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Illuminating the Darkness: Christian Picciolini

Casey Gordon | July 7, 2016

Christian Picciolini recalls a hunger he had from a young age. An urge to belong to some grander narrative. A drive to leave his own mark upon it.

Christian Picciolini is a seeker. A man who has spent much of his life in pursuit of purpose.

He hasn’t always searched in the brightest of places.

As a high school freshman in the mid 1980s, Christian was recruited into the country’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gang, quickly becoming enveloped in its world of violence and rage. By the time he left the skinhead white power movement at age 22, Christian had already grown into one of the racist movement’s most vocal and respected leaders.

Much of it took place in his birthplace of Blue Island, Illinois — less than twenty miles from the tranquil, art-filled loft he and his wife share in Chicago’s hip West Loop neighborhood. It feels like another lifetime.

Indeed, the shelves of Christian’s home office where he works on Life After Hate — a peace advocacy nonprofit he cofounded in 2010 — are filled with artifacts that most people would need several lifetimes to acquire. Highlights include an invitation to President Obama’s 2013 inauguration and three Emmy nominations for his work at JBTV.

Scanning the titles in his expansive library, it is clear that where Christian once sought purpose, today he seeks truth. Where he once demanded answers, he now listens for wisdom. He’s got everything from the Odyssey to On the Road. The Art of War to Art of Modern Rock. Basic Figure Drawing Techniques. Great Dialogues of Plato. You name it.

Another title on the shelf: Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead. Christian published his brutally honest memoir in 2015 as a cautionary tale about the toxicity of hate — and a testament to the transformative power of compassion. Romantic Violence is taught in classrooms across the country, including those of Yale University.

Several statues of the Buddha are scattered throughout Christian’s office. One sits on the mantle just beneath a pair of faded boxing gloves that hang from the wall. Another rests on a bookshelf with an action-figure-sized pair slung around its neck.

I ask Christian if the visual marriage of Buddha and boxing paraphernalia is deliberate. He tells me not really, although I cannot help but wonder to what extent his subconscious played the part of interior decorator. After all, Christian is in many ways a boxer-turned-Buddha himself.

Through a rediscovery of compassion that began with the birth of his first son, Christian was able to lay down his violent past. He still wears that past on his sleeve, but now he speaks and acts from a heart filled with kindness. He knows he cannot undo some of the things he wishes most that he could, and he is thus all the more determined to make the world a more empathetic place. To keep others from wandering down the same dark path he did. To guide those lost souls who already have back toward the light.

Christian joined FIVEinSIXTY to share five things, but they all boil down to one essential truth:

It’s never too late to start.

Christian shares 5 reasons to question your belief system:

1. Your ideology might be flawed. This one’s as simple as it sounds.

2. You will create an atmosphere of healthy skepticism. Intelligence. A deeper understanding of yourself. You will refine your ideas.

3. Beliefs have consequences. Hate has a legacy. Toxic beliefs can spread quickly and when they take root they can last for generations. Spread compassion.

4. Opposing views are beneficial. We learn when we talk with people whose perspectives differ from our own. Search for truth, not righteousness.

5. Beliefs are based on hope more than fact. Faith in something that hasn’t been proven. Questions that haven’t been answered.

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