Over the course of my working with individuals, groups, organizations and communities on transformational change, some things happen often enough that they demand attention.
It has been almost a month since the tragic shootings in Tucson sent our nation into spasms of grief and debate. It is difficult but worth the effort to try to put those events into perspective.
One perspective can be drawn from our understanding of grief. The five stages that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, describe a process by which people deal with loss and tragedy. Everyone who has been touched, no matter how remotely, by those Tucson events will find themselves experiencing all or some of the five reactions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Everyone experiences these reactions in their own way because of the meaning of the loss each individual brings to it, and how close the loss feels to us.
Denial: Although denial of the events was pretty difficult to maintain very long, there was still plenty to deny: the importance of the events, their personal impact on our security and the images we hold of how the world works, our roles in being both perpetrators and victims, and what is or is not part of the chain of causality leading to the shootings.
Anger: The jump to anger was short and swift for many. And with anger came blame. And the anger and blame was added to the ever growing piles of anger and blame we are accumulating in the American community. There was anger at the disturbed individual who is the shooter, anger at those who would suggest cause beyond the disturbed individual. There was anger at those who make access to mental health services difficult, anger at those who would provide more easily accessible mental health services. There was anger at the availability of firearms, ammunition and high-capacity magazines, there was anger at those who want to make those things harder to get. There was anger at the violent rhetoric in our national discourse, and there was anger at those who attached any causality to violent rhetoric.
Bargaining: This is the "If only...." If only something had been different, this tragedy would not have happened: if only the Congresswoman had not held the meeting that day, if only the troubled young man had found the help he needed through his community college, if only someone else had a gun at the event and could have shot the shooter first, if only guns and ammunition were not so available, if only there was not so much violent rhetoric in our political climate, etc. If only, if only, if only.
Depression: This is the deep sadness that many have felt about whatever aspect of this tragedy their personal meaning creates for them. It is important to remember that feeling this pain is the path to healing. Grief is the pain that heals. The people who experienced the greatest loss will face the greatest pain and now that the national spotlight is off of this event, the people in Tucson have the opportunity to grieve with dignity in privacy.
Acceptance: Life goes on and we integrate this tragedy into our personal and national psyche. It happened, we anguished over it and then we moved on, except for those most directly involved. They continue to experience some or all of these reactions in waves and cycles. For the rest of us, the Tucson tragedy is old news. Some of us slip back into denial about the importance of the events and the opportunity that may have been lost to heal the American community. Others stay in or go back to anger or bargaining.
All these reactions are normal and predictable. The only surprise is that there is so much surprise when they happen.
It used to be said that for evil to triumph in the world, all that was needed was for good people to do nothing. Today it seems that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to tell themselves that nothing is the best we can do.
Another perspective and an important key for understanding what we can do is in two words that President Obama used in his speech in Tucson: moral imagination. The President's Tucson speech was not his first use of that term - he used in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The term is often used to refer to the work and life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and applies as well to Nelson Mandela, the Dali Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others.
John Paul Lederach gives life and depth to this idea in his book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford University Press, 2005). Lederach describes the "moral imagination" as the capacity to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not yet exist. The moral imagination is the capacity to imagine and generate constructive practices that are rooted in the day-to-day challenges of conflict and yet transcend these destructive patterns. In Lederach's view, the moments of possibility that pave the way for constructive change do not arise through the routine application of a set of techniques or strategies, but rather emerge out of something similar to an artistic process. Lederach maintains that the art and soul of social change should inform peace building efforts.
The goal of transcending violence is advanced by the capacity to generate, mobilize, and build the moral imagination. This faculty rests on four capacities:
- Moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships, one that includes even our enemies.
- It requires the ability to embrace complexity without getting caught up in social schism.
- It requires a commitment to the creative act.
- It requires an acceptance of the risk that necessarily goes along with attempts to transcend violence.
To foster moral imagination, we must understand the dynamics of protracted conflict, the destructive legacy it leaves, and why breaking violent patterns is so difficult. In addition, we must explore how the creative process can help to bring about social change and transform human relationships.
