Choosing Our Battles
A couple of years ago, a few months after my father’s death, I attended a retreat with Byron Katie, whose work had been recommended to me by a psychologist friend as being particularly effective when dealing with both anxiety and grief. The retreat took place in a large hotel near the Miami airport, and we began each day with a walking meditation around the lushly landscaped grounds, silently naming whatever our eyes landed upon as simply as possible: leaf, tree, curb, flower, cloud. The idea was to remain grounded entirely in the present moment, something that is harder to do than it sounds.
During the third or fourth morning’s walk, an argument inside my head consumed me. Earlier in the week, Katie had suggested something that was, to me, a radical notion: defense is the first act of war. At first I recoiled. I come from a warrior clan, raised to believe that we have not only the right to defend ourselves but also the duty. Defense is the first act of war? This was just the sort of thing that made my father ridicule anything that came under the rubric of the human-potential movement, and I could imagine him stomping out in disgust, finding Katie not only naïve but dangerous.
But as the week progressed, I began to understand her words on a different level. “Defense is the first act of war” is not a prescription but rather a statement of fact. It doesn’t tell us not to fight; it simply points out that it takes two to do so. It asks the question: is this a situation in which you want to be at war? I began to think about how estranged my father and I had become in the last many years of his life and to imagine how the dynamics might have changed if either one of us had let down our defenses, even for a moment.
So in this argument that was raging in my head, I was defending Byron Katie’s ideas to my father—trying, really, to justify the fact that I was listening to her at all—when suddenly I came back to the present moment and realized that an immense jet had just taken off from the airport nearby and was roaring overhead. The sound was so intense that my whole body vibrated, and when I looked up, the plane seemed close enough to touch. Yet I had been unaware of it until that second, so wrapped up in the argument with a dead person that a jumbo jet had been able to tiptoe up behind me, tap me on the shoulder, and say, “boo.”
Defense is the first act of war. I gained a great many insights during that weeklong retreat, but this is the one that continues to resonate. At first, I understood it primarily in terms of personal relationships. I began to see that a level of defensiveness played a role almost every time my husband and I had words. If one of us refrained from retort, the argument dissipated as effortlessly as it had arisen. As the idea has matured, however, I grow increasingly aware of how it plays out on a larger stage.
Recently, in an episode of On Being, the public radio show about faith, I heard a Wisconsin police captain, Cheri Maples, describe her experience during a domestic violence call. Something had gone wrong during a custody exchange, and she arrived to find a man holding his daughter hostage while his estranged wife quivered with fear. “Ordinarily,” Maples told host Krista Tippett, “I would have said, ‘That’s it,’ slapped the handcuffs on him, taken him to jail.” But that night, the officer responded differently. She talked him into releasing the girl, and after she ushered the child and mother to safety, she returned. She gently asked the man to tell her what had gone wrong, and then she listened with her heart. He started to cry. “I mean, I’ve got this big gun belt on. I’m about five foot three, right? And this guy’s like six foot six. And he’s bawling….And that’s when I started realizing that what we deal with is misplaced anger, because people are in incredible pain.” Three days later, he ran into her when she was off duty, and he picked her up in a bear hug. “You saved my life that night,” he told her. “Thank you.”
Maples had just returned from a mindfulness retreat with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. Central to his teaching are the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the first of which is the vow not to kill. When Maples first encountered the idea, she resisted it. “I’m a cop. I might be in a position where I have to kill somebody.” A senior monk recognized her struggle and talked with her at length. “Who else would we want to carry a gun except someone who will do it mindfully?” the monk asked. “Of course, you can take these trainings.”
In Buddhist teaching, a bodhisattva is an enlightened person who chooses to stay on earth to serve others. The monk explained that there was such a thing as a fierce bodhisattva. Later, after Maples expressed her concern to Thich Nhat Hahn, he spoke for two hours “on the different faces of love and how it’s possible to be a bodhisattva and carry a gun.”
Halfway across the world, Army Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes relied on keen instincts and an ingrained sense of respect rather than mindfulness training when, during the early weeks of the Iraq war, he led a small troop of American solders through the streets of Najaf. Under orders to make contact with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, something the U.S. Army felt was politically crucial, the soldiers neared a mosque when a huge mob of enraged Iraqis surged into the street from all sides. In “Battle Lessons,” an article in The New Yorker, Dan Baum described the event. He was not on the scene that day. Rather, he watched it unfold life in CNN:
The Iraqis were shrieking, frantic with rage…This is it, I thought. A shot will come from somewhere, the Americans will open fire, and the world will witness the My Lai Massacre of the Iraq war. At that moment, an American officer stepped through the crowd holding his rifle high over his head with the barrel pointed to the ground. Against the backdrop of the seething crowd, it was a striking gesture —almost Biblical. “Take a knee,” the officer said, impassive behind surfer sunglasses. The solders looked at him as if he were crazy. Then, one after another, swaying in their bulky body armor and gear, they knelt before the boiling crowd and pointed their guns at the ground. The Iraqis fell silent, and their anger subsided. The officer ordered his men to withdraw.
