While I am not a religious person, I do strive to appreciate and practice the universal values that are reflected in many religions as well as in the humanistic strands of non-belief. Looking back on it, much of this year for me has been spent on self-care and care for immediate family and friends. I’ve found the four boundless abodes of Buddhism – loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity – a useful framework for navigating all of this. Between a new job that wound up bringing a lot more work than anyone originally planned during its first year, medical needs for friends and family, and an election that generated bursts of stress all year long, it hasn’t been an easy one.
Now, though, as I look ahead to 2017, and with the current season being what it is, I want to take some time to think about peace and good will.
When I think about peace, I often fall back on one or the other of two flawed images.
The first is far too abstract and takes a scope so wide as to be disempowering. “Peace on Earth” turns into a mental picture of happy children from all countries playing together, with a vague sense of no interpersonal strife occurring anywhere. That’s obviously not going to happen (certainly not in the next year), and it’s tough to imagine a path to a world that looks anything like that. When this becomes my go-to understanding of peace, it’s easy for it to become somebody else’s problem.
The second flawed image is thinking of peace at too individual and passive a level. When I first think of a peaceful person, I think of someone sitting quietly, often with their eyes closed, and a smile on their face. This might be what someone who has achieved inner peace looks like, but it’s probably a temporary state for them and certainly not the entirety of what peace means.
Peace can be concrete and immediate, and most versions require more than one person. And it certainly is not passive.
I also think (as is true of most things) that we can think of peacefulness on a spectrum. The idea of going from “Earth Without Peace” to “Peace on Earth” is often too big a jump to seem real or achievable; “a more peaceful world” is easier to grasp.
I am not personally able to stop the wars that create refugees – “Peace on Earth” is outside of my individual scope. What I can do is encourage my elected leaders to take in refugees and be publicly welcoming in my own immediate community. That could help make for a more peaceful world. Turning away those in need of a new place to live, by contrast, would only increase their turmoil and would make for a less peaceful world. Also worth noting here is that fears of violent refugees are so often overblown, not to mention counter-productive in the long run as they deepen suspicions and encourage resentment, that they make for a less peaceful world.
Deporting innocent people, and breaking up families and communities in the process, makes the world less peaceful. Creating an environment of fear for anyone based on their identity makes the world less peaceful. Bullying or lashing out at those who are different makes the world less peaceful.
Resisting these – contacting government officials, participating in or leading nonviolent protest, speaking up when it happens in front of you, offering support to those who have been victimized – makes the world more peaceful. Again, peace is not passive. (As it turns out, they don’t even share an etymological connection – “passive” is ultimately derived from the Latin pati, which refers to “suffering,” and not from pax, the Latin word for peace.)
As a final note, the active pursuit of a more peaceful world is a lifelong marathon. It’s necessary to take time for self-care, healing, and general recuperation along the way. Sometimes that means an hour, sometimes it means a year or more. And that’s OK.
I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. has suffered from a widespread lack of good will for more than just the last year. Lack of trust in, well, just about everything, has been growing.
Too many of us have sorted ourselves into closed circles. In those circles, group-level confirmation bias about how much everyone else looks down on or hates us has sunk in. We remember the slights (real or imagined) much more readily and with greater clarity than the instances where we were treated decently. As groups, we reward stories of those slights with greater attention than we do stories of being treated decently.
To be clear, I’m talking about our perceptions of others’ feelings and mindsets. Incidents of physical violence should be treated with the greatest seriousness. Concerns about good will are secondary to preserving one’s physical safety. What I’m getting at are the cases where we treat the most extreme attitudes or actions as representative of everyone in a group.
In this context, good will is about approaching another person with empathy, not knowing what pains and experiences they carry with them. It’s about actively listening to them and treating them like a human being.
Will everyone extend us the same courtesy? Of course not. See above about the long-running lack of good will in this country. But changing that requires some of us to take the first steps.
Now, I certainly won’t argue that everyone is entitled to unlimited good will. Those who prove themselves to be violent, or bullies, or obstinately closed-minded aren’t entitled to infinite patience and sympathy.
The trick is telling the difference between those people and others who happen to look like them or have a similar accent. We are often too quick to assume that someone is obstinately closed-minded simply because they are, to pick two examples, from a small rural town in the Midwest or from a city on a coast.
If we start with empathy and patience as often as we have the spoons to do so, we may be able to reverse some of the damage done by our long-standing resentments. I think we certainly have to try.
Thinking Ahead to 2017
It’s been a rough year, but it’s entirely possible that 2017 will be worse. I know a lot of people are dealing with very real fears of how their government could start treating them. I know that others are filled with a more generalized dread. Still others remain full of resentment at the way they believe others view them.
With all of that on the horizon, I’m going to do all I can to promote peace and good will next year. If this year’s taught us anything, it’s that the opposite leads us to bad places.