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Nonviolence — Where do I begin?

For any given individual, the strategy of nonviolence can, by and large, be reduced to two main points: 

  1. In an environment dominated by violence, get yourself out as soon as possible. Otherwise, you will be participating in that violence much more than you suppose. (See “I don’t participate in violence at all.”)
  2. Take a breath and begin learning nonviolence: nonviolence within (no longer needing violence) and nonviolence without (not participating in violence). Available methods and formats for learning nonviolence are listed in Nonviolence in Action: Methods and Approaches.


12 minutes reading

First of all, calm down. Yes, at the moment you might not be able to come to terms with the general fratricide. But, sooner or later, you will find yourself wanting to avoid thinking about the fratricide all around you, and your own participation in it. When that time comes, it may take a real effort to hold on to what you have discovered, and persist in your progress on the nonviolent path. We will speak more about this later, but now let’s get started with our consideration of how to begin our exit from the system of violence that surrounds us, and its accompanying temptations.

Our task: to do everything in our power every day in order to be one step further away from violence. Refuse to participate in it as much as you possibly can. Do this constantly, without knowing to what extent ‘nonviolence’ can be reached, without knowing when, how, and by what means this journey ends.

This is the main principle, but there is also another. To exit the system of violence, you will firstly have to concentrate on the smallest components that make up your day, your life, and your relationships with other people — in ways you’ve never done before. All this is so that you can learn to understand the roots of the things and relationships that surround you; and in order to learn to evaluate your own steps, words, behaviors, and actions in terms of your involvement in — or rejection of — violence.

And so, let’s begin our journey with this first question: is it even possible for you to maintain the position you find yourself in at this moment?

Abandoning Aggression

Firstly, consider the level of aggression in your environment. (Environment in the broadest sense: from family members and close neighbors to the population and the entire state.)

The following things may seem self-evident, but let’s go over them briefly. Aggression in your environment isn’t always obvious, it isn’t always accompanied by an outward sign or open use of force; it isn’t necessarily manifested in domestic violence, crime, terrorism, dictatorship, or militarism (although any of these signs clearly indicate a critical situation). Often it quietly smolders in society for years and decades, only rising to the surface from time to time. But even in this inconspicuous form it can always be recognized and felt.

For example, elements of violence between people include: an irritated response to certain topics, anger, abuse, rudeness, indifference, neglect, intolerance, prejudice, fear, etc. Aggression is very often accompanied by intoxication — by alcohol, drugs, euphoria, strength, power, permissiveness. It’s often hidden behind external well-being and prosperity, closed off from the rest of the world by high fences and harsh laws, looking at others with contempt.

Even a hint of conflict or discord (social, national, political, religious), any open or hidden opposition, coercion, lawlessness etc. — these are all situations that will involuntarily involve you in violence, whether you want them to or not. It’s certain to ‘get’ you and draw you in, no matter where you hide — and it will do this regularly, making your life an exhausting fight for basic rights and freedom,  in a struggle against other people’s vices and weaknesses, while you still haven’t come to terms with your own.

In this situation, you’re not likely to prove anything to anyone. You’re not likely to stop someone. In reality you can’t remain a caring person in this type of environment for more than three minutes, or a few hours at the most, before you meet another occasion of aggression or indifference which will be impossible to ignore. Then there are three paths you can take:

  • You can try to stop the aggression — but often you won’t be able to do this without retaliatory threats and violence, either verbal or physical
  • You can become a victim of it — not a victim in the highest sense, but rather in the most tragic and ridiculous sense
  • You can become either an active or passive participant in the aggression

But what about a peaceful outcome, you ask? Yes, it’s entirely possible. But only when you are not constantly faced with violence. You simply won’t have enough internal strength.

Are these outcomes, or any one of them, really necessary for you? Are they really necessary to your Heavenly Father, who gave you your unique life and the precious ability to love, who spent eighteen to twenty years raising you from a helpless child to an independent adult who can think for yourself? Or maybe they are necessary to your parents, who cared for you all this time, or for your children as a role model?

