PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


“Shoulds”, “Oughts”, and “Have to’s” by peaceprobe
July 5, 2006, 12:07 pm
Filed under: Nonviolence, Nonviolent defence, Politics of Empire

Yesterday, July 4, 2006 I watched how one US News channel helped Americans celebrate independence day with stories of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, marching bands in small towns, and collapsing photos of exploding fire works. Independence Day celebrations try to give some meaning to the present state, United States, in the context of a history of immigration, conquest, and social experimentation in political democracy. For this one day, the great divide between red and blue states gets a fresh look, although the pain and conflict it represents as a vision for the world is never hidden. I can’t erase from my mind the sound and image of President George Bush or Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice lecturing the world about how things ought to be, should be or have to be.

In my ruminations about nonviolence long before either Rice or Bush had reached high office, I discovered with horror how often I also used the words, ought to, should, or have to. At first I was confused about my ambivalence regarding the terms. Of course there are boundaries to our lives and clear expectations that need to be enforced. But, from somewhere in my mind a little voice kept nagging at me. Does this get us to the next step? Do I reach the community of fairness and justice by imposing oughts and shoulds? 

A “should” always implies a shouldn’t and at least within me the “shouldn’t” set off an internal resonance of restrictions and rules set in place at the earliest edge of my childhood consciousness that constrained my life rather than inviting me to embrace possibilities. I came to believe that life’s rewards and the absence of punishment came from the successful navigation through the mazeway of “shouldn’ts”. When I hear Rice and Bush lecturing the nations of the world, their language evokes memories of childhood pain and guilt. In their carefully crafted statements intended for adversaries and friends, they lay out clear specific boundaries for action. There are also implied threats of punishment.

This is the way we do foreign policy. But it’s also the way in which we conduct our personal and institutional life. About 20 years ago I decided to try to eliminate “shoulds”, “oughts”, and “have to” from my written and spoken vocabulary. It was really hard to do. Sometimes I would find myself in an animated conversations literally “shot” full of those words. For some reason my mind, functioning at the intersection of conscious and unconscious, was demanding (another one of those words) to make sure my point was made indelible for whomever was listening. Over time, by monitoring myself the situation has improved. I developed a little exercise that my right and left brain tossed back and forth. The exercise was this. Every time I needed one of those words I backed off ever so briefly and tried to decide how those guilt inducing words could be rephrased into comfortable but sometimes firm invitations. 

Usually the right brain left brain chat went something like this. 

Left Brain: Well if you can’t make an objective demand or rule then how do you keep things orderly? 

Right Brain: Order comes out of our very nature, and is natural. Let people decide on their own rather than forcing the matter.

Left Brain: But what about the exceptions, those people who just want to destroy, or harm or inflict pain?

Right Brain: You have a point there. But inviting people to their highest goals which we all have, does not eliminate further conversation or even strong words – it gives space for the deeper lubrication of love and emotion.

Well you get the point. The exercise is still going on within me. I forget sometimes. All of this happened because I wanted to figure out a fairer, more empowering way to conduct my personal and institutional life. I suspect it would have developed whole fresh permutations if I had been a parent. I am still figuring out how to be a husband who applies the positive power of invitation instead of the negative force of “should” to my partner. 

We live in a culture largely still functioning within the confines of “shoulds”, oughts and “have to’s”. Our leaders, who are really followers, imitate the preferred style that was passed on to them. Independence Day this year felt like a celebration of force and glitter. I hope that we have the courage to create a culture of joy and invitation.

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