Bending the Bow: An Introduction

Hurt people hurt people, Healed people heal people. 

Harm to one is harm to all, Love to one is love to all.

Laying the Foundation

Do you marvel at those who are capable of resilience and bravery in the face of trauma, violence, or injustice? At people who display wisdom and calm when others bluster aggressively? And at those who show discipline, conviction, self control, and non-reactivity amidst the general chaos of change and upheaval? I do.

Such committed and clear thinking people seem to be rare, especially when it comes to social justice issues. A more common human reaction is to crumple, go numb, or abdicate to someone who brings more overt energy to an issue. To ignore a social problem, and hope it goes away under someone else’s leadership.

People who are making out okay under an existing dominance structure can keep their noses down, remain silent, and just go about their business. Some people who are not directly affected choose indifference or inaction—and they can do so without experiencing any overt, direct personal consequences. Then there are the people who are right minded in their heart, but just feel powerless.

This book is for you.

Right now in human history, life is a lot better than it used to be. Children in the United States no longer work 14 hours at the loom in sweatshops. Women have the vote. You can no longer buy and sell human flesh (at least legally….more on the hidden trade later). But there is still a lot of inequity. When we are caught up in the immediacy of the struggle in front if us, we can lose perspective on just how long real change takes.

In retrospect, historic achievements in social justice appear as a natural progression toward freedom. But, at the moment of inception, they are often bathed in blood and soaked with anxiety. History smooths the line, like a mathematical function or algorithm that takes out the noise. Each movement forward seems to be met with a few steps back- a push and pull that includes intermittent violent slides into separation.

Throughout human history, swaths of people seem to repeatedly get caught up in a hunger to dominate, demonize, and separate- presumably to make themselves feel secure, safer, or better positioned for life. These can manifest as an instinct to overtake others in the name of a temporarily unifying idea, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious discrimination, or social bigotry. A distemper of sorts comes over people: An aggression stemming perhaps from their own unhappiness (it’s my theory that happy, connected people are generally not willful oppressors). This malady looks for someone to blame: a scapegoat. Someone to control, abuse, or manipulate. That someone is usually the stranger, the Other: someone who can be separated from the herd, and preyed upon. Historically, the Other as defined by some visible, external cue: race, religion, gender, sex, age, wealth.

At the same time, there are concurrent voices who call for social justice, equity, and kindness: people who keep moving the needle forward. These are individuals and communities who have held the line or advanced it, in every important social movement that has helped us evolve as humans. Someone said “no!” to slavery. Someone got women the vote. Someone ended the era of children working 12 hours a day in factories and mines. Someone took a step out to defend gay marriage. Someone ended the Vietnam war.

These were all bitterly contested advances.

Many people, when confronted with the suffering of others, just can’t stay passive. There is a whisper in their hearts: “This thing isn’t right, this thing isn’t just, or in alignment.” That whisper becomes a statement, then a shout: “This isn’t right. This ISN’T RIGHT!” until they can’t hold the contradiction any longer. In case after case, over hundreds of years of narratives (drawn from abolitionists, despot-fighters, sexuality activists, indigenous people, tax protestors—you name it) a similar story arc unfolds.

As a person’s inward values come into coherence with their outward actions they usually begin with a quiet action. Perhaps they say something to their neighbors. Write a letter to the paper. Stand up for a stranger in public. Circumvent an unjust law. Fly a sign.

But if they hit a hot button issue, or poke a tender spot in the zeitgeist, especially at a time when a change is coming due that hasn’t yet been accepted by the dominant culture—there is often a strong adverse reaction: a backlash. Those who have something to lose from the coming change may threaten and pressure the activist, in an attempt to silence, deactivate, discredit, or defuse any further action.

At this point, the person of conscience is faced with a choice. They can recant, silence themselves and slink away—with only minor suffering or retribution—or they can double down on their stand.

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