Preserving a Meaningful Life on Earth

Department: 

An interview with Carol Urner
by Natalie Ramsland

Carol Urner has spent most of her nearly 90 years as an activist for peace and nonviolent social change. Having volunteered in developing countries that include the Philippines, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Lesotho, she has a unique perspective on the work of nonviolence.

The following excerpts are from a conversation that was recorded on October 6, 2018. A complete transcript of that conversation can be found here.

Natalie Ramsland: How did you first feel led to do nonviolence and anti-nuclear work?

Carol Urner: Well, the story I tell is – playing with neighborhood boys. I would have been about five years old. I can’t date it exactly. I was playing with the neighborhood boys and there were two of them. They always like to play cowboys and Indians,

of course, so they’d chosen this game to play with me. And I was the only one they were aiming for. They told me to run. They pointed at me, and I don’t remember if they had a toy gun, or if they just did this [shapes her hand into a gun] because boys will do that. But they said, “We shot you! You’re dead! Drop down!” Something like that. So dutifully, I dropped down. And I lay there on the green grass, and I felt the warm earth below me. The grass was green, I remember that. And the blue sky was up above. And I thought, ”What would I even be thinking if I were dead? I wouldn’t be thinking anything! This is wrong. We mustn’t kill!”

I don’t know the exact words or feeling, but in a sense, I think I have known this since birth, that killing is wrong. I think it was born in me. But that was when I realized it. After that, in that neighborhood and other neighborhoods, I was always the leader. And we always played nonviolent games. You know, we acted out stories, but since I was the leader, I never let them break down in violence. So I conducted nonviolent training from a very early age!

Natalie: You spent much of your adult life working with the poor in countries from Bangladesh to Lesotho, and also as a nonviolence activist. How did you come to understand your calling to do this work?

Carol: I married my husband Jack for love of his dream for the world. I don’t know if I was in love with my husband. But I was in love with his dream for what he wanted to do, and I wanted to help him do it. Well, it was like most arranged marriages: One night when we were talking, this voice clearly said, “Marry this man.”

Well, I found it in an old journal I wrote back in 1957 or 1958, much closer to the time. That voice said more than just “Marry this man,” it turns out. I have a pretty long quote from the voice! But anyway, it was real and it was authoritative. And I think of myself as rather timid, or at least I used to. I guess I’ve given that up! But that’s when it all started – that would have been 1952, I think, when this voice spoke so clearly to me. I never heard a voice like that again. Never again.

Each of the projects I got involved in, I knew I had to do it. But it wasn’t a voice. The voice that said to marry my husband – that was the only time in my life that I can ever remember ever hearing a voice like that.

Years later, he said to me “Who proposed this marriage anyway?” I’d never thought about it that way! But I realized it was not only a proposal, I had just assumed it was going to happen. Boy! And I don’t do things that way. I don’t believe in voices!

Whatever happened, happened as it should. And when I look back on my life, I could believe in predestination of a sort, because every stage was like preparation for the next stage. Well, I don’t think it was that precise, but once on the path, that’s the way it worked. And I think for Jack also.

Natalie: In recent years, you have been a strong advocate for the U.N. Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. Can you talk about what this means to you?

Carol: What I am very concerned about is the survival of the human race. For all of us, for everything we love. I mean, ultimate, final destruction is just right there, all the time. We could all go any minute. And now we have a president with an itchy finger!

I’m a member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Our acronym is “WILPF.” Now say that without spitting! But we say it and laugh. Anyway, the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty is our treaty. This is something that WILPF was working on . . . well, we’ve always been working on that.

Before nuclear weapons actually materialized back in 1945, I don’t think WILPF had a real hint of that particular weapon yet. But we were against all weapons and war from the beginning. WILPF’s purpose, our purpose, is stopping war. That’s in our constitution. That’s our very first purpose. And disarmament. Because if you have arms, you can always start a war by accident.

So anyway, that’s the way WILPF works and their main thing now is that treaty. That’s their central focus, and it’s liveliest thing going on in WILPF. Everybody in WILPF is getting involved in it, and it’s getting very strong.

