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Last year, while writing a book about spirituality and politics, I was amazed at the number of people, including close friends, who laughed when I told them my subject. “You’re kidding, right? It’s hard to imagine those two words in the same sentence!”
I would have said the same thing until one spring early in the 1980s when I taught a workshop for social activists called ‘Making Peace’. . .
At the workshop, I talked about ‘changing the world from the heart’, how activists could be more effective if they behaved in a loving way toward those who disagreed with them. The basic idea was that people change when someone listens deeply to them. They express their thoughts and feelings, and, freed from the residue of past hurts, they are able to think more clearly. The only dependable way to make permanent change, I proposed, was to build loving friendships with those we wanted as allies. Then I had an epiphany: Why not take this idea into the most difficult places — the defence industry, the Pentagon, and the halls of Congress?
It was an exciting insight, but I was afraid. Who was I to step into the corridors of power and hope to make a difference? I wasn’t an expert on nuclear weapons. What action could someone like me take? Finally, I decided to write to my senator, whose recent votes to fund nuclear weapons had angered me. He was bright and knowledgeable, but I believed that his positions were misguided. I would try to become his friend, using the best qualities I could muster: kindness, generosity, honesty and trust.
In my letter, I told him who I was and what I cared about, and I asked about his beliefs and concerns regarding the nuclear arms race. I suggested that he needed me as an ally on this issue, indeed needed my perspective as a woman because he was undoubtedly surrounded by men. It was difficult for me to say these things. I felt intimidated by his position. . .
The senator’s top staff person called me within the week. “Who are you?” he asked, as though I had dropped out of the sky.
His call started a dialogue about ways we could work together, resulting in the senator’s visit to a community meeting I helped organise two months later. By then I had written three letters to him and had talked with his administrative assistant on several occasions. Nevertheless, I was surprised when the senator approached me at the meeting and put his hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for being my friend”, he said.
When I recovered from my astonishment at getting through to him so easily, I decided to travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with him and his staff. During our conversations, the administrative assistant, the senator’s defence analyst and the senator himself asked my views on the policy issues they were deciding, even though I disagreed with many of the senator’s positions. How did I feel about a bill he had proposed? How would I vote when it came to the Senate floor?
Something remarkable had begun to happen, and the only way I could keep my head from swelling or avoid making a fool of myself was to focus on my heart. Each time before I called the senator’s Washington office, I spent a few minutes feeling love for the person I was calling, then tried to maintain that feeling during the conversation. I also expressed appreciation to his staff for the time they spent answering my questions, for the qualities I saw in them and for how hard they had worked to arrive at the best solutions. With every interaction, I grew in self-confidence. It seemed that the more I opened my heart, the more courageous I became.
Over the next two years, the administrative assistant, the defence analyst and the senator became my friends, to the point that family events — births of children, deaths of loved ones — were noted on each side, and each of us expressed gratitude for the richness of our friendships.
The defence analyst — a crusty, irascible man whom arms-control lobbyists in Washington had declared impossible to persuade — began to soften to my approach. At one point he said, “Thank you for — well, for the tone of your letters.” Sometime later he confessed that, in response to one of my questions, he’d been thinking about how to end the nuclear-arms race, despite his pride at being a ‘hawk’. On my visits to Washington, he and I would go for coffee and chat about our families, his three children and my two.
I was amazed at my success. But I also wanted to find out if the senator and his staff were an exception, more responsive than most. So I visited the office of my congressman, who had voted for every nuclear weapons system the Pentagon proposed and had declared he would have nothing to do with the ‘peaceniks’ in his district.
His defence aide met with me reluctantly. After leading me into the congressman’s office, he directed me to sit near the door, then selected a seat against the far wall, 25 feet away. He leaned back on the rear legs of his chair, crossed his arms, and glared at me. “So what can I do for you?”
I told him that our group hoped to find points of agreement with the congressman, that I was aware they had received enormous pressure from Washington lobbyists at the time of the Freeze vote, and I was sorry about that — at which point the aide began to rail at me. How unfairly they’d been treated, how the congressman tried to listen to his constituents, but these Washington groups thought they elected the congressman. Well, they didn’t, and they had no right to pressure him to vote against his better judgement.
When he stopped to catch his breath, I leaned forward. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied. “What else did they say?” Which brought another tirade.
After about 20 minutes, he suddenly stopped. He eased the front legs of his chair onto the floor and dropped his arms, then looked around the room, confused. “I’m sorry”, he said, “I didn’t mean to dump all that on you.”
We then talked about the congressman — what he cared about, what made him tick. When it was time for me to leave, the aide escorted me to the door, shook my hand warmly, and told me to come again. In what I believe could only be a result of that meeting and a community meeting that followed, the congressman’s votes in favour of nuclear disarmament went from 0% to 50% within one year.
I continued to work with both of these members of Congress and eventually moved to Washington to direct the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. I was eager to share my lobbying approach with others. Although some people understood what I’d done — two even set up national organisations based on the idea of building relationships with people in positions of power — others said I was naive to think that personal relationships had anything to do with politics. Some lobbyists said I was unsophisticated and ‘unpolitical’ in my thinking.
Yet what I saw was this: three deep friendships, and several arms control policies affected by my input. As a direct result of my meeting with the senator’s staff, his became the crucial vote on legislation that eventually ended nuclear testing in this country.
What caused these changes? I believe that it was not who I was but what I did: I treated the members of Congress and their staff with respect and caring. I felt love for them in my heart. Yes, I was informed about the issues, but then so are most lobbyists. What was unique about my approach was that I asked important questions, then listened carefully to their responses.
When I began, lobbying from the heart seemed like a bold and risky business: wasn’t it foolish to enter the halls of Congress with my heart open and to invite politicians to do the same? Yet doing so proved to be transformational, for me as well as for them. During the decade I spent building relationships with political leaders, I learned about unconditional love — how to stay true to myself while caring deeply about the people involved. And I learned that love does change things, even in the world of politics.
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