'In a gentle way you can shake the world'

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 24, 2003

The other day a woman wrote me and asked: "Are smiling and being peaceful and happy and singular acts of kindness enough to make any kind of dent in the world's problems today?"

She was concerned that the usually upbeat tone of this column was out of touch with the life-and-death struggle of many in other parts the world where the quality of life is not measured in cappuccinos and ice cream cones, but in bombed-out buildings and body bags.

Here in our comfortable community nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, "we can smile, hold the door open for older persons, offer to give our handicapped neighbor a ride to the grocery store, shovel the elderly man's walk during the coldest snowstorms," she wrote, "while at the same time children are dying in Africa for lack of food and medicine, or are being shot dead for throwing stones, and men are being tortured for not telling secrets about their countrymen . . . .

"If these worlds don't relate to each other, I don't believe we are really making a big difference. In fact, instead of 'singular acts of kindness,' maybe more people should show frowns and great anger with their political leaders and insist that something meaningful be done to facilitate more fairness around the world."

The writer makes a very important point. We dare not think that by performing acts of kindness locally we are excused from responding to terrible realities globally. In our complex world, there is no place for rose-colored glasses of complacency.

Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, chided the comfortable West for its failure to discern the plight of countless of his fellow political prisoners:

"It would see a boggy swamp and exclaim, 'What a charming little meadow!' It would see a set of concrete shackles round a woman's neck and exclaim, 'What an exquisite necklace!' And while some danced happy and carefree with songs and music, others shed tears which no hand could wipe away."

Nevertheless, I ask: Why must the response to such terrible realities be frowns and anger to the exclusion of smiles and kindness? While it is true that our personal happiness may bring with it the danger of blinding us to the pain of others, it is equally true that our personal experiences of happiness can motivate us to challenge the injustices that deprive others of their happiness.

Cochrane's own Leslie Davies is one of the most smiling, peaceful, happy, kind people I know. I believe it is her desire that others enjoy such happiness, too, that underlies her commitment to human rights advocacy in South America, India, and now Mexico – an advocacy role that she has performed through active, caring presence.

"One of the greatest gifts we can give one another is to be present," Leslie says, "that is, to truly bend our heart and spirit towards others, to take time to listen and to care."

RCMP S/Sgt. Mike O'Rielly, formerly with the Cochrane detachment and now "K" Division Conflict Resolution Coordinator for the RCMP, shares Leslie's passion.

Mike was part of the RCMP's management team that oversaw security planning and community relations for the 2002 G-8 Leaders Summit held in Kananaskis a year ago June. He strategized a win-win peacekeeping approach that has become a model for policing similar events elsewhere. That approach was based on a philosophy of extending demonstrators at the G-8 the kindness of a respectful listening.

"Yes, there is a lot of negative to dwell on," he says. "I've been part of such things enough myself. But by turning a conflict or dispute into an opportunity for positive change – now that's inspiring."

In both Mike's and Leslie's cases, their work often places them in harm's way. It is their attitude as they address potential conflicts – one person at a time, one act of kindness at a time – that has the potential to bring justice and peace to sectors and regions.

And will their individual, positive approach make a dent on any larger scale? I believe it was Gandhi who gave us the answer: "In a gentle way you can shake the world." And what better place to begin than right here at home?

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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