“Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence. Violence does not mean emancipation from fear, but discovering the means of combating the cause of fear. Non-violence, on the other hand, has no cause for fear… He who has not overcome all fear cannot practice ahimsa.” (Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers, 104)
Courage in the Face of Fear
This quote has been haunting me ever since I first discovered it some years ago. I think about it several times a week. I find it so intense, so fascinating, and at one and the same time inspiring and discouraging. I know that the practice of nonviolence – whether in the social activism context, or in daily life – requires tremendous courage. In moments of great challenge this statement sometimes helps me find the courage to face my fear and continue anyway. At other times, in moments of darkness, the continued existence of such basic fear in me becomes so disheartening. If after all these years of rigorous training and practice I am still so often paralyzed, what is the point of even trying to teach nonviolence?
Today, as I am sitting here to write this, I am also wondering: if nonviolence, ahimsa, is about love, is moving forward through the fear enough? Is it possible to act on pure love when we are afraid? Are there different kinds of courage, one protected one not? What exactly are we choosing when we embrace nonviolence – either as a path, or in a particular moment?
Facing the Risks of Embracing Nonviolence
Since 1996 my own path of nonviolence has been embracing vulnerability. I have been systematically undefending and unprotecting myself. My sustenance and inspiration for this path come from experiences that are very remote from my own life. Gandhi, and his willingness to put his life on the line with complete commitment to love, openness, respect for his opponents. Jesus, whose commitment, as filtered to me through generations of interpretations, was to loving no matter what. Martin Luther King and the many people who worked with him to train a cadre of young women and men ready to face anything to implement their vision of respect for all people. Even though my own practice never endangers my physical survival, the risks of social isolation, humiliation, and loss of respect are equally frightening for my emotional self. I choose to face the risks, more and more over time. I lean on these figures, images of love and courage, in the most literal way to help me walk through abysses that sometimes seem bigger than my individual capacity.
I am not settled. I face my fear and walk on, risk the consequences, and learn to survive them. Does this mean I will be less afraid next time? Will the responses affect me less next time? If I am vulnerable – enough – will there eventually be fewer consequences, more openness to the vision I am bringing forth, to my own individual self, to my own human fallibility? If I survive enough times, will I find more ease in the midst of the fear to unprotect my heart? I mean, not just gather my strength and move forward, but most literally lay down the armor that surrounds my innermost part and walk forward, embracing life as it unfolds in that moment? What exactly am I hoping for? What exactly am I trying to teach?
More questions arise. What can I tell people about how to act when fear is all-consuming? What did the students in the Civil Rights Movement do? Did they feel fear when they were sitting at the lunch counters and being ridiculed and beaten up? Did they continue despite the fear, or was there some vision, conviction, love, unity or anything else that transcended the fear complete for the moment? What made it possible for them to do what they did that is missing in our time?
The very act of writing this is part of my practice. I am writing about being unsettled, unsure, struggling with questions I don’t know how to answer. This is not a clear, confident, upbeat, or optimistic message. So why share it? Because truth is what I am after, whatever its flavor. Because exposing my uncertainty may invite you, too, into self-acceptance, and the willingness to let down your guard. Because knowing you are not alone in your struggle may just be what you need to keep going on your path. Because breaking down the isolation we live in may well be vital for deepening our collective exploration of how to face the challenges of our time and survive as a species.