(An edited transcript of the 2019 Cobb Peace Lecture)
The word narrative is bandied about a lot today, so that it’s almost become a cliché. But cliches are born from insight. In this case, it is about the power of the stories that we tell about ourselves, each other, and the world to cohere us in a common purpose.
A lot of the things that we need to do today don’t make sense if you are the only one doing them. A story can order the world, so that we see our choices as part of a larger happening. Granted, the “larger happening” unfolding on Earth today is bigger than any story that we could make about it. Nonetheless, for me a story that allows me to make meaning of my life, identify my allies, and understand what my role is, is essential.
The understanding of the power of narrative extends to all parts of the political spectrum. Everyone wants to control the narrative, a power for good or for ill. Adolph Hitler understood it well, riding a narrative of racial superiority and national glory that legitimized his ambitions and channeled latent cultural energies toward genocide and conquest. Today we also have powerful unresolved energies in society, just like in the 1930s: discontent, desperation, hostility to the elites, anger at the way society has turned, grief over the loss of community. How these express depends in large part on how problem and solution, cause and effect, are narrated to us.
If we want to serve peace and wellbeing for all people, a world of healing where society and all the beings on this planet are moving toward greater wholeness, we’d better make sure that we’re telling the right story. Today the dominant narrative, whether we recognize it or not, is a war narrative, not only on the obvious level of US foreign policy, identifying enemies around the world and bombing them, but also in our basic understanding of how the world works and how to solve problems. War thinking permeates the public psyche. To build a peace narrative, we need to identify the existing foundational war narrative. So, I will begin by excavating it and laying the foundation of a peace narrative. Then I’ll move on to its building components and architecture.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence
In preparing for this lecture, I read a classic essay by the Christian theologian Walter Wink called “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.” Redemptive violence is the idea that the way to make a better world is to destroy something, to kill something, to kill evil, to extirpate evil, to overcome the forces of evil and chaos with the forces of good and order. Wink traces it back to a Babylonian creation myth over 3000 years old. In the beginning, the god Adsu and the goddess Tiamat were all by themselves in the universe. Since that was boring, they decided to have kids, a whole bunch of them. It wasn’t long before they regretted it because the kids were making too much noise. And so they decided, of course, that they were going to kill all their children. Right? Problem solved. Well, the children got wind of this and decided that they would kill their parents first. It wasn’t too hard to finish off Adsu, but Tiamat was a different story. None of them dared to face Tiamat until the youngest of the children, Marduk, volunteered. He said, I will destroy Tiamat, our mother, on condition that all you brothers and sisters make me the supreme ruler of the universe. (I’ll leave it to your imagination to draw parallels to the US after World War Two.) Marduk comes up with a plan. He blows poison gas into the stomach of Tiamat and stabs her with a spear. She explodes; all her guts and blood spew out and, from her body parts, he constructs the world that we live in today.
This creation myth recounts the misogynistic killing of the great mother, who was identified with chaos and the wild. Ancient civilizations, associated good with order. The king was the incarnation of good, conquering the beasts, killing the lions, cutting down the forests, bringing civilization to the barbarians, domesticating the wild. This process continues today, as we take the pieces of a ruined Gaia and build civilization out of them, building the world out of the destroyed mother.
The myth of redemptive violence translates in a striking way into modern science, which says that the tendency of the universe is toward entropy, toward disorder. Only by imposing our design onto this chaotic, disorderly and degenerating universe are we able to maintain a realm fit for human habitation; to impose good upon chaos. If you accept that nature itself hasn’t any inherent intelligence, any inherent tendency toward complexity, toward the emergence of beauty and organization, but instead that it normally degenerates into disorder, then we are inescapably at war with nature all the time, subject at any moment to being extinguished by random natural forces. Our wellbeing in that view comes through imposing more and more control on this wild, arbitrary, random nature that is outside of ourselves. For centuries, the ambition toward control has defined progress.
Here is the basic template of war thinking. First identify the cause of the problem, the culprit, the perpetrator – find something to fight. Then, control, imprison, exclude, kill, humiliate, or destroy the bad guy, the culprit, the cause, and all will be well. And the better able we are to do this, the better human life is going to be. Walter Wink gives the example of Popeye the Sailor. Every episode of the cartoon has the same plot: Brutus kidnaps Olive Oyl. Popeye tries to rescue her and is beaten to a pulp by Brutus. Then, just before Brutus can rape Olive Oyl, Popeye eats a can of spinach and, with a surge of strength, turns the tables on Brutus and beats him to a pulp instead. That’s the plot of Popeye. Walter Wink points out that nobody ever learns anything from this encounter. The characters do not grow or develop in any way, implying that this is just the way things are. The lesson is that the way to solve a problem is to overcome the enemy with force.
The War on the Symptom
The mentality of finding an enemy to overcome with force extends beyond warfare. Take agriculture, for instance. You have a problem, like declining crop yields, you identify the cause – there are weeds in the field. And the solution is to kill the weeds . Or maybe you have strep throat. What’s the cause? Let’s find the pathogen. That’s the orientation. Find the pathogen. Ah, streptococcus bacteria. Solution? Kill it with antibiotics. Or how about crime? Well obviously crime is caused by criminals, right? So if we lock up the criminals, then we won’t have any more crime. Terrorism, obviously it’s caused by terrorists. So let’s kill the terrorists. No more terrorism. Problem solved.
