When I went to take the subway from the airport to the station next to the hotel where I used to stay, I noticed that a lady in a wheelchair was struggling to get down to the level of the boarding platform because the lift was stuck. She had to go down a steep staircase. I offered to help; another man also volunteered. Together we took her to the train access floor. She was very grateful for the help and there we said goodbye. The lady would take a train to a different destination from mine. By chance, the man and I boarded the same train. We sat down together and chatted until he disembarked not long before me. During the ride, I mentioned that I was visiting one of my daughters who was studying at the local university. The man arched his lips in a smile and said he was a professor at the same institution. His name was Peter and he taught Applied Logic. The conversation was very pleasant. He was a cultured, articulate, kind and peaceful person. He explained that he did not understand the violence in the world. Simple gestures of good will were enough for all relationships to be smoother: “It’s not difficult, all we need is compassion, a beautiful way of feeling the difficulty of another person”, he pondered. I agreed with a nod of my head. It was true. He argued, “I feel that the vast majority of people ardently desire a world without conflict”. Then he questioned, “Why doesn’t it happen?”
The question hung in the air. Peter had to step down. We said goodbye, hoping that we could continue this conversation at another time. I took that question with me: “Why doesn’t it happen?” In all honesty, I had to admit that I didn’t know. I found it interesting to reflect on the subject.
As I had taken a daytime flight, when I arrived at the hotel, besides being very tired, it was night time already. I had arranged to meet my daughter the next day, in between her classes in the morning. The place was the usual one, a cafeteria attached to a bookstore across the street from the university. The tables were full of students and professors. Armed with a cup of coffee and a book, I settled into a comfortable armchair and watched the movement. I loved that environment and could spend hours there without the slightest effort. At a large table beside me, a group of academics was debating politics. The excitement added to the fact that many were talking at the same time, made the tone of voice a little louder than desired. Although I understand the need for laws and the political process, I dislike the subject because of the passion and interests that weigh on the arguments, which are foreign to the common good. These are just some of the reasons that inject violence and remove the sensibility from the subject, I thought. It was then that I realized that one of the most excited was Peter, the kind professor from the day before in the underground. He was defending the pacifist theses of a candidate with a fervour that, at that moment, seemed to me a little exaggerated, bordering on aggressiveness for his ardour in convincing others of his reasons. Those who opposed Peter also declared themselves pacifists, but presented different solutions to the same problems, equally sustaining their reasons a few shades above the indispensable serenity in the construction of a good dialogue. When the arguments were exhausted, the irony and sarcasm began, veiled forms of aggressiveness socially accepted and, worse, considered intelligent by those who admire the method. In truth, irony and sarcasm are weapons that hurt, although most often they are used by people who believe they abhor violence.
Intolerance, another silent type of violence, escalated among gentle, cultured and mild-mannered individuals. Dense and exalted emotions have the power to empty the sensibility of the interlocutors. Irritation was already visible on the countenance of some. I realized that, as in any political process, the most adequate theories of non-violence are ineffective in the face of feverish passions and personal interests. That is when the idea dawned on me that all of us would be host to the germ of violence. Just like any shadow, by denying it we make room for it to move in and dictate our fate.
I thought that if I removed Peter from there the tempers would cool. I waited for his gaze to cross with mine and made a gesture with my hands accompanied by a smile. He was pleased to see me. However, contrary to what I imagined, he did not end the conversation to come and talk to me, but tried to include me in the discussion.
After greeting me, he explained to the group that I was a foreigner. He proposed that because of this I should function as an independent mediator of the debate. I would listen to all the arguments and then decide which one seemed fairer and more balanced. I denied the function before the others could accept the proposal. I pondered: “Even in the face of the best arguments, I will only know fragments of a reality that I do not live. So, thank you, but I am not fit for the function. Besides, I am averse to all forms of party politics”. I took a sip of coffee and asked: “Please don’t be angry with me”. I was being honest. Peter remembered a famous phrase attributed to Plato: “Those who do not like politics will be ruled by those who do”. Perhaps he was only trying to persuade me to change my position without any aggressive intent. But there are many ways of stunting a choice, even without using offence or physical force. Although a social disguise, intellectual coercion can become a cruel violence to persuade someone less prepared for debate or conversation. The wiser one, with greater power of argument or information, can checkmate the one who is not ready for the game of ideas. Apparently harmless, violence is completed in the attempt to manipulate opinions and wills as if they were pieces on a chessboard. This is a mode of violence that is practised daily without us realising the strategy of hunting down our choices.
