Acquired Spontaneity

Thoughts and practices for personal and social transformation

Some Things I Am Learning from Martin Luther King, Jr.

"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

In 1990 I celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the first time, and in the most significant way I remember. The entire day I was sitting with my partner at the time, and we were focusing on our dreams, our big dreams, our biggest dreams, way beyond just ourselves and our own lives.

Although the relationship is long gone, the effects of that day are still with me. It was then that I had the startling realization that there is really no reason why Dr. King did what he did and I, or anyone else, can’t. That may have been the day I took on with explicit clarity the responsibility to do all I can to contribute to the dreams I have, some of which I have carried in one form or another since I was a small child.

Early on Monday morning this week, I received an email from a friend who forwarded a number of Dr. King’s quotes to me, some known to me and some not. I was thinking about them all day, and I decided to dedicate this week’s blog piece to sinking into the depth of meaning some of these quotes have had for me.

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Nonviolence and the Future of Humanity

“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

“The choice is not between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.”

“We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

I sometimes wonder who is truly naïve – those who think that we cannot trust ourselves to collaborate, and therefore must rely on control, coercion, and incentives, or those who think we can, and that collaborating with nature and with each other are entirely possible. The former is bringing us to the brink of collapse. What would it take to galvanize us, all of us, enough of us, at least, to try something else? The logic of nonviolence is transformative for me, in that we take untenable situations – whether in our personal lives or on the biggest human scale – and change the logic that drives them, moving from separation into love, from protection into creating, from escalating mistrust into an interdependent quest for options. Nothing else that I can imagine would ever have any chance of working to stop the march into extinction.

When Our Needs Are Not Met

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Once it is stripped of the masculine language to mean the purported neutral, which to my perpetual anguish leaves out half the human race while insisting that we should see ourselves as included, this is a truth I use as a foundation of my teachings. This is why one of the principles my sister and I included in our set of Assumptions and Intentions of Nonviolent Communication is the intention to live in peace with unmet needs. Although this is one of the most difficult practices of all, I also see it as a necessary exercise for anyone who wants to grow into nonviolence. It’s the fundamental direction that allows us to have choice when intensity, challenge, controversy, fear, or shame arise that would lead us to disengage, judge, or dominate instead of meeting life with love, truth, and courage. It is the latter three that I see as the foundation of any nonviolent solution.

Leading with Love

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.”

Transforming an enemy into a friend is that key moment of changing the logic of events. By habit we respond to enemies – real or imagined – in rather predictable ways that almost guarantee perpetuation of personal conflict or large-scale war.

Just recently, I was talking with a friend, helping her transform a particularly challenging situation with her partner, and helped her see one of the tragic forms that this logic takes. In the face of inability to find intimacy at the scale she wants, she retreats, and attempts to find connection on a smaller scope, hoping against hope that after establishing trust within that limited scope, all the while mistrusting outside of it, they could expand outward. However, the more she retreats, the more desperate her partner gets as her own needs for intimacy are strained, and the less likely it is that they can establish connection in the more reserved space my friend is constructing to protect. Instead, I invited my friend to walk towards, demonstrate and invite the intimacy she longs for, for the benefit of both of them.

I also remember reading a study published some years ago about how the familiar diplomatic responses in times of international conflict tend to escalate, and how the alternative – honoring the other side, engaging in dialogue without preconditions, all the signs of what even the bare bones of “love” would mean on that level of engagement – has the effect of deescalating international conflict and allowing for peaceful solutions without resorting to war.

Love of this kind helps the transformation in at least two ways. One is that in response to our own ability to show love, the other party – someone known to us personally or the leader of a hostile nation – has less need to protect, and can defuse its own reactivity. The other is that when we shift out of the habitual logic of protecting and fighting back, we become more creative and can see ways to make things work.

As with so much about nonviolence, all this is easier said than done. I can think of little that is more challenging than loving no matter what, loving those who hate, loving those who respond poorly to us. I have been working and practicing this to the best of my ability for many years, and I still so often find myself in moments when I even know that I want to access love and openness, and I don’t know where the key to my cells lies. Some of what showing love means I can choose despite the habitual resistance of my cellular makeup. Some of it is an energetic openness, and I still don’t know how to shift at that level at will. I will not stop trying, regardless of who the other party is.

