In recent years, several pundits and politicians from around the world have begun declaring that tolerance is no longer good enough, that we need to replace it with unconditional love and respect for each other.
While that is a beautiful sentiment (one we should surely strive towards), devaluing tolerance is not a step in the right direction. We can’t cut the first few steps off a ladder and then ask people to follow us. Tolerance is still better than open hostilities.
Confession: I Can't Afford to be Angry and Outraged All the Time. Here Is What I Try To Do Instead...
Nearly every day of every week of every month for the past few years I’ve seen news stories, images, and ideas that sparked feelings of anger and outrage in me. Simultaneously, I’ve been told by activists to ‘stay angry’ because that is the only way to affect real change.
The problem is, I can’t.
I am just one of those people who can’t afford to be in a continuous state of anger and outrage. Such internal turmoil tears at the very fabric of my soul, poisons my relationships, and causes me to act in ways that are antithetical to my core beliefs.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that anger is not only a primitive and aggressive emotion and that, in fact, sometimes anger conveys signals from my moral compass that are meant to change my behavior. But, the truth remains that I cannot afford to be angry all the time.
Here is what I try to do instead.
When I use the word harmony to describe what we are trying to achieve here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, people often imagine an idyllic version of that, for instance, the beautiful resonance produced by the Vienna Boys’ Choir singing a classical work of art.
Knowing about that tendency, I go on to explain that even though the choir image might represent our aspirational goal for a harmonious society, punk rock bands and experimental jazz quintets also create their own unique versions of harmony, which is why we should not dismiss any effort in the social context.
In the Ear of the Listener
Everyone knows the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” A similar statement could be made about music, as in, “harmony is in the ear of the listener.” What may sound beautifully to one person will probably sound like utter rubbish to another, which is why there are so many types of music. Music appreciation is subjective.
In my work here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, I meet a lot of good-intentioned people who want to make the world a better place. It is truly a blessing to meet people from all faiths and spiritual paths that are passionate about creating a more harmonious world.
"What My Path Teaches..."
One thing I’ve noticed is that when people are explaining how they came to be called to this work they often cite their faith or spiritual path. Some feel the need to do so in great detail by quoting scripture, talking about the practices they engage in, both personally and with their groups, and by recounting many of the things that their teachers, priests, or spiritual leaders have said.
This is both normal and natural. People not only want to be good but they also want to be seen as good and show how they got there.
Our need for harmony will be in direct relationship with the amount of acrimony we feel. For example, I spoke with a minister last year who was teaching in the outskirts of New York on 9/11 2001. He told me that he’d never seen strangers come together as they did in the weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers. People went out of their way to be nice to each other, support each other, smile at each other, and lend a helping hand wherever they could.
He has not experienced anything like it since, and yet, we are seeing a similar sentiment expressed across continents in the wake of the New Zealand terrorist attack.
When People Start to Feel Better
At this juncture, it is important to remember that work towards harmony often dissipates in rhythm with receding acrimony. People start to feel better and get sidetracked.
This is natural.
So, if we want to be bridge-builders on a continual basis, not just in the aftermath of a tragedy, we have to work against this instinctive urge. We have to make harmony important, either by continually reminding ourselves of the worst that can happen or by envisioning the kind of world that we want to live in and work towards that every day (preferably both).
Most people are familiar with the parable of the three blind men who were attempting to describe an elephant. One held the trunk, another the tail, and the third held the belly while they argued vehemently about which one of them was right in their description of the elephant. In their own way, they were all correct. Each held a vital piece of the puzzle.
That sentiment of ‘true but partial’ is something I resonate with deeply. That is why I sought input from 19 bridge-builders and peacemakers in my new book.
Here is some of what they had to say:
What will a book about social harmony and bridge-building need to include to be considered a worthy contribution in challenging and divisive times? How will it supplement the efforts of interfaith and interideological initiatives across the country? How can I make sure I am not wasting people’s time?
Those were some of the questions I returned to again and again as I wrote Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides, which was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 21, 2019, and here are some of the answers I came up with.
When I tell people what we are working on at Harmony Interfaith Initiative—how we aim to support and supplement social harmony and bridge-building efforts in every way we can—they respond in one of two ways, either by saying, “that’s wonderful,” (more common) or by saying, “do you think that’s even possible?” (a sentiment that is sometimes delivered in a more direct and less supportive way).
To be fair, asking if social harmony is even possible is a rational question. One look at the news or someone’s social media feed can convince just about anyone that society is strapped in a jet-engine-car speeding down the highway to hell. Wondering whether social harmony is achievable or whether there is any precedent for it in history is entirely reasonable.
Gandhi's Response to Critiques of Nonviolence
To answer that question, allow me to defer to Mohandas K. Gandhi. The following quote appears in my new book, Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides, and shows how he responded when asked about the feasibility of nonviolence:
I am a big proponent of the Golden Rule. “Treat others as you want to be treated” is a sentiment that is found in some form in all religions. Jesus went further that most when he usurped all other commandments and told his followers to love God and love their neighbors as they would themselves—a tall order indeed.
The difficulty becomes apparent when we take a step back and ask what needs to happen before we can follow the Golden Rule. The dilemma can be boiled down to a single question: Do we love ourselves enough to want to be treated well and are we willing to extend that care to others?
Not Always Loving
I have not always been a model citizen. In all honesty, I have gone through periods in my life where I earned the pun on my name (Hi, I’m Gudjon, used to be Bad-John). But in hindsight, I can safely say that when I hurt other people, it usually went hand in hand with low self-esteem.
For example, I went through several years as a young adult when I was being bullied. During that time, I went out of my way to make sure others felt as miserable as I did. Later in life, I was in a relationship where I was loved but felt that I wasn’t worthy of love and sabotaged the relationship. And currently, even on my best days, I have moments where I look in the mirror and feel ‘less than’ and that affects my interactions with others.
From what I have seen and heard during my years on this Earth, I am not alone. It seems that most (if not all) of us go through periods where we do not love ourselves and feel that we should not be treated well. That gives some of us (not all) internal permission to treat others badly. When my daughter was nine, she wisely said that she tries to keep it to herself when she is feeling bad and not lash out at others to make them feel bad.
In my line work, I am fortunate enough to cross paths with great people that are doing important work all around the globe, from South Africa to Great Britain, Canada to India, Texas to Minneapolis, and beyond.
All the people I communicate with at this level are working actively towards social harmony. For one reason or another, they have realized that social harmony is the cornerstone of society. Instead of seeing it as something nice or pleasant, they see it as imperative, in the same category as food, roads, education, and healthcare.
Seeing the Shadow or Being Whipped
An ancient parable tells us that a wise horse moves when he sees the shadow of the whip, while a foolish horse needs to be whipped every step of the way. The people I work with have seen the shadow that social discord is creating.
Last summer, I facilitated a course with nearly three hundred people from over twenty countries. More than half of them attended the course because they recognized the signs of division and acrimony as potentially dangerous. All of them wanted to learn strategies to push against the forces of friction and work towards social harmony.
Sadly, many in the larger population refuse to see the shadows of the ‘whips’ that are being cast all around them. Like the foolish horse, they are waiting for the whip to crack on their backside before they move a muscle. By then it may be too late.
I care about society. That is why I have always had an interest in politics. Not because of the personal attacks, drama, and larger than life personalities, but because of the implications on society. More than once in the past few years I have been tempted to throw myself into the mix and start running for office. But then I stop a moment, think about the implications and withdraw.
Why? Because I want to work towards a more harmonious society and in order to become elected in the current atmosphere the business of politics expects the opposite. Even those who champion equal rights and harmony have begun stooping to the level of name-calling and grandstanding. It seems that (almost) every politician is forced to take tougher and more unequivocal stances to get elected. There is no room for nuance or working across the isle.
The same is true about activists. They need to take ever-tougher stances (it seems) and scream bloody murder on social media and in the streets to gain attention. I hear what they are saying and agree with a lot of it, but again, it seems counter to the goal of creating social harmony where people can civilly air their disagreements without demonizing each other.
King and Gandhi
The more I study what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi did in their nonviolent movements, the more impressed I am with the poise they showed in the face of adversity and their unwavering commitment to love.
It’s easy to become angry and irritated in the face of injustice, biases, and discrimination and respond in kind. It’s also easy to become so overwhelmed and enraged that it feels justified and like the right thing to do. I know that both Gandhi and King struggled with those emotions time and time again but they restrained themselves, both advocating love for those who would call themselves their enemies. That must have taken will, determination, and faith.
We are told not to talk about ideological differences. Look at where that has gotten us. We are more ideologically divided than ever before. Maybe we should reconsider? These are important topics worthy of conversation. For example, when we discuss politics, we are debating what kind of society we want to live in, and when we discuss religion, we are speaking of personal values and spiritual inclinations.
If we want to have civil discussions, we need to make a distinction between two competing elements that are found within each human being. Equipped with that understanding, we can practice talking to each other rather than talking at each other.
Human and Ideological Personas
The idea of the two personas—which is central to our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative and was originally presented by Padraig O’Malley who took part in the Northern Ireland peace process—explains the distinction we need to make if we want to have meaningful discussions. According to O’Malley, each human being is a mix of two personas. One is human the other ideological.
A number of the world’s religions have made the cultivation of goodness their primary goal, which—for a lack of another word—is good. Goodness is both a lofty and worthy ideal. Who wouldn’t want to be able to display more empathy, kindness, love, altruism, and compassion?
Having said that, there are two very different ways to achieve the goal of becoming a better person that have to do with strong emotions of attraction and repulsion. We call this the attraction-repulsion principle.
To understand the dynamics, it is important to realize that goodness cannot exist in a vacuum since it is a dualistic concept. For goodness to exist there has to exist something other than goodness. This means that when we are attracted by what we perceive as good, we are naturally repulsed by the opposite. The stronger our attraction, the stronger the repulsion can become.
Attraction Automatically Generates Repulsion
One approach to cultivating goodness focuses on the beneficial elements of changing one’s behavior; the other focuses on the detrimental aspects of the opposite behavior. One embraces on the sun while the other tries to eliminate the shadow.
“Focus on the sun! The shadow can’t be eliminated!” one could exclaim.
Sure. It would probably be better if we could just focus on the positive aspects of goodness and cultivate niceties without accruing any dislike for their opposites, but it is harder than you think—near impossible I would say.
One of my favorite books by Erich Fromm is titled The Art of Loving. His main message is that cultivating love is an art form. Fromm gives examples of innate talents in everything from painting to dance to music to acting, showing the reader that natural talent only accounts for a small percentage of the art created by the artist.
For example, someone who sits at the piano and starts playing the Moonlight Sonata at an early age (like my son did) has to practice hard if professional status is ever to be achieved (which he did not, opting for the trumpet instead).
Practice. That is the key element for Fromm. The ability to love takes practice because the innate feeling can only take us so far.
My Own Experiences With Love
Having been married since 2001 and having spent the last fifteen years taking care of my children, I can attest to that. My initial feelings, both for my wife and for my children, were only seeds. I’ve had to nurture and weed on a continual basis. Thankfully, my ability to love has grown because I have made it a priority in my life. Now, because of great social unrest, I am doing the same in the area of social harmony.
To us a partnership as the ‘coming together of two or more entities to further the causes of social harmony and bridge-building.’ Below you will find a list of possible partnership opportunities including education, good causes, workshops and conferences, equal exchanges, and more. Naturally, our list represents the limits of our creativity and we are open to exploring all other possibilities that are brought to our attention.
Do You Share Our Vision?
Our vision statement is: We envision a world where people have good access to strategies, methods and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge-building across divides. If you share our vision and want to live in a world where more people are well equipped to bridge gaps and promote harmony, then we want to find a way to work with you.
Partnering for Co-Human Causes
If you are gathering people and organizations to work for co-human causes, we are all ears. We love being a part of the synergy that happens when many forces come together for an altruistic reason like the rays of the sun through the lens of a magnifying glass to ignite a blaze of awareness. We can use our social media platforms, blog, and personal connections to help spread the message.
Partnering for Education
Our offerings contain some of the best ideas and strategies for bridge-building and social harmony available today. We are happy to partner with anyone who wants to offer them to their group. Below are a couple of examples.
Interfaith is about creating harmony between people who profess to different faiths and ideologies. Interspirituality is an exploration of mystical traditions and experiences. Interfaith is for everyone. Interspirituality is not. Allow me to explain.
The Need to Feel Safe
Most people want to live in a peaceful society. They want to be able to go about their business without feeling marginalized, being discriminated against, or having to stay alert because of threats of violence.
However, because we live in a pluralistic and diverse society where people have different views and ideologies, there are those among us who do not feel that way. Because this need to feel safe is always present, it is important for all groups to get to know each other, to be around each other, to feel safe in each other’s presence—to inter-mingle.
My experience with interfaith events over the past few years has been exactly this. People of all faiths and different backgrounds come together, not to agree on ideologies or theologies, but rather to appreciate each other’s humanity. After each event, I have walked away with a feeling of calm and a certain degree of elation because I have witnessed cordial personal interactions in a larger societal context that feels much more divisive.
Working Towards a Peaceful Society
Interfaith should be for everyone* who wants to work towards a more peaceful society. As the name implies, interfaith should include all faiths, but we also need to include those who stand outside of organized religion, including humanists, secularists, those who prefer to label themselves spiritual-but-nonreligious, and everyone in between.
We use the term ‘co-human harmony’ a lot here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative. It’s the name of our flagship program and the title of an upcoming book that we are publishing in January 2019 with Flaming Leaf Press. To us, it’s an important term with vital connotations. It deserves a concise definition.
Understanding the difference between the human and ideological personas is one of the central ideas we work with here at the initiative. Each human being is a blend of both.
The human persona consists of everything that human beings share. We are all born, we die, we breathe, we eat, we sleep, we feel, we suffer, we laugh… the list goes on and on.
The ideological persona consists of values and beliefs that cannot be independently proven or disproven. Every –ism, be it political or religious, falls into this category.
The term ‘co-human’ relates to the human persona. It’s an expression of our shared humanity. Using the term helps shine a brighter light on the things we have in common.
Harmony is the coming together of many disparate notes to form a pleasing whole. Harmony exists on a spectrum. A garage band creates one type of harmony, a barbershop quintet another, and so on. Harmony does not have to sound like the Vienna Boys Choir to be pleasing.
Even though we play different instruments and have different character traits, the human orchestra can create a harmonious melody if we do the following.
1. Stop the Noise
The first step towards a harmonious melody is to stop the noise. If a few people are incessantly banging their drums, scratching their strings, yammering loudly, or playing their own fortissimo tunes without regards to their surroundings, the best intentions of the people around them will not matter.
In the same way, for the human orchestra to generate a melody, we must reduce violent actions and bombastic rhetoric. When things quiet down, there is a potential for something better to emerge.
2. Accept All Instruments
An orchestra wouldn’t be able to create a variety of melodies if everyone played either the fiddle or the trumpet. Different instruments are needed to contrast and complement each other. The human race, with all its different cultures, theologies and ideologies, has potential to do the same.
The time, when diversity was a mere ideology, has long passed. In the modern era, diversity is a reality. People of all colors, faiths, and creeds are living side-by-side in societies all across the world—nowhere more so than here in the USA.
People who rail against diversity as an ideology are behind the times. They have not yet accepted the reality of what has happened. Some are trying to turn back the tide, but the tide will not turn. Diversity is here to stay.
The Only Question Is...
The only question we are faced with is whether or not we are going to make this new reality work for all of us. In some areas of the world, communities have adapted, but others are still struggling.
If people have been brought up to believe that diversity is an ideology, the resistance is understandable. They believe that they are preserving their way of life by railing against the changes. “Why can’t it be like it’s always been?” they ask.
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Our Vision and Primary Goals
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We provide people with access to strategies, methods, and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge-building across divides. We use the term interfaith broadly to mean 'a strong belief in someone or something' and focus on improving interrelations between people who have different worldviews. Our primary goals are to remind people of our shared humanity and to support new and ongoing efforts.
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©Harmony Interfaith Initiative
Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
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