Shifting from Violence to Empowerment
…an inside job
I want to talk about Violence. And, because it’s recent and on everyone’s minds and a very clear example, I want to use the tragedy in Orlando as the frame for the conversation. And I want to say at the outset that this post is not about what actually happened in Orlando or what I think needs to happen next to address it…but rather about the cultural meme I see playing out, and how we might be able to transcend it. In fact, I’m not even going to discuss the event itself at this time, only the reactions I’ve seen to it and the patterns within those reactions. As usual with me, things might get a little bit unorthodox…so buckle up.
First I want to reference something called the Karpman Drama Triangle. A super-short, very simplified explanation is that the cycle of violence has three key figures that each play a part — the Victim, the Persecutor, and the Rescuer. If you’re not familiar with it and want to know more, here’s the wikipedia article as a good place to start; some of the footnoted articles are excellent.
Rather than go into a lot of detail about the nature of this triangle (though I’m working hard on a much longer piece of writing on this topic that does go into great depth and has lots and lots of footnotes) I just want to make four assertions about it:
- This triangle is the predominant meme playing out on the planet today.
- Every person engaged in, affected by, or responding to violence is either playing out (and therefore energizing) this triangle, or choosing out of (and therefore diffusing) this triangle.
- The whole thing — all three sides of the triangle — exists in its fullness inside of each one of us.
- Who is on which side of the triangle is a matter of perspective, because everyone believes themselves to be in the right; no one sees themselves on the persecutor side of things.
So, let’s unpack these assertions a little bit by looking at the 2 general reactions I’ve seen to what happened in Orlando.
We have a Conservative Reaction, which says “Americans are the Victims, We (especially the Gun-owners) are the Rescuers, and Islam, Obama and the Liberals are the Persecutors.” And what motivates them is terror — they see the victims, and fear that they or their families will be next, or someone they know, or that the country or world will be destroyed. They are angry at Obama for not taking a stronger stance on terrorism, feeling that it leaves the country looking weak and therefore vulnerable to external attack. They are absolutely sure that the majority of the non-us world, and especially anyone Muslim, wants to kill them, and that the liberals want to take away the only means they have to protect themselves.
We also have a Liberal Reaction, which says “LGBTQIA folk (primarily Latinx) are the Victims, We (especially the Gun-control proponents) are the Rescuers, and Guns, Homophobes & Gun-owners are the Persecutors.” And what motivates them is terror — they see the victims, and fear that they or their families will be next, or someone they know, or that the country or world will be destroyed. They are angry at Congress for not taking a stronger stance on gun-control. They feel that it enables violence and therefore leaves the country vulnerable to internal attack. They are absolutely sure that the conservative right, and especially homophobes, want to kill them, and that the NRA wants to put the guns right into the hands of the murderers.
Notice how different the stories are.
Notice how similar the feelings are.
Now notice how the triangle is playing out on both sides.
See how the perspective flips? From the Conservative point of view, the Liberals are part of the problem, and the Conservatives need to save the day. And from the Liberal point of view, the Conservatives are part of the problem, and the Liberals need to save the day. And because they are committed to these perspectives, there can be no real dialogue between the two sides.
Of course, we also need to pay attention to the place where the perspective overlaps — the victim side of the triangle. Because both sides saw truly, and both sides saw partially. The victims were both American and LGTBQIA, and a lot of other things besides. And what is happening here is that each side is latching onto one piece of what the victims were (the piece each side identifies with), and making the whole story about that one piece…therefore arriving at different conclusions about who is to blame and how it can be solved.
So, remember earlier, when I said that everyone is either playing out this triangle or choosing out of this triangle? Here’s where we get to the choosing out option:
If I am willing to work the whole drama triangle, I can escape it, and step into a brand new triangle. I can step out of the cycle of violence, and into the cycle of empowerment.
I call this new triangle the “Ahimsa Triangle”. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “active non-violence”, and it was Ghandi’s primary teaching.
So how do we get there? What do I mean “work the whole drama triangle?”
