When Jodie Foster received the Academy Award in 1988 for her role in “The Accused,” she said something that has stayed with me ever since. The movie was loosely based on a true story of a violent rape, and when Foster honored everyone for speaking truth to the world through film, she closed with a special appreciation for her mother. She thanked her mother for teaching her that while violence may be part of the human condition, it is never acceptable. With the recent news of yet another school shooting bringing us to our knees, I think of these words again. How do we as citizens of our community and of our world confront the brute fact of meaningless violence with our own power to make it unacceptable?
The contexts of violence can be many and most often promise no meaning or comfort. And while circumstances absolutely matter and the call to action is and should be clarion and compelling, what Foster’s mother was saying, I think, is that the understanding that humans can do harm is what demands our ongoing and constant attention. It’s not only about one event, however horrific, but also about a way of walking through this world, holding hands against violence and hate of all kinds. It’s about not matching violence with more violence and about recognizing that all casualties belong to us all, no matter where we live or who we are.
In my English elective, South Asian Literature, we are reading a novel about the Indian and Pakistani partition called “Cracking India” by Bapsi Sidhwa. The narrator, a little Parsee girl, witnesses unspeakable violence living hand-in-hand with people she loves. At one point in the novel she poignantly says, “I have many teachers.” And this is where we all come in. In this arena of both acknowledging and refusing violence, we are all teachers, large and small. There is something to the adage, “the children are watching” because, indeed, they are. As adults, we need to stand vigilant against all forms of violence, physical or verbal, naming it always as wrong when we see it and not letting our children be either ambushed nor held hostage by its presence: “part of the human condition and never acceptable.” This means embracing that hard and constant work of balance: a recognition and a resistance. We are the teachers, and the lesson is unending. As William Sloane Coffin says, “substance takes time; provocation, far less.”
Acknowledging and making violence unacceptable all the time calls for recognizing and doing good most of the time. Far from idealism or sentimentality, doing good is hard work and the heart of integrity. It calls for empathy, compassion and resilience—all of which demand both attention and action. In “Cracking India,” women take small but extremely dangerous and important actions against the violence at hand. After the recent school shooting in Florida, high school students across our country are planning a national march against gun violence. And our schoolwide Kindness Council is designing ways to lift up the good in our community, making it as integral as possible in our day-to-day. We can’t trot toward compliancy, nor can we afford cynicism or hatred to lead the way.
Countering violence means living with hope. We teach our children that there is both good and bad in the world, but we should embrace the good, making it easy, normal and always there. As Donald Hall says, “Live with more awareness of the small blessings of the day, the simple contentment of family life when it is harmonious—simplify, appreciate, stay close, be kind, tell the truth, work as we are able, rest.” In other words, live with hope as a way to counter intolerable violence.
Perhaps Foster’s mother stopped a bit too short. Perhaps accepting violence as a condition challenges what we know is true: violence is taught, and violence is learned. It is there, with those first lessons, that our work begins: undo the teaching or never let it begin. In the meantime, like Foster’s mother, I will continue to name all violence, verbal and physical, as unacceptable.