I grew up fighting my Dad most of my life, since I was about 6. I grew up a fighter. Hardcore. Never backing down. Trying to protect both myself and my mother from my father’s broken rage. Disarmament didn’t feel like an option. Being an otherwise soft-spoken person throughout my life, I fought mainly with the men who were closest to me. And just as it was with my Dad – it always felt like a fight for my life. I used to tell my intimate partners: “Don’t fight me because you’ll never win. Don’t fight me because I’ll never stop fighting you.” It was true. And until recently, I still believed I’d always be a fighter. I also believed there’d always be someone to fight. Then I saw that until I changed on the inside, I’d always be fighting on the outside. This was a hard, hard truth to face.
My heart has been both a punching bag and a boxing glove. Inside me, there is both the oppressor and the oppressed. I don’t mean this in an abstract, metaphorical way, but in a very real, and even physical way. The entire left side of my body, (what I think of as my feminine side) is clenched in protection. I’m aware of this clenching, just as I’m aware that half the world, (if not more) lives a clenched life. The right side is tight too. Underneath most hearts there is fear… a fear of being oppressed, from the memory of once having been so. To “disarm” oneself is not a simple thing. Unwinding this pain, this grief – can take a long time, and I don’t think we can force trust or surrender, on any side.
Beginning a few years ago, I started hearing an angry male voice inside my head. It sounded like the voice of my father combined with the voice of some belligerent guy from a Hollywood movie – he was always angry and abusive – telling me how stupid I was, or how stupid other people were. I’ve come to think of him as the quintessential voice of Patriarchy, inside me. Even though its been profoundly disturbing, its helped me see just how much I’d internalized this voice since my childhood. When I was in India last year, he came up a lot and through me – as irritation with people in general, as angst about the way things were. And at a deeper level, I realized that this voice was really heartbroken and felt powerless about all the chaos around him, and the only expression it knew was aggression. Over the course of those many grueling months, I came to know my inner oppressor through an intimacy that no longer allowed me to judge the despicable in another person the same way I had. What’s “out there” is also “in here”, inside me. Hatred, jealousy, revenge, aversion, all of that – what we label as shadow. Coming back to America – a land with Trump as its mascot – felt fitting. In India, we had our own equivalent in Modi. It’s a shadow we can’t seem to escape – the archetypal “bad guy”, the big villain… who’s up to no good just because.
This same voice had been in me all along, all through my life – telling me I was stupid, and I had been believing it. Its only been recently that I’ve been able to stand up to it and say: “No. that’s not true. I’m not stupid!” But we can’t fight our inner oppressor. Its not that we get beat up by him either. Its that we choose a third way. I know that voice of the Patriarchy inside me is so hostile and aggressive because he’s never felt at home anywhere. Just like my Dad. I say to him now, this angry voice as he curses at me: “I see you.”
We so often think of “the fight” as something heroic. We laud that all heroes have to fight their inner demons. “Fight the good fight” they say. I really don’t know that there is a good fight. In American history, there’s the myth of the “good war”. World War II for example they say, was a good war, a just war. I don’t believe there’s ever been a good or just war. Martin Prechtel writes about how humanity is in so much confusion because we’ve had so many wars for so long, and we’ve never grieved them. The grief and anger just build generation upon generation. America is a nation of warriors endlessly avenging our ancestors’ grief. I think, if we have to fight, its already a bad situation. There are times when we do have to push back, and I stand in solidarity with all those noble guerilla warriors in our world who have to defend their families against aggressors – like the pink-saried Gulabi Gang in Bihar for example – women who took up sticks against their own drunken husbands after being beaten by them for years. There is a place for the most radical kind direct action, so that all the rest of us can protest without weapons. Sometimes rebellion means you have to fight. But I also believe that whenever we can stand in presence without fighting back, its preferable. Gandhi called this “ahimsa” – non-harming, non-violence.
The rage that runs through my father’s line and into me, carries with it the untold stories of centuries of grief and war. Long before the British, and before even Christianity, my homeland had been divided and claimed by a medieval war-culture – a history that my people have both romanticized and hidden. Ultimately, war is still war. Some years back, I encountered my own old-school inner warrior. He’s an ancient Kalari warrior from Kerala, heavy with his metal, thick set and broody. He’s been in my life – also since I was a child – to protect me from harm, and perhaps he’s been with me much longer than that. But the warrior in me is tired. He wants to put his weapons down and just walk into a field somewhere and lie down on the grass. Just like him, I’ve been “up in arms” much of my life, always on the alert. And I don’t want to be a fighter anymore.
