Violence in the human heart is multifaceted

I learned from my grandfather that violence in the human heart is multifaceted and is often practiced unknowingly.

Ear to the Ground Arun Gandhi

WE Are the Problem …

Source: An Ear to the Ground

Growing violence in the United States and in the world must concern all of us. Little children shooting each other intentionally or accidentally. Little girls becoming mothers when they should be learning to play hopscotch. At thirteen and fourteen young people are becoming drug addicts or drug couriers. By fifteen they are planning their funerals. By eighteen many young people have accomplished more evil than many of us do in eighty years of our lives. Why?

Are young people irresponsible? Are they born evil? The fault is not entirely that of children. We adults have lost sight of our responsibilities. Fifty-one percent of our marriages break up—many are divorced several times. We are more concerned with our careers and our freedom than with love and respect for each other. Sex has become the most important ingredient in marriage and in life. There was a time when marriages were made to raise a family of whom parents would be proud. Parents not only gave birth to children but nurtured them and gave them a foundation on which to build their lives. Children were loved and family life was centered around their needs, their hopes, and their aspirations.

Marriages now appear to be centered on sexual compatibility. The issue of prime importance: How can we get the most enjoyable sexual experience? In the event sexual drive slows down, love dies. Seeking sex outside the marriage is no longer considered moral turpitude. For the most part children are regarded as unwelcome by-products of sex that have to be tolerated because they are living beings. We are now told by experts that we need be concerned about just two important issues in life: seeking physical pleasure and climbing material heights. Both must be achieved by any means possible.

When my generation of the 1930s and 1940s was growing up on Phoenix Farm, eighteen miles north of the city of Durban in South Africa, our parents focused our minds on constructive outdoor activities. For instance, our parents seldom bought us toys. My two sisters and I, and also our friends, had to make our own toys with what was available. There was a rivulet abutting our farm with black clay in the bed. My friends and I would dig for the clay under the supervision of my mother. We learned to make cars, bullock carts, horse carriages, and human forms. Sometimes we made miniature homes and farmhouses. When we wanted a change we would break up these models and make new ones.

When we grew up we made bigger toys. We would hunt the countryside for discarded wheelbarrows and salvage the wheels. When we had four of them we would find broken limbs of trees to fashion strong axles and a frame for our automobile. We would get discarded wooden planks to build the body and have great fun dragging the contraption up the hill and roaring back down.

Later still, my friends and I got interested in playing tennis. Our parents said we would have to build our own tennis courts. They would get us whatever we needed but we would have to provide the labor. We built three tennis courts at the homes of three friends. We did everything manually from leveling the ground, to digging holes for the posts, to laying the special clay under the supervision of an expert so that the top was smooth and level. We had to water the court and pull the heavy roller over it until the court was ready for use. And then we had to water and roll the court every Saturday so that we could play on Sunday. We even built our own little clubhouse with bricks and mortar—everything from digging the foundation to nailing the roof. It was hard work but educational and entertaining at the same time.

We did have girlfriends and played with them too, but we were taught to respect them as human beings and not treat them as sex symbols. Besides, all the physical activity left us with little energy for any mischief. Young girls in those days did not become pregnant at today’s rate. The thought of sexual intercourse, even if lurking in one’s mind, was rarely implemented. Such a healthy respect for the opposite sex now seems like a Utopian dream.

Sexual activity today begins early, and girls are becoming mothers at twelve and thirteen. At a workshop on “Nonviolent Parenting,” which my wife and I organized through the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, there were more than 160 participants, a third of them teenagers. Several had given birth to two or three children before eighteen years of age. Most of them confessed that they had begun sexual activity at the age of eleven or twelve—soon after reaching puberty.

In modern times sex has become an obsession and the message from parents and from publicity is that there is no difference between a desire for sex and the desire for food. Both must be satiated immediately. There are fewer and fewer scruples attached to premarital sex. It is natural, it is physical, and—like animals in heat—humans must find an outlet for this urge. Consequently, children become parents before they learn what parenting is.