What if you want to be a better person or more effective in the world? Applying the same formula, you find the inner bad guy. Maybe it is your procrastination, your laziness, your addictions, your selfishness, your ego. Great – now you’ve got something to attack, something to control. Maybe you’re overweight and you think, “Oh, it’s because I’m eating too much.” Calories become the bad guy, and the solution is to control them. So this war thinking is nearly universal.
The war on the other always mirrors a war on the self. Underneath our judgments lurks a sneaking suspicion that maybe I’m one of the bad guys. In fact, this is more or less what science, economics, and many religions have been telling us. For example, an explicit teaching of biology has been that reproductive self interest is the fundamental motivation of all living beings. Selfishness, we were told, is programmed into our genes. That means that in order to be anything other than ruthlessly selfish, you have to overcome nature. That’s war mentality.
An alternative to war emerges when we see all the enemies – weeds, criminals, terrorists, calories, selfishness, laziness and so forth – not as causes of evil, but as symptoms of a deeper condition. Focusing on the symptoms, warring on the symptoms, allows the deeper causes to go unexamined and unchanged. We never ask, “Why does Brutus want to kidnap Olive Oyl?” If we don’t unearth that, we will be fighting Brutus again and again forever.
(And what if the spinach runs out or stops working? What if the weeds develop herbicide resistance and the bacteria develop antibiotic resistance and Brutus eats spinach too and starts an arms race?)
War thinking addresses its failure by going to further extremes. Don’t just beat up Brutus – kill him. Find an herbicide so powerful it kills the weeds once and for all. Find the Final Solution. Defeat evil once and for all in an epic war to end all wars.
We tried that once. It was called the Great War. Now we call it World War One.
When we see causes as symptoms, we can ask questions like, Why are weeds growing in the field? War thinking is not usually helpful with this question. Perhaps there’s a lack of biodiversity in the field or the soil is depleted in some way and those weeds are coming actually to repair the soil because there’s an intelligence in nature. There is nothing to fight.
Why is there crime? Is it because those criminals are just bad? Or are they acting from circumstances that we won’t ever examine if we are at war with them? What are the economic circumstances? How about legacy racism? What about trauma, despair, or the loss of meaning in life?
In all cases, war thinking is a simplifying and reducing narrative. To wage war, you pretty much have to reduce the enemy. You have to dehumanize the enemy. It’s a universal tactic in war to make them – them – less than fully human. If you want to kill or exploit somebody, dehumanization is a key enabling method. As war thinking infiltrates our political culture, I’m seeing more and more dehumanization and demonizing of the other side, left and right, red and blue, Democrat and Republican. Each side constructs narratives that make the other contemptible, evil, subhuman.
Here are some words that are agents of dehumanization that you see all the time in political discourse and beyond: “How could they?” “It’s totally unjustified!” “What’s wrong with them?” A war tactic is to accuse our opponents of some deficiency in their core humanness. They’re stupid, they’re ignorant, they’re immoral, they’re entitled, they’re greedy. And then this narrative gets weaponized because we can then use it to arouse the indignation of our side, to stir up war fever so that we can rise up and destroy those bad guys.
A Recipe for Despair
I was recently on a podcast speaking about the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, speaking about ecological healing, regenerative agriculture and things like that, and the interviewer said, “Well Charles, what would you say to this? The power elite are never going to change. They’re benefiting from this. They’re happy with this and they’re not going to change. So in order to change them, we’re going to have to somehow bring them down. We’re going to have to rise up in bloody revolution; that’s the only realistic way.”
So let’s first assume that that’s true. If that’s true, then our one hope lies in overcoming them by force because “they’re never going to change.” We have a formula for creating change when there’s a bad guy. It’s in all the movies, not just Popeye, it’s in Batman, it’s in the Lion King. It’s in pretty much every action movie you’ve ever seen. It’s in Star Wars. You kill Darth Vader, you kill the emperor, you destroy evil.
In the real world, our one hope is impractical. If it comes to a contest of force, who has more force? Who has more military power? Is it we hippies and peaceniks? Or is it the military-pharmaceutical-medical-financial-educational-NGO-prison-industrial complex? They have the guns. They have the money, they have the surveillance state, they have the police, they have the control of the media. So if, if it comes down to a contest of force, they’re going to win. Even if we talk about the force of propaganda and the force of a narrative and we try to ignite the rage and indignation of the oppressed against them, guess what? They are even more adept at manipulating narratives and making you look bad because they control the media. They’re doing it right now, creating narratives that are more ubiquitous and have a farther reach and more PR and advertising behind them, more money behind them than yours do.
So, domination is probably a recipe for failure unless you become so good at the technologies of war that you do tear them down. You have to be extremely good at wielding power to defeat the military-industrial complex at its own game. So you defeat the bad guys and now you’re in power. But is the fight over now? No. They are still bad guys out there. And in order to defeat those bad guys, you need to consolidate your power and extend your power, all of course to protect the world from evil. It’s OK to do that, because you are the good guy. You know it to be true. The whole war against evil was premised on it. So, identifying as good, you pursue yet more power. George Orwell described this very, very clearly in 1984: the goal of the Party is power. The justification is that they’re going to create a perfect world, and in order to do that, they have to have complete power. What is power? Power is the ability to make others suffer. So you end up becoming evil yourself.
