Peace on earth

It is not just at Christmas time that most of us want peace for our world. Conflict between human beings causes our greatest sorrows. Peaceful connections bring our greatest joys. Yet beyond seasonal wishes, too few of us dare imagine how sustained peace might be achieved.

Even the topic of peace arouses passionate feelings.  I have publicly reflected on peace several times and no subject (other than Interfaith) has stirred up a greater number of critical letters from readers. One way or another, those letter writers have insisted that conflict is inevitable and living in peace impossible.

Interestingly enough, I agree with the first of those assumptions but not the second.  Conflict is inevitable. Even within the privacy of our own minds we can want several opposing things. We can be torn between conscious and unconscious desires. We can think violently. And we can turn those thoughts into attitudes and actions that harm ourselves or other people. So the challenge that faces us is not to end conflict but to deal with it intelligently.

Two ancient sources support modern psychological wisdom that the world we create outside ourselves mirrors the inner dramas swirling in our minds. Proverbs (in the Hebrew Bible) tells us: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  The key Buddhist scripture, the Dhammapada, is more explicit still:  “We are what we think.  All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we create the world.”

To create a more peaceful world, we have no choice but to become more peaceful inwardly. Step into a peaceful atmosphere and your entire being relaxes and expands. But peacemaking does not mean “passive”.  On the contrary, a series of highly active decisions may need to be made.

In our desire to see the big conflicts resolved, we may easily overlook how our lives are shaped by countless small decisions.  What makes the difference is often those few harsh words that should have been silenced, the encouragement that wasn’t given, the act of kindness that got away.

Valuing peace – or call it harmony, good humour, generosity of spirit – may come down to behaving with consideration and respect for other people, regardless of whether they “”deserve it”” or you “”feel like it””.  It may mean curbing moments of violence or hostility whenever they occur, never crushing your own spirit, nor that of anyone else.

Those shifts in attitude and behaviour can’t solve the world’s major injustices. But they can make a profound difference to how you value not just your own life but life itself, and how you influence everyone around you. Tolerating uncertainty, refusing to disparage or stereotype other people, losing your fear of difference, knowing what “enough” feels like, reducing and not creating unnecessary tension and stress: these are yet more small steps that can have big effects.

Peacemaking is ultimately about taking responsibility not just for ourselves but for the world beyond ourselves. Making the small actions count, you can become a source of harmony (and happiness) for others, regardless of how “important” or “unimportant” the world may think you are.

Perhaps the greatest confusion about peacemaking is that in our competitive, aggressive world it is a soft option.  But just a few moments reflection tells you that taking charge of your actions and responses actually demands high levels of emotional intelligence and awareness, as well as genuine social awareness and engagement. And the world has never needed that more.

Of course it can seem more comfortable (and much less challenging) to applaud the ideals of peacemaking between religions, cultural groups or nations rather than doing something about our own attitudes and the way we affect other people from the inside out. Just days ago I read a tremendous quote from sportsman-turned-actor Ian Roberts. “If you’re not happy with yourself, believe me, someone else can’t make you happy,” he said.

Something similar could be said about our hopes for peace. Until we claim peace within ourselves, and take it up as our privilege to help create peace for other people, our desires for peace can be nothing more than tinsel. By accepting the challenge of active peacemaking, however, we may even change the world.

Stephanie Dowrick’s newest book is Choosing Happiness: Life & Soul Essentials.