Teen sex is just one aspect of the violence we practice against each other. In 1946–47, when my parents traveled from South Africa to visit the family in India, I was twelve and spent most of my time with Grandfather, Mohandas K. Gandhi. I learned from him that violence in the human heart is multifaceted and is often practiced unknowingly. It is not just “physical” violence that should distress us but also “passive,” or non-physical violence. Our suffering has many causes: the way we bring up our children; the things we do or don’t do for them; the hate, prejudice, intolerance, anger, abuse; the suppression, the oppression, and the countless other ways in which “passive” violence has become a part of human nature. All of these aspects of our negligence add to the corrosion of our morals and ethics.

“Materialism,” Grandfather said, “has an inverse relationship with morality. When one increases the other decreases.” It is obvious that materialism today is in the ascendancy while morality has been consigned to the waste bin. Capitalism, materialism, market economy, the pursuit of one’s goals, and the right to democratic privileges are wonderful goals but decidedly harmful when overindulged. For any society to be cohesive, rather than corrosive, we have all got to come together to knit a strong fabric. We are almost obsessively concerned about our rights in a democracy, but not all of us are willing to share the responsibility of making democracy healthy and viable. Grandfather taught me what he called the “Seven Sins of the World.” They are: Wealth without Work, Pleasure without Conscience, Knowledge without Character, Commerce without Morality, Science without Humanity, Worship without Sacrifice, and Politics without Principles. Recently, I added the eighth “sin”—Rights without Responsibilities.

Understanding the extent of “passive” violence in our lives is the only way we can find solutions. It is not enough to know what ails us. We must also be aware of what caused the ailment if we are to find the right remedy. As part of my education under Grandfather, and later under my parents, I was required to draw a “family tree” of violence. On a large sheet of paper pinned on a wall at home I wrote down all the “physical” and “passive” acts of violence I experienced or practiced during the day. My sisters, Sita and Ela, and my parents would contribute their experiences too. This became an after-dinner, family exercise. Often, the family would debate our differing perceptions. The purpose of the “tree” was to educate us in all aspects of violence and its effects on human relationships at all levels from two friends to two nations. Whenever any of us had the time, we would study the tree to understand it better and discover for ourselves what is “right” and what is “wrong” in life.

In 1994, during the Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, North Carolina, I was amazed when a twenty-five-year-old university graduate confessed to me that she had stopped evaluating what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Therefore, she explained, she could not determine what is “good” and what is “bad.”

“Whose perception of right and wrong am I to follow?” she asked in all earnestness.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “It has to be your own perception.”

Like several generations before and after her, she was confused because “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad” have been linked to religion. Consequently, when one dominant religion tries to impose its interpretations upon others the tendency is to ignore morality altogether. The choice most people make is not to believe in anything. Morals, ethics, peace, justice, nonviolence, and a host of other values are not a prerogative of any one faith or denomination. They are common to all religions. As long as all religions honestly pursue “truth” they are equal and must be respected as such. His inter-faith prayer meetings were held every morning and evening. At most of them Grandfather’s sermons would emphasize one idea: different religions are only different highways leading to the same point. Why should it matter to anyone what highway one chooses to take, so long as the destination is the same?

Religion is the means to ultimate salvation, not an end in itself. Among other things, religion should teach us respect for one’s self and for one another whatever our gender, color, race, beliefs, and understanding. Is respect for life itself lacking? Do various religions of the world play the better-than-thou game? If so, what we are sowing in the minds of people is not love but hate, not understanding but suspicion, not respect but contempt.

When the two most important elements of society, the yin and the yang, have a love-hate relationship, how can the children be expected to grow up with understanding and respect? From our sexual relationships to our spiritual quest, our attitudes lack the very fundamental understanding of what is right and what is wrong. We may go to temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, and other places of worship ten times a day, every day of our lives, but salvation will elude us because our hearts remain full of hate and disrespect. If existence is all that living means to us, then we can be self-centered and selfish in our attitudes without any concern for anybody or anything. That’s because, ultimately, we all have to die, and death, we believe, will put an end to existence. However, if we accept that death is only a transformation of life from one level to the next, then we will appreciate that life must be more meaningful. Only then will we reach out to the basics—understanding, compassion, love, and respect—and make them a part of our search for salvation.