels, to only “grant” full humanity to some people and not others.
NVC provides a practical method for cultivating this capacity to see others’ humanity, based on the principle that every human action, no matter how destructive or abhorrent to us, is an expression of basic human needs that are shared by all of us.
When I express the full extent and radical ramifications of this principle, very often people raise the example of Hitler. Isn’t he, ultimately, beyond the pale? To me, nothing is. As I wrote the article, I was amazed to learn that Gandhi wrote to Hitler, and addressed him as “Dear Friend.” I know that Marshall Rosenberg dedicated significant research and personal reflection to studying Hitler’s life so he could see and understand his humanity. I know it’s possible. And so I included a paragraph in which I explored what could possibly be some basic human needs that could possibly be hidden deep underneath the choices that led him to such extremes. The paradox is astonishing to me. The choices themselves are so beyond comprehension to me that I can barely breathe when I truly attempt to take them in, and yet the needs I could imagine are fully and easily understandable to me. Here’s what I identified: “I can easily see, and often experience, being only with people similar to us as one strategy for the human needs to belong, to have ease in relating, and to have a sense of meaning and connection. Seeing this, I can resonate with Hitler’s underlying needs, and thus make human sense of Hitler despite of and independently of his actions.” (If you are curious about why acting on these needs would take the form of such unimaginable actions, I highly recommend James Gilligan’s book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes. Gilligan discusses, in particular, the role of shame in leading to violence and cruelty.)
From Emotional Protection to Open-Hearted Grief
For some people it seems virtually impossible to fathom the possibility of such compassion. They want to protect themselves from the excruciating pain that the specter of the actions raises for them. As one reader wrote after the article was posted: “It is so painful for me to ponder what needs of his he was trying to meet by his actions. I have a preference to stay away from people or things that are just so “needy” and require so much work on my part to not judge or condemn.”
On the most personal level, my own main reason for wanting to extend understanding is the profound effect it has on me. I believe it was Martin Luther King who said that the practice of nonviolence first of all affects the person who practices it, before it affects anyone else.
From the moment I understood the revolutionary depth of this principle, I have been working systematically to integrate it and make it available to me in more and more circumstances. Sometimes I have taken days and weeks to reflect on what could possibly be the human needs of someone whose actions I could not comprehend, whether someone I know personally or a public figure. I have also been in dialogue with people very different from me and focused on understanding, really trying to make sense of their actions from within their own frame of reference, and get a visceral feel for their needs. Many times I have taken on very difficult roles as part of my work with people, and have always found a human nugget at the heart of sometimes extreme actions. Each time this happens, I feel bigger and stronger as a human being. Most of the time, these days, I no longer need to reflect much; the experience of entering another person’s reality is now fairly easily available to me, and I consider that a blessing.
I am not without pain. I would never trade that pain for what I felt before. I have so much less fear these days, so much more room to be, to explore, to experiment. I am so much more at one with the whole of humanity, without separation, without enemies. My world feels safer and bigger when everyone is essentially human like me.
From Moral Indignation to Compassionate Determination
A more common concern I have heard often is that compassion is somehow the same as making the actions OK. In particular, I have heard many express the fear that with compassion we would do nothing to stop actions that are harmful. Because of the millennia of training to see everything as either right or wrong, if I don’t call something “wrong” it’s easy to see me as saying that it’s “right.” Understanding, for me, is entirely different from agreement or acceptance. It’s an entirely different orientation. I do not have to hate or condemn someone in order to do everything in my power to stop their actions. I can do it with compassion, and I can have just as much intensity, determination, and passion for what matter to me. I can act with as much conviction and decisiveness while still having care for the person whose actions I am trying to stop. Gandhi, again, comes to mind. He didn’t hate the British officers. He stood up to them, resisted, mobilized millions, and all the while maintained a sense of full respect for their humanity. In fact, he fully believed it was to their benefit to leave India.
Compassion and Nonviolence
What many people don’t know is that nonviolence was used, and successfully so, even during WWII. (See Michael Nagler’s book The Search for a Nonviolent Future for examples.) As our capacity to destroy increases, and our collective global willingness to use that capacity remains high, I am more and more eager to see the nonviolent alternatives. I have complete faith that nonviolence can be a primary approach to resolving international conflict. I don’t believe we can get there without learning to see others’ humanity no matter the circumstances.