Whenever I hear about horrific events like the bombing that took place this week in Boston, I always think, “Someone’s been listening to the wrong stories.”
We’ve all wondered what kind of thinking would lead to such a dire choice. Peter Coleman, psychologist and author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, offers some insights. He says “In almost all difficult conflicts, people’s way of thinking and feeling can freeze into something like this: ‘We’re all good and they’re evil.’ This creates a huge wall between people that acts to fortify their hate.”
Those who are frozen, operate in a feedback loop where they only listen to stories that feed their good/evil viewpoint. These stories can escalate feelings until people feel justified in committing atrocities in the name of fighting evil. Whether a terrorist group or a disgruntled individual the process is the same.
Mirrors or Windows
We all participate in this feedback loop on some level. Think about your views on a political issue or candidate or a person with whom you’ve had a long-standing grudge. What kind of stories do you tell yourself or listen to? When you look at them are you looking at a mirror or a window? Even if your worst atrocity is to slaughter civility, I think the cost is worth looking at.
The Stolen Ax
An old Taoist parable tells of a woodcutter who cannot find his ax. He was beside himself when he noticed the neighbor’s son standing near the woodshed. He thought,
“Look how shifty he looks. I’m always a good judge of character and I can plainly see he’s guilty.”
Although he could not prove it, the woodcutter vowed revenge on the boy. The next day, the woodcutter found his ax lying by a pile of wood, right where he had left it. The next time he saw the boy, he thought,
“That’s funny, somehow the boy has lost his guilty look.”
Cracks in the Wall
Fortunately, this week has also shown us that light always follows dark. When negative stories create chaos, a vacuum forms that fills with positive stories. It only took moments to hear of people stepping in to rescue and sacrifice; culminating in a whole city opening its doors to anyone in need. These are the stories I believe in.
Dr. Coleman says that cracks can begin in even the most intractable wall of hate and fear. They are caused by people who are willing to sneak over the wall and share new stories - stories from diverse voices - stories that remind us of our shared humanity. I believe this is one of the bravest things a person can do.