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Nonviolence: A Personal Perspective

by Nowick Gray [1992]

"Nonviolence is not about changing the world, it is about changing ourselves and hoping the world will follow in its own time." -- Chris Parry

When I was approached about an essay for an anthology Chris Parry was putting together, the subject seemed too big, too overwhelming. Where does one begin to define Nonviolence? How can any one person be qualified enough to make true statements about it?

Then one night soon after, I had a dream, about a group of people sharing thoughts on the philosophy of life. When my turn came, I had nothing to say. The rest of the group reacted, saying I had no excuse--I must have something to say. I was upset enough to awake at that point; and in the leisure of lying there with time to think about it, without pressure, an answer came to me. That is, an answer of a certain kind. I realized that while it is difficult or impossible for me to put faith in abstract words about a philosophy of life which might well be called nonviolence, I do believe that a person's philosophy is expressed--for better or worse--by how that person lives, what one does with one's time on earth.

And so it is fitting for me to express my philosophy of nonviolence in terms of my own political and spiritual journey; or, looked at in another way, to examine my own life choices in the light of nonviolence. In this effort I do not need to come out perfect; I can only hope, rather, to describe and evaluate truly.

I've been concerned about peace, justice, environmental issues for most of my adult life. But I didn't start out that way, growing up in the U.S.A. . . .

When I was a youngster I grew up in the shadow of past, present and future wars. My father flew in World War II, and was stationed in Korea when I was an infant. In grade school I was put through air raid drills; I didn't go for the I.D. bracelet program. But I did go in big for the toy soldiers, the guns and army games with my friends, the endless drawings of battle scenes, the TV combat shows with actual or dramatized war footage, the musty aerial photos or parachute from my father's bomber.

In the early sixties my family moved to Atlanta, Georgia. "Current events" in school meant news of the civil rights struggle for Southern blacks. Future governor Lester Maddox distributed axe handles on the street outside his restaurant; I went with my friends into the woods for rockfights against the black boys from the dirt road.

At fifteen I wound up, by chance, attending a Quaker school in Baltimore. There I was exposed to some new perspectives. At first I was slow to learn. I remember taking the U.S. Government side in an English class debate about Vietnam, equating North Vietnam with Hitler. But meanwhile in history class I was learning some new angles on the foundations of American democracy--how, for instance, the white male landowners and slaveholders kept voting rights to themselves. And then, one day a member of that Baltimore Meeting drove to Washington, doused himself with gasoline and lit a match.

In '68 came the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the Democratic convention in Chicago where the police ran amok against a city full of youthful demonstrators. Once again I seemed to be close to the action, while still uninvolved. I had become a member of a Chicago-area Friends Meeting and begun to take draft counseling.

For me the army never quite materialized. I refused a Government loan in college because of the required oath of loyalty ("I promise to defend . . .") and was given an alternative type of loan instead. I supported anti-ROTC demonstrations, without participating directly. In 1970 the new president of Dartmouth College declared a moratorium in the middle of the spring term in order that the students and staff could be freed to work against the war. Finally I could do something besides sign my name to letters and petitions. I traveled to Washington to help in the office of a Congressional lobbying group; and spoke to alumni in Baltimore about how to end the war--only to discover, at the end of my little speech, that none of the men assembled there were sympathetic at all to my cause. Talk of "revolution" was popular among my generation--but no one seemed to be able to come up with a realistic program for change.

By a quirk of the draft law I passed through a short time of eligibility while callups were reduced, as the war wound to a close. I was able to emigrate to Canada freely, four years later, as a graduate student. Still, I thought of my move as a form of political protest, a kind of self-exile from a system I loathed. So, the war was over. But military thinking was pervasive throughout the society. The old warriors still had power. Traffic jams, urban sprawl, technological and chemical dependency, crime and domestic violence, overseas intervention, institutionalization and bureaucracy in every area of life, environmental destruction and waste, an escalating nuclear arms race . . . it was not the kind of life I wanted.

Canadian wilderness gave an austere kind of comfort, along with a retreat, for me, into literary study. I met a woman I would soon marry. In 1976 we entered the market for teaching jobs and found ourselves in a tiny B.C. community where there was a Friends School. We were attracted to the place, but under-qualified; so first we taught for three years in northern Quebec Inuit settlements, then took teaching degrees at Simon Fraser. In the meantime I came across a book called New Age Politics, by Mark Satin, that opened my eyes to a number of paradigm shifts pending for the eighties. One of six major areas he identified was Nonviolence. I was excited to discover, at last, that there was a program for revolutionary change--by peaceful means. At Simon Fraser I pursued some independent research following Satin's references on the subject. My interest increased: I wanted to learn everything I could about the subject. Here was a whole field of study, of philosophy and history and political case study, largely neglected by a civilization at the brink of self-destruction because of a lack of such options. If only there were some way to make this information better known . . .

