“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humans will have discovered fire.” -Teilhard de Chardin
When I was in grade school, a company came to my small town once a year to set up posters in our school gymnasium. I had never been in an art gallery before. It was a favourite event.
Over the years I decorated my small room. There was a poster of Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Daisy Duke made a brief appearance, until my mother discovered me and a friend throwing suction cup darts at her and decided that until we knew the preciousness of female beauty, we weren’t ready to have it so close.
I grew older. The Michael Jordan poster got ripped and came down. Albert disappeared too, and Daisy never came back. The Reverend stayed. He even followed me to university then medical school. By that time, I had read his speeches and learned something about his life. I’m not sure what of it so captivated me (though Public Enemy’s song “By the Time I Get to Arizona”, about a governor there removing MLK day as a paid holiday really sealed the deal). I don’t think it was just his commitment to non-violence, though it’s how I’ve dedicated my life. If I could guess, it was because his was the only poster that read like an epitaph “1929-1968”. It admitted that life was not a forever song. I might never turn heads like Daisy Duke, be as smart as Einstein, or jump like Jordan, but perhaps I could live what was contained in that ‘-’, willing to die for what I believed in.
I have. I am. What do I believe? Peace is our natural state, and underneath expressions of violence or anger is a deep sense of helplessness. That when we war, we do it against ourselves. That conflict comes out of ignorance and self-hatred, a mistaken understanding that somehow sees life as less magnificent and precious than it is, and greatly underestimates the abundance we are born into.
How can I be sure? My time as a physiologist, peering into electron microscopes, watching ions fire like sparks across paper thin membranes. Later, as a physician, in conflict and post-conflict areas, caring for bewildered soldiers and civilians.In all those years, of the 40,000 or so strangers into whose lives I’ve enquired, genocidaires and men (almost always men) angry enough to shoot, I have only met one person who preferred violence, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t born that way, but adopted the behaviour in order to survive. My guess would be that if given the conditions of safety, he would soften enough to let the sadness come through.
With enough time and support, he too might find the other side, shed violence forever.
My heritage is Ukrainian, though my family left the region a hundred years ago, seeking safety. Most couldn’t read so we lost ties with cousins and friends back home, though I’m sure there are many. When Russia invaded Ukraine, my first thought was “surrender immediately”, not because I was worried about my former family, but because my experience tells me that the wound caused by a single civilian killed in conflict will take two hundred years to heal. I don’t want to get into the argument of Putin’s campaign rolling ever further; you can just win that one. I’m going to side with the Reverend and say that non-violence is stronger, and creating peace with war is like trying to get something clean with dirt. You can’t. You must practice peace again and again until it lands forever.
As my teacher Shinzen advised, one must practice meditation in action as on the cushion for it to become a way of life. So too, I imagine, peace. One of the ways I’ve been doing the latter lately, in my meditation, is with visualizations. After sitting for a time, say 20 minutes or more, when my concentration is semi-solid, I imagine a person I am having difficulty finding love for, who needs help, then I wish the best for them not in words, but with my heart. Then I imagine them happy. Sometimes it’s a person I know, lately not. Lately it’s been Vladimir Putin. I’ll create, in my mind’s eye, a scene of him walking through a hospital ward of injured Ukrainian soldiers, their eyes taped shut, bandaged limbs. He stops in the middle of the room, and has a true moment of insight, realizes the damage he has caused so many families, and starts to weep. First a nurse comes to comfort him, then a soldier, then everyone in the room, tears in their eyes for all the pain on both sides that might have been avoided. That deep almost impassable sorrow is a crucible for peace, the eye of the needle through which it must travel. I’m not always able to get beyond it, past the anger or sadness, but sometimes I get close.
This latest cruelty in the Middle East is too foreign for me to work with in my meditation. I haven’t traveled there, and my imagination is less vivid. Still, I’ve tried, but find only overwhelming grief. Underneath it though, is determination to continue the practice of peace, of non-violence, a deep knowing that building hospitals is not just a better answer than dropping bombs on them, but the ultimate answer, that ages hence we will embody this understanding so completely the word “war” will seem old on our lips.
Thich Nhat Hanh, who Dr. King nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for a commitment to non-violence during the Vietnam War, once said that the reason why peace talks don’t work is that they are not designed to, that peace is not a priority for those with power because war is what allows them to keep it. If it was, peace talks wouldn’t take place over a weekend, after thousands of lives had been lost, but as soon as possible, over two weeks. During the first week, the leaders and their families would gather together, talk nothing of what they wanted, but make meals, and let their children play. During the second week, they would speak about how their people suffered. Then you would begin to know the road to peace.
I don’t know where it lies, except that like Solzhenitsyn’s dividing line between good and evil, it runs through my very heart. I also know, in the depths of my forever body that we’ll get there one day and the day is drawing ever nearer. In that knowing, even in the midst of this coda of a life, something will last forever.