~ by Lynne Westmoreland, March 2022
Last December, in the season of darkness leading up to and away from the winter solstice, I found myself contemplating the teachings in a number of different religious traditions. The seven principles of Kwanzaa, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (responsibility to repair the world), the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and others. Each tradition lays out a concrete path to peace, echoing themes of community, creativity, responsibility, accountability, and faith. Buddhism’s central teaching might be simply, "be kind". Teachings attributed to the Sufi sect of Islam include the idea that different religions are different ways to reach God, and therefore, one should respect all religions.
As I read the teachings of these diverse traditions, I noticed resonance with the central principles of Unitarian-Universalism, the tradition out of which I write: equity, compassion, justice, responsibility to the earth and all of her inhabitants, diversity, inclusion, and the right of each person to freely and responsibly search for truth and meaning.
So, I wondered, how is it that when most peoples of the world claim some religion to guide their lives, and most of these traditions teach that people should not kill or envy, or lust after, or covet, or control others – how is it that we find ourselves in a state of perpetual non-peace?
Now we are entering the time when the light gradually increases, until March 21 or 22, the spring equinox, one of two days in the year when the hours of daylight equal those of night. We human animals have similar cycles. Like the planet at equinox, we as individuals occasionally come into periods or moments of balance. Times when we feel our equilibrium return, when we can balance the light and dark sides of ourselves. Times when we know that the shadow emotions of anger, fear, cynicism, despair, hatred, and envy do not overpower the pure joy and lightness of being. In such moments, we may find ourselves filled with a sense of light and feelings of hope, generosity, optimism, and creativity.
Our connectedness to the planet is reflected within us continually. We are each like the weather – at times stormy and fierce and angry, at other times sunny and clear and undisturbed. To see ourselves with the changeability built in, to know that we are capable of being at peace with ourselves and all creation, may help us in being peace.
Being peace doesn’t mean that we will always have peaceful circumstances around us, but rather that we can remain peaceful through difficult circumstances, by setting an intention to add to the light in the world rather than to the darkness.
There is a well-known parable (often attributed to the native Cherokee people, but see this) in which a grandfather is explaining to his grandson that there are two wolves who live inside each of us. One wolf’s diet is hatefulness, coarseness, anger, apathy, and an aversion to all that is good in the world. The other wolf’s diet consists of love, generosity, good will, and inclusion of all in the circle of acceptance and dignity. The grandfather explains that these two wolves are always fighting each other, always in conflict. His grandson asks, “Well then, which wolf wins?” And his grandfather answers, “The one you feed.”
In December, we lost a giant of peace and reconciliation, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Tutu fully embraced love and peace and joy even while sometimes weeping openly over the suffering in the world. At one time, he literally put his life on the line in breaking up an angry mob determined to burn to death a man who they believed was an apartheid spy.
So we know that being peace doesn’t mean that you will always be safe, or quiet, or composed. Setting the intention to embody peace can mean that you feel afraid and are even physically harmed. One of my friends, who took part in a protest against the killing of Daniel Prude in Rochester, NY, was fired upon and hit with a rubber bullet, causing her both physical and psychological injury. She was not alone in this experience. And many bore witness to the state-backed violence against the water-protectors who gathered peacefully at Standing Rock, North Dakota in November, 2016 to block the Dakota Access oil pipeline. (See this article for a short history of the Dakota Access pipeline fight.)
Being peace also doesn't mean that you will be liked, respected, or listened to. Many of us in the Unitarian-Universalist organization have tried talking with those whose thinking differs radically from the UU principle that every single person deserves respect and dignity and to be allowed to live their lives without fear. Being peace means standing for this idea, which sometimes means getting hurt, like getting water-hosed, tear-gassed, hit, or shot at during a demonstration. In the 1960s and 70s those of us who cared about civil rights, the environment, the war in Vietnam, and the winner-take-all capitalism that was already threatening our planet and our souls – we were called peaceniks and hippies. The slogan “Make Love Not War” was ridiculed by those who seemed to have been hypnotized into thinking that the earth and all of her inhabitants were there for the exploiting. We were told we were communists and slackers and wimps, because we believed that going to war and killing people - to teach them not to kill - was ludicrous.
And maybe the violence wore us down. Maybe pain and fear got the better of us. Many of us with deep conviction during those early decades eventually gave way to the constant and loud messages of consumption and violence. We allowed ourselves to be caught in the trance of the so-called American Dream which was built on the nightmares of others. We didn’t take to the streets when our dignity was compromised because our government no longer considered us citizens, but consumers. Our collective will eroded and our souls remained asleep as military aggression continued after Vietnam, in Grenada, Iraq, and more. We were willing to keep silent when we learned of torture and water boarding on directives from our highest government and military officials. Until 2020, when people of color led the way, we did not speak out as police departments became militarized and weaponized against our own citizens.
So in the midst of all of this – the action and inaction, the soul unease and social dis-ease – how do we become peace? How do we begin anew to embody the intention of being an example of peace in the world?
We can begin with ourselves. It sounds trite, but honestly, what would it take, to make a commitment to talk to ourselves as kindly as we talk to those we love dearly? It's harder than it sounds. Most people haven't done this in so long, that they don't know that it can bring, as perhaps nothing else can, an inner peace and a sense of integrity that enables them to move with confidence and radical kindness in the world.
Last December, Rebecca Solnit and Heather Cox Richardson held a conversation on Facebook about Solnit's recent book Orwell’s Roses. At one point they discuss the idea that authoritarian and totalitarian governments cannot control people who have a robust sense of self. The "tyranny of the quantifiable" – like Gross Domestic Product, the stock market (which rises even as most of the citizenry falls deeper and deeper into debt and despair), standardized testing, one-size-fits-all, profit margins, market shares, and the like – strips modern people of our humanity, our uniqueness, our passion about anything beyond our screens. Our robust, alive, changing sense of self gets replaced with a watered down, blurred, and grainy still-photo version of ourselves – a version that reflects nothing of who we were, as human beings, before we became convinced that our most admirable character traits were our work ethic, our productivity, our part of keeping the machine churning out more and more stuff that we will eventually drown in.
People who embody peace know that the noise – that constant, loud narrative about doing, consuming, and so-called productivity – is not what is interesting. They know that their value comes from an inner source, an upwelling in the creative expression of their unique selves and talents. They know that they are free to wander outside the circles of constant chatter, sound bites, phrases that have no meaning, and friends in name only. Being peace means being able to claim your own value, and to see the unique value in others.
People at peace do not want to hurt others or deny others a share of the commons. The people of peace build others up, they are kind, they are filled with humor, and joy, and optimism, even in the darkest of circumstances. They catch themselves when they are unkind and immediately move toward apology and reconciliation. Peaceful people engender more peaceful people by modeling love and inclusion and celebration of the diverse life here on Earth.
To represent peace means to stand for something far greater than the absence of war, arguing, strife, or discord. Being peace goes far beyond the absence of destruction. Joanna Macy, scholar, activist, and author, has written that it means looking our tendency toward destruction straight in the eye and grieving, even as we declare our "wild love for the world." Being peace means loving this world to the point of tears, when we feel the pain of the turmoil, meanness, and harm to the beings of this planet, and recognize it as our own being.
In every religious tradition, and in our own time, there are teachers who who tell us, in words and by example, what it means to embody peace. It is the call to each of us to become the best version of ourselves, and to hold out our hands to help those still stumbling along. Poet and author Mary Oliver knew exactly what her role was and what she had to give through her poems, love letters to the world. Here is one, in full.
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
– by Mary Oliver, from Thirst (2006)