Saturday, May 14, 2016

Does NVC Always Work? Is War Always Bad? Is Compassion Always Good?

A reader emailed me, "Roslyn, do you think there are times when NVC does not work?  I know it is just fiction, but for example, would there have been a way for Hank Reardon to meet Lillian's needs?"

NVC is a communication tool that would allow Hank to connect with Lillian. Connection does not mean we are able to or even should meet the other person's needs.

However, with connection, it is likely that clarity will be reached surrounding what needs aren't being met. This doesn't mean that Hank could or would choose to meet Lillian's needs. It just means that there is finally clarity for both of them about what needs are not being met.

NVC helps people get their needs met because it helps to clarify what exactly is going on in a way that also fosters connection. So:

-Perhaps Hank would have realized that he could meet Lillian's needs. Great, problem solved.
-Perhaps the new clarity surrounding the issue would have made an alternate solution present itself. Again, problem solved.
-Perhaps the new clarity would have made Lillian realize that what she had been asking of Hank was unfair. Perhaps she would have realized that she needed to spend some time grieving the human condition instead of blaming Hank. Again, problem solved.

But using NVC doesn't necessarily mean people will get their needs met!

-Perhaps, more likely, Hank would have realized that he could not or did not wish to meet Lillian's needs. In this situation, Lillian will suffer the pain of unmet needs.

Suffering people do better when NVC is being used because:

-Perhaps, because Lillian would feel understood and connected to Hank, she would accept the suffering. Perhaps because NVC kept her present, she would be able to get in touch with her pain and not avoid it.

But there is no guarantee. At all. Because:

-Most likely Lillian Reardon is a pain-avoider, incompetent at dealing with pain, even with Hank using NVC. In attempts to avoid the simple (yet difficult) act of feeling her pain, Lillian would numb out with various drugs or  lash out at Hank.

And then they are back where they started.

Let's say Hank is an NVC Genius. Perhaps he will continue to work with Lillian, staying connected to her and empathizing with her through all her attempts to make war with him. Perhaps this will go on for years. Will Hank ever get his needs met? Will he ever get through to Lillian? Will they ever have a mutually beneficial relationship or will he just be her therapist for the next ten years? And... why on Earth would Hank do that for Lillian?

Playing therapist only works out for Hank if he gets paid (in some form). Playing therapist for free is very taxing and not at all compassionate for the self. In pop culture this is described as the experience of giving and giving and giving to another person and ending up just feeling taken from. It's not a reciprocal relationship. There is no mutual enjoyment or mutual benefit. It leaves one person feeling good and the other feeling tired.

These are the real questions:

-NVC is worthwhile to stop wars. But should all wars be stopped? How much time should be dedicated to war-makers? What do we do with people who insist on war-making despite our efforts at keeping peace? 
-NVC is worthwhile to connect with those you want to share your life. But if you are doing NVC as a favor to help someone ... you have encountered an ancient and common aspect of the human condition that philosophers have been debating for thousands of years. How can the broken people be fixed? Should they be?

The heroes who are competent at life (they are actually just normal men but they are seen as heroes because they are so rare) note that they are. But they are surrounded by those who are not. They see those who are not competent at life and feel confused, and they want to help. "All you have to do is stop making self-destructive choices. It's so easy!" And yet ... the incompetent are incapable in some way. It's not easy. So the heroes dedicate their time and energy to psychoanalyzing the incompetent and trying to figure out how to help. The war-making incompetent of course don't let the heroes even decide whether or not they want to help, they demand attention at every turn––or else.

The solution (for me):

Compassion for the poor, the sick, the dying, the stupid, the war-makers, yes! By all means, yes! But take them off your shoulders. Compassion for them does not mean carrying them. It doesn't mean dedicating your life to trying to make them heroes like you––it's the same thing! Whether you are carrying them or have dedicated your life to solving their problems, you have still lost your life.

Perhaps, the world would be a much better place if heroes stopped dedicating their lives to those they feel sorry for, and started dedicating their lives to those who inspire them.

