During this pandemic, everyone is properly worried about making sure that people’s physical needs are met. But our research in Peace Literacy shows that people have many non-physical needs that are as important, if not more important, than their physical needs, especially during times of crisis. We’ve put together this series to discuss what these non-physical needs are, how people can meet them (and help others meet them) in healthy ways, how people during a crisis can become more vulnerable to tangles of trauma such as mistrust, rage, alienation, and helplessness, and how we can deal with trauma constructively rather than destructively. Each entry in this series will focus on one of humanity’s non-physical needs, along with practical ideas to help us create stronger relationships and communities as we navigate through this struggle together.
When I was a sophomore at West Point in January 2000, I contemplated a life-changing question that was first introduced to me during an ethics class. What causes most of the harm that humans inflict on each other? After leaving the army in 2009, I have often asked this question during my Peace Literacy lectures and workshops. People in the audience usually respond with answers that sound obviously harmful. “Greed,” is a common response. Other common responses include “selfishness,” “hatred,” and “ignorance.”
But at West Point I heard a life-changing answer to this question that better reflected the reality of the human condition. Most of the harm that humans inflict on each other is caused by something that can seem harmless at first glance. Most of the harm that humans inflict on each other is caused by humanity’s tendency to take the easy path.
Our tendency to take the easy path often takes the form of choosing the easier wrong over the harder right. At West Point I learned that this causes most of the harm that humans inflict on each other. When I contemplated this idea, I was astounded by how much harm is caused by taking the easy path. For example, it can be easier to avoid confrontation and tolerate injustice than to improve our society. It can be easier to not take responsibility for our actions and scapegoat others than to hold ourselves accountable. It can be easier to lie and cheat than to live with integrity. It can be easier to be complacent than to work hard. It can be easier to remain stuck in old ways of doing things than to grow and adapt in ways that improve our well-being, along with the well-being of those around us. It can be easier to stay imprisoned in an attitude of greed and selfishness than to develop the muscles of our humanity – muscles that give us not just the strength to break free from the psychological prison of greed and selfishness, but also give us the psychological mobility needed to connect deeply with others. It can be easier to remain ignorant than to cultivate knowledge and wisdom. It can be easier to have an apathetic attitude toward the suffering of others than to have empathy for them and join in solidarity with them.
Taking the easy path tends to be easy in the short term, like rolling downhill, but at the end of this downhill journey there can be a cliff that causes us to fall further into suffering, and even into catastrophe. Recognizing that taking the easy path – in the form of being apathetic, indifferent, and silent in the face of injustice – can cause more harm than overt acts of hatred, Martin Luther King Jr. said the following about the struggle for civil rights: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.” (Strive Toward Freedom, 202)
Because it is much easier to have a slave do our work for us, slavery is just one example of the injustices that can arise when people choose easier wrongs over harder rights. Taking the easy path can also lead to murder. Sometimes it can just seem easier to kill someone who bothers us, especially if we were not taught the many strategies and tactics of peaceful conflict resolution. Humanity’s tendency to take the easy path can also cause us to seek easy and oversimplistic answers to complex problems, and to prefer quick and temporary fixes over real and resilient solutions.
Real and resilient solutions, unlike quick and temporary fixes that merely address the symptoms of problems, deal with the root causes of problems. COVID-19 is so dangerous because it has magnified so many preexisting problems in our society. There are many root causes for these preexisting problems that we discuss in our Peace Literacy curriculum. A lack of truth, justice, and beauty is also a root cause that Peace Literacy helps us understand. Just as a person who is deficient in essential nutrients such as zinc and magnesium has greater difficulty fighting off a virus, a society will have greater difficulty fighting off a pandemic when it is deficient in the essential nutrient of truth (that helps us understand root causes of problems), the essential nutrient of justice (that helps us build trust and fairness), and the essential nutrient of beauty (seeing beyond what our eyes can see to help us perceive dignity in others and ourselves). Just as zinc and magnesium deficiencies weaken our physical immune system, deficiencies in truth, justice, and beauty weaken our society’s metaphorical immune system – its ability to defend against violence, deception, corruption, apathy, and potential collapse.
Increasing the nutrients of truth, justice, and beauty in our society – especially when so many forces are working to suppress truth, justice, and beauty – is not an easy path. It is a challenging path. Our non-physical need for challenge is so important, because we cannot become stronger physically or psychologically unless we are challenged. When we embrace challenges such as improving our skills, increasing and protecting the health of our relationships and communities, and strengthening the muscles of our humanity, we become more capable of creating conditions that help us meet our physical needs for food and safety. When we embrace the challenge of increasing truth, justice, and beauty in our society by confronting the root causes of problems and elevating the dignity of life, we create a society where people are more likely to have reliable access to food and safety.
Humanity has a paradoxical relationship with challenge, because although we can have a tendency to take the easy path, we also seek challenge in many ways. When people play video games, do crossword puzzles, or watch Wheel of Fortune while trying to solve the puzzles from home, they are feeding their non-physical need for challenge. People can seek challenge in countless and diverse ways, such as trying to get a lot of likes on Instagram, exercising, cooking, painting, shooting targets at a gun range, playing fantasy football, being a collector, fasting, writing, playing an instrument, “trolling” someone on the Internet with the goal of getting the person really upset, or picking a fight with a romantic partner. These activities can also feed other non-physical needs in addition to our non-physical need for challenge, and be expressions of various tangles of trauma.
