Fueled By Outrage: Turning Swords Into Compassionate Action

11/08/2016 04:34 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2017

A few weeks ago, there seemed to be quite a number of people doing their level-headed best to stand for our collective humanity. Let's start With Michelle Obama's speech, skillfully channeling her profound hurt and anger, her words redolent of truth, denouncing Trump without naming him and de-normalizing his hate toward women? Then there was conservative Marybeth Glenn forsaking Trump because of his misogyny and sharply challenging her fellow conservatives to join her. And Robert De Niro's unusual (for him) public proclamation and take-down of Trump? Let's not forget the release of "13th," Ava DuVernay's scorching, painful, brilliant documentary that connects the historical dots of endemic racial injustice, inequality, and violence in our country. And Women's Boat to Gaza, 13 activists bringing world attention and supplies to the isolated and suffocating occupied territory, spearheaded by a retired U.S. Army colonel and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient? Then there are the widening non-violent actions against oil pipelines in the American West by Native and non-Native peoples.

One thread that runs through it all is channeling our outrage. That we hurt demonstrates we are human. That we react emotionally also conveys our common instincts. But to be hurt and not react blindly, to let the traumatic impacts settle and sink deeply into our roots of peace, that takes doing. I still hear Sister Chan Khong, lifetime collaborator of Thich Nhat Hanh, at Deep Streams Zen Institute's recent community program, "Being Peace In Divisive Times." She focused on anger, and conveyed how to face it without suppressing, ignoring, or pretending it is not there. In word, song, and presence, she showed us how to stop -- resisting the urge to react impulsively. Coming home, grounding ourselves in focused, kindly attentiveness: Being peace. Responses then emerge as skillful action, compassionate expression.

Many of us are looking for ways to create "safe zones," as much inside ourselves as with others, so that we stay "fit for duty" as agents of transformation. A few years ago I had the good fortune to meet a group of social workers visiting from Gaza. We compared notes about working with trauma survivors; long-term residents of occupied territories (them) and veterans of war (me). I felt connected with these therapists, especially one, Hassan El-Zeyada.

During the military operation launched in Gaza by Israel on July 8, 2014, I saw my friend's name in newspaper reports. Attacked while sheltering in the basement, he had been seriously injured and had lost his family in an Israeli bombing: three brothers, his mother, his niece, and his sister-in-law. At the point of greatest shock, injury, and loss he suddenly became the parent of many of his nieces and nephews. His experience echoed others' and went to the heart of the trauma:

"I am so afraid in this building. They may hit it at any time. There is no safe place. Psychologically, that is the problem." He noted that his young daughters had already experienced three wars. "Can you imagine what this means to the new generation? Scared parents cannot assure or secure scared children."

Back in the U.S., Pamela Benge, the mother of Alfred Alongo, killed in El Cajon, CA, said, "We came from a war zone, Uganda. We wanted protection. That's why we're here. I wanted the children not to be running around, being in fear every night, sleeping in the bush. Being a refugee, I know there are millions of refugees here, seeking a better place, a safe place. That's all -- safety. We just wanted to be safe. But now, I ask: Where should we go? I don't know."

Even in our celebrity culture, stars are not immune from threat, terror, and real danger. LeBron James said he was scared these days. Despite having told his kids to comply and be respectful to the police, he was not confident that, if his son got pulled over, he would actually return home.

Nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant, from Charlotte, N.C., spoke at a City Council meeting after another fatal officer-involved shooting: "I feel that we are treated differently than other people," she said, pausing tearfully. "It is a shame that our fathers and mothers are killed and we can't even see them anymore. It's a shame that we have to go to the graveyard and bury them."

An aunt whose nephew was killed by police struggled with how to best respond, "I believe that not 'everyone' is bad. It is just the ones that are ignorant, afraid, uneducated, and insensitive that are affecting millions and millions of lives." She signed off her Facebook post with the words, "I Won't Be Silent."

At the moment of most extreme strain, when reactivity and outrage is at its highest, when it feels like there is no safe place and despair and hopelessness prevail, we can turn to our deep resources -- inside us and with and for our communities -- to create a safe place to think, feel, and be. We can come home to our collective humanity and respond in accord.