Book Club

It was Liam’s turn to host us and so several of us car-pooled to his old farm house east of town. Liam and his first wife had begun working on the extensions to the farmhouse more than thirty years previously and had laid the large plank walnut flooring and built the first extension. I am not sure if there is an extension for each wife but there are three additions and three former wives. Though Liam just turned 80, he calls it “the house of the future,” meaning it is not finished and he is hoping, I guess, for more wives.  We gathered in front of the fireplace behind the kitchen and we could hear each new arrival stomping snow off their boots in the mud room at the front of the house and then passing over the hardwood onto the block limestone. The beams protruding from the living room into the kitchen, the intricately carved buttresses, and a bed set into a cavern off the kitchen, reflected Liam’s gift for innovation and using whatever materials presented themselves.

As about eight of us gathered we settled into our usual rhythm as the warm glow of the fire, of special refreshments, of returning to the comfort of book club took hold. No one in particular initiates the conversation but it always clicks into place.

The group seems to have been working on this same book, Nonviolent Communication, forever. We prepare by reading a chapter and then discuss how to apply the principles but somehow, we never move forward. The point of the chapters is easy enough but the application and practice seem to elude us and we forget what we just read. Even when we remember we had covered a chapter, no one seems to be able to say exactly what the chapter had been about. Liam suggested we just continually read the book, and though we had not agreed, this seems to be our fate.

 Each Thursday evening, we gather and practice “focusing,” “observing without evaluating,” “identifying and expressing feelings,” and “taking responsibility for our feelings.” As each person talks, we concentrate intensely on “empathy,” “connecting compassionately with ourselves,” while at the same time “listening for the feelings and needs” behind what others are saying.  We slowly get lost as we attempt to keep all of these balls in the air; which is not to say that we do not enjoy the process – we do – but this past week we hit a peculiar turning point.

On this particular Thursday we were practicing using action language, as it is “positive action language” which will resolve conflict. One needs to pose present action language, such as “I’d like you to tell me if you’d be willing to . . .?” This sort of positive action language “helps foster a respectful discussion,” apparently. Then Irving raised a fundamental existential question: “What if they are not willing? In fact, what if the premise of this book is mistaken? What if people are not basically good and desiring peace?”

I am usually the one to raise the dark questions.  As Ricardo has put it, your answer for everything is, “It is systematic evil.” We were discussing the film, Three Identical Strangers, and he was wondering what particular conspiracy was at work behind separating the triplets, and I may have used that particular phrase.  In a burst of not “nonviolent communication” he let me know he was fed up. “‘It is systematic evil’ is not an explanation of anything,” he said in total exasperation. Clearly, he was not “connecting compassionately” nor “finding the need behind the words.” The hard truth of my dark turn of mind and his clear frustration were such a delightful combination that I nearly spit my street tacos on him laughing.   

At any rate, we were all stunned that Irving, of all people, had raised this fundamental existential question. Where I have always been suspicious that radical evil may describe the truth of the human race, it is people like Irving who immediately relieve the suspicion. Irving seems to be peace itself, not needing to practice nonviolent communication, as he seems to have been born with a basic compassion which inevitably sees the inherent goodness in people. People, who at one time would have been hard for me to tolerate, take on a different light seeing them through Irving’s perspective. Watching his appreciation for people had taught me to also appreciate them and I think we all had the same feeling. So, we sat momentarily silenced, as his statement took all of the energy out of the room.

 The entire working premise of the book and the group were built upon the notion that violence was primarily a matter of miscommunication. If we could only learn to communicate nonviolently then we could forego participation in the worst sort of evil. If we could learn to get behind our own and other’s anger and “see the need,” then we could escape the trap of violence. But there it was: what if violence goes deeper than a communicative difficulty and what if goodness is not to be presumed?

In case anyone had missed it, I spelled out the dark implication of Irving’s statement, my spiritual gift. If we cannot rely on the basic goodness of the human race then neither can we consider the premise of this book to be workable. If it is not goodness but evil that is the underlying motive of even a few people, then this book is bound to get us into trouble. The book accounts for all sorts of twistedness and presumes the truth is obscured by anger and the need for affirmation, but it is also presumed that the twistedness can be untwisted so as to arrive at a fundamental human goodness.  If this is not the case, and some are constituted in their twistedness. . . well then?

We absorbed the darkness of the moment – suspended in midair.

We abruptly turned from it, not for any specifiable reason. Maybe the warmth of the group, our communal labor premised upon a basic goodness – that light has shown in the darkness – had produced its own self-evident goodness. Either option, darkness or light, had seemed momentarily plausible.

Liam went to his cabinet and retrieved what he called his “malaria remedy” and it did seem to calm the fever. Anna Rose turned to the section on “emergency empathy” and read aloud, “Are you feeling reassured about that, or would you like more reassurance . . .?” The conversation continued with “all needs heard” and “empathy shared” on the presumption that the universe is good.

That final evening before our Christmas break we all knew something special had transpired. Irving’s mother was visiting and we all felt we now knew where his expansive generosity came from. She requested that we pray, something we had never done in book club, and yet it could not have been otherwise. We formed a circle in the kitchen and held hands and knew:

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.

(Names have been changed and some events rearranged.)

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

4 thoughts on “Book Club”

  1. I have a coworker who makes it policy to always assume that people have a good, rational reason for everything they do. He assumes this to keep himself from taking things personally or assuming something wrong that isn’t there.

    When I say, “I felt insulted by what this person did,” or “I’m concerned about something I’m seeing.” it’s always “but we don’t know…so let’s assume it’s benign.”

    I’ve told him, “We don’t know,” is fine. “Let’s assume,” is not helpful.

    Jesus’ advice to his disciples is “be as innocent as doves, but as wise (crafty/careful/suspicious) as snakes.”

    1. “Rational” may not get at the motivating factor in any discernible form but I think the question is if there is a basic need which people have – affirmation, love, life. What is be sought may be perfectly good but the means of achieving it may be twisted.

    2. I also have a good friend who automatically assumes the good in everyone. Not being of such a wide-eyed mindset, I too, am willing to grant ‘We don’t know’ what this person is about, but not quite willing to aver deep-seated goodness and need as the root of all evil.

      Much of Protestant Christianity has often compartmentalized all but themselves as ‘evil’ other, which is both wrongheaded and destructive. I believe God looks down upon men and sees the ignorance, confusion, hurt and neediness that often leads us to harm of self and others. I believe he desires to meet those needs, and free such from the tyranny of unhealthy living.

      And yet, I am not so sure that there is not a subset of mankind which stubbornly resists the voice of God, becoming those depraved minds that truly delight in evil. I like to think this is a rather small subset of mankind, and am happy to assume that most are without it. But one must never forget that it is real.

      1. You’re correct that it’s out there and that pretending it isn’t certainly isn’t helpful.

        You may still be a little more optimistic than I am. I think it’s more prevalent than not.

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