Shaking the World in a Gentle Way

“Being smart and rich are lucky, but being curious and compassionate will save your ass.”

Mary Karr


Somewhere in the coastal town of Porbandar, India, a young boy named Mohandas Gandhi had grown into the habit of smoking.

Together with a relative of his, they sought to follow the example of their uncle who smoked. They began looting cigarette stumps that their uncle discarded, but not without some problems — the cigarette stumps weren’t always around, and there wasn’t a lot of content left in them to smoke anyway.

One habit morphed into another, as Gandhi began stealing money from his family’s servant so that he could buy his own cigarettes. 

Later in his teens, Gandhi reached another “milestone” in thieving. As he remembered, he wanted to help his brother get out of a debt of 25 rupees. So he clipped off a piece of gold from his brother’s armlet. The debt was cleared, but this time, the guilt was too heavy for Gandhi to bear. 

Gandhi decided to confess his wrongdoings to his father, who at the time, was bedridden. Gandhi didn’t dare to speak, so he wrote his confession on a piece of paper, promising not to steal again. 

He trembled as he sat across his father’s bed and sent him the note. As Gandhi vividly recalled his father’s response, “pearl drops trickled down his cheeks”, wetting Gandhi’s confession note. 

“Those pearl-drops of love cleansed my heart, and washed my sin away,” wrote Gandhi in his autobiography. “Only he who has experienced such love can know what it is.”

The incident taught Gandhi the value of ahimsa or non-violence, a concept which he would fervently embody in fighting for India’s independence. 

He had expected his father to get angry or say harsh words as most parents would. Instead, he responded peacefully. He responded with love for his son. He showed that while he didn’t approve Gandhi’s wrongdoings, he still loved him. And this encouraged Gandhi to be the person we have best known him to be. 

But what if his father exploded in anger, or if he said demeaning words instead? Chances are that it would only cause Gandhi to rebel, feel resentful, or at the very least, be afraid to open up to his father again. 

As Gandhi himself wrote, “I know that my confession made my father feel absolutely safe about me, and increased his affection for me beyond measure.”

There’s a big difference between reacting and responding. The former is instinctual and impulsive. The latter is calm and thoughtful. 

The former is in one-upping the other’s person attack on you. The latter is in disarming the other person with a mindful action.

Non-violence is all about responding. It’s about taking the time to calm down, to think deeply, to not do or act in a way that only escalates the conflict at hand. 

Non-violence — as well as violence, for that matter — have a big impact on the macro just as much as they do on our micro-level interactions.

Consider these two countries and their radically contrasting approaches to eradicating drug use

In the Philippines, the government declared a war on drugs in 2016. Drug dealers and users have been relentlessly shot dead in the slums by the police and assassins, if not jammed into prisons. As of June 2021, an estimate of 12,000 to 30,000 fatalities were recorded since the start of the policy.

Despite the violence, Romeo Caramat, the Head of Drug Enforcement admitted that drug dealership has only run rifer, and that drug prices have been lower than when the policy was just enacted. 

Now, think of Portugal and their counterintuitive decision to decriminalize drugs in 2001, albeit as their last resort in eradicating drug use. Prior to that, they had the highest HIV infection rate in Europe, and 1 in every 100 citizens were addicted to heroin. You could virtually find thousands of drug addicts getting wasted and passing out in the streets. 

But something amazing happened when drugs were decriminalized. Society no longer treated drug users as the garbage of the world. Drug users were no longer punished, but treated as patients. And as a result, they no longer felt discarded, but instead welcomed into society. They were no longer afraid to ask for help, as they were looked after by the healthcare system and guided through their rehabilitation. 

According to the country’s Health Ministry, they recorded 100,000 active heroin addicts when drugs were decriminalized in 2001, and less than 25,000 nearly two decades later in 2020. 

Understand that there’s always a peaceful, more impactful way to achieve an end. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, you can always shake the world in a gentle way. 

Imagine how different the world would be if more of us practiced responding with love, rather than reacting with anger. 

As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in “How to Fight”, “Love means to embrace the other person with compassion. This is possible when we know the other person is suffering and needs our compassion, not our anger. When we’re able to love our enemy, that person is no longer our enemy.” 

Respond, don’t react.

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