I've woken up this morning, and the world's gone crazy again. Men with guns have killed people who offended them, plus a few other random people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Last month it was my own hometown of Sydney, this month it's another city I love, Paris.
Social media and the newspapers are abuzz with political leaders and lay people saying they won't cave in to “terrorists” by giving in to fear. Police and military forces have responded, and most of the gunmen and their accomplices are now dead. So are some of the hostages.
I feel deeply saddened for the people who have lost their lives, and the families they leave behind. Yet I don't buy the rhetoric that says we won't feel fear because that would just be giving the “terrorists” what they want. To be honest, I feel frightened and powerless when I see people much like myself caught up in hostage dramas and ending up dying at the hands of men with guns who believe their martyrdom will earn them rewards in an afterlife I don't even believe exists.
How can I possibly hope to influence the behaviour of people who subscribe to an ideology I don't agree with, following a religion I don't know much about, with a spiritual leader who appears above criticism in their minds? Even within Islam, different sects have a history of killing each other over what appear to me to be relatively minor doctrinal differences (or more likely because they just wanted their land and/or possessions), so the answer doesn't appear to lie there.
That said, if the pen really is mightier than the sword, I'm willing to give it a go.
The men with guns had needs, and they acted the way they did because their needs weren't getting met and this gave them some unpleasant emotions. They weren't evil; they were just acting in ways I don't like because they were upset. Good and evil are human inventions: the universe is indifferent. If you tell me “terrorists are evil”, I'll take that as your shorthand for saying that you don't like the way they behave.
All of us act in the way we think is most likely to get our needs met so we can experience more pleasant emotions and less unpleasant ones. But often we adopt strategies that don't work too well to meet our needs, because we haven't been educated in any better strategies. Part of the problem is that we've been educated to believe that our thoughts run our lives, when in fact we're clearly dominated by our feelings and needs; of which most of us have very little formal education.
One way of dealing with the unpleasant feelings you experience when other people “offend” you or your chosen spiritual teacher, is to pick up a gun and kill them.
Obviously this strategy is a disaster for your enemy, which may at first leave you feeling excited, thinking that you've been triumphant and victorious. But it also has many downsides for you: first and foremost, killing other people is traumatising for you.
Our chosen enemies are mirrors to us, reflecting the unconscious parts of ourselves that we have not yet accepted. Over time you may build up a hardened sense of emotional indifference to the enemies you kill, but each time you kill another human being it becomes that much more difficult to feel the compassion, empathy and love for the disowned parts of yourself to which they are a constant reminder. Ultimately this makes it even more difficult to free yourself of your own inner turmoil, which would shrink if you were to deal with it constructively, but grows when projected outwards onto your enemies.
Secondly, making enemies out of other people tends to make them dislike you. Killing people who offend you tends to offend other people, especially those who don't subscribe to your beliefs and values. Most people who are not highly evolved will respond to this by making an enemy out of you. The more enemies you have, the less freedom you will experience in the world.
Some ideologies get around this by saying that this world is crap anyway and freedom is only possible in the afterlife. I don't buy the negativity about life inherent in such belief systems: heaven is here now, if we choose to accept it.
While it may be challenging to maintain a sense of love, compassion and empathy towards your enemies, doing so is a hallmark of personal maturity, which is why most major religions include the practise of “loving your enemies” in their teachings. The big irony here is that other people only become our enemies when we choose to make them enemies, which we do so that we can project our insecurities onto them because it's easier than dealing with our own emotional baggage.
I can't say for sure what was going on in the hearts and minds of the men with guns when they opened fire in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, but my best guess is that they were feeling angry at seeing their prophet depicted in ways that they didn't like.
Anger is a defence mechanism we use semi-automatically when we're feeling threatened. Beneath anger lurk more vulnerable feelings, like sadness, fear and powerlessness. So my best guess is that they went into an infantile rage because they felt powerless to stop Charlie Hebdo publishing cartoons that in their minds, were offensive.
