Fierce Peace

I thought about the idea of peace a lot as a kid. I remember when someone would ask what I wanted for my birthday, my sarcastic retort was often “world peace.” The implication was, of course, that a world without war or violence was a ridiculous thing to ask for or to expect. Men fight, countries wage war, bloodshed is just human nature, and the only question is, who will win?

The idea of peace in my own life seemed equally elusive. I knew a few people who appeared to be peaceful. Their families were happy and didn’t yell. They were good students and had plans for the future. They did things like go to church and volunteer and invite the weird kids (yours truly) to their parties out of kindness. I assumed they were every bit as angry as I was, just better at faking it. They were just better at winning. Since it seemed clear to me that winning wasn’t an option, I tried to opt out altogether.

The only place that dynamic seemed to fade away for me was music. When I sang, especially with other people, it seemed like that anger I had toward the rest of the world transformed. We were building something together. Something not intended to win but intended to express and include. The more we grew our skills, the more music we made, the more the group dynamic could withstand conflicts that in other situations in my life might devolve into anger and sometimes violence.

I’ve since come to know quite a few more people who, whether through natural inclination or more often through practice, exhibit peace in their daily lives. I’ve met people who build the structures of peace in the world, in their community and in themselves, and who fiercely defend those structures, not with the threat of violence, but with the power of kindness, inclusivity, and empathy. Maybe those sorts of people have been there all along. Maybe it was just hard to see them when I saw the whole world through the lens of win or lose. I’m grateful that I’ve learned to see the world in a different way.

Both from my own life and also recently from my friends at Search for Common Ground, I’m starting to understand that peacebuilding* isn’t about the suppression of conflict. Peace isn’t silence. Peace is often messy. Peace sees those who are suffering and oppressed and tells their story. Peace dismantles the structures of sexual violence, racism, inequality and poverty, even when that work seems impossible.

There’s a line in John Adams’ Dr. Atomic that I think about often. Kitty repeats the phrase “fierce peace” over and over. Singing the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser she says, “Now I say that the peace the spirit needs is peace, not lack of war, but fierce continual flame.” It sticks with me because too often I think of peace as a lack of something, a kind of empty space. But it’s more than that, it’s something to be continually built over time.

Today, on this International Day of Peace, I’m thinking about what my fierce flame looks like. How can I build peace in this world, in my community, and in myself? I hope you’ll join me.

*The folks at Search for Common Ground are working hard to get the word peacebuilding in the dictionary. Learn more about that here.