Finally I was able to move with my wife to Argenta, to teach grade 11-12 English there, and junior high social studies. Involvement with the Friends community brought us both into contact with active nonviolent movements for social change, including war tax resistance, conflict mediation, prison reform, native rights support, relief for war victims, and disarmament.

The Reagan years had begun. The neutron bomb was hot, Cruise missiles were on the front burner. Rhetoric left the superpowers polarized, with no room to move. First-strike strategies were coming to light. The hands on the doomsday clock moved ever closer to midnight. The time to take action was never more clear. I began to help organize disarmament action groups, nonviolence discussion groups. I wrote letters and articles, served on committees, and facilitated meetings. With much attention to group process, concensus decisions were made about peace camps, peace walks, demonstrations and rallies, vigils and information campaigns. I educated myself more about military strategy and hardware, about nonviolent theory and practice, about campaign organizing and training methods. I took and gave workshops, attended and gave speeches. I went to the Cold Lake Peace Camp in Alberta where Cruise missiles were to be based. I helped produce newsletters and pamphlets, and took a student group to Hanford, Washington to walk for a few days with a group on a much more ambitious, international "Walk to Moscow." Involved in an even more intense whirlwind of activity, my wife toured the province giving workshops, organized conferences, and went to New York for the U.N. Special Session on Disarmament. When she came back, we decided our marriage wasn't worth continuing. But the political work went on. It was a time of crisis.

In my personal life, the crisis soon passed. I found a new partner, explored new means of livelihood, built a house, had a baby. And on the world political scene, too, a kind of miracle happened. It all worked--sort of. Now, after the 1989 actions in Eastern Europe, those of the Philippines, China, and the Soviet Union, the actions of anti-abortionists in the U.S., of environmentalists in B.C. and Indonesia and Australia, people everywhere in the world are more familiar with nonviolent action. There has been mixed success, limited success, partial success. Always there is backlash, reaction, compromise, taint of violence, some remnant of a wider or deeper problem to confront. A lingering Balkan war, or recurrent Mideast war, or intervention in Central America. A hole in the ozone layer, a displaced tribe in the jungle. Injuries at a sawmill from a shattered spike. Indiscriminate shooting of nonviolent actionists--or simply a jail term to sit out, a fine or lawsuit or lawyer's bill, or phone and photocopier bills to pay. And always more battles to fight.

No one has all the answers. In the process, though, there are feelings, experiences that stay. Feelings of doing what has to be done. Of doing what is right. Of acting together, in shared vision and knowledge of what is clear, now, for us, for me, deep inside. A jail term, three days without food, a day's lost pay, a day on the phone or writing letters, a day and a night on the blockade . . . or the more patient drudgery of committee work and public meetings. These are times of service to something more than the daily agenda, to business as usual. Because business as usual, we have seen, gets us to the breaking point, brings danger too close for further comfort. Our usual comforts, at that critical point--which is the point of our realization--turn against us, backfire, threaten our survival or that of our neighbors. Our rights, at that critical point, extinguish someone else's. Our rights, at that same point, we realize, we have been giving up to someone else.

So, a watershed is reached on one issue, when that critical mass of public concern is reached and realized and energized to effective action. And then the political energy subsides, and people get back to the business of leading their lives. Until the next issue comes to a point of crisis.

In my own community, that interval was a year or two: and then came the threat of pesticide spraying in the nearby forests. (Already, a couple of years before the disarmament movement took off, public concern about local logging had reached a peak, achieved some institutional success, and subsided for a while.) Now we were faced with an immediate need to mobilize against forestry crews, to meet them on the roads and landing strips and stop them. As a person experienced in the theory and organization of nonviolence, I was approached for advice and agreed to help organize the local campaign. My two-year old's diapers were sewn together to made a twenty-foot banner for the road blockade. It worked. The time was right and we had near-unanimous support in the valley. (Now, some six years later, the same threat looms again. Have they, have we forgotten already?)

Like everyone, I wish all these problems would go away and stay away. But then, where would they go? There are always more problems somewhere, some war against someone, some senseless devastation.

Networks of far-reaching support do help, directly and indirectly--if only as inspiration or example from afar, for acting where you are. Secure on my little homestead, I was able to provide some personal support and newsletter work for Peace Brigades International; and to take lessons from my growing daughter in nonviolent communication skills.

As a means of expanding the understanding and practice of nonviolence, I helped set up the Nonviolence Resource Centre in Argenta. The office was nonexistent, the location remote: but we built up a good collection of books and videos, available anywhere by mail. And as trainers we were centrally located to assist, on the one hand, a burgeoning environmental movement in the neighboring mountain valleys, and, to the east, native and environmental groups, including the Lubicon Indians, in Alberta.

