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Newsletter for February 2003

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MirrorFP.jpg (5998 bytes) Seeing through the consequences when someone says 'No'

One pressing strand in personal relationships and international relations

Where do I want this to end up?

Recently I was involved in a row with a partner which neither of us could quickly resolve.  We both experienced strong negative feelings.  Eventually I found myself sitting in the living room, with the space to be able to ask, “Where do I want this to end up? What do I do if it doesn’t go my way, or end in a comfortable peace?”

These questions may help us to understand one of the main blocks to a lifestyle which emphasises forgiving.  One can be clever enough to work out one's own possible exit strategies, but still miss either being surprised by the other person or touched by their own hurt or confusion.  We can call this a love of our mutual humanity, or the readiness to learn from others, or loving one's enemies, or honesty about our own limitations, or something else.  It asks us, Do we believe in contributing to a world of shared responsibility, or is my version of "how things should be" the only one?

Happily in my example we able to resolve and enrich our relationship even more.  But it reminded me how one of the great British political figures of the past, Ernest Bevin, was amongst other things a brilliant negotiator.  He said and practised, "The first thing to decide before you walk into any negotiation is what to do if the other chap says 'No'."

Single-mindedness is no longer a virtue

This is a pressing question for us at the level of personal relationships, because we are not gods, and cannot impose our preferred course of action on others.  Nor should we want to.  And it is a pressing question internationally because at the moment we are all in some way caught up in the passionate enthusiasm and self-belief of the Bush administration, and also Tony Blair's version (which according to a recent poll sadly contradicts the hopes and ideals of 80% of Britons). 

In his State of the Union speech (27.01.03) George Bush confirmed American   ambition and self-belief: "It is America's calling to make the world a better place."  US secretary of state Colin Powell said recently in Switzerland,

When we feel strongly about something, we will lead, we will act, even if others are not prepared to join us.

And when Mahathir bin Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, confronted US attorney general John Ashcroft  and said, "We should try not to amplify the situation, anger them more and lead more people to join this group of people," Ashcroft replied (touching on that fear of 'appeasement' which has characterised right-wing US governments since Chamberlain's response to Hitler), "I am not prepared to say we have to give up values to appease the terrorist."

Such single-mindedness used to be seen as a virtue.  Indeed it still is among fundamentalist groups, both Christian and Muslim.  But it represents an ideal of leadership which will no longer sustain any international community or world order, just as in personal relationships it hinders truthful conversation, reconciliation and forgiveness.  There is no question that a better world order would include the deposition of Saddam Hussein, but the worst means to achieve this would be an imposition of American might.

The eminent psychologist Rollo May argued in his Love and Will that the real immorality, in our modern world of almost instant knowledge and intercommunication, is to choose to ignore the consequences of one's actions.  Well, I have certainly failed in this regard in the past, as indeed has every responsible adult I have ever known!  The lesson is one we learn only slowly: Passionate single-mindedness can no longer be seen as a great virtue ... unless it is actually the passion for sustainable interdependence and for contributing to a community of shared responsibility.

A better example from the recent past

Recently we passed the 40th anniversary of the Cuba Missile Crisis, and a number of commentators considered the scale of John F Kennedy's statesmanship then, and contrasted it with the present US administration's.  Kennedy had the intelligence and foresight to model a kind of leadership more appropriate for the present day, for the interdependence of every nation and people, small and huge.  In his speech to the American University in Washington in the summer of 1963, he said,

What kind of a peace do I mean, and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana, enforced on the world by American weapons of war. We must examine our own attitudes (towards the Soviet Union). Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet; we all breathe the same air; we all cherish our children's future; and we are all mortal.

Kennedy was brilliant at looking ahead, and clever enough to work at understanding exit strategies.  For example, Rupert Cornwell wrote in The Independent:

Kennedy's handling of the Cuban crisis offers lessons today. His aides remember his constant looking ahead, the questions about the impact of a particular decision, the "what happens if". Kennedy's adviser and speechwriter Ted Sorensen warned against "actions that history could neither understand nor forget", and his President took the advice to heart.

