The pace of life has become faster and more frantic in recent years. Many people leave little time for thoughtful reflection or just sitting still. If you are older, you might remember when life was simpler and less hectic. If you are younger, you might have heard about more peaceful times from your relatives. How did we get from living in relative peace to being obsessed with anger and its expression in violence?
Many people lately have become alarmed by “senseless” violence around the world. Have you wondered whether there is a connection between the spate of suicide bombings in Europe and the mass shootings around the world, including those in this country? I have long considered a possible connection between these events and their relationship to fear and violence. Let’s take a closer look.
If you have ever studied psychology or even read about it casually, you are most likely familiar with the fight or flight response to fear. Depending on your circumstances, when faced with something fearful to you, you react by attacking the source of your fear (fight) if you think you can overcome it or avoiding it (flight) if it seems more powerful than you are. Fear and these responses to it follow a direct and immediate threat of attack such as by a wild animal or person. You don’t have time to think about it but automatically react almost immediately.
Anxiety is related to fear. The feared object might not be immediately present, but you might worry about what might happen or not happen in the future. You become anxious about your own welfare or that of your family. You might also fret about the possible behavior of other people or the course taken by the society in which you live.
If you are unable to find a way to relieve this anxiety, it builds and eventually leads to a sense of desperation or hopelessness. This can take place inside you and possibly remain invisible to others. You might find someone whom you trust with your concerns and share them or act on your anxiety by lashing out. Based on my experience and reading, it seems clear that everyone has a breaking point when they feel forced to act in ways not typical of them. Perhaps some people turn to violence as a way to be taken seriously for once. Some commit suicide when they feel their life challenges are more than they can bear.
The result can also be a lashing out toward other individuals or society in general if you see others as responsible for your predicament. If you could understand the workings of others’ minds, much of the violence in the world might not seem quite so senseless. Violence often makes sense to people feeling overwhelmed by life burdens. Most people tend to react emotionally to such situations without giving their response much thought.
If you could step back from your emotions, you might see more constructive possibilities and be able to choose one of them. Once you are overwhelmed, it might be too late to step back. You could make a practice of learning to take a break from your daily routine even when you are not under pressure. Then you will have a better idea how to handle stressful life events when they arise.
But what can you do about that pressured feeling? Perhaps the best place to start is to realize that technology has resulted in amazing inventions allowing you to contact others around the world in a matter of seconds. Yet the overload of immediate communication has resulted in separating people rather than bringing them closer together. Here is what General Omar Bradley had to say, “The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we do about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”
In the process of becoming immediately connected, we seem to have forgotten the purpose of communication. It is to help us understand each other and learn to work together to find harmonious ways for us to exist together. Instead, we use our channels of communication to persuade others to think as we do. We use them for entertainment, validating ourselves and for advertising.
Although our technology to some extent helps us understand each other, we need to do much more to appreciate each other in our search for meaningful lives. People who tend toward violence may have goals not much different from our own. Yet they might have had their dreams crushed along the way. They no longer see any path toward a fulfilling life and look for a way to express their frustration.
Violence is seen as aggressive behavior with the intent to cause physical or psychological harm. Hostile aggression also fits our definition of violence for the purposes of this book. It is performed in anger for the purpose of harming another person. By constant exposure to it, we have come to be more accustomed to violence in our society, regardless of the presence or absence of a relationship between perpetrator and victim.
Mindfulness is a way you can come to understand yourself and your inner workings. It involves reflecting on your thoughts and emotions rather than acting on them impulsively. It is a form of meditation and involves making your body and mind still.
You do this by being in a place of serenity free of distractions. You pay attention to your inner state as well as the sounds, sights and smells around you while making no judgments about anything in your awareness. This is a practice where you can exist in just this moment without any concern for the past or future. You can practice mindfulness in order to take your mind and your body down a more constructive path than it might have otherwise taken. Rather than letting your emotions direct your whole day, you could step back from them and put them in context. We will look at this in greater detail later.
Do you usually react with immediate anger when something upsets your routine and then let it consume you for the rest of the day? Do you look for someone to blame for everything that happens to you, when you might be at least partially responsible? Do you let your mood take over your decisions and actions rather than trying to look at situations more rationally? Are you always on alert to find someone at fault? These are a few things to explore in a calmer mood once you find one, but it takes practice to set this mood.
Many people tend to look closely at another person’s behavior, decide what they don’t like about it and then think about how that person should act to make them happy. Yet you are not in charge of what everybody else does or thinks. If you want to understand someone’s inner workings, the closest person at hand is yourself. You can start by looking without judgment at your own thoughts, feelings and actions and work toward understanding them. Again I am referring to mindfulness. With a better understanding of yourself, you will be in a better position to understand and make sense of others’ actions. Maybe you and they can even find ways to work together on handling emotions.
(Excerpt from my book, From Violence to Peace)