The more likely scenario is that you lose the fight with the powers-that-be. And that’s why so many activists fall into despair. Despair is built into the paradigm of the fight. On one level it is because we know the powers are too great for us to win. Underneath that there is a kind of futility: if we do win it’s the same. The science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick put it really well in Valis: “To fight the empire is to be infected with its derangement. This is a paradox. Whoever defeats a segment of the empire becomes the empire. It proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby, it becomes its enemies.” If you go to war against war, if you go to war against the empire, you have actually become part of the empire. And George Orwell illustrated this too, when the main character, Winston, gets recruited into the resistance. Actually he’s being entrapped, but he thinks he’s being recruited into the resistance. And he’s asked, basically, how committed he is to overthrowing the Party, questions like, “Would you be willing to do anything? Would you be willing to commit sabotage? Would you be willing to commit mass murder if it served the overthrow of the Party? Would you be willing to throw acid in a child’s face?” And he says yes, therefore revealing himself to be no different from the Party: do anything to gain power. Do anything to overthrow evil.
The Threat of the Pacifist
Consider the following as a general principle: in any fight – and more and more of our political discourse has become a fight – the resolution lies in the things that are hidden by the fight, the things that both sides agree on without even knowing it and the questions that neither side is asking. So for example in the fight over immigration, one side says, “Immigration is harming us, they are breaking our laws, let’s keep them out.” The other side says, “You horrible bigoted, intolerant people, this nation was built from immigrants. It is inhumane to run detention systems and separate families. We should welcome the unfortunate masses from the world.” Nobody, at least in the mainstream media, is asking why are there so many immigrants to begin with. What has made life in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and so forth, so unbearable that people are willing to risk their lives and their children’s lives, willing to leave their homes and families. for a totally uncertain future? What would it take for you to do that?
That’s an uncomfortable question, first because it takes us outside of the familiar war paradigm of problem-solving. For the conservatives, you can no longer blame bad immigrants. For the liberals, you can no longer hold to the story of unfortunate victims of someone else, that can find salvation in America, Land of the Free, because any serious inquiry into that question reveals that we ourselves, the United States, is the cause of much of the misery in Latin America and elsewhere. US support for military coups, juntas, death squads, the war on drugs, and neoliberal austerity and free trade policies have made life in many places nearly unliveable.
As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You look for nails and you start to see things that aren’t nails as nails, because here’s your tool. When you have the tools of war, you look for an enemy. If none is to be found we are uncomfortable, because we don’t know what to do anymore. All the more so when, as with immigration, the perpetrator, the cause of the problem, includes oneself.
If you are a pacifist or a peacemaker, you may find that you arouse a lot of hostility from both sides of a conflict. People who gain their identity from being on Team good in the war against Team Evil, actually need Team Evil. They need the other side. It’s like two cards leaning against each other and propping each other up. When “evil” is taken away, there is a crisis, a kind of political vertigo, and a desperate rush to find a new bad guy. Hence the flailing attempts after the defeat of the Soviet Union to reconstitute evil in concepts like the “Axis of Evil,” “Islamic terror,” the “clash of civilizations,” and more by demonizing Iran, Russia, and China. Team Good needs Team Evil to validate its identity. The pacifist, by challenging the identity of both sides, arouses more hostility than the enemy does. Pacifists are more despised than the enemy.
Foundations of a Peace Narrative
As the abovementioned examples demonstrate, war thinking pervades modern civilization. It goes all the way down to cosmology, to physics, and in biology to the idea of the selfish gene, setting up a view of nature as, in the words of Rudolf Steiner, a war of each against all. All of this, I would add, is obsolete science. Now we are starting to understand, with research on emergence and self-organizing systems, which are ubiquitous in nature, that the world actually has a tendency toward order, towards beauty, as if there were an intelligence in all things, and not toward disorder as the Second Law of Thermodynamics seems to imply. The selfish gene, likewise, is obsolete biology. Now we are appreciating symbiosis, cooperation, and the merger of individuals into greater wholes in an ascent of complexity. That’s how biology works.
The emergence of systems thinking in biology is part of a peace narrative. Nature is not one gigantic war of each against all. Cooperation and symbiosis are primary evolutionary principles.
Ok, so what is the foundation of a peace narrative? If, as I said before, the essence of war is reduction – the reduction of the universe to object, of life to thing, of other people to enemy – the simplification of complexity so that there is a thing to fight – then, if we want to build a peace narrative, the first foundational pillar would be holistic thinking. Holistic thinking understands that everything is intimately related to everything else. That everything is a part of everything else. That to exist is to be in relationship. That we are not separate individuals, but are interdependent both practically and existentially. That we are inter-existent. Therefore, anything that we see as an enemy is part of a constellation of relationships that includes ourselves. To use a Buddhist term, the foundation of a peace narrative is interbeing: a connected self in a living, interdependent universe, in contrast to a separate individual in a world of other.
From that foundational understanding, we seek to understand the constellation of relationship – the first pillar of a peace narrative. So if you are getting strep throat a lot, you might seek to understand, “How is the bacteria part of my body ecology?” In fact, a healthy microbiome on the mucus membranes of the throat includes friendly bacteria that secrete substances that suppress the pathogenic bacteria. Killing the strep bacteria will end that particular episode of illness, but it also kills off the friendly bacteria, leaving you more susceptible. This exemplifies a general principle: war creates the conditions for war. When you bomb the terrorists, you create conditions for more terror. When you lock up the criminals and destroy families and destroy communities, you’re creating conditions that breed more crime.
