Standing Up to “Passive Violence”
October 20, 2016 § 3 Comments
Invoking the eloquent and emotionally-charged words of Michelle Obama last week, I must echo that what is happening in our country right now has “shaken me to my core.” It’s not just the vulgar “locker room” banter from a certain presidential candidate, loaded language that has awakened sordid memories of my own experience with sexual aggression and objectification—and made me suddenly painfully aware that my own daughter will likely walk a similar and sometimes terrifying path.
It’s not just the blatant hostility slathered across so many of the election signs lining our highways, obscene graphics and words that render me speechless as I struggle to explain to my inquiring children why a certain presidential candidate would be depicted on a billboard as the Wicked Witch of the West.
It’s not just the new jumpiness that I feel this week, with talk of impending riots following Election Day, of conspiracy theories and refusals to concede, and of indirect but horrifying calls for assassination.
It’s all of this put together: the vitriolic rhetoric, the fear mongering, the way we have divided as a country and turned on one another. If we complain, we are told by defenders: calm down, these are just words. Just bragging. Just jokes. Just ego.
This not what our country is about, I say to my children. These are not the values upon which our country was built: values of decency, of tolerance, of humility, of freedom. A country that harbors knowledge, that respects facts and invites intellectual discourse. A place where we can agree to disagree and do it with grown-up words and handshakes.
We can do better than this.
In my quest to cleanse our family from the oppugnancy of this election—because, if only for the sake of self-preservation, I have to believe it can be done—I was fortunate to come upon a new title in the Grandfather Gandhi series. The original picture book, Grandfather Gandhi (Ages 6-12), came out in 2014 (you can read my post here) and is written by children’s author Bethany Hegedus in partnership with Arun Gandhi, the 82-year old fifth grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who spent two formative years as a teenager living alongside his grandfather at the Sevagram ashram in India. We have returned to this story in our house time and again, the story of a boy struggling to make sense of his grandfather’s vision for peaceful living. (In fact, it was my son who suggested we re-read it just last month on International Peace Day; proud moment for @thebookmommy.)
Imagine our collective joy upon discovering that Hegedus has again teamed up with Arun Gandhi to write another true story from the latter’s experience on the ashram, this new book titled Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Ages 6-12). The title is a nod to perhaps the most frequently quoted of Gandhi’s teachings: Be the change you wish to see.
I can’t let another moment pass without mentioning the extraordinary power that illustrator Evan Turk bestows upon both of these stories with his breathtaking mixed-media spreads, involving watercolor, pencil, thread, and cotton, just to name a few. When I tell you that my children can’t get enough of Turk’s pictures, I am not exaggerating. From these illustrations, my children can feel the heat of the sun in the fiery sky. They can feel the bodies pressing up against one another as they crowd together to hear Gandhi speak. They can feel the gentle love in Gandhi’s hand gestures. And they can feel the confusion and frustration and awe radiating from Arun’s bright young eyes.
If the first Grandfather Gandhi story is concerned specifically with anger—with the idea that we have a choice in how we express our anger, in what we let it do to both our body and to the bodies of others—then this new story addresses the hurt we can do to ourselves and to one another in the seemingly quieter moments of our life. Be the Change raises the specific link between violence and waste, a link that the teenaged Arun doesn’t initially understand when he comes to live at the ashram.
“The purpose of ashram life,” our young narrator tells us, “was to live simply and non-violently,” and everyone had to take vows to that effect. “The one I found the hardest was the vow not to waste…I wasn’t sure how not wasting food or other items made life nonviolent.” He listens to his grandfather give speeches about how nonviolence should “pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts,” but these complicated words just make Arun’s brain hurt.
As in the first story, things come to a head in a moment of young rebellion, as Arun surrenders to his own frustration. Tired of having to make do with a “nubby” stub of a pencil—all because he took a vow not to waste—Arun tosses it freely into the tall grass on his walk home from lessons one day.
I left it there. On purpose. I was a Gandhi—didn’t I deserve a new pencil? Why is a nubby pencil so important?
That evening, after the sun goes down, when Arun approaches his grandfather about a new pencil, Gandhi reminds his grandson about the sacredness of taking a vow before others. He tells him, smilingly, “This morning you had what appeared to be a perfectly good pencil…You will have to go and look for it.” And then he walks Arun to the door, hands him a flashlight, and points him “toward the night.” (You go, Mahatma! How about that for parental inspiration?)
My children were spellbound by what I can only describe as the sheer humility that seeps from Turk’s subsequent illustration, from the tall scrubby grass through which Arun crawls on his hands and knees “for hours,” feeling for the pencil, and the swirling openness of the deep purple sky above him. We are small and the world is enormous.
In the months that follow, through the relentless rains of the monsoon season, Gandhi seeks to help his grandson internalize the relationship between waste and violence. The concept of passive violence, as contrasted to physical violence, begins to take shape for Arun, as it does for us readers. We begin to understand that there are environmental and social ramifications of depleting resources, that our own seemingly small actions can send into motion a chain of events (deprivation can lead to hoarding which can lead to people striking out) that can physically hurt both our planet and ourselves.
And here’s where it gets really good. Together, Gandhi and Arun craft a sketch of a tree, with examples of physical violence hung from the branches on one side and examples of passive violence on the other. In the weeks that follow, Arun incorporates different types of thoughts and actions onto one side or another. “Both branches were heavy with leaves, but the passive side became enormous.”
This might be one of the most useful things I’ve ever done as a parent. The kids and I had to work a bit to make out Arun’s chicken scratch, but once we started, we couldn’t stop. Things like yelling, teasing, leaving the lights on, lying, being jealous, taking a friend’s things, gossiping, not sharing, not forgiving (this last one is particularly interesting): these are just a few of the things that Arun labels as passive violence. “Have you ever thought about these things as acts of violence?” I asked my kids. “No way,” JP answered. “I thought violence just meant shooting people and stuff.”
You guys, this is how we will stand up to these politicians, to the indecent and inhumane rhetoric surrounding this election. This is how we will take back our country. Alongside our children, we will seek to identify and nullify passive violence. We will reform ourselves, and then we will raise a generation of Americans who carefully and intentionally weigh their words and actions against how they may affect others, of the hurt and pain and even physical harm that could arise. We will teach our children to prioritize peace, not only when it’s convenient, but because it is always essential.
We must be the change we wish to see.
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