Baum interviewed Hughes two months later. He asked the officer how he had learned to tame a crowd. Was the gesture of pointing his rifle at the ground particular to Iraq? To Islam? “My questions barely made sense to Hughes,” Baum wrote. Hughes explained that he had been trained to use a helicopter’s rotor wash to disperse a crowd, or to use warning shots, but too often “the next thing you have to do is shoot them in the chest.” Making contact with the Ayatollah was both vital and delicate. Hughes immediately understood that the crowd was enraged by what they saw as American disregard of their mosque. The obvious response, in Hughes’s assessment, was a gesture of respect.
We can’t know what might have happened if Hughes had ordered gunfire. Instead, the event has become a textbook example of the army’s attempts to encourage new and more flexible ways of thinking among its officers.
Neither Maples nor Hughes laid down their guns, but they became more effective protectors as they grew more mindful of their use. Some callings reject violence altogether. The French film Of Gods and Men tells the story of seven Trappist monks who were kidnapped from their monastery in the mountains of Algeria and killed by Islamic extremists in 1996. The monks were greatly loved within the Islamic community they had served for many years, but in the mid-1990s, a radical Islamism erupted that terrorized not only foreigners but also Muslims who did not agree with its particular interpretation of the Koran.
After extremists slaughtered a group of Croatian workers, the Algerian army offered the monastery protection, and the French government ordered the monks to leave for their own safety. They refused both armed guard and refuge, though they knew their lives were at stake. As the film explores the reasons that each monk chooses to stay, it presents and extraordinary portrait of courage and faith.
At first, several monastics want to leave. “I became a monk to serve, not to have my throat slit,” says Fr. Christophe. Later, as he walks with the prior, Dom Christian, he says, “Dying for my faith shouldn’t keep me up nights. Dying here and now: does it serve a purpose?”
“Staying here is as mad as being a monk,” the prior agrees. “Remember, you already gave your life when you agreed to follow Christ.”
“I pray,” Christophe says. “I hear nothing. I don’t get it. Why be martyrs? To prove we’re the best?”
“No,” Dom Christian says, “out of love and fidelity. Our mission here is to be brothers to all.”
As conditions worsen, the community threatened not only by the extremists but also by the corrupt Algerian army, the monks unite around their commitment to stay. They cannot abandon their community, nor can they abandon their vows of nonviolence. In what was to be one of their last dinners at the monastery, Dom Christian remembers Christmas Eve when the extremists broke through the door and demanded that the doctor, Brother Luc, come away with them to treat their injured fighters. The monks refused: Brother Luc would treat anyone who came to the clinic, but he would not abandon the villagers who depended on his care. The extremists left empty-handed, but the monks knew they would be back.
“All we had left to do was live,” Dom Christian recalls. “The first thing we did was celebrate the mass of the Virgin and Child. It was what we had to do. It was what we did. Afterward we found salvation in our daily tasks. We had to resist the violence.”
Of Gods and Men captures a distinction between doctrine—codified belief—and a deeper faith in what, at the most profound level, one stands for. The former nun Jan Phillips recently articulated this difference in a post for the On Being blog. She speaks in Catholic terms, but the quality of the realization she refers to is equally appropriate to Maples’s awakening through Buddhist teaching and Hughes’s insight as a military leader.
Phillips had been a young postulant in her first theology class when a Jesuit priest asked the students what they believed about God. One by one, the young women quoted lines from the catechism:
“God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.”
“In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”
With each contribution, the priest grew more impatient until finally he burst out, “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught?”
His words devastated Phillips. “He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces.” But what he said next planted to the seed that allowed Phillips to take responsibility of the maturation of her calling.
“If you are to be a nun worth your salt,” the priest continued, “you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.
“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for—that is faith.”
The patrol leader, the police captain, the monks: all had moved beyond rote belief into an understanding, on the deepest level, of what they lived for. As Lieutenant Colonel Hughes searched for the gesture of respect that would diffuse the crowd, as police captain Maples tried to not only prevent an act of domestic violence but relieve the anger that had provided it, as the Trappists lived and died for their commitment to the community they served, they all acted from an understanding of what mattered to them most. The soldier and the policeman served their missions with weapons at their call; the monks chose not to. In the spaciousness of mindfulness, they all had more options than were apparent at first glance.
Each of us carries a gun. For most of us, it is not made of metal but rather of emotion, forged from the many ways we have to shoot down the spirit of those we love as we defend against our own fear, frustration and vulnerability. We choose whether or not to go to war a dozen times a day. Sometimes we must choose to enter battle. But knowing we have a choice can change the world.
Teresa Jordan is an author and artist living in Virgin, Utah. This essay comes from The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off): A meditation on the search for meaning in an ordinary life (2014: Counterpoint). The book grew out of her blog, inspired by Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues and the seven deadly sins.