How do we respond to human suffering and devastation? What do we do in the face of hundreds dying in Gaza, and over a thousand injured?
When I encounter suffering, it naturally brings up—mostly unconscious–memories of my own suffering. This is the root of empathy: connecting my pain to yours, and understanding that we bear pain for each other. But how do I respond next?
When I see photos of bombing victims, I may want to retreat to the litany of my own victim stories. I joined a Facebook group which suggests we turn our profile photos black to protest the current assault on Gaza, and I invited all my Facebook friends to participate. Not surprisingly, an acquaintance questioned this group, asking whether they also protest violence against non-Arabs, listing numerous Arab offenses over the years.
She’s completely right to question all forms of violence. But if I give in to the hobgoblin of equivalence when it comes to suffering and violence, I come that much closer to the mindset of tit for tat, eye for an eye. If I engulf myself in my own stories of victimhood, it enables the cycle of violence to continue.
It’s tempting to chant the mantra of victimhood. We have all been traumatized, to different degrees. While some have suffered far more than others, others may carry the legacy of trauma through stories told, retold, or denied and buried by parents and grandparents. When I bury myself in my own suffering, I close myself off to the suffering of others. I buy into my own victim stories, I invest myself in them, and I seek balance and redress. I justify revenge.
The respective victim stories dominate Israel/Palestine. Over the past few generations, the Palestinians, after living under occupation for decades, now identify with their victimhood to the same degree as the Israelis, which creates desperation, hatred, and hunger for revenge, promoting conditions ripe for suicide bombers and recruitment into militant groups. Not until we can lay down our own suffering and attend to the suffering of others will violence stop. Compassion and love are big enough to swallow up pain. Compassion for the other needs to outweigh our own victim stories.
Gandhi taught his followers to bear pain, to not run away from it, and above all not to retaliate in the face of pain. I cannot wait for the other to lay down their arms or for the tally to even out; I have to set the precedent. Through the path of nonviolent resistance, I strive to evoke empathy rather than anger.
Will I suffer? Likely. Will I be killed? Maybe. But since January, 2000, when the current Intifada began, 1173 Palestinian children have been killed, as well as 123 Israeli youth. How can we ask children to offer their lives if we’re not willing to offer our own? The path of nonviolence is not painless.
However, in addition to changing the circumstances that provoke violence–dismantling the settlements, restoring all rights–nonviolence is the only way to create lasting harmony. We continually work for justice, but even if justice is slow to come, we can apply the principles of nonviolence and strive to live them out.
I use my practice of yoga asanas to learn how to relate to pain. Without abdicating awareness, I learn to be dispassionate toward the temporary sensations of muscles stretching and contracting. I learn to be with pain and not fear it, taking homeopathic doses of pain. Through this work, I break down the layers of trauma, personal and ancestral.
What is my victim story anyway? As a victim, I identify with a part of myself which is illusory, temporary, and superficial. I mistake myself for the actor playing me on stage. In reality, I constantly shift, evolve, and transform as iterations and expressions of a universal spirit. I am the Korean American woman in Milwaukee, and I am the Israeli child, the Palestinian child.
Meanwhile, I sit cozily at my desk in my heated room. My belly is full, no bombs land near my riverside bungalow. I send emails and make phone calls to our president and State Department, but I’m not on a plane to Gaza to serve as a human shield or bandage wounds. And what of the suffering in Congo, Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq? Not to mention the homeless in my own city, gun violence and the overwhelming violence of poverty? All I have this moment are these few words, my yoga practice and a constant prayer: open, open open my eyes, open my heart.