What is peace? Can stories teach peace?
This week, I have been holding in my heart all those people in the world who endure war and violence and who long for peace. Those of us in the human family who do want peace are billions strong. I do believe that we are the greater share of humanity. And yet, again and again, history repeats itself. Conflicts erupt, bullies and war-mongers run rampant, and ordinary peace-loving people are swept up in the vortex of warfare, suffering, violence and terror.
This propensity toward domination, destruction and greed - or toward denial and inaction in the face of it - is a dark and painful aspect of the human story. Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that around 2 billion people around the world have been affected by conflict and violence, while the numbers of internally displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers are rising, according to UN OCHA.
Each one of these people - including an estimated one of every four children in the world, who live in regions in crisis - deserves freedom, protection and provision of their needs both material and immaterial. Each one deserves peace.
Peace is a universal hope and blessing. The customary Arabic greeting: assalamu alaykum literally means ‘peace be upon you.’ The Noble Eight-Fold Path at the heart of Buddhism is directed toward cultivating inner and outer peace. ‘If we want peace, we have to be peace. Peace is a practice not a hope,’ the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, writer and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh has said.
Yet what exactly is peace?
This was the question posed in a commentary I read recently from the storyteller Odds Bodkin, accompanying his telling of a traditional tale from Tibet called the Blossom Tree.
Asking whether stories can teach peace, Bodkin writes:
‘First of all, what is peace? The absence of conflict? When you consider that the universe is a tissue of infinitesimal conflicts of creation and destruction, probably not. Conflicting air temperatures circulate the planet’s air supply and magnets wouldn’t exist without their conflicting polar energies.’
This being the case, he asserts, words often associated with peace - stillness, ease, tranquility, quiet - do not quite reflect its true essence. Peace, he asserts, is something more dynamic, something that holds and moves with rather than soothes or dissipates tension:
‘Peace is well-governed activity. Peace accepts contrasts and conflicts and does its best to live with them. In our bustling, imperfect, multicultural world, peace can’t be taught by telling people to be peaceful. Peace can only be taught by developing respect for the lives of others. For other races and societies, other religions, and other linguistic groups. And by pointing out the universal experiences we all share, no matter how different we may appear.’
Peace, he suggests, is a sort of dynamic flourishing that arises when people live from universal human virtues such as honesty, respect, perseverance, courage, compassion and loyalty. When our best human qualities are nurtured and enacted with intention, peace is the natural outcome. In this sense, storytelling can be a catalyst for peace.
But not just any kind of storytelling. Some stories sow violence and discord, while others nourish our mutual understanding and respect for one another. Some stories promote empathy and compassion, while others reinforce patterns of dehumanization, domination and ‘power-over’.
Jessica Senehi, an associate professor in peace and conflict studies at the University of Manitoba, distinguishes between destructive and constructive storytelling.
She relates the story of Robert Desnos, a French surrealist poet who during World War II was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Buchenwald. One day, Desnos was among a group of prisoners who were loaded into a truck. As she relates:
‘… everyone knew they were being taken to their death. Traumatized and weakened by lack of food, the prisoners were mostly silent. The guards did not look at the faces or into the eyes of the prisoners.
After the prisoners had been taken off the truck at the place where they were to be killed, suddenly and with enthusiasm, Desnos seized the hand of one of the prisoners, a young woman, and said that he would read her palm. With exuberance, he foretold a wonderful romance, children, and a long life. The young woman laughed, and others put their hands forward. Desnos began to tell other fortunes filled with joy and promise. The prisoners became animated and began talking among each other about the romances, children, and hopes that they did have. They laughed and cried.
One guard began to cry. Hearing these stories, the guards could no longer deny the prisoners’ humanity, and were unable to go through with the executions. They put the prisoners back on the truck and returned them unharmed for the time being, and some lives were saved.’
In this story about life-affirming, constructive storytelling, we see an instance where people’s animated and exuberant expressions of their own humanity had the power to overcome a destructive narrative. The simple act of being human and enacting that human-ness in the face of death was transformative.
Even in the worst of circumstances, the beauty, richness and intrinsic worth of human existence shines through in authentic, constructive storytelling. I felt this powerfully, for example, in this Twitter thread, expressing the particular exuberance and humour of Ukranian culture, bringing the stakes of war back to the human scale (click on the thread to read it in its entirety):
In her paper Constructive Storytelling: A Peace Process, Senehi elaborates on a distinction between destructive and constructive storytelling:
‘What is always at issue in this distinction are processes of domination versus peace - that is, coercive power versus shared power, dehumanization of the other versus mutual recognition, dishonesty and unawareness versus honesty and critical consciousness, and resistance and agency versus passivity and hopelessness in the face of social injustice.’
My own work over the years has brought me to many ‘fragile’ and ‘post-conflict’ areas in different countries including Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. I have seen for myself, and listened to many, many peoples’ stories about the work of reconciling with past violence and building towards a peaceful future.
In the context of war and peace, I have seen how the particular expressions of those universal human qualities mentioned above - honesty, respect, perseverance, courage, compassion and loyalty - vary widely, yet are equally sustaining, across different societies, different cultures, different communities and families.
In northern Uganda, where civil conflict raged for more than 20 years, an entire generation of young people were raised in densely crowded and restrictive camps for the internally displaced. Over the long, grim struggle for survival, many of the seeds, stories and traditions that had previously sustained communities were gradually eroded. I remember one father in particular describing this process of cultural loss to me:
‘Our traditional dancing is filled with meaning. Our dances teach our children and give them images of how life is. In the evenings we used to make a fire and tell the children stories about the ancient people, about rearing animals, about how they should be disciplined. We couldn’t do this while we were in the camps, and now most families no longer do this.’
As he described, the fighting had ended more than 10 years ago, yet the process of building a lasting, sustaining peace - in this wider sense of dynamic flourishing that I have been writing about - was still ongoing. I think this process of finding peace, within and without, is ongoing for many of us, wherever in the world we find ourselves.
This week, I am stretching my understanding of peace. I love to think of peace as a quality of living vibrancy, without the connotation of it being something tepid or docile. I am exploring how I might live more peacefully in this teeming, riotous world. What are your own thoughts about peace? As always, I would love to hear from you.