Looking through a holistic lens, the lens of interdependency and interrelationship, the base conditions that breed all the things we war against become visible. And we no longer then default to fighting something. That doesn’t mean that there’s never a time to fight. It doesn’t mean never to run away from a robber or never to use antibiotics. Maybe you theoretically know that this person is about to harm your child because he suffered childhood trauma himself, but in this moment that doesn’t help you, and the only response you can see is to intervene forcefully. The problem comes when we default to a fight first because we’re so used to seeing the world in terms of good and evil. So a fight becomes the default, reflexive response.
The Pillar of Compassion
When we can understand the conditions that generate the behavior that we are fighting against, then there are other options, specifically, the option of changing those conditions. This leads to the second pillar, which I’ll call compassion. What is compassion? It’s not the superior person indulgently, patronizingly tolerating or sympathizing with the condition of the inferior person. Compassion is basically feeling what it’s like to be somebody else. It is the experience of identifying with somebody else and knowing what it’s like to be them. It comes from the question, what is it like to be you? What are the conditions that have made you into who you are? And how can I participate in the evolution of those conditions?
For most people growing up in this society, to see those conditions requires some deprogramming: deprogramming from condemnation, from, “which side are you on?” From judgment, judgment in the sense of, “If I were you, I wouldn’t have done that. I’m better than you.” Or maybe I’m worse than you. Usually it’s I’m better than you.
I once made these points to a colleague, using the example of how inner-city youth are demonized as “thugs” in total ignorance of their social and economic conditions. She heartily agreed that they couldn’t really be morally blamed for their behavior. But, she said, that doesn’t hold for the white supremacists. She said, “I can understand why a black kid who grew up in the ghetto might turn to crime when there’s no other economic opportunities and he’s suffered intergenerational trauma. But those white supremacists have no excuse. Look at those guys with their bellies hanging out over their belts, in their tee shirts and their hats. The very picture of entitlement. They’ve got no excuse to be the way that they are.”
We’re just waiting for someone to hate aren’t we? Here’s the enemy! Here’s someone upon whom we can let loose with our righteous rage. It feels good, doesn’t it, to know you are on the side of good and right. It feels good to let loose with the hate.
That feeling is a clue that a hidden psychological or emotional need is operating. Ultimately, it comes from the wound of self-rejection.
A few years ago, there was a biker gang riot in Texas. Rival gangs converged at a bar and started beating each other up in the parking lot. The police came, they started beating up the police too. It was a horrendous violent riot. I read about it in Salon magazine, which featured photographs of the men involved in this incident. Of course they chose the most contemptible unflattering pictures you could imagine. And the sub headline should have been: Here’s someone you can hate. Here’s the bad guy. Of course, every time they run an article about Donald Trump or anyone else in the opposite camp, they choose an unflattering photograph too. Both sides do that. It is part of the war strategy of dehumanization. Me, I look at those photographs and think, “Once upon a time, every one of those men was a cute little baby. A sweetums. What happened to you, my brother?” And I look deeply and sometimes I can see a hurt and frightened child, bewildered by the brutality of this world. That begets a different kind of solidarity than that of war. We don’t need a common enemy anymore to join together.
Compassion is the opposite of the dehumanization upon which war narratives depend. Dehumanization is a simplifying narrative, which is the opposite of holism or interbeing. The habit is, for example, when addressing racism to blame it on the individual attitudes of bad people – racists. Racism is caused by racists, right? Or could it be that racists are a symptom of racism, not the cause, and that by dehumanizing them we reinforce the basic psychic template of racism. Racism is dehumanization, and it will not be solved by dehumanizing the racists. Oh, it might feel good, you get to be on Team Good. But is that what you want to serve? Or would you rather serve the healing of racism?
I have a feeling that the healing of Earth, that we all want so much, is going to require a sacrifice. We are going to have to sacrifice the identity of being on the moral, ethical, right side. Nearly everyone imagines themselves to be. For things to change, an awful lot of letting go is necessary. But only for the other side, right? Are you willing to hold as lightly to your rightness as you wish them to hold lightly to theirs? How are you any different?
The third pillar of a peace narrative is to end the internal war and to develop a peace narrative inside of ourselves. It is to heal the wound of self-rejection, and thus to remove the psychic engine of war – the division of the world into us and them, good and evil, me the good person and them the bad person. The best, easiest way to establish your identity as a good person (and meet the need for self-acceptance) is in contrast to the evil people. So, are you willing to give that up? Are you willing to give up having been right all along?
How much do you care about peace? It said that one cannot serve two masters. Temporarily, you can, you can serve peace and at the same time serve getting the approval of an in-group. You can serve peace and at the same time serve your identity as a good person. You can serve peace and at the same time serve your goal of being heard, of being seen, being recognized, of being seen as a leader, of believing yourself to be moral. You can serve both for a while, but eventually the generosity of the universe is such that you will reach a choice point where you get to decide what you really serve, and you then need to make a sacrifice. This can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Please understand that I am not making a moral exhortation to drop hatred and anger. I am not the privileged white guy imploring those he has oppressed not to be angry with him. The point here is not that anger or hatred are wrong. It is that the energy of anger is neutralized when it is diverted towards symptoms rather than causes. It is that hatred is based on a misdiagnosis of cause. They lead either to revenge, defeat, or endless war.
