Reversing the Cycle of Violence

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

So much experience in the room, so much wisdom, so much . . . concentrated hope. Poke at it slightly and the truth comes out, in brief, quick anecdotes:

Two neighbors were at bitter loggerheads over a barking dog. After all communication broke off, they eventually found themselves in mediation. One of the parties was asked to state his point of view. His neighbor was then asked to summarize what he had said, but couldn’t do so; she could only spin and respin her own story, her own all-consuming grievance. This process took an hour or more, but finally, slowly, she managed to reiterate her enemy’s story. It was an ordeal. She had to state it word for word. But when she did so, the world changed.

“A star begins as a single cosmic grain . . .”

That’s what it felt like — being present as the cosmic grains converged. I was one of about 175 people — peace workers and peacemakers from around the country and, indeed, from around the world — who gathered at a conference last week at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, to envision and begin designing a National Peace Academy. The time has come. We know how to build peace; we just have to do it, at every level, from the staggeringly huge to the infinitely minute.

I write these words now to all of you who know this and in one way or another are doing it already, especially if you are in despair or think you are doing it alone. Human evolution is the story not of war but of cooperation, and the creation of a National Peace Academy, possibly in conjunction with the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Peace (H.R. 808), would push human cooperation to a new level, because it would require the convergence of so many activists, educators, artists, scientists and philosophers.

And the time for this to happen — as flawed national and international systems based on fear, greed, injustice and endlessly cycling retribution break down or spin out of control — is now.

And it is happening now. More than 400 colleges and universities worldwide currently offer graduate or undergraduate degrees in peace studies. But this is a whispered movement, at least in terms of the mainstream media, which has yet to open its awareness to the paradigm that is crying out to us from the future. The broken system based on fear, violence, waste and war still commands attention, attracts an audience, drives the economy (such as it is).

The alternative is nothing less than a cultural shift from violence to peace. Peace, cooperation and creativity have been the driving forces of human evolution since its dawning. What’s new today is that we are becoming aware of it, and the awareness changes what we do.

And so I return to the neighbors who hated one another because one of them owned a dog that barked too much. Their story, one of dozens of vignettes shared at the conference, was told by the mediator who was able to broker an understanding between them. After the woman was able to repeat — not sympathize with, but simply repeat — the viewpoint of her enemy, a transforming shift took place. Within a short time, the two sides could hear, and thus talk to, each other, and were able to work out an agreement. The session ended with hugs all around.

“The day will come,” said the extraordinary priest-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Call it “the energies of love” or whatever you want. There is a force that draws us toward one another, out of our separation, and it is powerful beyond comprehension. The mediator’s story was part of our collective journey of discovering how this force can be harnessed. There were many more at the conference. Lauren Abramson of Baltimore told a group of us about a man who, after 15 years, found in his heart the desire to talk to — and ultimately forgive — the convicted murderer of his son. Shortly after he did so, the father entered rehab to deal with his own addiction to painkillers.

When I heard this story, I could only think, my God, this is about reversing the cycle of violence. I was not aware till that moment that such a thing could be done.

Right now, the National Peace Academy — — is wholly concept, rather than physical structure, and is at the earliest stage of formation. But it eventually could, and will, be part of a global network of such institutions that straddle humanity’s transition beyond violence, and have been in the making for about 14 billion years.