Natalie: I’m wondering if you could speak to Quakers’ relationship to the work of the nonviolence and anti-nuclear movements?

Carol: Well, I believe that most of us as Quakers don’t want to have anything to do with weapons. Some Quakers probably do enjoy hunting, but it’s hard for me to think they do or to believe they do. Or that they’ve finished with all their personal development that has made them Quakers. . . But taking life, any life! I find it hard even to kill an ant that’s crawling on my kitchen sink because it’s doing what it’s meant to do and is doing it so well. And it’s going about it so proudly! No, killing is not something that Quakers are good at. So I think rejecting weapons is easy for us.

But it’s hard to explain that to other people who are thinking about self-preservation. I’m sure Quakers also think about self-preservation, but that’s not the way we do it. We want to preserve meaningful life on Earth. And some of the life we preserve is going to be bad life and kill other people, but I say we want to love those people too. We want to connect with anybody we meet and seek out in them the best we can find in them, to be open to that. And I think with anybody, the best is there.

So we try to find the best in each other. And we will have conflicts we will have disagreements, and that’s often the way we have to grow. But to actually think about killing anyone or defending ourselves with a gun or with a nuclear weapon. . . One nuclear weapon, fired in fury and anger, or by accident, could end up destroying everything we know and love.

I’m glad we’re all against weapons, and I think we need to support every positive step on the way. And for me right now, that means the new Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty that we’re working through the United Nations. Something like 124 nations joined in negotiating the treaty, and as soon as 50 nations have ratified it – and it is up for signing and ratification now – then it will be international law. For everyone.

I don’t know if laws will be enough, but they can help change our world. And our world needs changing when it comes to weapons. Any weapons, but especially nuclear weapons.

Natalie: The words “nonviolence” and “anti-nuke” point to a negative, not-this vision. I’m wondering if you could articulate the positive vision of what you’d like to see in the world.

Carol: I rejoice in every step that seems like a positive step. It doesn’t even take all of us, but enough of us, really trying to see what love can do, then there’s hope.

I know we’re supposed to hate Putin, but I can’t hate him. That doesn’t mean I want to live under him. That doesn’t mean I agree with him. But I can’t hate him. It’s impossible for me to hate him. But then, I can’t think of anybody I hate.

I think hate becomes impossible when we’re not all thinking so much about our power, not so much about what we are going to do, but about how we can help our planet. How we can reach out to each other.

So you ask me how I envisioned a world that works. It’s that. The more people that are willing to try what love will do (it is pretty hard to love somebody when you’re pointing a gun at them), the more hope we have for a world that works. I think it works much better on love than on hate.

Even people that do hate, if you hate them in turn, it doesn’t help. You have to look for what’s good in them and try to draw that out. And even if it doesn’t rescue them, that’s what we all need to do.

Natalie: I want to draw on your wisdom and your experience in life. It seems to me that many people in my generation, friends of mine, are freaking out. We feel that we’re living in extremely perilous times.

Carol: It’s always been that way, I think. It is a perilous time now. But there’s no shooting war going on here now. So we still have a chance.

When we were young, when we traveled overseas, people were worried about us going. Every country we went to was a country in perilous times.

In the Philippines, I was often in situations where I could have been killed easily. I was doing very controversial work, but I went to the Embassy, and I told them what I was doing. I said, “I’ll tell you everything I do. And I’ll be completely open, but it will be nonviolent.” I spoke to the top political officer in the Embassy.

I guess he’d already seen FBI reports on me, so he just said, “We can’t support you, of course. But we will interpret what you’re doing.” And I think that’s what has happened. My phone was obviously tapped. I heard it. And I don’t know if it was the Marcos government tapping it, or the U.S. government, or both, but somebody was.

Anyway, all times are perilous, I think. And sometimes, even though they are perilous, we are lulled into complacency. So we can be scared, or we can be complacent, or whatever. And we may avoid looking at it. But it’s still there. So your friends are right. These are perilous times. But they’ve been perilous all along. And how you can react to it is not to worry, not to sit down, not to weep, not to say, “Nobody can do anything.” Let’s forget all that! All times are perilous. Find the best ways to respond. ~~~

Natialie Ramsland attends Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).