It’s unlikely. Therefore, if you happen to have been born or live in this type of environment—be it family, region, community, nation or state—the first thing to do is to leave that environment. Find any peaceful place where you can relax and gather your thoughts.

“But the nonviolence that we know never runs away from danger!” you will object. “This is a real fight, only by peaceful means….” Some Christians will add: “The Lord did not call upon us to leave our homes and families.” And they will be mistaken (MT. 10:34-39):

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

At the same time, it’s important to understand that ‘nonviolence’ doesn’t mean that you need to stand in the way of Moloch and try to overcome it by any means necessary (even with your own life, which, once again, isn’t given to us to ‘burn’ in three days or three hours). It means, firstly, to be aware of your own strength and to act in accordance with it so that you don’t become the cause of, or a participant in, even more troubles and even worse troubles.

Therefore, don’t be afraid to admit to yourself that violence and cruelty exist in the environment you grew up in, that you are used to, that you are connected to. Just as people are different, so too are families, communities, regions, nations, and states. Conflicts and contradictions exist even in the sparsest environments; sometimes they are insignificant and sometimes ironic, but other times they completely surround you, becoming an integral part of your life no matter what you do, no matter what steps you take.

But how can we determine the highest bearable level of aggression? How can you know the moment when you need to leave your home environment? When is too early — and when is too late?

There is one unmistakable sign that works regardless of external conditions.

Abandoning Bitterness

Your own feelings of anger, irritation, or indifference to people become an unmistakable sign. Your environment, home, friends, family, and community can gradually, almost unnoticeably, harden you. Compare yourself now with how you were a month ago, a year ago, 5-10 years ago. Or, even better: compare yourself now with when you were a child. You’ll notice that, if we don’t attach significance to violence within our lives from the beginning, then with time we start to see our participation in the moral and material support of threats, injury, and murder as the norm, and do not try to change this situation.

Once you accept the logic of threats and violence, it will become harder and harder to distance yourself from it. It will be even harder if there are people in your environment to whom you’re very attached. Usually such people inhibit (at least passively) your understanding of the situation by the excuses they make, their condescending attitude, or their distorted assessments.

Don’t waste your precious time and don’t become even more immersed in the atmosphere of violence. If you feel that your environment is embittering you, if you see that you can only participate in existing relationships by remaining indifferent to their bloody foundations, if those signs above — irritation, indifference, anger, abuse, neglect, intoxication — began to appear within you, then don’t waste any time: take with you those who don’t like violence and leave the environment as soon as possible.

Our Final Destination

It doesn’t exist. There is no place or person free from violence on this Earth. Instead there is a priority: a peaceful sky over us. But our task remains to learn to keep this in our lives.

This in turn means learning to keep our distance from everything that involves violence. Don’t run from it and don’t go to the ends of the earth, but always stay in a relatively calm place, in an environment for life without bitterness, surrounded by people who aren’t inclined to violence but rather to work. In any case, the closest place of this kind, and the closest people of this kind, as a rule, are not far away from you, but they are inconspicuous and hard to recognize.

Here are several signs that you can use to see if you’re surrounded by such people in such a place.

Limit your daily interactions to the number of people you can actually interact with

Realize that the majority of people who pass you everyday — loved ones, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, partners, visitors, travelers — when taken all together, are too many people for you to pay attention to. The cost of overload: interactions full of indifference and irritability, the harbingers of anger and aggression.

In the density of everyday life in society, you are surrounded by stress and indifference to such a degree that you simply cannot cope with them without responding in the same way (and often to your nearest and dearest friends). People cannot lift weights beyond the limits of their strength; neither can we cope with an intensity and frequency of evil beyond our capacity to resist.

Therefore, as you begin to feel less crowded, and your involvement in relationships with the people around you (work, friendships, neighbors, etc.) is proportional to your strength, that’s when you’ve found a healthy limit.

A natural habitat

An unnatural way of life in an unnatural environment — that is an exact description of urban life. And the reasons for this are obvious.

People who wish to live with a degree of comfort in direct contact with the surrounding world choose a rural environment. The city, on the other hand, grows for its own sake — for the city’s own “convenience” — without care for the people or the environment. Priority is always given to the growth and development of the city itself. The variations on this theme are relatively few: power (Washington), brokerage and finance (Zurich), industry (Detroit), the extraction and processing of resources (Kemerovo), science and education (Cambridge), and also, at a stretch, art (Vienna), or even some combination of these. Human beings  are always secondary, forced to fit in and conform to the pulse of the city, sometimes for their whole lives.

Urban environments are characterized by the flatness of the work, instead of work being socially valuable; the rigid patterns of dependency among people instead of mutual aid; and the huge buildup of material goods, amenities, resources, technology with complete dependence on external sources of food, light, heat. All this together creates not just an artificial, but a completely distorted environment that completely fills your day from early morning until late evening. But it excludes the simplest and most important things that a person needs for life: water, earth, sun, friendship, and love.

Filled with constant motion and ‘life,’ this environment will always remain infinitely far away from the main law of life — love. Instead it only contributes to alienation from the world by blocking people’s understanding of the world’s bedrock realities and values, walling people off from each other by neighborhood boundaries, social barriers, and levels of wealth, and breeding indifference to relationships and distortion of the very essence of trust and love.

Therefore, the second sign of health is when natural sources of food, water and heat surround you instead of crowds of people who are held captive by these alienating factors.

A calm and even environment — social, economic, geopolitical

Only a rare kind of person can survive without society. And ‘survival’ is not about autonomous life skills but the strong human need for communication.

Therefore, think, think, think! Everything has a meaning: national characteristics, the political climate, the economic situation in the region, the level of infrastructure development and attractiveness of the chosen area for development. Keep your distance from social and economic ‘movements’ so that you don’t become an unknowing participant in the conflicts that come with them. Avoid disputed border areas, and active and potential sources of natural resources and deposits. Be careful of empires and superpowers — in addition to their natural readiness to defend their territories by blood, they generate permissiveness and reduce the sense of mutual respect. But also beware of closed micro-communities where there’s no place for fresh air, free thought, or strangers.

At the same time, don’t go to extremes. ‘Wandering’ around the country or around the world in a constant search for a suitable place and suitable neighbors is a negation of life and its Creator. Instead, be grateful for your life, for being healthy, for the bread and shelter that you have now. And if at this given moment you don’t have a haven, then don’t waste time: study. Prepare yourself for freedom from violence. In other words, prepare yourself for work.

Here’s what won’t help you: artificial and highly-defined environments, and adherence to the least violent (on first inspection) groups of any kind (religious, utopian settlers, etc.). It’s dangerous firstly because of the potential for lies and contradictions inherent in group loyalty; after all, you’ll have to share their beliefs, views, ideals, that often stand above true love for other people. Very soon you’ll be faced with the choice between your own path and the interests of the group and this can be quite tragic at the very moment you are faced with new responsibilities, new relationships and a new way of life.

What will help you: people who are ready and able to work. Workers. Like-minded or not, it doesn’t matter. Near or far doesn’t matter, as long as they can teach, make suggestions, and support you. They are the answer to the question of how to start your exit from dependence on violence, or if the ‘how’ isn’t clear, then whom to turn to, where to go… You can take the risk of trying to find such people in your own present circles, or you can recall people you have met throughout your life and try to understand what each of them can teach you about this work. Find them, and if you’re right they won’t refuse to help you.

Remember: At the beginning you won’t go ‘to’ but ‘from’. You’re not looking for a better life, but are moving away from an impossible life. You may be accused of fleeing from reality, but where, if not in the real world, will your path of nonviolence lead you?

Aleksandr A., project coordinator

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