Pacifism or Passivity

March 2024 Newsletter – Volume 24, No 3 (my #208)

Pacifism or Passivity

Let me begin with a story I’ll frequently share with clients.

The Old Monk and the Cobra

Somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, there’s a village. Beside the village is a small mountain, and on top of it is a shrine. The people of the town, who climb the rugged path for their spiritual exercises, regularly visit the shrine, which has been maintained for many years by an elderly monk.
But one day, he began to notice that fewer and fewer people from the village were making the journey up to his shrine. So he inquired of one of the pilgrims why this might be. He was told, “I’ll tell you why. Near the beginning of the path up, there’s a Cobra, who’s been biting people as they pass by – so many are now afraid to make the trip.”
So, the old monk decided to take matters into his own hands. He makes his way down the mountain path to where the cobra resides. “Brother Cobra (says the monk), I understand you’ve been biting people.” “That is true,” responds Brother Cobra. “Well, this is unacceptable,” (says the old monk). “The people need to be free to use this path without fear of a poisonous Cobra bite. So I’m telling you to stop biting people.” “OK,” responds Brother Cobra, with his head bowed.
The old monk returns up the mountain path to his shrine, and eventually, the people of the village return to their pattern of traversing the path to their shrine.
Then, one day, the old monk decides he’ll go down to visit Brother Cobra. What he finds is his old friend battered, bruised, and broken. “What’s this!” exclaimed the old monk. The cobra replied, “Ever since you told me to stop biting folks, they’ve made my life hell. The young boys whirl me around by my tail, bashing my head onto stones and tree trunks. Others throw rocks at me, kick me, step on me – I would rather die than suffer all this!”
The old monk replied, “But Brother Cobra, When I told you to stop biting people. I didn’t tell you to stop hissing.” 1

In recent Newsletters, I’ve noted my family heritage of pacifism. But I want to make a distinction that this often has little to do with niceness. That’s why I enjoy this story.

The Curse of Niceness (Passivity)

As a mother (or a father), you wouldn’t point out the carry-out boy at the grocery store and say, “Now, isn’t he a nice young man? That’s the type you want to marry.” You’d maybe want to hire him for customer service, but not for a life partner. 2

Niceness is often a cover for passivity. Remember Alfred E. Newman’s motto of Mad Magazine fame: “What, me worry?” Passivity is primarily the opposite of taking responsibility. (I’ve been a marriage/relationship counselor for almost half a century.)

I recall some years ago, back in the early “Men’s Movement” days, the poet Robert Bly telling us that an essential phrase for men was the resourcefulness (and courage) to say, “Hey, wait a minute!” Women, recently, have become more adroit with that phrase, which frequently leads to terror (or rage) in men.3

Men and women who don’t sometimes know to hiss, more easily get abused in relationships. Or they more easily become abusers. 4

So then, what is Pacifism?

Pacifism is very different. Passivity is a “do nothing” strategy—letting our base human nature (the Amygdala part of the brain) run the show. William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies (1954) was popular when I was young. It posited a society of boys ruled by their base natures and the savage chaos that emerged.

Some call it the “Law of the Jungle” – where the ‘natural world’ can act from an inherent balance, which seems to work. The ‘law of the human jungle’ is the survival of the fittest – which appears to work in the ‘natural’ world. Still, in the human world, it gives over to a “law of projection” where whatever we don’t want to deal with, we “project” onto others, and then we can more easily dehumanize (or ‘kill’) any ‘other.’ This is why humans can so quickly go to war. In the human world, “sports” are favored to submit (or sublimate) this chaos to social “rules,” whereby the inner desire to compete is both honored and tempered. In the Roman Circus, sometimes gladiators (and Christians) ended up being eaten by the lions – to the satisfaction of both rulers and the crowds.

In evolving history, pacifism became the social and personal energy to ‘tame the hungry beast’ within – hence an energy for “peace” to counter the energy for “war.” It was based on an evolving assumption that all humanity was equal and sacred and that the seemingly natural desire to dominate or lord it over others has become the root of much social (and political) evil.5

Although its history is varied and often a moving target, Pacifism is a lot of personal work. It takes courage and the willingness to be vulnerable, to stand up for those who can’t, and to teach and encourage those who can.6

“I didn’t tell you not to hiss.”

Now you can see why I love this story of the old Monk and the Cobra.

Learning the difference between biting and hissing is vital to a civil culture. There are many places in our world where you can be killed (or at least locked up) for just hissing. We must protect those who get bitten and those who can hiss (often independent of whether we agree with them).

It’s a matter of balance – a balance that seems even more precarious in our time. The future of our democratic culture and our ability to be a beacon of stability in a chaotic world seem to lie in the balance, especially these days.

We need both wise old monks and wisely trained cobras.

I hope my words can be helpful.

Pay Attention



1. I don’t recall where or from whom I first heard this story, but I’ve enjoyed telling it myself for many years.

2 My creative imagination carries this note a step further: The daughter thinks a moment and asks her mother, “Is that why you married Dad?” “Well, yes,” replies the mother. To which the daughter then responds, “And is that why you now hate him?” Nice young men can become passive husbands → which often leads to angry wives (and vice versa).

3 At this point, I’ll (not joking) share a man’s initial imagination: “I think I’d rather shove salt in a Siberian salt mine.” Yet, when a man is willing to respond positively to a woman’s “Hey, wait a minute,” he’ll often find, to his surprise, himself in a positive and creative experience. Amazing!

4 Cf the following online article about the Covert Narcissist:

5 While writing this Newsletter, I saw the movie “Origin” (US 2023), based on the New York Times bestseller Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. It was an audience multi handkerchief powerful movie, and ending with unusually great audience applause.

6 I have written earlier in these Newsletter pages about my mother, bringing to our smallish Iowa town the work of the American Field Service. It began in 1915 as wartime battlefield volunteer ambulance drivers – then eventually asked, “Whatever can we do to prevent these wars from ever happening again?” From this grew a great intercultural student exchange program with the motto: “Walk together, talk together, all you peoples of the earth, and we shall have peace.” (I became a High School AFS exchange student in Germany in 1958.)