The solution to violence, including youth violence, is multifaceted. It ranges from the personal to the social, from developing interpersonal and conflict resolution skills to implementing effective societal programs and systems. In general, an action strategy for peace -- within us and between us -- must focus on three areas: communication, connection, and community.
The quality of your life isn't just a matter of enough food, warm clothing, a good education, and all the modern conveniences. The quality of your life is directly linked to the quality of your communication. Communication can help you get the things you want out of life; but even more fundamentally, it affects your growth, your health, your development as a person, and your relationships. "Once a human being has arrived on this earth," asserted therapist Virginia Satir, "communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships we make with others and what happens to us in the world."
Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and emerged still hopeful about humanity, believes in the power of communication: "I believe in dialogue. I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, something will come out of that, something good."
Communication ended the Cold War and reversed the nuclear arms race. Several years after Ronald Reagan left office, his former secretary of state George Shultz asked former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev what the turning point in the Cold War had been. "Reykjavik," Gorbachev answered without hesitation. He explained that at their meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, he and President Reagan had for the first time entered into genuine dialogue with each other that extended far beyond the main agenda of arms control to cover values, assumptions, and aspirations for their two nations. Gorbachev credited this dialogue with establishing enough mutual trust and understanding to begin to reverse the nuclear arms race.
Words are more powerful than guns and nuclear weapons combined. Violence begins and ends in communication.
So it's important to encourage thought and dialogue -- in young and old. Teaching children how to use their words is critical. It begins young, with the toddler who scowls, crosses her arms, and uses her newly discovered label, "I'm mad." As adults, we have a responsibility to model effective communication. Unfortunately, in daily life, for good reasons and bad, too often we don't talk to each other and too often we don't want to. And sometimes when we do talk, things only get worse. Feelings -- anger, guilt, hurt -- escalate. Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is involved, when the issue at stake is important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what's being discussed or about the people involved, there is the potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult. The difficult conversations are
-- well -- difficult, so we avoid them. Yet they are the ones we most need to have.
It's true that some situations are unlikely to improve regardless of how much you communicate. The people involved may be so emotionally troubled, the stakes so high, or the conflict so intense that the situation may well be hopeless. But for every hopeless case, there are a thousand that may appear hopeless but are not.
Talking, listening, asking and answering questions, sharing stories -- communicating. It's a challenge that's worth it. Keep your goals realistic. Eliminating fear and anxiety is an unrealistic goal. Reducing fear and anxiety and learning how to manage everything that remains is a much more realistic goal.
Through communication we develop our own humanity and build the bonds that connect us. We need to feel connected, not only to each other but to something bigger -- to the past and to the future. Said Albert Einstein:
Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others... for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself to give in return as much as I have received.
What we believe is key, because the stories we tell ourselves shape our reality to a great extent. Instead of believing that "my" goal is important, we must believe that both "my" goal and the common goal are important; instead of believing "my" needs are paramount, we must believe both "my" needs and the needs of others are important; instead of believing "I" work and learn alone, we must believe that we work and learn together; instead of believing that "I" work and live to benefit myself, we must believe that "I" work and live to benefit both myself and others; instead of believing "I" am responsible and accountable only to "myself," we much believe that "I" am responsible and accountable to "myself" as well as others.
Connection of any sort requires choices. In family and in community, we accumulate obligations and commitments to other people as we go through life. The dilemma is that in order for community (and family) to thrive, individuals must willingly sacrifice some of their free will to the collective good. Group needs and expectations inevitably place limits on how we can express ourselves. We have a yearning for the exercise of who we are as individuals AND a yearning for belonging, connection, and inclusion. There is constant tension throughout our lives between these forces of differentiation and connection, between individual desires and group expectations. And so we must make choices.
Research has shown that children need 4 to 6 involved, caring adults in their lives to fully develop emotionally and socially. Research has also shown that one of the keys to youth violence is that many young people feel unconnected. Without a sense of connection to others, they tend to sway too much toward an exercise of their rights as an individual, but it is action rooted in low self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness. At the same time, to answer the persistent tug of their need for connection, many turn to gangs, which accelerates the downward spiral.
If we have as our story "looking out for number one" then the primary motivation becomes "us versus them" and maintaining power and control. This viewpoint is grounded in perceptions and images of limited resources and uncertain futures. If young people believe there are no choices, they won't see the choices that may be there. Building a meaningful connection with an adult is often a critical step toward seeing choices. If the need for connection can be filled by a mature adult like a family member, teacher, coach, mentor, or neighbor, in a way that at the same time validates the young person as an individual, the tendency toward violence is greatly reduced. It's much easier for young people to see and make smarter choices.
There is a Vietnamese saying: In hell, people starve because their hands are chained to six-foot long chopsticks, too long to bring rice to their mouths; heaven is the same -- only there, people feed each other.