According to Lederach, the heart of moral imagination is found in four disciplines, each of which requires imagination. These disciplines are relationships, paradoxical curiosity, creativity, and risk.
The Centrality of Relationships: Relationships are the context in which conflict happens and also generate the energy that allows people to transcend violence. As people acknowledge their relational interdependency and recognize themselves as part of the pattern, they may be able to envision a wider set of relationships and take personal responsibility for their own choices and behavior. In short, peace building requires that people be able to envision their interconnectedness and mutuality.
This first discipline seems particularly difficult in the American community now. We seem to be at war over how related and connected we are to one another.
|Events viewed as separate|
At one end of the continuum are the essentialist views: regarding something (as a presumed human trait) as having innate existence or universal validity rather than as being a social, ideological, or intellectual construct. The troubled shooter acted the way he did because of what and who he was - nothing else is connected or matters. Mental health services, guns and ammunition, violent rhetoric, the frayed fabric of the American community are side issues and do not belong in the discussion.
|Events viewed as part of a system|
At the other end of the continuum are the ecological views: regarding an often delicate or intricate system of complex relations that exists between organisms and their environment. The troubled shooter is parted of a web of influence that contribute to who he is and what he does - it is all connected and matters. Mental health services, guns and ammunition, violent rhetoric, the frayed fabric of the American community are all connected to the events of Tucson, although the connection is complex and not one of direct, straight-line causation.
The Practice of Paradoxical Curiosity: Cycles of conflict are often driven by polarities. Choices about how to respond to conflict are forced into either/or categories: you are either with us or against us. Moral imagination involves the capacity to rise above these divisions and reach beyond accepted meanings. Paradoxical curiosity is a matter of respecting complexity, seeking something beyond what is visible, and discovering what it is that holds apparently opposed social energies together. It involves accepting people at face value, and yet looking beyond appearances and suspending judgment in order to discover untold new angles, opportunities, and unexpected potentialities.
The American community is deeply divided over what constitutes justice.
On one side of the schism is the belief that a society is morally superior where the affluent are taxed to pay for a social safety net and it is only right for the well off to help the less fortunate. On this side, people believe that wealthy nations have an obligation to proved all their citizens with essential health care.
On the other, people believe that they have a right to keep what they earn and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, is theft and assault on their liberty. This side sees health reform as an attack on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.
Each side passionately believes that other side is wrong. They also may believe that the other side's beliefs are evil and - by extension - the people who hold those beliefs are evil.
Without mobilizing our moral imagination there seems to be no way out of this duality.
Provide Space for the Creative Act: Moral imagination arises through creative human action that develops out of the ordinary and yet moves beyond what exists to something new and unexpected. Because new ways of thinking may pose a threat to the status quo, it is important to have space for the creative act to emerge. This requires a commitment to creativity and a belief that it is possible to move beyond the limits of what is generally accepted. This quality of providing for and expecting the unexpected is well-known in the world of artists and needs to be cultivated in the world of our national conversation. Creativity opens us to avenues of inquiry and provides us with new ways to think about social change.
The Willingness to Risk: To take a risk is to step into the unknown without any guarantee of success or safety. For many people caught in conflict, violence is known, and peace is a mystery. Because healing the American community will require people to move toward a new, mysterious, and unexpected future, it is a difficult journey.
What is called for now is for each of us to kindle a spark of moral imagination and to fan it into a flame. The value of moral imagination lies in the ability to get to the heart and soul of the matter and thereby move from cycles of violence to new relationships.
If we are to survive as a local, national and global communities, we must find ways to foster the moral imagination and recognize that our current modes of response are incapable of overcoming conflict and violence.
- We must move away from isolation and an emphasis on domination and toward an emphasis on interdependent relationships.
- We must recognize the complexity of relationships and not fall prey to an "us vs. them" mentality.
- We must trust that creativity and the capacity for constructive change are always in reach and not look to violence as our sole mode of defense and security.
- We must accept vulnerability and seek constructive engagement with those people and things we least understand and most fear.
Lederach ends with this instruction:
"Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time."
An excellent summary of J.P. Lederach's Moral Imagination can be found here