Young children do this instinctively. They are repelled by unhappy people, by sickness, by failures. They are drawn to people who appear happy, healthy, beautiful, strong, and successful. They emulate them. (And they often get it wrong––humans are tricky, often appearing happy and successful even when they are not.) Some people make it to adulthood still wanting nothing more than to dedicate their lives to their heroes. If you can't be a hero yourself, this is the next best thing.

But that is not the message religions give us (or our education). We are taught that the ideal is to be like Mother Theresa, and spend our lives tending to the dying. Worse, we are taught that no one should die, and we must do everything in our power to stop it.

Heroes, as Ayn Rand taught us, are their own destroyers. They don't help each other. They don't even get to hang out and inspire one another. Instead they spend their lives suffering, trying to help those who are dying ... to not die.

Compassion for the dying should not mean preventing the death. To prevent a death by enslaving the living is to fail to have compassion for the living. Today there is an imbalance of compassion, for others and not for the self, for the dying but not for the living.

When I was in fourth grade I once spent an entire math period with my hand in the air. My teacher passed over me. She helped so many kids, and many who didn't even have their hands in the air, but she never came to me. By the end of the period everyone else went to recess, and I stayed after and asked her why. "I want to help people who actually need help," she said. "You don't need help. You never will." Oh, Miss Stone, but what could kids like me do if you did help us? What could the world be like if the heroes were given the resources that are currently funneled to the dying in the name of compassion?

Compassion for the dying should also not mean lying to them. I don't know why we think it is compassionate to lie. The dying should not be despised. They have not failed. They are not bad. Death is an inevitable part of life. But ... they are also dying. The weak are weak. The failing are failing. It's okay to fail. But the lies we tell about this aren't helpful to anyone. Lying is not just unhelpful and inauthentic, it is cruel to the heroes.

To lie about what is beautiful, to lie about what is glorious, this game of pretense lacks compassion for the living. The strong, beautiful, healthy, happy - the heroes aren't just ignored, they are not seen. They are made to be invisible. And if they dare point out that they exist, they are made to feel as if they are bad, as if their success causes the dying to die. The dying were already dying before Atlas put them on his shoulders. His refusal to carry them didn't cause their death.

Great books on this subject include Atlas Shrugged, Loving What Is, and Nonviolent Communication. I don't know what it will be like for you, but the titles of the latter two turned me off to the point that I owned them but did not read them for years! I promise they are worth reading! Even if you are not a "touchy-feely" type. I also like Twilight of the Idols and Might is Right.


  1. This is a good idea refresher on the novel! I think what you tackle here with NVC and compassion is literally the main idea behind why literally "atlas shrugged". Truth to be told society kind of praises this self-less actions and sacrifice, but deep down human nature still wins meaning no one wants to sacrifice just for the sake of sacrifice its like a loosing game. IF this would be the rule how evolution would govern things intelligent life probably would have never evolved on earth. Even if someone says they don't do it for themselves there has to be somekind of motivation trigger otherwise this would just wear down the person eventually.
    So going to the point why Hank and Lillian could never have a good relationship my thinking is because their vision of life and goals where polar opposites. Recently I come to realize that having a common vision can be big part of good long lasting connection as you're moving in life in union towards one goal (almost like queens song lol).
    The last point regarding living and dead, it still amazes me how much importance we put on the dead. Sure I think its good to respect someone who contributed to society significantly, but in general my guess its a relic of the past still maintained by the our indoctrinated education system. Feeling for someone who died is kind of that same one-sided relationship in a true sense, thought its hard to let it go if we get so much motivation and after you loose that there is kind of relapse period, which I guess its natural. I do admire in that sense stoics for their attitude that you can loose anyone at any time and just take that as a given without having to worry about it.

    1. All good comments. Your second comment reminds me of how frustrating modern romantic myths are. "Love will find a way!" It's so impractical! In choosing a mate one needs heart AND head. Ugh.

    2. Evaldas, where were you from again? Are we friends on Facebook? Do I have your email?