A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to an evening class at San Francisco State in their Wholistic Health department. The course, A Season for Non Violence, focused on applying principles of love and wisdom to daily life and the particular class I attended was on “mending the social divide.” I wondered what social divide could they mean, but then I woke up, made some coffee and braced myself for the morning paper.
As I prepared my talk and discussed it with colleagues, I became aware that non violence is not for the conflict averse. The history of civil disobedience and non violence is a wild collision of philosophical understanding, spiritual insight, individual commitment to ethical choice, and collective action. The historical plum line that links Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela is a tale of uncomfortable and conflictual feelings within that elevates toward a higher and more complex understanding of our interconnectedness.
What was hopeful and inspiring for me was the class itself, a mix of mostly young men and women from all over the world and a cross section of economic class.
There were two women whose parents were born in different parts of India talking about entrepreneurial ventures in education, an African American woman from West Oakland who told me she had been asked to give the commencement address at her former middle school, and a young man who wanted to rekindle the American lyceum movement of the early 1800’s, a voluntary movement focused on adult learning by addressing topics of current interest.
In our group discussion, the perspectives varied widely, with one man wanting to know the structural changes needed to create a just world, a woman acknowledging sometimes feeling overwhelmed and even paralyzed, and a third saying that the ideas of the class that inspired her has also made her seem slightly odd to others in her social network. After the class was over, a student told me she had been exhausted and considered skipping class and sleeping but was now feeling refreshed.
Somewhere in the background of my mind, the tune “Don’t you know the world is falling apart” is playing, but not this evening in San Francisco where the subject of mending the social divide found a real and inspiring chorus. Reb Zalman's signature line, "Together we can get it together" was alive and well.