By Kevin Matthews
Not political as a young person, Caroline Cottom ’64 woke up to the danger of nuclear holocaust in the early 1980s. With a busload of people from Nashville, Tenn., she joined 1982’s million-person protest in Washington, D.C., demanding an end to the Cold War arms race.
At the time, many Americans were just becoming aware that the United States and the Soviet Union had 50,000 nuclear weapons between them.
During the next decade, Cottom – who had a doctorate in educational policy and a bit of unrelated political experience – would direct the national campaign for a nuclear freeze and lead the U.S. coalition for a worldwide, comprehensive nuclear test ban. She went to the Reykjavik summit in 1986 and to Kazakhstan in 1990, where the Soviets conducted their tests. She did international television interviews and addressed delegates to the United Nations.
Most importantly, she developed a constructive relationship with Al Gore during his career in the House and the Senate and as vice president. Gore ultimately was a key vote in passing a moratorium on nuclear tests, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The United States exploded a nuclear weapon for the last time on Sept. 23, 1992.
As she recounts in a soul-baring memoir published in 2012, Love Changes Things … Even in the World of Politics, Cottom was jolted into action in 1983 by what she perceived to be a bolt of lightning. She began having dreams laden with symbolism and hearing the voices of spiritual guides. Accordingly, she approached her dealings with arms control experts and powerful men (almost always men) as perhaps no one else would have.
“The message was that I was to love these people,” she said in an online video interview that she gave near her home in Oaxaca, Mexico. “That’s just not how we normally approach work.”
This was no romantic love, but an imperative to hold everyone she dealt with in the highest regard, unconditionally. To ratchet down international tensions, Cottom first of all had to disarm individuals, “loving and encouraging decision-makers to value the totality of who they are.”
To get a sense of Cottom at work, picture the defense policy adviser of a U.S. representative ranting at her, across the length of a large office, about the pressures his boss was under. Disarmament lobbyists had not elected the congressman, the adviser fumed, and they had no right to ask him to vote against his better judgment.
Cottom writes that she heard out the congressional staffer for 20 minutes until he fell silent and finally apologized. Moments later, he was explaining to her how she could better get his boss’s attention.
Whenever it was time to pick up the phone and call an official, Cottom stopped and waited to feel love for the person. This is still what Cottom advises social activists to do, no matter their issue of concern. If it’s hard to feel love for a particular government or corporate official, she says, address yourself to the person’s “spiritual essence or soul. Feel love for this soul.”
By mistake, Cottom arrived at Cal Lutheran the day before the first registration for students in 1961. She was recruited to assist with the event and soon met every one of the original students. Later, the English major organized monthly visits to the state mental hospital in Camarillo by groups of 10 students, an outreach effort that involved at least one-fourth of the student body.
Cottom fondly recalls the required daily chapel services held in the dormitories: “It wasn’t always religious information or even spiritual information. But it was always about values and about what mattered,” she said.
One day, as Cottom remembers it, a speaker at chapel began raising his voice while talking about the Christian life and commanded everyone there in the Alpha dorm rec room to stand up. He noticed that one person, Cottom, remained in her chair, and he stopped near her and yelled again, “Stand up!”
It would turn out that this speaker had a point to make about thinking for oneself rather than obeying, rather than just following orders. Cottom had done the right thing by trusting herself and remaining seated throughout. She would remember how that felt, and she kept her choice with her as a “moral compass.”
It’s all right to obey, Cottom says, as long as we always follow “that inner voice that resonates with us – whether it comes in reflection or in meditation or in prayer or in the voice in the pulpit.”
“The key is listening to that inner nudging,” she added. “For some people it’s a creative life, for others it’s a spiritual life, for others it may be something else. Often when that voice comes, there’s fear about it, because it means maybe changing your direction.”
To learn more about Cottom’s current work to support individual and social change, visit the blog she co-authors with her husband at www.lovechangesthings.net. Cottom also moderates the book discussion group Love & Social Change through goodreads.com.