Speaking the Truth

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

That ending of a life is what routinely happens for most of us as we emerge from early childhood. The fear of punishment overwhelms our heart’s knowing, and we learn to protect ourselves before standing up for what we believe in. The cost, as I know so intimately from so many people I have engaged with through my work, is, indeed, detrimental to our own souls.

Combining truth with love is perhaps the most exacting of the arts of nonviolence, and sorely misunderstood. Many believe they are practicing nonviolence when they do one without the other. Love without truth, especially in those moments that Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others have named over the history of humanity, amounts to condoning and accepting behaviors we know are harmful. That is what harms us when we remain silent. On the other hand, as someone who has never stopped telling the truth, I also know the reverse: truth without sufficient love can be an act of violence even without the use of arms. This is one of the core aspects of my own journey, finding the love, exhibiting the tenderness that will make my truth-telling a gift rather than fuel for the challenge to deepen.

I have a memory of a time, about two years ago, when I was at a conference that brought together almost 300 people who are committed to a new paradigm of business in which care for the people and the planet carries as much significance as the drive for profits. All throughout the conference I was in pain about the level of consumption at the conference itself. I couldn’t see how these conferences could be aligned with the goal of sustainability. I was deeply torn, because I was also a newcomer, a guest to the group, and I was afraid of being shunned and losing the rare privilege of these people’s ear, the possibility of being invited back, the tenuous belonging I had in this group of mostly entrepreneurs. As the conference proceeded towards its end, my inner turmoil increased and came to a head during the closing circle, when one person after another was sharing their joy and celebration about their time. Not everyone would have a chance to speak, so I would need to specifically ask for the microphone to express myself. Would I have enough courage to expose myself in this way? Would I have enough love to take full responsibility for my experience without slipping into separation from others? And so I spoke, and I cried while speaking, because of the exertion, and because of walking so strongly and directly into vulnerability, and because I spoke from grief and not from numbness or judgment. I finished, and I held the microphone for a few more seconds, to ensure I wouldn’t close my heart before passing it on to the next person. I had risked my significance, the language I borrow constantly from Dawna Markova’s poem I love so much, I will not Die an Unlived Life, and I was prepared and willing to accept whatever would happen. Or so I thought, because I wasn’t prepared for the next person who took the microphone to put it down and start clapping his hands, and even less so for most everyone to join him. My truth speaking reached people at least for that moment, though whether any change beyond that moment ever took place within the organization that sponsored the conference remains to be seen.

The Courage of Leaning on Faith

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

As with my own story, we don’t know the outcome of our actions. The seeds of love and truth that we sow are not always ours to see into blossom. As one of Gandhi’s biographers expressed it, in nonviolence it is possible to lose every battle and win the war. Since I don’t love war metaphors, I want to say it differently: as we struggle to create change, whether within, in our relationships, or in the world at large, we will experience loss and failure time and time again. This is not to say that the work of change isn’t happening. Because the means and the end are one and the same in nonviolence, each of our steps creates ripples we cannot know. This is one of my own weakest links in my own path of nonviolence. I get easily discouraged, because the vision I carry is so strong, that I sometimes crumble in the face of the gap between the current reality and what I know in my heart is so palpably possible. I never give up in any permanent way, though I do go through dark and challenging periods. I pick myself up sooner or later and continue. I wish to have more faith so that along the way my path will be easier. Just as much as my vision remains unwavering despite all the “evidence” that the world of the media and of the cynical, closed-hearted information I see portrays, I want my faith to increase with each small shift I see anywhere, so I can hold my vision with more joy.

Please note: as announced last week, I want to let you know about the new way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. Each Tuesday at 5:30pm Pacific time, starting February 5th, you will have an opportunity to participate in a teleconference to discuss the previous week’s post, usually posted by Thursday. Almost all weeks the teleconference will be facilitated by me, except when I am on a teaching tour, in which case a trusted colleague will be facilitating instead. Those who sign up will also have an additional set of reflection questions available to them in preparation for the conference call. For more information, click here.

Miki Kashtan, Ph.D., is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication and serves as its lead facilitator and trainer.

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