I recently saw a couple of boys catching a fairy in the forest. If you’ve never seen a fairy, they’re scary. Most people have a romanticized vision of them, from films like Peter Pan. But fairy dust doesn’t make you fly; if it lands on you, it burns your skin something horrible. The good thing is they’re pretty passive, and fly in clear patterns, so are easy enough to avoid.
But nonetheless, they’re sufficiently alarming that I wasn’t surprised when, while walking through the woods, I saw these two boys carefully scooping up a fairy in a net, throwing it in a hole and burying it. What happened next, though was even more shocking: a Woods Witch appeared from seemingly out of nowhere and screamed at them.
“How dare you! If you don’t immediately dig up and release that fairy I will summon a demon from the FPA (The Fairy Protection Agency) and He will take you away and torment you forever.”
The boys, caught off-guard and cowed, said okay, unburied the fairy, and let it go. But they were upset. The way the witch screamed and threatened, the way she violently communicated with them, she made them consider instead of unburying the fairy, fighting with the witch (after all, that’s human nature: when attacked, we want to fight back). Or better yet, they considered catching as many fairies as they could and releasing them into the witch’s cave that evening (though they didn’t realize witches are immune to fairy dust).
Yet these two boys were good boys. And they realized as soon as the witch said it, that it wasn’t necessary to kill these fairies—in fact it was cruel. One had seen his big brother do it—and thinking he was doing a good deed—wanted to do this too. So he did, and the other boy, wanting to be helpful, participated. And let’s be honest, fairies are kind of icky, and what’s their role in the forest anyway?**
So while it turned out well enough, if this had been other boys—ones who didn’t really care about the forest, or simply because they were raised to never back down from a fight, even when they knew they were wrong—the witch’s aggression could have easily led to violence, or future bias against all witches.
Burying Jellyfish at the Beach
Sadly, this is based on a true story. Although the fairies weren’t fairies in a forest but jellyfish at the beach. And embarrassingly, the boy wasn’t any boy but me. I’m ashamed that I was complicit in this act—but my friend really was so confident that it was the right thing to do that I did not stop to say, hey, that’s not right—that, no, we shouldn’t do that because the jellyfish, while frightening, has an inherent right to life—a sad discovery of myself, in the Milgram sense, but an important moment of growth as well.
I’m sharing this story for two reasons (the second, on the question of ‘when is it just to take a life?’ I will explore next week). The first is it gives me the chance to talk about nonviolent communication, and a book that’s influenced me a great deal: The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger.
The example that lends the book its title is a visualization of you, the reader, driving in a busy parking lot (imagine Christmas season), finding the one remaining spot and just as you were about to pull in, someone zooms in and steals it. When you protest, the man gives you the finger and walks away. “How does this make you feel?” the authors ask. “How should you respond?” The authors posit even the angrier responses like scratching his car or slashing his tires, which again, is where the animalistic part of our brain brings us quite quickly. But the authors then shift the story: imagine it’s no longer a driver, but a cow that wanders in and sits down in your parking spot. Are you still angry? Probably not. Amused maybe, bemused perhaps. But not angry.
But with the man, we give him agency (and “malevolent motives”): he disrespected me, emasculated me, made me feel weak. And we want to correct all that. We want to fight. Make him respect us. Teach him to be civil and fair. But of course, violence isn’t going to correct his behavior but most likely spread it. Fighting will lead to more anger and spread that cycle of anger onto another person, which quite possibly spreads it even further.
Communicating violently (and responding to violent communications violently) hurts ourselves, ripples that anger outward, and equally bad, rarely leads to the behavior changes we hope for.
Imagine if the woman had asked us why we buried a jellyfish, attempting to get to the underlying reason. Or if she offered an explanation of the role of the jellyfish in the ecosystem. Or explained that they’re not really threatening if you simply keep away. Or even find a mediated path: why not put the big scary jellyfish you caught in a bucket of water for now and release it when you leave the water—or move it to an area where no one is swimming. Of course, if all of those arguments failed, perhaps a threat was then necessary, but by jumping to the threat, she created enemies instead of allies.
Burying Friends in Bad Feelings
Environmentalists too often fall into that trap. We rarely use direct violence (e.g. yelling), but we often use guilt—a subtler form of violence to be sure, but perhaps as pernicious: you’re killing the Earth: you’re a terrible human being, don’t eat meat, don’t fly, don’t drive. I acknowledge that I do that as well—even when I don’t mean to (ironically I associate with the witch in this story more than with the boy!). But that approach is not working. It’s never worked. It never will work—except with the few environmentalists who have already found the truth in this.
Instead, there is value in honing our nonviolent communications skills. When the angry driver is transformed into a cow, the outcome is still the same: you lost your parking spot. But as the authors note, “the only thing that changes is your reaction to the outcome. In other words, no one causes us to be angry. Anger is not inevitable. Anger begins and ends with ourselves.” In other other words, if we can stop the automatic short circuiting that leads us to respond to anger with anger (and thus in non-optimal, often irrational ways), we stop that cycle of violent communications before it ever starts—violence that affects not just others but ourselves (e.g. physiologically and by damaging our relationships).
Of course, that’s not easy. For every time I successfully prevent this cycle, there are several other times when I fail: an aggressive driver zooming through a crosswalk during a walk light, a son whining he doesn’t want to do schoolwork, or some other trigger sparks me to respond with anger rather than zen (at those moments it’s hard to remember that anger begins and ends with me). But both in our daily lives, and in our efforts to persuade others to live more sustainable lives, finding communications strategies based on compassion and understanding rather than aggression and guilt, will improve our outcomes, and our own and others’ reactions.
Easier said than done, of course, but if you want to try, reading The Cow in the Parking Lot is a good place to start!
*Ok, in reality that’s a Scorpionfly. Did you even know those existed?
**The answer: with their fairy dust, they stun and eat small bugs and thus keep insect populations in check and also enrich the soil to an almost magical degree with their fairy poop (that’s why fairy feces fertilizer—sold as Fairtilizer—costs so much).