Its become unarguably clear to me within these last months, that the fight outside and the fight inside are linked, and that there can be no peace outside if I’m still at war with myself inside. But the healing of all this – this fighting, this aggression, this constant defense and offense – is up to me, within me. Only I can liberate this for myself. I’m no longer willing to fight. “Please don’t fight me, because I won’t entertain a fight anymore.” I ain’t gonna study war no more… Because I’m exhausted. And because the world needs ahimsa, non-harming. The world needs peace. And peace begins inside of me. I’m putting my weapons down – in a world that’s full of pre-emptive war, guns, violence on all sides. I’m disarming in a world where its not safe to.
So often, one side wants peace, but the other side may not be ready for peace. Or perhaps both sides “want peace” but the way forward isn’t clear. Because after all, how do you trust that peace is possible? Can you ever trust it, or is it just that you become brave? Einstein, who was a proponent of full disarmament after he saw what harm his insights had enabled (the making of the world’s first atom bomb) said that the only way to have peace between nations is if one is willing to believe – willing to trust – fully that the other also wants peace. If on the other hand, one is holding onto any doubt that the other doesn’t want peace, then it becomes impossible to have true peace! Being willing to trust is a very brave thing.
This is acutely played out in my most intimate relationships where I have to ask myself: How can I have peace if there is fear of being hurt, violated, betrayed again…on both sides? How do I encourage trust in myself and let go of fear? Surrendering some amount of fear seems foundational for being able to disarm oneself. And by the same token, wanting peace must be reflected in action, not just in sentiment. If you’re telling me: “I want peace not war,” but you’re stepping on my toe the whole time, then its not in fact true that you want peace. If we want peace, then we also need to step back behaviors that cause harm and be willing to admit them and make reparations for them. To repair what’s been broken requires we admit that its been broken in the first place – not by accident – but through our own actions and ignorance. Sometimes in walking toward shared peace, we face insurmountable-seeming blocks and hazards. Even when you’ve put your gun down, there’s the trauma over it having held it up in the first place – all of that requires healing, reparation, forgiveness. Yet peace isn’t just something that’s on the other side like a reward; its the quality that colors the entire journey. We choose peace at the start, not at the end if it works in our favor. We choose peace now, no matter the outcome.
There’s been much debate lately over restricting gun access, but I don’t ever think that the conversation goes far enough. Yes, by all means – let’s not guns have in schools, and let’s do the practical legislation – but let’s please not stop there. Let’s call for a moratorium not only on guns, but on all weapons, and on war itself. Its not the weapons ultimately that are to blame so much as the culture of endemic violence that we all live within, a culture of Patriarchy and domination – one that will ensure there will always be weapons to avenge its fear. I don’t care if you say I’m not being “realistic”, because an armed world is also not realistic for our survival as a human species. This means we have to question the fundamental narrative of armament, of war, of fighting. Why is owning a gun equated with freedom? Why does a citizenry need weapons to protect itself from the State, and why does a State get to have weapons to control its citizenry? Why is a stockpile of nuclear arsenal a prerequisite to safety or to “peace”? Can peace ever come through war? I can only call for total disarmament, just like the original makers of the atom bomb came to do. I believe that only the total disarmament of all peoples, of all countries, will bring peace. But peace starts with us. It starts with the biggest arms dealer in the world: America. It starts with you. And with me. Inside. It starts with how we treat each other. With how we treat our selves.
This means I can’t “fight” the oppressor outside anymore either – whether that’s Patriarchy or gun culture, or the neo-liberal machine – just like I can’t fight the men I've loved hoping to convince him of my truth. We can’t force anyone to give up their guns anymore than we can force a peace. So I’m choosing that third way. This third way I call “Ruthless Compassion”, and its got its own tools – a barrage of eloquence, the poetry of grief, the unrelenting fierceness of mothers who’ve lost their children, flowers – to name a few. Its to be both audible and disarmed in a culture – in a nation, in a world – that’s armed to the hilt. Its to stand up to the face of all those Americans who want their guns in order to uphold their second amendment rights, and to the entire military industrial complex of billions of annual dollars of armament, to stand up to this and every other government who arms not only its military but also all the counter-militaries, by saying simply in a way that entertains no argument: “I see you. We’ve had Enough. The Earth and its people demand Peace.” Ruthless Compassion means we stand for justice without our weapons –for all those who’ve died fighting in the endless wars, for all the men, women and children who’ve been killed, maimed or displaced through them or through violence, for all the infinitude of broken hearts, and for all the scarred places of our Earth pockmarked with the shrapnel of our heroic indulgence.
People still think of the hippies of the 60’s as being naïve, but they were really onto the truth back then. When that young man stood there placing a flower in the loaded rifle of that soldier – I wonder if he felt brave or if he felt trusting? Either way, he knew what he was risking, and what he was saying:
“I offer you this flower – dear soldier, my old arch enemy– in hopes you will take it and put down your weapon. I offer you this flower – my inner warrior – that you might quiet your endless yelling and fighting. I offer you this flower – all the tanks and nuclear arsenals in America, in Vietnam, Russia, India, Israel, around the world – because the world so deeply needs peace, not more war.”