Approaching Daily Life with MLK’s Spirit of Non-Violence

mlkWe owe it to Martin Luther King to consider the role violence plays in our lives. At the heart of his legacy was the continuation of Gandhi’s vision that transformation can happen through non-violence. In many ways we have forgotten this lesson. We still see violence as a solution, whether it is through war, incarceration, or more subtle interactions in our daily life. We celebrate retribution in movies. For much of the world, justice means revenge. Getting even, having a good comeback, making people pay for what they’ve done, it’s consider by many to be a human right. Our new classroom or family activity, Living with a Heart of Non-Violence, challenges us to consider if we can approach our daily lives in the spirit of non-violence.

Violence is more than just guns and bombs. Of course, those living in war-torn countries face a daily choice of reacting to events with overt violence. In our world, we face the choice of whether to react to our daily troubles with a heart of violence or a heart of non-violence.

Using The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey, I work with my students on changing their “reactive” behavior to “proactive” behavior. Reactive behavior is lashing out, blaming others, and seeking revenge. It’s a subtle form of violence. Whereas proactive behavior is about taking charge, forgiving, staying open, and learning from mistakes. At the core of this behavior is non-violence.

Reactive people blow up at every problem, creating chain reactions of anger, revenge, and retaliation. An eye for an eye. One insult deserves another. It is contagious, and it can spread through an office, a school, a home. This violent approach to life only ends in death–the death of friendships, the death or our peace of mind, and the death of our happiness. As Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye and the whole world’s blind.”

Pro-active people do not let their emotions and sense of power be at the whim of outside forces. They live with an open and non-violent heart. They are happier because of it. 

It’s not hard to audit ourselves to find out if we carry with us a reactive and violent spirit. Here are good questions to consider.

  • Am I easily offended? Do I think it necessary to have a come back?
  • Do I sometimes resent other’s success?
  • Do I blame other people for what’s wrong in my life?
  • Do outside forces and people easily control my mood?
  • Do I use reactive language like “that’s just me,” “it’s impossible,” “I can’t change,” and “he needs to pay”?

Of course, we have both violent and peaceful tendencies in us. We might answer yes to any one of these questions at certain times. We might be proactive at work and reactive at home.

My students wonder why they would want to be non-reactive, non-violent, and pro-active in this world? Why would anyone react with forgiveness to a legitimate wrong?  How can we have the strength to say what Martin Luther King said after his house was bombed? “If you have weapons, take them home.  If you do not have them, please do not seek them. We cannot solve this problem through violence.” The spirit of violence is so pervasive right now, it might be difficult to convince kids that a non-violent approach is worth it. When I show Civil Rights footage to my students, their reaction is universal. They want to fight. They want to retaliate. They want revenge.

We believe in The Avengers not the Non-Violent Resisters.

I think the bottom line is, how do we want to spend our life? At the end of our days, will we want to remember a life filled with anger and retaliation? And, in my students’ case, a life spent  in jail or on the margins of society? It’s easy to go back and see how our reactive behavior hurts us, but hard to stop in the moment.

Kids can be taught. The activity Living with a Heart of Non-Violence is worth discussing with your family or classroom. Kids should become aware of when they react to a difficult situation with violent hearts versus pro-active and open hearts. When insulted, is revenge necessary? When someone’s rude to you, is rudeness a necessary retaliation? When someone lets you down, should they be punished?

Perhaps it’s enough, for now, to help them become aware of the violence inside them, so that they can make conscious decisions. My students tell me, flat out, that they are reactive and will remain violent and reactive. Retribution is practically their religion. But when they see that pro-active behavior can get them what they want, they learn to use it when they need it.

As we mature, we all learn this lesson. We learn that we can’t lash out at our awful boss and spit on rude people and expect success. But we may still live with violence in our hearts. Until we see that this will, of course, lead to anxiety, anger, poor health, and regret, we may continue.

One violent reaction has a string of counter-reactions, like gang feuds which always demand an endless string of retributive killings, to the point where nobody remembers why they hate each other so much.

The good news is that one non-violent reaction, one chance to turn the cheek, to skip the counter insult, to diffuse the neighbor’s hostility with kindness, to react pro-actively when others are reacting with anger, stops the chain in its tracks. It’s a sliver of peace in a violent world. This peace, Martin Luther King proved, is equally as contagious.


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