Seeking our security at any cost?

In a previous e-letter ("The desire for closure", October 2002 ) we referred to America's desire for closure, as expressed and intensified after September 11th, and quoted former Clinton aide James Rubin saying:

After 9/11 the psychology of America has changed.  Government is no longer able to tolerate uncertainty or the unstable build-up of weapons (in Iraq).

The former bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, has raised a similar concern more recently,

Is there a desire in the American psyche to have the satisfaction of a victory against Iraq to ease the pain of self-doubt brought on by the absence of victory in the war on terror?  Do we secretly yearn for a war we know how to win? (Beliefnet 20.01.03)

Pursuing one's version of reality at all costs - Kennedy's Pax Americana - pretends that 'the other guys' aren't really people, just things to be 'improved,' or actors in a movie.  It even seems that President Bush sometimes sees it that way, as when he recently said to a group of reporters:

You know, how much time do we need to see clearly that (Mr Hussein) is not disarming?  As I said, this looks like a rerun of a bad movie and I'm not interested in watching it.

Well, every world leader of whom we have recorded tabletalk is capable of bullishness and indiscretion.  But we all need more moments of clarity, seeing that the 'other guys' on the end of our single-minded, zealous purges and plans are just as human as we are.  They can choose to respond by strengthening their own view of what is right and what is wrong, of values and visions.  It is highly likely that more disempowered and disenchanted people will join terrorist networks to combat US dominion.  As Rupert Cornwell also noted,

People in very high places in Washington really do share the Wilsonian belief that Iraq can be remade into a progressive state to serve as a model for a blighted region.  And, they would privately add, the whole place is such a mess that whatever happens post-Saddam can hardly make matters worse.

But I, like most Europeans, think things can get even worse, that you shouldn't make history simply by shaking the kaleidoscope.  An invasion of Iraq will merely toss fuel onto a smouldering fire.   The consequences will not be peace and goodwill, but more anti-Americanism.

Conclusion: What value system?

For John Ashcroft, not seeming to compromise one's own values seems to be a moral absolute.  This assumption unmistakably contradicts the value of forgiveness ... and for the Bush administration, so committed to 'Christian' values wherein forgiveness is foundational, this should be a priority.  This is more than a matter of political alignment with the Christian right.  During the 2000 presidential debates, candidates were asked to name the political philosopher who had most influenced them, and Bush replied, "Jesus, because he changed my heart."  He credits his religious conversion with helping him beat his earlier drinking problem.

Forgiveness belongs with a value system where responsibility is shared.  Not, that is, one where there is no responsibility, but where we say to a wrongdoer, “It's not your fault alone; it's something we can work at together,” rather than the limp “It's not your fault, so let's pretend it never happened.”  In this envisioned world of shared responsibility (which is perhaps the defining characteristic of the whole network of values), forgiveness is not the foundational value, but it is the basic heroic action, the one which requires and celebrates courage and personal risk more than any other.

Forgiving can certainly be presented as a unilateral act.  For a victim to work at the level of improving one's inner spirit and attitude, sense of self, and also physical health, is is a wise and good course of action, just for oneself, regardless of the reactions of the wrongdoer or the surrounding community.  But this is only part of the process and scale of forgiving.  (See the ForgivenessNet article The dimensions of forgiveness for a model of this.)  The more rounded and confident I feel, the more I realise I belong to an interdependent society where I can also empower others, improve my relationships with people, forgive wrongdoers who haven't wronged me as well as those who have, and so on.

It's never easy to sit down and work out where you want things to go if they can't go "your way."  So enforcing your way seems an attractive option, as well as seeming to maintain an appearance of strength, success and power.  Yet a commitment to working at forgiveness needs us to be ready to do this.  And it also needs us to be able to hear surprising voices from the sidelines, even those of our enemies, contributing not only insight but shared responsibility for our lives and relationships, and for the world's order and peace.

Andrew Knock

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