The greatest satisfaction I've had in recent years is seeing the growth of knowledge and interest and involvement in nonviolent action by large numbers of people. I've seen groups form, organizers crop up when needed, enthusiastic and talented people come from everywhere to a discovery that yes, we together, putting our little individual selves together and also, yes, our strong and uncompromising selves on the line, we can make a difference. And we have. Still the need goes on, and some people move on or burn out or join the government, and others, in greater numbers because of the example that has been set, rise to take the places and carry it on.

After several years of close involvement with the Nonviolence Resource Centre, I found myself needing to withdraw, for various reasons. I continue to see nonviolent action as the most practical and ethical means of achieving political and social reform. On a personal level, while discovering something about the dynamics of nonviolence, I've also been discovering things about myself: that I have a certain (limited!) amount of talent, a certain level of skill, commitment, and experience which is helpful for others or for my own situation; and that I also have a certain reticence, or sense of privacy, or lack of political aptitude--a misgiving not about nonviolence but about my own best use of who I am in this world. I gave up my short career as a schoolteacher in favor of homesteading, treeplanting and writing, a change coming from that same kind of private discovery. The change brought new challenges: does planting trees support the corporate destruction of the earth, or the "green" movement? I've been slow to give weight to the former truth, with my paychecks coming that way.

Politics and spirituality are too easily polarized. My engagement in the kinds of activism listed above has drawn criticism, from some new-age folk, that it's served nothing but ego, illusion, and the endless seesaw of conflict. On the other hand, in political circles, it can be risky to confess one's private leanings to self-centered aims, to art, to any inward focus. To be "spiritual" can be seen as apolitical, apathetic, irresponsible.

It's hard to argue either point. People can be political or spiritual in a way that neglects the wholistic balance. Politics, especially the conventional variety, is all too often tainted with self-serving conflict of interest, compromising legalistic restriction, or sheer personal bombast. Legitimate grassroots struggles, however, do need the active involvement of a maximum number of people, in order for a campaign to carry any weight. It's all too common to hear uninvolved people list excuses for why they don't have time, energy, talent, experience, money­-or worldly desire--to give to the cause.

There is, I have faith, a middle ground, of living in a place of consciousness and action that is both "political" and "spiritual." There is a deeper level of commitment, of involvement, that I'm trying to follow now in my own life--"deeper" meaning more wholly in touch with what I can best do, with my most engaged self. Not "better," for anyone else, or as a way of putting down what anyone else is doing for whatever cause; but better for me, in my judgement of what I can offer in full spirit.

In the past couple of years I've chosen a closer focus of activity: fiction writing, mainly; along with maintaining a homestead, helping to home-school my daughter, and taking part in my community. This is what, in a broad sense, I feel most of us are working for in the world, the freedom to pursue such basic things--which will take different forms, of course, for different people.

Now there's still the valid criticism that we can't very well all do that in the way of the suburban ostrich and let the monsters rape the earth. I hope that in my writing I can reach out to people to communicate on a basis of what is real and meaningful in human life, including everything from blockades to kid's building blocks. For me it's more of a whole picture, going beyond and below action to enlarging our consciousness of how life should be lived.

I can't exactly tell people, go out and blockade; I can only hope that when and where it is appropriate, enough people will find it in themselves to do that necessary work. For an artist the necessary work of daily life is to inspire and illuminate with the beauty of a chosen medium and created form, so that we are reminded to take joy in participating in this creation we share. I'm not opting myself or anyone else out of the picture, either. A blockade can be a chosen medium, a letter to the editor a well-created form. The key to appropriateness of choice in a personal life or in a group strategy, after all the pros and cons have been brainstormed and analyzed, is timing, spirit of undertaking, and subjective judgement.

As others examine themselves in the way I've looked at my own involvement, they will come up with different answers. Lives differ, and lives change. So do the needs of the time and place in which each of us lives. Now, for me as for anyone, when the situation calls for it and with my involvement I can make a difference, I have to say I'll be there.

In the meantime . . . is there ever a meantime, a time between crises? It depends on what we're open to receive and act upon. How large is local, how small is global? There are always choices to make, every moment. Habits to examine, repercussions to consider. Every resource or technology used, every phrase spoken to a child, has its effect. Where is there change, where the opposition to it? What do we call violence, or nonviolence? It's all in how we live, day to day, moment to moment--our every action, word, and thought. What is our deep desire? How do we choose to use this life?

© Nowick Gray

what's new, 2013:


None But Ourselves Can Free Our Minds - by David DeGraw

I: Unprecedented Wealth
II: Debt Slavery
III: Mental Slavery – Conditioned Consciousness
IV: The Spectrum of Thinkable Thought
V: Behaviorism & Assembly Line Intelligentsia
VI: Totalitarian Minds Inside the All-Consuming Cult
VII: Free Your Mind
VIII: Cyberspace Underground Railroad


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