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The one you choose to feed

By Louise Diamond

(November 19, 2009) – There is a classic Native American story about a grandfather who tells his grandson about the battle between two wolves inside us all–one full of angry, fearful energy and one full of compassionate, benevolent energy.

When the boy asks, “Which wolf wins?” the grandfather replies, “The one you choose to feed.”

With the recent Fort Hood shootings, Americans once again have a choice about which wolf within us to feed. Will we play the recording of “I told you so. Those Muslims are all violent and can’t be trusted,” as some pundits are doing, or will we take the opportunity this time to reach out in curiosity and compassion to our Muslim American friends and seek greater understanding of the stresses some of them might feel living in this country?

One recurrent theme in the reporting of the Fort Hood shootings is that Major Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan wanted out of a military that was fighting his co-religionists in Afghanistan and Iraq. If, in some upside-down world, the United States were ever to go to war with Israel, many of us would find it easier to understand if Jewish soldiers had difficulty fulfilling their duties, and would likely make some accommodation for those who conscientiously objected. Yet Hasan apparently asked repeatedly to leave the service, and was consistently turned down.

Who was paying attention to the building tension he was so clearly feeling between two aspects of his identity, one as an American and one as a Muslim?

Should we be paying attention to other Muslim American soldiers who might face similar challenges, without vilifying them for what is a natural and common phenomenon? After all, we all feel conflict between different elements of our identity–gender, religion, nationality, family, individuality, etc.–to some extent.

One way of understanding the choice between the two wolves is the choice between contraction and expansion. When we are hurt we naturally contract. In this contraction mode our “fight or flight” response is stirred and our body instinctually tells us to fight or flee from a perceived attack. We revert to stereotypical, simplistic thinking. We want revenge or someone to blame.

We cannot even imagine expanding in these moments, expanding to learn more, to embrace differences and celebrate commonalities, to reach out in compassion and curiosity.

Yet by staying contracted, we deny much of what the moment has to teach us, and thereby insure the likelihood of the lesson coming around again, perhaps in a more virulent form.

The Fort Hood shootings give us exactly this opportunity, as did the events of 9/11 on a much larger scale. I continue to believe that at that time we missed a huge open moment that could have been a turning point in human history. Imagine if immediately following the attacks we had called for a sustained global dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews in order to understand each other better, to build bridges of shared hopes and concerns, to heal festering historical wounds and to craft a common vision for how to live together peacefully on this planet.

On a local scale, some of that did happen, with civic and church groups reaching out to Muslim American neighbours for interfaith and community dialogues, even as we indiscriminately rounded up Muslim American men and prepared for war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now we see the same thing–both contraction and expansion–only now we have eight years of accumulated experience, feelings and knowledge to wade through, some of which feeds one wolf while some feeds the other.

We have learned a great deal about the power of dialogue over the years. We know, for instance, that it creates human bonds and breaks down stereotypes of “the other”. We also know that unless it is aligned with the political will to act in order to change the circumstances that nurture the divisiveness, it will not ultimately be effective beyond the scale of the individual participants.

The tragic events at Fort Hood are, or should be, a wakeup call to all of us that once again we all have a choice to make: That which divides us can kill–or heal. Which wolf do you choose to feed?

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* Louise Diamond, Ph.D., is President of Global Systems Initiatives, where she brings a systems approach to complex global issues. She is also an author, facilitator and consultant, and has worked in hot spots and cross-cultural settings around the world. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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