For the most part, our society does not recognize that Peace Literacy skills, which help us embrace and navigate challenge in ways that create stronger relationships, families, schools, workplaces, communities, and societies, are even more complex than reading, writing, and math skills. Imagine if students were not taught reading, writing, and math, and as a result, they did not do well in these areas. We would not be surprised or shocked. We would not feel despair about humanity. We would instead prioritize the teaching of reading, writing, and math. In a similar way, when people are not taught Peace Literacy skills that empower them to heal tangles of trauma on an individual and societal level, feed their non-physical needs in healthy ways, understand and confront root causes of problems, and increase truth, justice, and beauty on a local, national, and global scale, we should not be surprised or shocked by the growing problems in our world. We should not feel despair about humanity. We should instead prioritize the teaching of Peace Literacy.
Peace Literacy is different from literacy in reading, writing, and math, however, because not only are Peace Literacy skills more complex than reading, writing, and math skills, but our society often teaches people the opposite of Peace Literacy skills. Our society doesn’t teach people the opposite of math. Peace Literacy is also different from literacy in reading, writing, and math, because Peace Literacy enhances people’s ability to embrace and respond constructively to any kind of challenge, such as the wide variety of challenges related to COVID-19, the wide variety of challenges related to confronting the root causes of problems, and even the wide variety of personal challenges that students can face when trying to learn reading, writing, and math.
Peace Literacy’s non-physical needs framework describes helplessness as a tangle of trauma that can disrupt and distort our non-physical need for challenge. In other words, traumatic experiences can cause persistent feelings of helplessness to get tangled in our non-physical need for challenge. People mistakenly assume that the most painful and dangerous aspect of trauma is fear, when in fact, feelings of helplessness are far more painful and dangerous. In the military I learned that human beings are very capable of managing fear when they have a strong community (through people they can trust and rely on) and feel empowered rather than helpless. When people use the word “fear” in our society, they often mean “helplessness.” Helplessness can describe the fear a person has when growing up hungry as a child, not being able to feed one’s family, being abused, or not being able to get a job. Feeling helpless in the midst of fear, rather than fear by itself, is linked to the most severe forms of trauma. The most painful forms of fear involve a sense of helplessness. When people in our society are suffering from persistent feelings of helplessness, then easy and oversimplistic answers (that do not require as much challenge to develop and implement as real and resilient solutions) can seem even more appealing.
Peace Literacy teaches the strategy, tactics, and philosophy of nonviolence (which we can also call “waging peace”) in order to empower people with more skills and options for navigating the challenges of life. When people have more skills and options for navigating the challenges of life, this can reduce their feelings of helplessness, especially when they can use these skills and options to confront and collapse systemic barriers that contribute to their feelings of helplessness. Nonviolent movements, such as the civil rights movement, show how confronting and collapsing systemic barriers that suppress human flourishing is an epic challenge that has enormous inspirational power.
This nine-part series has discussed many epic challenges that humanity must embrace and navigate to create a more peaceful and just world. These epic challenges include finding and serving a higher purpose in life (discussed in Part 1), building strong shared trust at the family, community, national, and global levels (discussed in Part 2), unearthing accurate explanations for the root causes of problems (discussed in Part 3), expressing ourselves powerfully through nonviolence (discussed in Part 4), strengthening the muscles of our humanity and healing the psychological and social pathologies that have been swept under our society’s metaphorical rug (discussed in Part 5), increasing the nutrients of truth, justice, and beauty in our families, communities, nations, and around the world (discussed in Part 6), navigating the vast and beautiful subterranean world of our humanity (discussed in Part 7), and creating a world that prioritizes and teaches Peace Literacy so that tangles of trauma, especially the tangle of helplessness, can be reduced and healed (discussed in Part 8).
The immense struggle involved in these epic challenges is expressed in the Latin saying, “Per aspera ad astra,” which means “Through hardship to the stars.” Roman philosopher Seneca said something similar, “Non est ad astra mollis e terris via,” which means “There is no easy way to the stars from earth.” If we are going to navigate toward the stars that represent our highest ideals and build a future that reflects those stars, this will be an epic challenge that requires us to take the more challenging path rather than the easy path, that requires us to choose harder wrongs over easier rights.
As your exercise for this week, when you find yourself struggling with a choice, ask yourself if you are taking the easy path, if you are choosing the easier wrong over the harder right, by asking yourself these three questions:
- Is it ethical?
- Is it strategic for achieving my goals?
- Is it easy?
Taking the easy path means prioritizing #3 over #1 and #2. However, something can be ethical, strategic, and easy all at the same time, and there can be ethical and strategic reasons for using the “path of least resistance.” For example, we want food assistance for those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is ethical and strategic for the well-being of our communities and the world when done well, to be as accessible and low-friction as possible (in terms of making it easy for people to receive food assistance).
As an addition to your exercise for this week, contemplate the following excerpt from the West Point cadet prayer, which reminds us that we should not put what is easy above what is ethical.
“Thou Searcher of Human hearts . . . Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Guard us against flippancy and irreverence in the sacred things of life. Grant us new ties of friendship and new opportunities of service.”
During a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be an epic challenge to have compassion for others. Peace Literacy can help us embrace and navigate this epic challenge. When we have difficulty embracing challenge, we can grow stronger by having compassion for ourselves. Having compassion for ourselves can also be an epic challenge, and Peace Literacy can help us embrace and navigate the epic challenge of self-compassion. Understanding the power of our non-physical need for transcendence, which we will discuss in the next and last entry in this series, can further help us embrace and navigate the epic challenges of having compassion for others and ourselves.
The kind of leadership that is needed in times of crisis, at all levels especially the community level, is leadership that reduces tangles of trauma and helps people meet their non-physical needs in healthy ways.