As election day is approaching, I’m noticing that many Unitarian Universalists are out in the community helping to hold the integrity of the democratic process, a value articulated in our fifth principle; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Voter suppression has been a big concern this election, especially in the swing states, and in states with large populations of people of color. Many UU leaders are volunteering to be poll observers, to help make sure that the right to vote is protected, especially in places where they are expecting possible intimidation of Latino and African-American voters at the polls.
How does one keep calm in a situation where a gross injustice is happening?
I recently re-read an interview with veteran and peace activist Paul Chappell in The Sun magazine (April 2011) and this quote has stayed with me:
What do Buddha, Jesus, Sun Tzu, Seneca, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, martial-arts philosophy, and West Point all have in common? They all taught me that anger is dangerous. Outrage is my conscience saying, This is wrong! When outrage is not supported by a foundation of patience and empathy for both sides, it quickly descends int yelling, resentment, and a shutting down of reason, which doesn’t effectively advance the cause of peace. … The way you get rid of anger is through understanding. As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, founder of Compassionate Listening, said, “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.”
So how does a leader maintain their “center” in situations that can easily provoke anger? Here are some tips borrowed from Chappel (and from a few others):
- Be ready to challenge the underlying myth. In the case of poll observing, know that voter fraud is rare; disenfranchment is less so.
- Remain calm. Chappel recommends the practice of developing empathy for the person you are dealing with–to understand the suffering that is eliciting their behavior. Respond to their anger with compassion. Repeat the mantra, I am standing on the side of Love. Imagine them as a small child, before the experiences that brought them to this place.
- Speak your truth. Our words are seeds in the world. Some will take root, others will fall on hard ground. But change starts with tension, and our words can help to introduce that tension. I still have phrases spoken to me years ago that annoyed me at first, but still influence my current thinking.
- Don’t attack the other’s worldview. Ours is not a faith of coercion, but of mutuality and persuasion. (And seriously, have you ever seen it work?)
- Change the conversation. Learn to understand the worldview of the other well enough to find a place of common ground or a common story. Once there you can introduce your own competing worldview in a way that they might be able to hear.