A PBS documentary, “Love Wins Over Hate,” deepened my understanding of fanaticism. It featured six former extremists sharing their stories of how they got into hate-filled movements and what led them to get out.
It is no surprise that their stories of attraction to these movements are filled with:
- Feeling marginalized and as though they don’t belong … even in their family
- A sense of emptiness and a need to belong … fit-in somewhere
- Lack of self-esteem and confidence … often self-hatred
- A sense of superiority while at the same time feeling threatened by others
- Festering unprocessed abuse and trauma
- Searching for an excuse to let rage out and a vehicle to focus it
- All this leaving them vulnerable to being recruited by groups & movements fomenting hate
- Overwhelming hatred directed at others and against each other
Christian Picciolini lives with the fact that the hate-filled lyrics he wrote thirty years ago during his white supremacist days are spread far and wide on the internet. They were the words Dylann Roof posted before he shot nine members of a Bible study group at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2017. They are the words that might have inspired Roof to do what he did.
This is the reality of our words … ~ Christian Picciolini
Christian’s phrase stuck with me. I am reminded to be mindful of the words I choose when posting my frustration with political leaders and their supporters on social media. As a writer, I know the power of words. I would rather mine contribute to understanding, or connection, or healing division than to the polarization that endangers us all.
Who among us has not experienced a sense of not belonging? I have … even in my family … along with a lack of self-esteem and confidence that at times verged on self-hatred. I, too, have a legacy of intergenerational trauma accompanied by a longing to fit in somewhere. I, too, have experienced hurt at being disregarded and anger at perceived rejection.
Hatred is born of ignorance. Fear is its father. Isolation is its mother. … People find their way into any extremist movement for typically the same reasons. It’s a search for identity, community, and purpose. But they’ve followed a path riddled with potholes … trauma, abuse, mental illness, poverty, even privilege can be a pothole if it segregates us from the reality of the world. ~Christian Picciolini
In a recent conversation with two close friends, I had an opportunity to get a sense of how my fun-loving family must experience my intensity. By nature, I am a serious, reflective woman (as the tone of my blog posts attest) whose idea of fun … well, let’s just say it doesn’t fit the norm. I could benefit from lightening up. My family would probably be more comfortable with me if I did.
This conversation opened my eyes to how I’ve thought of myself as a victim … emphasizing “poor little me” viewed by my family as “weird”. To deal with this hurt, I resorted to judgment and rejection … viewing my activities as superior to their brand of “fun-loving.”
“Hurt people hurt people. … I’ll reject you before you have a chance to reject me.”
I said to my friends, who were only sharing the way they navigate relationships with family members they love, “I’m feeling really confronted by this conversation.”
Seeing the “extremist hater/judging rejecter” within me … this “shadow side” of myself was hard.
In another conversation where we were exploring our views on evil, two of us admitted to being bullies when we were young. In sixth grade, I spent what seemed like a full day in the principal’s office for bullying a classmate. And what led this normally “nice girl” to turn to bullying … jealousy.
Watching “Love Wins Over Hate,” I couldn’t help but notice,
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
I believe that connection is the anti-dote to hate. It’s hard to connect … sit in a room and have a conversation … and continue to hate them. Once we’re connected, my hate melts away. ~Shannon Foley Martinez, former Neo-Nazi
The six featured former extremists relayed the connections that influenced them to give up hate and embrace love:
- Becoming a parent and not wanting their children to be filled with the same hate they carried.
- Being shown love and kindness when they knew they didn’t deserve it … kindness extended to them left less room for hatred.
- Being forgiven … being helped to begin their own rigorous process of self-forgiveness.
- Meeting strangers from the group they hated and finding how much in common they had … learning that we all want essentially the same things in life.
Fortunately for me, my mentors were loving … sometimes dishing out tough love and bringing me back to reality when my “potholes” revealed themselves. Fortunately for me, I have a host of friends who like me, and even love me, just the way I am … well, maybe they like me well enough to tolerate some of my rough edges.
Without these nurturing connections …
there but for the grace of God go I.
While the connections Shannon referred to were of the external human-to-human kind, I think it is equally important for us to make two internal connection:
- Connecting with the shadow within us … as I did with my “extremist hater/judging rejecter.” Unless we are aware of the darkness we carry within, we will unconsciously act it out. At some level, extreme or not, that will lead to pain and regrets and a need for forgiveness.
As I watched the scenes of hatred acted out in the documentary, the words that came to me were,
“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
- Connecting with the light within us … as I am attempting to do while writing this post. Writing this is a part of my process of forgiving myself for the ways I contributed to disconnection in our family … a part of my process of discerning how to connect with them in the future in a more respectful way.
Watching hate-filled scenes, it became so clear that these people were totally disconnected from the light within them … and with no inner light shining, darkness reigned within and around them.
Today, with their unique lights shining for the benefit of us all, these former extremists attempt to help others out of darkness and make amends for the pain their darkness fomented. Today they are an inspiration!
… it takes great courage to be a loving person for no reason other than because love is the highest calling of a human being. ~Caroline MyssIntimate Conversations with the Divine: Prayer, Guidance, and Grace