An ideal community gives its members a sense of identity and belonging, connectedness to something bigger, a measure of security, a framework of shared values, a network of caring individuals, and the experience of being needed. In a caring community, people depend on each other and take responsibility for each other. Communities at their best are interactive. Individuals give to the community, and the community supports the individual. Community exists before you are born and remains after you are gone. This is true at the neighborhood, city, national, and global levels.
We share our lives not only with those we love, like our family, but also with our neighbors, who we do not really "love" or perhaps may not even like. We may really love a dozen people or so. Which leaves somewhere in the neighborhood of six billion other people on the planet with whom we must interact, and hopefully get along. For them, we need the sense of responsibility that defines community. Building community is hard work.
Community is about the state of the world, the state of our souls, the state of our role as citizens, and the legacies we will leave those who come after us. Every human being is called on to participate in the making of society. It is a process of continuous creation which cannot continue unless we participate. We don't need citizenship based on blood, belief, patriotism, or law. We need citizenship based on participation. Yes, it may all seem overwhelming and hopeless at times. But it can be even more draining to bury your anger, convince yourself you're powerless, and swallow whatever is handed to you. When you get involved in community, you make your life count. What you do does make a difference. You create a vital legacy.
None of us has the final answers to the difficult questions this world faces. But as you listen to wide-ranging conversation, answers begin to become clearer. And as you participate, actions become easier. We need to extend the self beyond the individual. The illusion of the individual as omnipotent -- able to "take care of myself," live in a secured care-free condo, purchase home-delivered meals, buy any service, conduct work on a personal computer, and find distraction in a home entertainment center -- leads to the rupture of community. But if you view life in terms of a bigger picture, your responsibility is extended beyond yourself to include people in your family, people in your community, as well as future and historic people.
The issue of youth violence isn't something for schools to sort out in isolation. It is an issue of community. What happens in schools is inextricably linked to what happens in families and in communities. And community safety is an issue that affects the youngest preschooler to the oldest senior. We all have a need and a right to be able to walk down our streets in safety.
In Getting to Peace, William Ury argues that what prevents us from getting to peace perhaps more than anything else is the lack of a perceived alternative to violence:
That our ancestors were quite capable of violence, that indeed they had the ability all along to make war, and that they undoubtedly had many conflicts makes their feat of coexisting all the more remarkable. They had to work hard and courageously to prevent conflicts from arising, to resolve difficult issues, and to contain violent fights. One of the keys to their success, I am persuaded, was a vigilant and active community -- a powerful third side. Their peace was not a peace of the weak but a peace of the brave.
We need to consciously develop the power of what Ury calls the "third side" -- a surrounding community that serves as a container for any type of escalating conflict:
A good analogy for the third side is the body's immune system. When a cell is attacked by a virus, it sends out a chemical alarm awakening the dendritic cells that lie dormant in every tissue of the body. The dendritic cells, in turn, mobilize the T-cells, which come to the rescue. If the T-cells correspond roughly to the police and peacekeepers of the world, the dendritic cells correspond to the surrounding community that must be aroused in order to stop destructive conflict. The third side thus serves as a kind of social immune system preventing the spread of the virus of violence.
Another way to understand the concept of the third side is to compare the messages in the movies High Noon and Witness. In High Noon, Gary Cooper's pacifist Quaker wife, played by Grace Kelly, puts aside her deeply felt opposition to violence, grabs a gun, and in the movie's climactic scene shoots the last of the bad guys before he can shoot her husband. The message is that sometimes you have to go against your beliefs to keep the bad guys from winning, sometimes violence is justified -- you need to do evil to fight evil and prevent more evil from happening.
But in Witness, something a little different happens. In the climactic scene, a young boy knows where Harrison Ford's gun is hidden. But he does not go for it. Instead, he runs to ring the town bell to summon all the farmers from the surrounding area. The hundred unarmed men stare down the bad guys, sending the message, "We will not permit evil in our midst." There is the moral force of an entire community at play. It is a force to be reckoned with. Never underestimate the power of the many. Moral force is one of the most practical and powerful types of force in conflict.
Community-building is therefore important to peace in the local and global sense. Community involves mutual benefit, trust, and visions of a better world. The more committed the members of a community, the more highly they will value the community; the more they value the community, the more likely they will voluntarily follow community standards. When voluntary commitment is high, group solidarity is high (a strong community); the stronger the community, the more likely it can respond effectively to collective problems. Communities that are able to solve collective problems can in turn chart their own course and are more likely to influence basic socioeconomic conditions.
The ability to maintain individual identity while at the same time preserving social cohesion is the basis for understanding social conflict and promoting social change. What we need to strive for is neither total dependence or independence, but interdependence.