Exercising muscle memory


Terrified on the inside, Antoinette Tuff reflected on her pastor’s sermon series as she negotiated with a 20-year-old gunman intent on killing everyone at the school where she worked in DeKalb, Georgia. She exercised what spirituality author Father Richard Rohr refers to as “muscle memory” to treat the unstable, desperately hurting young man with empathy and compassion that scary day in August 2013. Her demonstration of agape love and courage resulted in the only school active shooter incident in the U.S. to end without injury or death to students, faculty, staff or the gunman, according to news reports.

Few of us will find ourselves in such a life-or-death confrontation with violence but our nonviolent response to the conflicts we experience in our daily lives will help make our world a better place in which to live. More than ever, in this time of uncertainty, we need practical, usable tools to defuse unexpected confrontations or violence at home, in businesses or the public square.

We cannot defuse unhealthy conflict and violence in the larger society until we come to terms with the issues that cause anger and resentment to build up in our families and ourselves. The “Campaign Nonviolence National Conference” (Aug. 6-8), shared Antoinette’s story and offered techniques that will move us forward in fostering reconciliation, compromise and collaboration that are so essential to mitigating the crises in our communities and in our world today. Examples include:

• Two hands of nonviolence: Veronica Pelicaric, director of training for Pace e Bene, which hosted the nonviolence training, described the two hands of nonviolence. One hand, raised like a stop sign, symbolizes the message that harmful behavior will not be tolerated. The second hand, outstretched, conveys the message, I recognize you as a fellow human being. I am not rejecting you. I am going to listen to you. One hand resists injustice; the other hand proposes a solution.


• Soul Force walk: Pelicaric describes Soul Force as “an inner strength that results from inner work and all those beautiful, transpersonal qualities like kindness, clarity, love, courage, honesty, sincerity, peace, and so forth. It is the capacity to stand in our truth and thus withstand negative forces.” Take five minutes daily to focus on these qualities, during a restroom break, or while taking a walk, for example.

• Practice calming techniques: When we are calm, we have the ability to regulate how we respond to another person or persons. We utilize the things from everyday life that help us, such as deep breathing. Try this technique, advises Adam Vogal of the Portland (Oregon) Peace Team: take a deep breath for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, exhale for six seconds, hold for two seconds, repeat. Another idea: think about five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

• Self-awareness. Recognize that we bring into a situation who we are as individuals and how others perceive us. Consider how we treat ourselves. Do we inflict violence on ourselves through a negative self-image? How would it change things to treat ourselves with compassion? Catch ourselves projecting our insecurities, our inner negativity onto someone else and redirect our attention to love by visualizing the view from a mountaintop, flowers or other positive images. Father Rohr says we need to let go of our self-referential understanding of the world. We do not need to be the center of the universe if we know that God loves us.

• Practice the “3 Ds”: direct, delegate, distract. When we direct, we lead the intervention in our family or in a group or community. When we delegate, we give the authority to someone else, perhaps because we sense that the other person is better equipped to handle the intervention. When we distract, we take some unexpected action that causes another person to stop a harmful behavior. A passenger on a subway distracted a man and a woman who were hurting each other by casually placing himself between them while he munched on a bag of potato chips. (Watch the short video on YouTube).

• Implement CLARA, which stands for Calming, Listening, Affirming, Responding and Adding Information. We can affirm without agreeing and we can respond in a way that does not cause the situation to escalate. We share, or add information, after completing the other steps.

Antoinette Tuff developed muscle memory through her spiritual practices, her walk with God, her pastor’s inspiring sermons. That muscle memory kicked in on the fateful day she guided the young gunman to surrender to authorities without harming anyone. In an excerpt from the 911 tape, Tuff says to the gunman, “It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you, though, okay? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

(Visit the Pace e Bene website at paceebene.org for more information about Campaign Nonviolence.)

Barb Arland-Fye, Editor

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