Our Choice

By Ann Winschel

I am looking at a list of Quaker principles that was once handed out at a Newcomer’s program. I am highlighting two of them for this essay.

There is “That of God” in everyone.

Our relationship with the Divine is experiential.

The experiential imperative speaks to me forcefully. If I don’t know something to be true for myself, from my own personal experience, then I might find it worth thinking about, but only personal experience will get me to buy in. It is personal experience that brings me to question the principle that there is that of God in everyone.

I want to believe that it is true. It’s the way I would like things to be. It is the most fundamental principle of Quakerism and every other religion or spiritual practice that I am familiar with. Pema Chödrön, a beloved and respected Tibetan Buddhist, speaks about the basic goodness in each of us. Christianity says we are all children of God.

It is the foundation of the Quaker Testimonies. In particular, the Peace Testimony is often defended on the basis that because there is that of God in everyone, it is never appropriate to deliberately hurt anyone else.

So why am I stymied?

Here is what I know, what I have learned from personal experience, from reading, and from talking to experts. There are people who have no heart, no ability to empathize, no compassion. We call them psychopaths.

Psychopaths are a product both of biology and experience. If children with the biology to become psychopaths are raised with love and taught compassion, they will grow to be loving, compassionate adults. If not, they become adults who will hurt others to get what they want. They do not experience guilt or shame or remorse. All the evidence – and my personal experience – says that they are incorrigible, they never change, they never grow to compassion or love.

You cannot negotiate with them because they do not ever negotiate in good faith. If you appease them, they up their game. If you stand up to them, they come back with a vengeance. They do not stop unless someone or something stops them. You cannot shame them into better behavior because they have no shame. If you try passive resistance they will sneer at you as they mow you down. They lie with an ease and abandon that is bone chilling – if you recognize it. They promote fear, destroy love, and impede relationships. They do not respond to love with love. Ever. Where, I want to know, is there “that of God” in them?

But let’s put that sticky question aside for now; there is a war on and it needs an immediate response. My go-to policy when faced with a difficult decision is, “Say yes! to life. Always make the choice that brings more life.”

Some of you may remember Sophie’s Choice, the story of the young mother who was forced to choose which of her children to send to the Nazi gas chambers so that her other child would have a chance to survive This is what psychopaths do, they put us in situations where our only choices are bad ones, where no matter what we choose we will be saying no! to life.

Putin is a psychopath. There is no life-affirming choice we can make with regard to the war in Ukraine. He has put us in the position of Sophie. I still don’t know what to make of the principle that there is that of God in everyone. But I know that until Putin is forcibly stopped, he will go on destroying lives, promoting fear, demolishing love, and destroying relationships and community in ever widening circles.