The temptation to go to war is everywhere. Maybe you get upset about GMO seeds and Monsanto, which is now Bayer, vigorously spreading GMOs around the world. Destroying peasant agriculture, corrupting entire governments, instituting the next iteration of industrial agriculture, patenting seeds and varieties that were developed by indigenous cultures and so on. Okay, we’ve got to stop this. How are we going to do that? Well, in the mentality of war, step one is to identify somebody as the bad guy. Easy – that’s the Monsanto executives. Why are they doing that? How could they? If I were them, I wouldn’t do that, would I? I wouldn’t make those decisions. If I were a fracking executive, I wouldn’t destroy and pollute the waters like that. All for what? For my greed? I can’t believe those people. Let’s arouse some hatred. Let’s tear those fuckers down. That’s the strategy.
Imagine that you are a Monsanto executive and hear everybody talking about how greedy you are, how horrible you are, and you’re thinking, “I walk my neighbors dog when they’re on vacation. I work really hard. My colleagues respect me. I’m advancing science to feed the hungry.” Or maybe he’s a fracking executive, and his story is about building America’s energy independence. In their story, they’re the good guys and by demonizing them you seem ridiculous. You are in fact offering yourself as the bad guy by the way that you see them and relate to them.
What’s the alternative? Earlier I described two possibilities either get defeated by the military-industrial complex, or you overcome them and become the new complex. What’s the alternative?
The alternative comes from an entirely different place: interbeing. It starts by asking, Why? Why is he so greedy or why is she pro-fracking or why is he violent or why are those people – you know who they are – pro-this or anti-that? What story informs their belief system and what state of being co-resonates with that story? What is their experience of life? All we judge, we begin to investigate as symptoms. We ask, for example, Where does greed come from? That question opens up insights, understanding, and new possibilities for change. We may discover that it is another one of those symptoms, just like strep. It’s a symptom of an experience of scarcity. It’s a hunger that can never be met by the objects that are offered to feed it. If somebody is cut off from community, cut off from nature, cut off from meaning in their lives, they’re going to be hungry for those things. But instead, what’s offered is money, prestige, possessions, power. Those are the substitutes modern society most conspicuously offers.
A Story is an Invitation
If you can look at the person that you call an enemy and see in them that actually, on a deep level, they want what you want and what all people want – to contribute their gifts to a more beautiful world, to be generous, to belong, to know and to be known, love and be loved, and to serve a purpose beyond themselves – if you can see that, you’ll be able to speak to that, and you’ll be able to create an invitation to that.
One of my mottos is that the story that we hold about a person is an invitation for them to step into that story. Consider the story of Julio Diaz. This guy in New York, maybe he was Puerto Rican origin, can’t remember, but he takes the subway home every day and gets off a stop early to buy a burrito at his favorite burrito store before walking home. Well one day he gets off, and on his way to the restaurant a mugger holds him up at knifepoint. “Give me your wallet!” Okay. He gives him his wallet and then says, “Hey kid, it’s cold out. Do you want my jacket too?” And the mugger – what’s he going to say? Nonplussed, he says, “Sure, OK.” Julio gives him his jacket, then says, “Hey, I was about to go get a burrito. It’s a really good burrito joint. You want to come with me?” What can he say? He comes with him. And then they’re at the counter ordering their burritos and Julio says, “You know, I would treat you to the burrito but you’ve got my wallet. Can I have my wallet back?” He gives him his wallet. Then Julio says, “Now give me the knife, too.” The mugger gives him his knife.
That would not have been possible if Julio had seen that teenager as a bad guy. But he was able, even with a knife in his face, he was able to see something else. He held the teenage mugger in a story of, who knows, “A troubled young man with a good heart” so strongly that the mugger was helpless to resist. That is the power of the stories that we hold about each other. They can generate miracles. Now I’m not offering that as a formula. If someone holds you up at knifepoint, you can’t imitate the words or tactics of Julio unless you actually see something in your assailant, in your enemy, that you can speak to from a different story. It can’t be just a spiritual ideology, you have to actually see it. Conditioned to dehumanized versions of enemies, whether muggers or corporate executives, we might have trouble seeing something else, but we can learn with practice. The practice is in looking for it. To see it you have to look for it. To look for it, you have to be willing to put down the benefits you get from holding others as enemies or as lesser than, less moral, worthy, beautiful, or conscious than you. Less enlightened than you. Less spiritual than you. Less ethical than you. You have to be willing to put those judgements down, because as long as you hold them, you invite the enemy to be those judgments.
Judgements are a cloud, a distorting cloud that reduces people to the image of the judgements and allows little opportunity or invitation for them to be anything else. So you have to be willing to put them down. How do you do that? Is that a fight against yourself? Is that an effort of will? No. Putting them down comes from understanding where those judgments come from. Why do we have such a need to establish ourselves as the good guys? It comes, as I’ve said, from a wound of self-rejection. The wound of self-rejection is also a product of war thinking, that says something is wrong with you, and virtue comes through some kind of self-conquest. It’s built into school, it’s built into parenting, it’s built into religion. It’s ubiquitous in our culture. If you’re a parent, anytime you look at your child with contempt or disgust and say, “Why did you do that? How could you?” You’re basically conveying, “you’re bad.” It’s not just in the words,it is the energy behind them. “Why did you do that?” is rarely an honest question. Usually it is a coded condemnation. If you made it an honest question, then you’d be getting somewhere. Why did you do that? Please help me to understand, because I know who you are, divine being. Help me to understand, Monsanto executive. Help me to understand, Donald Trump. Maybe you don’t ask that person specifically, but that’s the orientation. That’s a way to look for what Julio Diaz was able to see, so that you can invite it into expression.
Peace Words and Solidarity Stories
So those are some of the foundations and pillars of a peace narrative. The building blocks, the construction components are the stories that foster understanding. They could be stories that help people understand what it is like to be an immigrant, what it is like to be a racist, what it is like to be a corporate executive, or what is like to live in a ghetto. So many of our political stances would be untenable if we really knew what it was like to be somebody else.
These stories need to be presented in a way that they can be heard. They are harder to hear if I present them with a secret agenda of making you feel ashamed and humiliated. The purpose is not to bludgeon their conscience with how much harm they’ve caused. That’s another form of warfare. Instead, I can present the story and trust you to make the connections. When that happens, authentic shame might arise, as opposed to coerced shame. Authentic shame is the breakdown of a self image. It dissolves and the chemical bonds, the psychic chemical bonds that held it together; they release heat and your face flushes. Energy that had been bound up in defending and upholding a self-image is liberated, and you feel a lightness and a new clarity of vision. To go through that process fully, it really helps to know that you’re loved. It is very vulnerable, and no one is likely to go all the way through it unless they feel safe. Instead they may retreat into defensiveness.
That’s why these stories –the building blocks of a peace narrative, the building blocks of solidarity that doesn’t require an enemy – are so much more powerful when they’re presented and held in a way where people feel safe to hear them. They have to sense that you’re not trying to attack them, and you trust them, you trust their basic goodness. You trust. You take the stance of, “I know it’s hard for you to go through this humiliation. I’m here for you, my brother, my sister. I’m here for you. We’re in this together.”
That’s a peace narrative. We are in this together.
Another component of building a peace narrative is our words and how we use them. A lot of the English language subtly or not so subtly suggests and facilitates dehumanization and war thinking. Take for example the word “inexcusable.” What is actually meant by inexcusable? Something like: Some bad actions have an excuse, they’re justified. (Justifiable is another such word.) And some actions just have no excuse. And if they have no excuse, you only did that because you’re a bad person. Words like that insinuate war ideology into our language. That’s true even if you’re hurling those epithets of greedy, inexcusable, unjustifiable, evil, or immoral at the warmongers. In so doing, you become one of them.
The point here is not to set ourselves up as the language police. Changing the words we use is not enough. As anyone knows who has studied Nonviolent Communication, the NVC formula can be used very violently. It depends on the intention behind it. I’m not an agent of the PC word police, extending its patrol to any word that might humiliate or dehumanize somebody. The reason I bring attention to these words is to illuminate the perceptions and assumptions built into them. Our use of these words can alert to how we carry war thinking within ourselves.
Then, rather than go to war against our own war thinking, we can look beneath that symptom and address the wounds. These are wounds of self rejection, alienation, and cutoff from community and nature and intimate participation in the material world. These have happened through trauma of all kinds, some obvious, some normalized in modern society and hence invisible. When we begin to heal those and no longer see through the lens of good guys versus bad guys, us versus them, good and evil, right and wrong, then it no longer feels good to use those words. They feel like lies. They feel inconsistent with who I am and who I want to become.
So those are some of the building blocks to place atop the foundation and pillars of a peace narrative. They embody peace in our words and in stories that foster understanding, that induce people to ask or to wonder or to consider, “What is it like to be you?” What are the conditions that generate the things that are hurting the world so much? That are so painful to witness? War thinking actually maintains those conditions. It maintains the status quo by diverting the grief, pain, and rage that injustice inspires onto a proxy called the enemy. Here’s something that hurts. Police violence, incarceration, ecocide, the draining of a wetland, whatever it is, here’s something that hurts. War thinking takes that energy that could go to healing and diverts it onto a scapegoat, so that we fight the symptoms forever, ignoring and even aggravating the cause. Let’s not take that bait. Let’s get serious about world healing.
A More Beautiful World
Beyond the foundation, pillars, and building blocks of a peace narrative, we might also speak of its structure, its architecture. I call it a story-of-the-world, the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” that we invite people into. It’s a world where everybody has a place, where everybody is valued, where everybody is welcome, where everybody is known to have a gift that is essential to make that world even richer. And nobody is left out. As with Julio Diaz, to speak compellingly of that world, you have to have seen it. The story we hold about the world is an invitation for the world to enter that story too. We have to have seen it. And I would say probably everybody in this room has seen it. You have had a glimpse of what the world could be, that the world could be peaceful. You’ve seen that this isn’t really working for the power elite either, it’s not working for the perpetrators, the military commanders, the politicians, the executives. You might see that there’s a part of them that is willing to make the courageous choice to let go of something that was precious to them, something they’re starting to realize it’s not so precious after all.