Turns out the men with guns and I have a lot in common then. We both feel powerless to stop other people doing things that we don't like. Feeling powerless is frightening because it reminds us of times in our childhood when we got hurt by the actions of adults who we had no real power over. Because we've never fully dealt with that, we still feel frightened and powerless as adults because for the most part, we are powerless over other people. Especially people we've never met, who don't subscribe to our world view, and don't read articles like this one.
Clearly, if simply killing the people who do things that I don't like is traumatising to me and takes me one step further away from achieving inner-peace/nirvana/heaven/self-actualisation/call-it-what-you-will, then another strategy is required.
The painful truth is that nobody can offend us without us first giving away our personal power to them.
If your spiritual tradition doesn't teach you to deal with the painful feelings that you experience when other people “offend” you, your beliefs or your chosen teacher without resorting to violence that will further traumatise yourself and others, then maybe it's time to look for a path that does.
As the global population grows, our ability to get on with other people who have different ideologies to us is going to become more and more important. Anger is a sign that we are under threat, but the neural circuitry that generates this emotion is a carry-over from a long distant past when we faced threats that no longer exist for most of us in modern society.
In modern day life, anger is more helpful as a signpost towards inner insecurities that we haven't faced yet. When we feel offended or angry, we can choose to use this as a wake-up call to stand up for ourselves non-violently while we look within and see what insecurities we are still carrying that need healing.
Cartoons cannot hurt or offend you, no matter what they depict, unless you let them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names can never hurt us. Nobody can make you feel bad about yourself without you giving them permission. So why do so many of us give our power away like this, and in extreme cases think we need to resort to a semi-automatic weapons and bloodshed in order to get it back again?
Unfortunately many of us are still carrying deep seated wounds from powerless situations in childhood accompanied by infantile feelings of powerlessness and rage. These infantile feelings get re-triggered when other people threaten us or our belief system as adults. Until we learn to heal these wounds by expressing the anger, sadness and fear they involve constructively and in ways that don't traumatise ourselves or other people, we'll always be at the mercy of people doing things that we don't like.
Even the very notion that other people can do things that “offend” us is reminiscent of an infantile self-centric view of the world that most religions and spiritual or personal development paths encourage us to grow out of.
Of course there are two sides to everything: A smart approach to getting on with other people would recognise that most people have not self-actualised, are still carrying around a lot of pain, and lack the tools necessary to deal with that pain constructively. Most people are still easily offended. Publishing cartoons intended to offend men with guns who lack a sense of humour probably isn't a good way of getting on with other people.
When I first decided that the religion of my upbringing was based more on myth than reality, I wanted to get in the face of every believer I could and set them straight. I took every opportunity to antagonise and brow-beat them into believing what I now believed, so I could be vindicated. Of course, that approach never works. Different spiritual paths appeal to different people and everyone is at a different yet constantly evolving level of spiritual maturity. As a result, there will never be one world religion. Attempting to spread your personal ideology to the unwashed masses, either through cartoons, evangelism, guns, hostages or wars is just another way of avoiding your own inner pain by externalising your suffering onto other people.
This will never lead to a lasting sense of inner peace.
Ultimately the best way I've found of dealing with people who offend me is to turn within and use it as an opportunity to heal some more of my own inner pain. I ask myself “How do I feel when they say or do that?”, and give myself some compassion for my own inner turmoil.
When I'm able to do this, I can empathise with people who are either unaware of the damage they do to others, or are in so much pain that they seek an outlet by deliberately provoking me in order to get my attention. This leaves me less likely to fly into my own infantile rage and want to kill them.
I can't claim to always pull this feat off perfectly; some people still trigger me deeply. Don't get me started about my critical mother, for instance. But for the most part this allows me to experience other people acting in ways I don't like without having to either feel bullied internally, or go into a murderous rage externally.
The more I practise self-compassion when I'm upset in response to other people's actions, the less I feel offended by them in the first place.