The World of Peace

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Seventy years ago this week, with Allied armies advancing across northern Europe, Tokyo in a firestorm, and the ovens of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen burning furiously, my mother gave birth to a baby boy. My birth at that tortured moment in history motivated my parents to send out a card to their friends announcing "the arrival of a new citizen for the world of peace."

It was several decades before I saw that card, but somehow its invocation foretold a pattern my life would take — idealistic, a little romantic, and repeatedly drawn by the call to be for such a world.

elias boyAs a child my world was peaceful — I was a happy little guy, curious and eager, with little to complain about. But by the time I reached puberty I’d found the world was anything but peaceful — developers bulldozed the woods I played in, the atomic bomb lurked over us, soldiers killed each other in faraway wars. What kind of world was this?

As I grew older I immersed myself in poetry and protest. Poetry hinted to me of an understanding and beauty far beyond the bland suburban society around me. I joined civil rights and anti-war protests, became a conscientious objector and refused to pay my taxes. I looked for peace in the ideal of young love. I tried living in the remote wilderness, seeking peace far from the mess my country was making. Then through careful guided use of psychedelics (I was lucky) I experienced the selfless presence of being — the ultimate ground of peace — from which all emerges and to which all returns. But these experiences were fleeting and I came to realize, like many of my contemporaries, that I needed spiritual guidance of a more stable nature. I spent many years studying with a sufi teacher, and then with other teachers. During all this I challenged my understanding of the meaning of peace by bearing witness in war zones and in places where peace was threatened by meanness and ignorance, or where beauty was being destroyed by misguided ideas of development and progress.

It’s been a profound and sometimes heart-breaking journey. On this occasion of my becoming a septuagenarian, I want to ask myself — out loud: what, after all these years, have I learned about peace? What could I say is essential to being a citizen for the world of peace?

I could say I’ve learned that peace requires empathy, compassion, and respect for another’s presence and worth. I could say peace appears through every humble act of kindness. I could use more and more beautiful words, like love and creativity, intelligence and curiosity, tolerance and fairness — all these are the necessary precursors of peace. After all, peace is not a static end-state in which everyone gets along — it’s dynamic, spontaneous, self-correcting, and alive. It can spring up anywhere!

But there’s something else I’ve come to feel is essential for peace to flourish, something that’s not often mentioned. Wonder.

The capacity for wonder in human beings seems to me like a rain that makes it possible for all these seeds of peace I’ve mentioned to take root and grow. Where, after all, does empathy and compassion begin? It begins in our wonder at the great mutuality of life, in our wonder at its preciousness. And what is love if not wonder? We say, “You, my love, are so wonderful!” We say, “Life is wonderful!”

When wonder touches us for a moment we’re made speechless. We’re innocent. Fresh. Intimate. Without the capacity for wonder, would creativity have any passion? Would intelligence have any reach? Would there be any joy in kindness?   

Wonder was there in the moment you noticed that cloud billowing in the sky, or when you glimpsed the beauty of snowflakes swirling past a streetlight on a winter night, or when you sensed the way your body feels when you’re walking — how it knows how to make all the lilting adjustments of balance and imbalance. Wonderful! What is it that thrills us with a kiss or a caress? What can we call the feeling we have when we smell the angelic fragrance of a baby’s head? Or hold our hand on a pregnant woman’s belly? What can we call the feeling we have at the moment of true contact with another being?   

When we lose touch with wonder we become isolated, disappointed with life; we look for satisfaction in power or righteousness or material gain at the expense of others. A society or religion or family or corporation that loses touch with wonder loses touch with what makes everything worthwhile. And when that happens, the possibility for peace is lost. The stern people who made the horrors of the world I was born into, the fascists, imperialists and militarists, and the people who continue making war on life and beauty in our own time, were and are blind to all that is wonderful.   

I don’t believe peace is something abstract. It’s not even an ideal. It’s a gift we bring to life every moment we let ourselves wonder. How wonderful wonder is!