Here we all are, having caught a glimpse or many glimpses in our lives of a world that we know is possible. And if you’re like me, we don’t know how to get there. The mind says it’s not possible because, What’s the plan? The mind is immersed in – I’ve been calling it war thinking, but it’s deeper than war thinking – forced-based causality. How are you going to make it happen? That’s a more subtle variation on war thinking. How are you going to make it happen? How are you going to exert a force on a mass? That’s Newtonian physics, another part of the old story of separation. Well, we don’t know how it will happen. We don’t have enough force and information to make it happen. If it isn’t entirely up to our own force, we’re going to have to trust something else. We’re going to have to trust that there is an intelligence in the world greater than ourselves, that there is an organic tendency or will toward organization and beauty and complexity that is unfathomably mysterious. Therefore, we don’t have to know how it’s going to happen, nor do we have to fight the world to make it happen.
Instead, we start by listening. What is my part? How shall I be deployed? Where am I to be and what is mine to do? What calls to my care? And from that place, maybe we become able to speak that world story, to speak that invitation, or maybe we just carry it in ourselves and act from our deep-seated knowledge of it. In these gatherings we remind each other that the knowledge that a more beautiful world is possible is real knowledge – because you wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t seen it too. The very fact of this gathering stirs my optimism. It reminds me, I’m not crazy. You wouldn’t be here otherwise or have stayed to listen to all these words. Even if you have come with loads of skepticism and despair, you’re here. You still have hope. Life never dies. Living things die, but life itself always strives for more life. Thank you for carrying that bit, that glimpse of a more beautiful world with you, so that we can weave a peace narrative around it. Yes. Thank you so much.
Video of this lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pj9aI1d8miE
Mary Miesem says
Thank you for this. Your words speak to the heart. I follow a path that strives to move toward a peace narrative, and what you write validates for me the importance of this work. I’m going to share this. There are many out there who will see themselves and be inspired.
Joanna Salidis says
Charles, thank you so much.
This is outstanding; thank you so much for taking something that feels overwhelmingly complex and putting clear language to it. Thank you for helping to point to a path of peace. Not an easy path, but the only viable way to healing and wholeness.
JOEL WYSONG says
Once again, Charles, you have touched me deeply with your wisdom.
This is the nicest and best thing I’ve read for a while, thank you for writing it …
I am weeping in tenderness and gratitude and while I have long held on to being a good girl in contrast to what felt perverse in my family I have also long had compassion for each of them though I do not feel at all safe with them.
Let me say one simple thing. LOVE in my experience and feeling held are so darn important…I know that last year when I had an affair and maybe felt love, admiration and joy for the first time in my life, my body healed even tho I later got hurt. I would not have missed that sacrifice/cost of feeling LOVE.
So much more I could say here. I like text and the ability to trace words with my body in contact with a page even if on a computer. I think in this moment for some odd reason of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, Call me by My True Name….and I have long used the motto Together We Heal. Much appreciation, Charles.
Erica Etelson says
For activists trying to make change in a dysfunctional “democracy,” we sometimes resort to direct action and civil disobedience — of course, we see ourselves on the side of justice and, therefore, our tactics are righteous, the end justifies the means, even if the means involves force. Direct action is non-violent but it is an application of force in the sense that — the system isn’t working so we need to disrupt it and force the powers that be to listen to us and yield to our demands, even if those demands aren’t universally shared by all Americans/human beings. I’m all for what Charles is talking about as far as eschewing hatred and contempt and self-righteous superiority and trying to see the other person’s humanity, complexity and decency. At the same time, given the urgency of so many existential problems confronting our country and world, and given how badly divided we are with strong unwillingness to hear what the other side is saying, would Charles say that taking direct action in the service of what our side believes is “justice” is part of the problematic war model or is justified and necessary?
Dwain Wilder says
A great question, Erica! At its best, non-violent direct action does not initiate or call for a use of disruption. What it aims to do is to make manifest the disruption that exists but is tolerated by the governed and the people as well. That in itself is a witnessing of reality, a physical explication of it.
There are blockades that I have participated in that do not stop there. In a blockade, one physically, with an unmovable presence, interrupts an injustice. I was part of Staughton Lynd’s Peoples Congress of 1965, in which we physically blocked the entrance to the congressional building, as best we could, to demonstrate that the people would not tolerate being represented in fighting this war. We submitted without struggle to arrest. I’ve been part of other blockades also, on similar grounds.
It seems to me that private citizens who put their bodies at risk to interrupt the injust operations of the law or the government – or in the present case of the world’s governments’ refusal to acti decisively on the climate crisis – is to interrupt violence with peace. As long as one is willing to accept the consequences of one’s action with no physical forcing, I maintain that is confronting injustice and the violence perpetrated by governments and industries bent on maintaining their ability to continue making money regardless of the unjust consequences of their rapacity.
I do agree that we should stay away from war-like framing of our actions. Struggling with one another is a very human thing to do. Making war or entering into battle always comes out of the three poisons humanity is liable to: greed, hatred and delusion. Sometimes a threat is so dire that a society understandably cannot rise above it to a higher consciousness, and therefore must be forced into some really evil karma. The attack on Pearl Harbor comes to mind. But along with accepting that karma comes much dire evil done in response. The internment camps of the Japanese shortly after Pearl Harbor comes to mind, of course, as do many other episodes of WW II, such as the atomic bombing of Japan, and the fire-bombing of German cities. Could we have been wiser? Many wise people were like voices crying in the wilderness – some of them conscientious objectors such as the Seventh Day Adventists. Many of these were imprisoned, forced to serve non-combatant roles in the military, or volunteered for forest fire-fighting, etc.
