All along I have been asking myself the wrong question.
In Syria the body count continues to rise amid a brutal civil war that may drag on for years.
In Central Africa children are trained to kill by competing militias attempting to beef up their numbers.
In Milwaukee innocents are being gunned down on playgrounds, caught in the crossfire between dueling thugs.
First, I ask: What can I do about all the violence in the world that shakes my soul, that lifts my arms from my sides only to form a depressingly empty gesture?
But then I realize I am asking the wrong question. Because I cannot do anything about all the violence in the world, even the violence a zip code away from me in Milwaukee. To think I can only sidelines me, consumes my time with circular conversations about the way the world is vs. the way it should be. My theorizing adds nothing to the perilous state of the human race. Only actions matter.
So the right question is: What can I do to reduce the violence in my world, in the environment marked by my presence every day?
We commonly equate violence with shootings and bombings, but the arc of violence begins much more subtly, with words and actions that diminish the worth of others. Psychological and emotional violence may not threaten lives, but they threaten the quality of life experienced by those I come in contact with. And so by shining a light on my often mechanical day-to-day behavior, I can observe whether I am adding or detracting from the good of the whole. I can reduce the level of violence in my world - not theoretically, but actually.
I begin by observing my behavior at home. Do I treat those living under my roof with respect? Do I take their presence in my life for granted? Do I listen to them with both ears, affirming their importance to me, sending them out into the world feeling whole and loved and motivated to share this wealth with others?
Do I view those who don’t hold my political or religious views to be unenlightened, wrong, or evil? Do I allow these self-righteous judgments to deem others, perhaps millions of others, undeserving of my time and unworthy of my compassion?
At work, do I holster my personal agendas at the door? Do I connive with superiors to get my way? Do I scar others with vicious gossip?
When using social media, am I mindful of the power of words? Do I type before I think? Do I let my zeal for a particular issue exempt me from respectful behavior?
Do I endanger the lives of others by texting while driving? Do I drive recklessly when late for an appointment?
Do I harbor stereotypes about poor people, rich people, obese people, depressed people, or other groups that adversely affect the way I treat them?
No, I can’t do anything about the violence that dominates the news every day, but by rethinking the scope of violence and observing my behavior within its broader context, there is much I can do to effect positive change in my corner of the world.
Whereas in the past I ceded responsibility for ending the world’s violence to political, religious and social organizations, thinking that one person’s actions couldn’t possibly matter, I know now that individual actions matter more than anything – more than laws, more than symbolic gestures, more than public demonstrations. It is not through social convention, but rather through the heavy lifting of personal responsibility that the peace in my heart will be reflected in the eyes of the world.