Continuums are helpful in understanding the totality of life—and in living courageously. Take separation and attachment, for example. From early infancy, when our lives are literally in the hands of our parents, we develop deep bonds of attachment. In time, perhaps on the first day of school, summer camp, college, or deployment; or when going through life passages such as divorce, retirement, or death, we discover the pangs of separation and loss. Understanding the nature of attachment and separation can help us navigate the world of relationships we encounter throughout life.
One of the most confounding continuums we experience is that of peace and violence. At one end of the continuum, we’re peace-loving creatures in search of calmness, safety, and collaboration. We show inordinate amounts of compassion, kindness, and empathy. And we are pacifists—we teach our children the ways of peace. At the other end of the continuum, we are violent. Whether seeking retribution and revenge, fighting for our survival or inflicting pain, our violent, predatory, warrior nature presides. Since our children are watching us, they’re inclined to follow our leads: as peacemakers or warmongers; as adults who express their beliefs and opinions in a constructive, bridge-building way or a destructive, corrosive manner; or as strong and fair negotiators or divisive manipulators.
A well-known Native American story contrasting these dark and light sides of human nature proposes that we can cultivate our peaceful nature. Confronted with danger, hunger, the seduction of threat, or the desire for retribution, we possess the power to transcend, contain, and/or transform our violent sides so that we can even become ambassadors, role models, and purveyors of peace.
Embodying peace and mastering the fine art of de-escalating potentially violent situations, defusing ticking time bombs in potentially explosive relationships, getting out in front of the violence curve by reconciling differences between adversaries and enemies are noble aspirations. Others include taking preventive measures for averting crises; channeling anger and rage into constructive outlets; and promoting peace-affirming values, beliefs, policies, and practices in our families, neighborhoods, communities, nation, and world.
Achieving peace, making peace, keeping peace, requires a commitment
to do the inner/personal work that allows us to truly embody peace.
Increasing our human capacity for humility, compassion, empathy, respect, forgiveness, dialogue, listening, and trust takes practice. Lowering our reactivity, defensiveness, arrogance, self-righteousness, and desire for retribution—while sharpening our analytic thinking when it comes to diverse perspectives and building bridges of understanding—requires a special kind of heroism.
“Peace heroism” is being called for in 2018 as parts of our nation and world reach new heights of possibility in scientific, economic, and human endeavors—and other parts of our nation and world polarize and splinter to all-time dangerous lows. We get to choose. Do we support the humanity of life-saving advancements in science and medicine, the transformation of war zones, and efforts to restore justice and civility? Do we take steps to alleviate the horrific atrocities of gun violence, rampant poverty, and starvation as advocates of peace? The choices we make to either embody the elements of peace, violence, or indifference are profound and far-reaching. And they will set the tone for generations to come.
Below, I’ve listed seven ways to cultivate the peaceful sides of our nature and move to higher ground on the peace–violence continuum.
- Make smart choices about where peace is possible. Don’t be naive. Invite people to partner with you in bringing about peace. Lead with humility, patience, clarity, courage, and understanding. And take it in small steps. Step away from people and situations where it is clear that peace is just not possible at this time.
- Practice patience. Envision a positive result and do the work necessary to achieve it. Don’t be seduced by feelings of helplessness. Creating peace can take a minute or a lifetime, but whatever the case, it is characterized by good listening and effective dialogue.
- Find the peace within. Learn to calm and contain your own thoughts and narratives about life, people, conflicts, and peace. Ground yourself in humility to address the challenging, confounding, uneven, creative process of attaining this goal.
- Build on common ground. Start off by focusing on what you have—and what you have in common. Realizing that we want many of the same things establishes an atmosphere of commonality that leads to the settling of differences.
- Balance dark and light. Shine light on, and examine, both the bright and dark sides of situations. Share your aspirations as you consider greater possibilities.
- Utilize mediation when necessary. The presence of a third-party mediator can make all the difference in slowing things down, forging effective communication, resolving conflicts, and building the empathy and understanding upon which peace can be built.
- Act in good faith. The foundation of peace lies in respect, earned trust, goodwill, and the integrity that comes from keeping agreements.
Visionary leaders such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela have embodied and brought about greater possibilities for peace. But it is incumbent upon each of us to tap into the peace-loving, kind, courageous, and humble side of our nature, and contain the dark sides of our humanity when they arise. Embodying and spreading a spirit of goodwill allows us to discover common ground, summon newfound hope and faith, and bridge our differences. By becoming the better versions of ourselves and embracing the inborn desire for peace at the core of all great faith traditions, we do our parts as role models for our children—and in making the world a better, safer, more just and compassionate place.