I had already set out my arguments sincerely, serenely and clearly. From then on silence was enough for me. However, I answered by rebutting Plato with another Greek philosopher, Epithet: “From the moment that I depend on someone to be happy, I become their slave”.
There, I had taken the bait of violence and become one of its actors. In other words, I had said that politics, a subject in which they were passionate, would be of less importance to me. Besides being aggressive on my part, it was not fair. I have the right not to like politics, to think in a different way, but not to talk like that. My answer had valid arguments for other situations and moments. At that moment it was intemperate enough to make it aggressive.
I only understood when he contracted his countenance as if he had been hit with a punch. Hurt, Peter recalled: “Politics can become the most incredible instrument of compassion. In a single gesture it is possible to benefit millions of people”.
Yes, he was right. In the same way that politics led us, and still leads us, to wars, if we invert the poles of feeling, it will become a tool of charity; we will exchange horror for love. Not liking something does not give me the right to consider it of little value. On the other hand, you can’t coerce anyone to participate in a process that they don’t feel like participating in. This did not make me a second-class citizen, alienated and emptied of my rights and motivations.
We were both right; and wrong too. We were lovers of peace, but practitioners of small acts of violence. I apologised to Peter. I think he understood the same as I did, for he smiled with the sweetness of one who feels sorry and apologised for his attitude. Then, with the authority of a teacher, he dismissed the students, reminding them that it was their class time. Then he pulled up a chair and sat down in front of me. We started an unavoidable conversation: “We did not set a good example for these boys and girls,” I said. Peter shrugged and pondered, “I think they understood where we crossed the line that we shouldn’t. They also saw us apologise to each other. Our error can grant good lessons too.” I agreed with a shake of my head.
I reminded him of the question that had hung in the air the night before in the subway: “If the vast majority of people ardently desire peace, why do we live in a world full of conflicts?” Like me, Peter wanted to understand the reason for this apparent inconsistency. He suggested: “Could it be because violent people, though few, do enormous damage that affects everyone?”
I made a gesture with my hands as if to deny the reasoning: “I don’t think so. The argument seems to me an attempt to transfer the responsibility that is ours. Who is violent? Always the others, no? We, the good people, we only react in defence against such aggressiveness, don’t we? We insist on staying on the surface. As long as we deny the real cause we suffer its inevitable effects.”
It was Peter who concluded: “Each and every one of us is the violence of the world; its pillars and battering rams.” Then he prodded me: “It hurts, doesn’t it?”. I had to admit it. I took a ride on his reasoning and continued: “Understanding and accepting the idea is the primary step to get rid of violence. Wars, genocides and heinous crimes are only the reflection of our small daily aggressions that accumulate in the planetary psycho-sphere to manifest themselves at some point in a more drastic manner. The horrifying acts do not come out of nowhere nor do they have as their source a single person or a restricted group of individuals. It is the dam that has been breached by saturation. The sum of minimal, almost imperceptible, daily violence is a cause for extrapolation to its maximum level. Like a dark cloud formed by dense emotions long accumulated. It ends up collapsing into a planetary storm of grave consequences.
Peter pondered: “Violence already existed in the world when I was born and even long before that. We have inherited violence from our ancestors through many centuries of conflict and aggression. But we are also the ones who, often without realising it or believing it impossible to do otherwise, help to perpetuate this way of life. Will we manage to break with this tendency one day?”.
I exercised my thought at the same time as I spoke: “It was what Jung called the Collective Unconscious, a part of what I think, act and react was not formed by me, but was sown in me by my ancestors, where fear and savagery dominated the course of events. It is the conditioning, the impulses, the reaction tendencies, the prejudices, the behavioural models by which we identify and feel safe, although they generate conflict and oppression. It makes up an active part of who I am, but I am not aware of it. This is how it is with everyone. This is why we find it strange when the world sees something in us that we ourselves do not see. I have difficulty understanding myself because my personality is part conscious, part unconscious. The Collective Unconscious inhabits the unvisited rooms of my mind, although I do not perceive or deny its powerful influence. The good thing is that it is not formed only by negative aspects. Love also has part of its roots in that unknown legacy that defines much of what we have in common.”
Peter asked himself a question: “Why are we violent?”
I ventured an answer: “We are violent because, on different scales, we have violence as a way of life. We just don’t realise it. The gravity and incomprehension of my internal conflicts are reflected in aggressiveness in the world. As long as we don’t admit the existence of this personal shadow, the violence, it will be impossible to stop it. Without understanding how it works we will not be able to illuminate it in ourselves. Peace in the world is born in me. So is war, however much I may repudiate this concept.”
As only good teachers do, Peter continued his reasoning in the Socratic style: “Why do we have so many conflicts?”
I made an inference: “Human history is told through wars, destruction, famine, pestilence, domination and slavery. Forgotten are the chapters ruled by love. Thus, fear occupies most of the Collective Unconscious. Of course, there is still the Individual Unconscious which aggregates the particular traumas and sufferings, varying the level of fear each person feels. We are surrounded by different types of fear: illness, misery, abandonment, among many others. To protect ourselves we create laws and behavioural rules, many necessary, others with a huge oppressive content. We become dependent on everything and everyone we believe can protect us and make us forget about fear. However, in these cases fear has not been dissolved, but only controlled. It continues to lurk, like a predatory animal. Even if you don’t want to delve into it, you feel that danger is near.”
“When a situation, however distant, might pose a threat, that part of the mind that we do not know, the unconscious, reacts quickly and violently, at the level of fear that drives our choices. Most of the decisions we make are not conscious, so we don’t understand them”.
Peter nodded in agreement and continued: “What can I do to put an end to this painful process of being and living? Because the violence that I commit somehow also affects me”.
I explained at the limits of my understanding: “Under the pretext of protecting you, fear weakens and then enslaves. There is no way to eliminate fear by forgetting it. It is part of you. You have to go to its origins, understand why it was formed, how it influences you and oppresses you. From there start to deconstruct it at the same time as you begin the reconstruction of a new style of being and living in the awakening of dormant virtues. Each virtue that flourishes means at least one enlightened shadow. Depending on the type of fear each person feels, more than one virtue will be necessary. However, all of them are at everyone’s disposal. The most rigorous obstacle, the reason for the worst fears, is undone in a simple touch: in overcoming ourselves”.
I continued: “The more violent the individual is, the greater his internal suffering, the deeper his own incomprehension. Aggressiveness is an emotional pain which extrapolates the control of the ego, the administrator of the conscious, due to the strong pressure exerted by unconscious pains. The dam breaks. Great explosions portray suffering that is easy to identify, hastening the search for cure. The biggest problem is the little drops that leak from the dam every day. Acts of small aggressiveness that we consider normal, such as lack of patience or intolerance when we do not get the desired results, constantly and uninterruptedly feed the cloud of planetary violence. We cannot complain about the storms”.
“The mind is divided into several parts, so much so that each individual, to a greater or lesser degree, is able to dialogue with himself. It is the various mental compartments presenting their reasons so that we can make the best choices. When we decide without this internal conversation it means that we react in an instantaneous way, often driven by our recent or ancestral fears. We remain fragmented and fragile because we do not use all the potential we are capable of. To be truly strong, it is indispensable to be whole. Roughly speaking, it means the harmony and balance of all the voices that inhabit me”
“Violence manifests itself at every moment. Acts of small aggressiveness are common, such as the rude way of speaking, contempt, inattention and carelessness towards everyone, just to stay in the ordinary examples. They are imperceptible attitudes or considered irrelevant by the one who committed them; but have no doubt that it was painful for the one who suffered it. Violence has left its mark”.
“In another direction, and no less serious, there are situations in which the individual acts violently towards himself because he does not have the emotional conditions to face his fears and make the choices he understands to be correct. To wound one’s own conscience is to feel the almost unbearable pain of the world within oneself”.
It was my turn to ask Peter, “Who accounts for this silent, invisible violence of countless dams leaking every day?” The professor frowned and replied, “The cloud.” He opened his arms and concluded resignedly: “However, the others continue to be violent ones. We keep complaining about the floods that cause so much damage. We still do not understand that we are the storm”.
We had reached a common denominator. Uncomfortable, but quite clear. Possible only because, despite talking about violence, we removed any trace of the fear of finding it in us. We did not have an achievement, but only a look. A primordial step. However, only when it is possible to see violence in oneself clearly, just like any other shadow, can we act with lucidity to transmute everything that makes us suffer. Even in minimal doses, violence embitters the honey of life.
We decided to celebrate with another round of coffee. That’s when my daughter walked into the coffee shop. After we exchanged a long, tight hug, she greeted Peter. He had been her Applied Logic teacher the year before. She wanted to know if we were friends already. I gave a quick summary of events and the progression of ideas since the previous day. After listening carefully, she agreed with us and said, “It’s stupid to think that violence is only in others.” She turned to Peter and in her cheerful way joked with the words: “After all, we are the others before the eyes of the others”. She shrugged his shoulders and finished: “Pure logic, professor”.
We laughed. It was a pleasant, angular and memorable morning.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.