Non-Physical Violence, Part 4

Non-Physical Violence, Part 4

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.  Thomas Merton[1]

During past weeks I have considered various non-physical forms of violence we do to others, both directly and indirectly. Another form of non-physical violence that is seldom considered as such is self-violence. Contemplative author Thomas Merton described this violence six decades ago, partially reproduced in today’s epigraph: we allow ourselves “to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns” which “destroys our own inner capacity for peace.” The issue of violence against self is not new. Two thousand years earlier, the issue was identified in the gospels with the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), where Martha “was distracted by her many tasks” and too busy to sit in the presence of Jesus, as Mary was doing. Jesus tells Martha, “…there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…” In any given moment, there is need of only one thing. We miss that one needful thing when we are too consumed in busyness to enter the moment and experience it. That is violence against oneself.

When the Bible tells us to love our neighbor as ourself,[2] it is both a commandment and a statement of fact. The factual statement is we can only love our neighbor as we love ourself because that is the only way we know how to love. If we love ourselves poorly, we will love others poorly. If we do violence to ourselves, we will do violence to others. Learning to love others better begins with learning to love ourselves better. The violence in our world is violence directed inward but expressed outward. And when we are too busy or distracted to enter the present moment, we cannot achieve the inner peace required to know God’s presence or to love and serve others.

We have a desperate need for unscheduled, uncommitted time in our days, a Sabbath, if you will. Just as adequate sleep is required for our brains to process our daily experiences, without which we go insane, so we need regular time to decompress, rest, and take a conscious, wide-angle view of our lives. Some of us were raised to believe if we are not busy with something we are not worth the oxygen we consume. That attitude leads to a lot of unnecessary commotion and silliness. Our true identity, however, is not a product of what we do but of who we are. We cannot live into who we truly are without committing regular quiet time to allow our deepest self to emerge. Our motto has become, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Doing what is ours to do is important, but we also need the corollary, “Don’t just do something, stand (or sit) there!” We lack balance, and that lack of balance destroys our inner peace and ability to gain clear perspectives to guide and manage our work.

A rather sinister, if subconscious factor in our penchant toward busyness is the fear of what might overtake us if we slow down. Most of us have unresolved angers and frustrations, with ourselves and others, that clamor for attention when we sit quietly. The problem with using activity to keep these demons at bay is that they do not go away. They fester until they can be examined and acknowledged, sometimes with professional assistance, so we can enjoy quiet, unstructured time for the reflection and renewal that is Sabbath.

Part of our need for Sabbath is mental and emotional, but it is also physical. As a volunteer crisis counselor I remind many of my callers of the four elements of self-care: adequate sleep, adequate hydration (water), healthy eating, and moderate exercise. We cannot attain mental or emotional stability by ignoring basic physical needs. Sleeping poorly is endemic because of excess worry and stress. Being too busy is a poor tradeoff for unhealthy eating or lack of exercise. We fall into a violent loop where the violence we do to ourselves spills onto those closest to us and out into the world. A less violent world is only possible as we work to ease the violence churning within.

This is the 13th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and are not intended to imply the agreement or support of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to respond to my thoughts, please contact me directly at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.


[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, 1965.

[2] A commandment repeated in various ways throughout the Bible, including Matthew 22:19.

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