Friday, September 12, 2014

A Vicious Circle

"Summer's End"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

I've been thinking about this summer season now coming to an end - we may not be engaged in a "World War," but this summer it sure seemed like the whole world was "at war."  Israel and Palestine, the Ukraine, and now the escalating threat of ISIS terrorists, beheading and bombings and renewed pledges to "ratchet up" military force in that region so that war will be inevitable for years to come. 

Thinking about the suffering and chaos in so many places throughout this tiny planet  earth, I am reminded of an old Pete Seeger folk song about the ultimate futility of violence and war: "When will they ever learn, O when will they ever learn?"  

When it comes to conflict, retribution and revenge inevitably lead to a vicious circle of violence. An attack followed by an attack inevitably leads to an escalated counterattack - spinning out of control, sliding down a slippery slope that ultimately winds up in a dead end.

The Buddha taught:

Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating,
but by love; this is an eternal truth.
Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good.

Jesus taught the same wisdom.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. 

The problem is that when we are so immersed in the chaos of a world at war, this teaching may sound too "lofty," too utopian, too impractical as a way of dealing with violence and terror. Spinning around on the vicious circle of retribution, people often believe there is no other  alternate except to "ratchet it up," to spin round and round faster and faster - a very impractical solution.

As I see it, the wisdom of the Buddha and the wisdom of Jesus is in fact a very practical "way" to make the circle stop spinning around  - it is, in fact, the only way to make it stop.  When hatred is met with hatred, destruction "always" results,  when hatred is met with compassion and love, healing happens. This is indeed an "eternal truth."

"When will they ever learn, O when will they ever learn?"  

As I think about my own experiences, there has never been one time in my life when conflict was ever resolved by revenge and retribution - never.  Any time I have ever returned an attack with an attack, the result has always been that the conflict gets "ratcheted up," and the circle spins faster and faster. I have come to believe that you can never actually "win" any type of war -  in a war everybody loses.

I am reminded of a lighthearted and also profoundly wise story that comes out of the wisdom tradition of the ancient Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers:

Two monks lived together for many years without a quarrel.  One said to the other, "Lets have a quarrel with each other, as other people do."  The other monk said, "I don't know how a quarrel happens." The first said, "Look here, I put a brick between us and say, 'this brick is mine.'  Then you say, 'No that brick is mine.' This is how a quarrel begins." 

So they put a brick between them. One of them said, "This brick is mine." The other responded, "No, it's mine."  The first monk then replied, "Yes, it's yours, you can have it."  From then on, they were unable to quarrel with each other again. 

Like the monks in this little tale, my hope and prayer at this "war-torn" summer's end is that we might all be able to break out of the vicious circle and learn how not to quarrel with one another again. 



  1. That's right. It makes so much sense but not many want to put it into practice.

    1. The funny things that many people think this wisdom is impractical as if the idea of meeting violence with violence ever actually solved anything.

    2. Violence only prolongs finding a solution. I honestly have no expectation of ever living in a time of peace.