It starts by understanding and accepting that the drama triangle exists within me. Let’s start with the Victim. That’s easy to see — if I didn’t feel in some way identified with the victim, I wouldn’t be moved into emotion and action. I can recognize that my ability to identify with the victim comes from the places where I’ve felt victimized. I can sink into that place in me that feels the pain and fear of being persecuted.
Then, if I squint my eyes a little, I can see that my step into the role of rescuer is a grasping for empowerment, to restore to my inner victim what was taken from them. I can recognize that my longing to either bomb Isis or ban guns is actually motivated by my own fear and pain (felt by my internal victim) and my longing to make those feelings go away or turn them off. I don’t want to feel this way, so I want something to change.
Once I’ve seen this, I have a chance to see the thing that I don’t want to look at: the fact that by moving into rescuing, I have denied my inner victim’s feelings, and in that very denial I have become the internal persecutor of my internal victim. I have ignored them; cut off their expression; abandoned them in their pain.
Ok, take a deep breath, because that’s only the first third of the process, but it’s huge and important unto itself so it’s a really good time to take a beat and recognize what you’ve just done — you’ve just looked at a part of yourself you’d been avoiding seeing — good job! And then once you’ve sufficiently praised yourself for your bravery, get ready for the next piece:
After understanding that I’m playing out the triangle internally, I need to do the internal work of each side of the triangle as it relates to the current external situation, and choose, on each side, to step into an alternative role.
It starts with the role I’m primarily identifying with in the current situation. In this case, both perspectives are self-identifying in the role of the Rescuer. The Rescuer is wanting to solve things for the Victim. The radical alternative move is for the Rescuer to create space for the Victim’s emotions. Stories will attempt to creep in to make the feelings more acceptable to the mind, stories of cause, stories of blame, stories of punishment or justice or changes that need to happen, and the trick is to decline the urge to go into the story; to simply hold fierce presence with all that the inner Victim is feeling in response to what has happened. So I cry. I scream. I rage. I cry some more. I let my heart break open. I let myself physically feel my emotions, and I don’t shy away from them.
And eventually the storm of emotion passes, and something has shifted: I am no longer engaged in the internal persecution of denying or abandoning my own emotions. Since I am no longer engaged internally persecuting, I am able to get a clear look at my internal persecutor. This is the radical move from Persecutor to Personal Responsibility. Out from under the weight of the emotions that were pressing on my chest, I l can look that which I fear head on, and then look inside myself to find where it is reflected. If I fear the homophobe or the terrorist, I look for the intolerance of others within. I take ownership for the fact that everything I fear in the world has a reflection or an echo inside of myself.
Then, from this place of ownership, I turn to my inner victim, who, having been able to express their emotion held by the inner rescuer, and having seen the inner persecutor take personal responsibility, has the option to take the radical step into forgiveness and glimpse the grace of the journey that left the whole more integrated and the shadow more fully known.
Take another deep breath, the second third of the process is complete. Almost there!
The final piece is this:
Having recognized the triangle within (part 1) and worked to transcend that triangle (part 2), I now move to meet the triangle in the world with the new triangle I’ve stepped into. So, when I am victimized, I do not react or blame, but instead make space to fully feel my emotions, seek out the reflection of the persecutor within, forgive the within, touch the grace available within the situation, and then bring that grace and forgiveness outside of myself to the external persecutor. (Whether expressed directly to the person or not). And when I feel called to take on the role of rescuer, I will turn to my inner victim and give them a space to fully feel their emotions, seek out the reflection of the persecutor within, forgive the within, touch the grace available within the situation, and bring that grace and forgiveness to the without.
Once I am free of the drama triangle, I am empowered to address the cycle of violence playing out all around us. Until I am free of it, I will only continue to perpetuate the cycle.
If enough of us are willing to do the work of our own empowerment, I truly believe we can end Violence in the world.
May we turn within, and so find the healing for the without.
Part 2 of the series, “The Drama Triangle and Why it Doesn’t Work” published 6/23
Part 3 of the series, “That Which We Most Fear” published 6/30