Violence is in the news. It’s hard to escape – from stories about #WhyIStayed to #WhyILeft, to the Oscar Pistorius trial and verdict, to the escalating crisis in the Middle East and concerns about the US entering another war.
But earlier this week I listened to a different sort of story – an inspiring story from a mother who lost her son to extreme violence and responded with love, not violence. With courage I couldn’t fathom, Nicole Hockley stood up and told those of us who attended the 19th international Institute for Violence Abuse and Trauma (IVAT) conference how she learned her autistic son Dylan was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, soon after she learned her other son, Dylan’s brother Jake, survived the tragic mass shooting on December 14, 2012. Rather than responding to her unimaginable tragedy with malice, she asked us to “let love lead the way.”
At the conference, Nicole Hockley spoke of the need for common sense gun legislation reform, as well as the need to promote mental wellness in our society – mental wellness that takes the form of empathy, compassion, and connectivity.
Nicole Hockley spoke to a room of like-minded people. The IVAT conference is a unique forum for people from diverse disciplines and viewpoints to come up with workable solutions to prevent and respond to violence, abuse, and trauma. I was there to talk about Physicians for Human Rights Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, in which my colleagues and I work with our Congolese and Kenyan partners to end impunity for sexual violence. Other conference sessions focused on military sexual trauma, child trafficking, and the links between human, animal, and environmental rights, among many other topics. All of the people I met at the conference are working hard to identify nonviolent methods to effectively prevent and respond to violence.
Even just this week, many people are warning us about the consequences of responding to violence with violence. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Charles M. Blow urged caution in our response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As Mr. Blow points out, “missions creep, wars get foggy and the very definition of victory can become elusive” – all while soldiers and civilians die, the number of our enemies grows, and money is diverted from education and health care.
Responding to the “Why does she stay?” question, CNN anchor Christi Paul reminded us that we asking the wrong question. Instead, we need to show compassion, support, and love for women and men caught in violent situations and get to the bottom of why we permit violence in our society.
Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipain, a 66-year-old black woman who grew up in Soweto, studied law during apartheid, and found Oscar Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide, commented in her ruling that “Many people in this country have experienced crime, but they have not resorted to sleeping with a firearm under their pillow,” as Pistorius evidently did.
Science supports the idea that nonviolence – not violence – is the most effective antidote to violence. Scientist Paul J. Zak, who is known for coining the term “moral molecule” to describe the hormone oxytocin, has shown that a large number of caring and compassionate actions among humans and other animals cause oxytocin release, which calms fear and aggression and often leads to other caring interactions. In other words, kindness is contagious.
If Nicole Hockley can show tremendous forgiveness and lead with love, can’t we?
Nicole Hockley closed her talk with a story about her son Dylan. Dylan used to flap his arms like a butterfly. She alluded to the butterfly effect – the idea that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can alter the course of the universe forever – and she voiced her hope that Dylan’s memory would lead to significant change. If one small butterfly can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world, imagine if we all flapped our wings of love.
The truth is, showing love takes more courage than waging war. But if you are ever short on strength and courage, think of Nicole Hockley and the other brave parents of Sandy Hook Promise who are working toward a world in which your kids – all kids – are safe and loved.
Don’t we owe her, Dylan, and the many others across the globe impacted by violence everyday at least as much?
We need to stop romanticizing violence. Nonviolence isn’t some lofty unreachable goal. It takes one caring action after another, all of which can add up over time to become a hurricane of change.