Personal Transformation as the Pathway to Peace

Three weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a week-long workshop on peace literacy, joined by several friends and colleagues. "Peace literacy," a term coined by peace activist Paul Chappell (Click here to visit the Peace Literacy Website), is essentially a process of educating each other about how to engage in peace and peaceful existing rather than maintaining the status quo of persistent conflict (war, racism, genocide, etc.). While the intellectual content of the workshop was interesting, I left with a greater appreciation for what was absent from the experience than for the material presented.

Throughout the week, my peers and I had an ongoing conversation about our shared experience and what we felt was missing. We were looking for the pathway to transformation and struggling with the absence of experiential, relational, and embodied practices that felt necessary to internalize the content and feel more connected. In the absence of those practices, our minds were engaged in the intellectual content of the workshop, but the experience felt incomplete.

I had been hoping for a viable and accessible process to transform our corner of the world through fostering peace in our communities and societies. I left the workshop with a certain clarity that "peace" is not something that can be “taught” intellectually as an abstract concept or a 7-step set of skills. Rather, the process of fostering peace is one of experientially developing empathy in the context of relationality, thereby increasing compassion towards both others and the self. Perhaps it is self-evident that if we hope to bring healing to communities we must start with healing individuals. If we want a more peaceful world, it starts with a more peaceful world within. If we want greater wholeness in the world, we must start with helping people, including ourselves, become whole. Those living from a place of wholeness are more likely to engage others as whole persons.

In the early 1900's, philosopher Martin Buber eloquently described this sacred form of relating as "I-Thou," where the whole self of the "I" respects the "other" as having inherent value. He contrasted this to "I-It" relationships, in which the "other" is viewed as object, only having value for what they can do for the self. "Buber explains that the self becomes either more fragmentary or more unified through its relationships to others...In I and Thou man [person] becomes whole not in relation to himself [themself] but only through a relation to another self. The formation of the “I” of the “I-Thou” relation takes place in a dialogical relationship in which each partner is both active and passive and each is affirmed as a whole being. Only in this relationship is the other truly an “other”, and only in this encounter can the “I” develop as a whole being." (Scott).

Paul Chappell points out that, across all of the terrible human conflict that has plagued our history, war and interpersonal conflict depend upon a devaluing of the other; a reduction in (or elimination of ) the human status of the enemy. Dehumanization is a frequent tactic of wartime propaganda, such that the enemy is made out to be some version of sub-human, animalistic, monstrous, and crazy. Turning some-one into some-thing, and specifically some-thing less-than-human, makes it easier for us to override our natural capacity for empathy. Thus, dehumanization serves as part of the cognitive gymnastics necessary to bypass our natural human aversion to inflicting violence on a fellow human being, allowing us to act in ways that we may otherwise avoid/condemn (Chappell, 2017).

All violence between human beings requires the dehumanization, at least temporarily, of the other. Human violence has a profoundly disruptive impact on both parties involved. “Interpersonal violence tends to be more traumatic than natural disasters because it is more disruptive to our fundamental sense of trust and attachment, and is typically experienced as intentional rather than as ‘an accident of nature’” (ISSTD, 2009). And the brain's innate reaction to trauma leaves many parts of the brain, including those responsible for compassion, empathy, and mindful, intentional behavior, offline. So then, how do we work to increase peace in our world?

Last week, I received at least part of the answer to that question, illustrated beautifully by this video of efforts being made in Israel and Gaza to bring peace to the region: