The presidential debates, climate change, George Floyd—the news is full of human power gone beyond sane limits. Yet we see even more displays of power restrained and used responsibly. Gandhi was right when he said that violence is not the dominant human instinct—nonviolence is far stronger in us. If that were not the case, he said, cities could not exist.
We can still choose the path of lovingkindness that represents our truest, best homo sapiens self. This poem reflects on that choice.
[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]
Bill McKibben wrote a sobering but ultimately hopeful book entitled Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? The great hope he finds is that humans can destroy, “but also we can decide not to destroy.”
He writes in his epilogue, “Yes, we can wreck the Earth as we’ve known it, killing vast numbers of ourselves and wiping out entire swaths of other life—in fact, as we’ve seen, we’re doing that right now. But we can also not do that.”
McKibben sees two technologies as most important in changing the course of human civilization away from self-destruction. The first is the solar panel.
The second is nonviolence, which most people do not think of as a technology because they do not understand it fully. It is a technology that enables us “to stand up to the powerful and the reckless.”
Many people know of the dramatic incidents of civil disobedience led by Mahatma Gandhi in India. Fewer realize that most of his campaign was made up of constructive programs designed to create a strong, independent Indian society—improvements to farming, local business, education and health care.
Even fewer people realize that there was a third part of his “technology” of nonviolence: Gandhi firmly believed that anyone could do what he did, but he was equally adamant that no one could do it without being grounded, guided and empowered by the spirit.
Gandhi is a model for everyone in the inner source he turned to in order to guide and empower his life, but not everyone shares his calling to lead a social revolution. Some of us, thank goodness, feel called to work with oxen or to be teachers or healers or countless other vocations.
How can we find that source within us? Eknath Easwaran explains how Gandhi found it in his invaluable book, Gandhi the Man: How One Man Changed Himself to Change the World. Gandhi confessed to having been a coward as a boy. A wise elder taught him to say the mantra “Rama” (a Hindu name of god) whenever he was afraid.
He tried it, and he found it helped, so he kept using it even when he was not afraid. He credited all his power, wisdom and love to that practice combined with daily meditation.
The results were amazing. Easwaran tells the story of an evening prayer meeting when a deadly cobra came into the outdoor space where hundreds were sitting on the ground. Panic began to rise and people could have been trampled in the stampede, but with a motion of his hand Gandhi signaled for people to remain where they were.
Maybe drawn by the motion, the cobra came toward Gandhi. It slithered up onto his bare thighs. Gandhi remained calm the entire time, no doubt saying “Rama, Rama, Rama” to himself. The calm seemed to affect the cobra as well as the crowd of people. It slithered across his lap and off into the brush. (Gandhi the Man, p. 115)
The story is emblematic of Gandhi’s encounters with individuals and empires. His presence was transformational.
The consequences of human abuse of power are creating suffering on a massive scale, whether from killer climate events or economic inequity or racism. We are undergoing convulsions of fear in our society, leading to even greater violence.
We do not need to give in to that base instinct. We have a deeper impulse in us. We call that nonviolent, generous-hearted, highest law of human nature by the simple word, “love.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky gave us the teachings of his character, the spiritual master, Father Zosima, in The Brothers Karamozov. Zosima said:
“One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially seeing men’s sin, asking oneself: ‘Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?’ Always resolve to take it by humble love. If you so resolve once and for all, you will be able to overcome the whole world. A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it.” (Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)
I have been deeply moved by the power of that love in the judging ring at the Tunbridge World’s Fair. You can see sometimes a small eight year old girl guiding two gigantic oxen around the circle in perfect harmony with merely a word and a light tap, her love of them and their love of her evident in every move.
The poem below takes place in another area of the Fair—not the quiet, open, airy and light ring but the loud, dark, crowded, walled-in runway of the pull contests. Even there, the power of humble love can be seen doing its transformative work.
Judging at the Ox Pull
The idling tractor’s new hydraulic winch
hauled back the stone boat easily each try
even when loaded so to move an inch
the massive oxen foamed with wild rolled eye.
Some drovers screamed and whipped their ox so hard
they laid a lash mark down the fair-groomed hide,
and though the goading left the charged air scarred
the crowd would laugh to see so little pride.
But other teamsters kept themselves restrained—
a quiet word, a tap or pat or prod,
and even losing, dignity remained
as something worth more, something won for God.
The diesel fumes and screams and whips all show
the limits past which power should not go.
copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder