In the absence of developing this capacity, we tend to go in one of two directions: either giving up on what we want as the only way we understand of what it means to let go of attachment, or removing ourselves personally from what we want by claiming it to be bigger than ourselves, outside ourselves, because it “should” happen.
If this is tricky and messy in the personal realm, how much more so when it comes to what we want for the world. The intensity of our pain and anguish about, for example, the plight of children in the world, is so acute that most of us find it impossible to simultaneously tolerate it and remain open to that pain and our longing for it to be different. How we each respond to this inner tear differs. For many of us, the path we choose is to numb out the pain, and most especially to convince ourselves that our actions and our comforts are independent of the experience of those children; that there is nothing we can do about it anyway; and therefore that it is best if we focus only on our own personal lives. For others of us, the anguish translates, instead, into an intense passion for change, which often shows up as anger and a focus on articulating what “should” happen. Anger and prescribing what others should do to some degree protects us from the vulnerability of feeling our own pain, and is therefore easier to tolerate internally.
I have a growing conviction about how much nonviolence is rooted, in part, in the willingness to be exposed, to take the heat, to lose what’s dear to us, even our freedom, or our very lives (believe me, I am not there with that last one). The reason for this belief is that nonviolence requires an immense capacity for transcending fight, flight, or freeze reactions, so we can actually make a mindful choice how to respond in the moment. If so, finding a way to shift from “should” to “want” is absolutely essential, more aligned with the heart of nonviolence. It allows us to open our hearts, to remove the protection and the illusion of “should” thinking, to experience the humility of not knowing whether and how we can change something, and to be present for reality exactly the way it is.
“Should,” on the other hand, invites us, in some subtle way, to hold tight to an illusion of having more power than we actually have. It’s as if saying that something “should” change is already a step in the direction of making that change happen, because others will simply “have” to agree that it should happen, and will therefore do it. The seeds of war are planted: anyone who doesn’t agree that this “should” happen becomes the enemy. To quote from my earlier article: “If our approach is based on what should happen, without this capacity to accept life, what would keep us from trying to force a solution? We have all seen so many historical examples of revolutions that turned into a new regime of horror. How will we ensure that we can sustain our vision and openness if we cannot tolerate what is happening and those who are supporting what is happening?”
How Can We Release the Should?
Laura, having been so deeply touched and inspired by the effects that Nonviolent Communication (NVC) had had on her life, readily admitted that she had the idea that “everyone should treat each other according to NVC principles.” She saw, very quickly, that she had complete resistance to the reality in which people simply weren’t. Inviting her to look at what she wanted was too big of a jump for Laura to take all in one step, and so I was searching for an intermediate step that would be more manageable for her. It showed up in the form of “could” thinking. Laura was quite able to reframe her statement simply into: “Everyone could treat each other according to NVC principles.” There was no resistance there, she happily told me.
The next step was small and subtle: to see just how much she would enjoy it if they did: “Everyone could treat each other according to NVC principles, and that would be so much sweeter for me.”
To apply this to the issue of the children, it is a gruesome reality of life on this planet that huge numbers of children die every day from preventable causes related to malnutrition. It’s so easy to think that this should end, that these children’s needs should be attended to, that food should be given to them. To make the same move that Laura made, replace all these statements of should with statements of could. Hunger in the world could end, children’s needs could be attended to, food could be given to them. Next, allow yourself to experience how much joy, relief, gratitude, and integrity you might experience as a human being if all this were to happen. Really and truly: wouldn’t it be an amazing day if we are, collectively, able to make it a priority to end hunger in the world?
Since the fundamental principle underlying NVC is that everything we do is an attempt to meet needs, Laura was then able to recognize, as she said, “the needs I was trying to meet through holding so tightly to all of my ‘shoulds,’” and to find more effective ways of attending to them without the should. She discovered more energy and willingness to engage with the world, because so much of her energy, previously, had been consumed by resisting the reality of how the world is. She discovered the capacity to be with the pain, to mourn it, which opened her up to herself, to more connection, more heart. As she recounted the story to me after some time, this shift even affected her personal life, most importantly her relationship with her children. She learned that “should” thinking was woven through her life, and this one experience of shifting it cascaded through the rest of her life. As she said: “I’ve started connecting with myself and with others with a sweeter, softer energy that’s been immediately felt by those I was with.”
I cannot improve on the way I ended that article, so I quote it here:
“If … we remain open to the possibility that no solution will arise and at the same time continue to bring our heart and attention and action to working toward a solution, our work takes on an entirely different flavor. We work toward our dreams, we embrace the vision and our needs in full, and we remain open in the face of what is happening. In doing so, whether or not we have external success (and so far as I know, none of us knows how to move the world from here to where we want it to be), our work itself becomes a modeling of what the world could be.”
May it be so.
Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call: Tuesday March 19, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a new way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. This week, as Miki is doing workshops in Europe, Newt Bailey (of BayNVC and the Communication Dojo) will be taking her place.