Life is complex, and clarity hard-won at best.
Sandra Taylor says
terrific essay charles – I have been on team good for a long time and through meeting you and other synchronistic happenings I have been practicing letting go of the us and them , learning inclusion , feeling for the other, embracing where possible and observing. this year I challenged myself with a dysfunctional committee – still set in the war story committed to making enemies and unnecessary difficulties. I used love, tolerance , clear communication , refused to take it personally at least overtly -there was an inner struggle . I wont say it is all peaches and cream, I did note the main trouble maker found it difficult to get a purchase on my ‘refusal to fight and my passion to come up with creative inclusive ideas and has had to leave. I am interested to see where and how it unfolds from here . It is a challenge to remove our Selves from the dominant story , to really look deeply into it and then reshape our world accordingly. You have a great gift of synthesising and bringing us along into the unfolding story. many thanks and blessings to you and yours.
Olivier Clerc says
That’s a fantastic essay, Charles ! Thank you so much.
Do you allow me to have it translated and shared in French ?
It is so much needed.
I work a lot on stories and narratives, I have translated several books by my friend Dr Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and anything that goes in that direction needs to have an audience as wide as possible.
Kind greetings from Burgundy,
michael robertson says
Awesome! The time is now. Let’s give peace a chance. Thank you CE for providing a path.
Sheryl Morris says
Reading here with hope.
Many wonderful thinkers and writers channeled and enter- woven here; help me add to the list: Marshal Rosenberg, Maria Montessori, Paulo Freire, John Buck, Riane Eisler,…
Thank you Charles for spreading I AM love(d). In the accepting and grounding of that, I see it out there as You Are precious. In seeing that I real-ize I AM love(d, ing). In that I share You Are precious. I am you, and IOU while you we experience ourselves as relation.
My heart is joining and celebrating the ‘isness’ of truth that has manifested through you.
Koyo H Masore says
I’ve been thinking about how to lead a more peaceful life for quite some time. Some days I feel a bit overwhelmed with everything happening in my life and the world. Though now I feel more content in trusting the peaceful path.
Charles, Thank you for making such a beautiful essay about the love we all have.
Awesome narrative. If we could add some science about the structure of the life atom or soul that takes the form of the cute little baby you described in the passage it would complete the narrative.
I am not a good writer like you but have great content about coexistence. A set of 16 books which explains every single sub atomic particle to the whole universe.
I tried making a small presentation of the same.
Would love to exchange more thoughts and start the process of setting the world in order.
Tristan Mules says
Thanks Charles. This has been your drive for a long time… and its such a worth cause. Transferable to so many of our modern issues of objectification.
I would like to point out some demonisation and group think that I see occurring often enough these days. You mentioned the misogyny of killing your own mother, but what about the misandry of killing your own father? What an easy thing to overlook in our time of ‘toxic’ masculinity, the patriarchy and the backswing against men. Its very cool to jump on the feminist bandwagon and use words like that, but not so cool to point out discrimination against men, by women.
Just beautiful thank you
Thanks for sharing this!
Thank you Charles for spreading
Bertrand Canac says
The basis of peace is happiness.
Peace is within, in the silence and bliss of pure consciousness, beyond the noise of thoughts.
Only when a man is permanently established in the bliss of pure consciousness can his individual peace be real and permanent.
It is only when enough people will live the bliss of the silent state of their own consciousness, that world peace will be real and permanent.
kamir bouchareb st says
thanks for the last information
From Charles I get a glimpse into the mind of the American upper middle class. I think Charles means well. But as a middle class kid who has clearly had an easy life, Charles has no insight into the life and mindset of someone who is oppressed and lives in poverty. He is not aware that for a person in that position, there IS a need to fight against “the other”, namely, the oppressor who placed him there. Charles’ philosophy only makes sense if you’re from the privileged class. You think a black man living in poverty, trying to feed his kids working a shit job for minimum wage would buy Charles’ ‘solutions’ ? I can see it now. “Just chill out, brother, we’re all interconnected. We’re all in this together. There is no “other.” We’re one human race. Trust the higher intelligence. There is no one to fight.” How do you think that would go down? What Charles says is true on a metaphysical level, but when we consider social structure and class, it’s not anything that an oppressed person could relate to. Nor a mother who lost her home and child to US bombs in Syria. Nor a person who had their drinking water poisoned by corporate activities. Basically, most people in this world. For those who have suffered most from the social order established and maintained by the ruling class, Charles’ ‘solutions’ are unacceptable.
kamir bouchareb st says
kamir bouchareb st says
kamir bouchareb st says
thanks for the last information
Powerful paper and so important. For my I have always felt my life work is t become radically, unconditionally loving. True love is unconditional. But I, like many people, have some serious trauma. And an impact of that is a need for control where in the past I had no control. To heal from trauma there is a need either for the safety as you speak of in the essay, or to create the safety you do not feel via control. So my question is, how do we let go of this deep, unconscious need in favour of the complexity and interconnectedness, when safety is otherwise not apparent?