Peace on Earth, goodwill to all. – Luke 2:14 (Commonly seen on holiday cards)
Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me. – Christmas song lyric
Peace on Earth. This has been a wish associated with the Christmas/Hanukkah/Winter Solstice holiday season dating back to the Biblical pronunciation by angels upon the birth of Jesus. The general association would have humanity overcoming violence and settling into sustained peace, but as the 20th Century Christmas song wisely continues, this cannot happen unless there is peace within individuals, and since the only individual I can take full responsibility for is myself, we might consider beginning with ourselves. But – this tends to be where our faith ends. We think we cannot have peace unless there is peace around us, and since there is seldom true and real peace around us, we cannot be peaceful. We just sing the song and send the Holiday cards.
What is peace? Is it only a treaty of no blatant acts of violence between nation-states? No. Peace is complete peace, the felt-sense of no hostility and warm welcoming to all and everything. It is the absence of the roots of violence – anger, insecurity, covetousness, mistrust. Can we even feel this for ourselves without qualification, without some lingering sense of measuring our worth against the worth of another or an impossible self-image placed in us by parents and society? Buddhism speaks of the uneasy sense of dissatisfaction that plagues humans, that drives them to craving and fears. Is it not this craving and fear that sets us against each other, even against ourselves? This is not peace. This is what leads to wars and every act of aggression, judgment and rejection. There is never enough, so we must take more, take what does not belong to us, even if it is only through a passive-aggressive comment, even thought, meant to make more of me and less of the object of the comment or thought. This is violence, not peace.
Why do we take what does not belong to us? Why do we project hostile feelings onto others and ourselves? Is it because of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy that we are attempting to keep at bay, because of deflation of our egos caused by a wholly unrealistic need to be beyond criticism that our egos project as necessary just to be OK? And in this relentless top-dog, underdog game there is always perceived criticism and falling short – and we are seldom OK. So the game spins on. We feel no peace because of this relentless low intensity war that has no truce, even between family members and people who love each other, let alone the everyday people who flow through our lives. Even a silent mental judgment towards another is a declaration of war and there is no peace, for every shot in this war comes around and hits the one who thinks it, depriving us of peace.
And what is our ego? It is the experience of a separate self, seeking to survive. Every animal has an ego, a contraction of consciousness energy devoted to survival, to finding food, shelter, procreation, defense against the dangers of the world. Humans, however, seek not only physical survival, but, having invested psychological identity in this ego, seek an abstract existential survival, the continuation and amplification of a story of “me” that requires a constant making more of “me” just to be enough. Like a shark that must keep swimming to survive, modern humans seem to need to keep acquiring possessions, status, importance, significance for this ego-self to survive. In making more of “me” there is the compulsion to make less of others, of all of Life. We need “more” just to be enough. We swim on, devouring others, devouring Nature just to psychologically survive. So we think.
We have to realize that “Peace on Earth” really means the peace OF the Earth, the harmony and non-judgmentalism that is Nature. Survival is survival, not opinions about what is needed for an abstracted notion of survival, not depending on anyone’s opinion or judgment. The Lion DOES lie down with the lamb even in its killing and devouring the lamb. The lion holds no malice toward the lamb. The lamb holds no malice toward the lion. They are doing what is natural. They are living and dying without judgment, without malice. The moment of kill is terror for the lamb, but fear of this moment does not contaminate its life. This is peace.
Aboriginal humans knew this. They lived on the Earth, feeling they were of the Earth and in kinship with the lion and the lamb and the rivers and the trees and each other. Tribes fought for hunting ground, for survival, but their wars were limited, with limited lethality, just like animals fighting for territory – not to the death, but just to assert sufficient strength. They never fought over whose god or political system was true. They did not organize hierarchically in which there were classes of people who exploited other classes of people. Everyone, even the mentally ill had a valued place within the tribal structure. The most respected individual was the one who was the most generous to others. The notion of problems of self-esteem that plague moderns would be ridiculous to them.
Killing for survival is not violence. It is Nature. Aboriginal hunting was done with a sense of reverence and gratitude for the “give-away” of Life that supported their life. Yes, they were human, and struggled with the emerging demands of ego for recognition and power, and sometimes, like with the Mesoamerican Mayans, Aztecs and Incas, the ego took over and their societies went crazy and came to be at war with Nature, and so, led these societies to their demise in a bloody elevation of violence as their god. Yet we call those societies “civilizations” and not the Nature-based cultures who continued life within Nature. We call them “savage.” Who was really savage, the ones who lived quietly in Nature or the ones with all the gold and crowns and war and deforestation and conquest and victims for sacrifice?
European “civilization” descended into the lands of indigenous people like an invasion from an alien planet bent on replacing the indigenous society with their own, taking what did not belong to them, committing genocide. They could do this because they lived in a consciousness of violence, of egoic compulsion to negate others so as to elevate the shaky sense of self conditioned by the violence of hierarchy and class within their own culture to which no one was immune, not even kings. A mind of violence was the ground in which the seeds of violent actions could grow and eventually take over the world. The ego flatters itself and declares the victorious culture superior, when all they were was more violent – more inventive and organized in their violence.
In this is a warning. Human civilization is based in violence as long as it is based in ego’s demand to be elevated above Nature and to separate out “me and mine” from “you and yours.” This can lead to religious and political wars and wars of genocide and war with Nature. It can lead to false hierarchies of who has value and who does not. It leads to killing – not only of the body, but of the soul. It leads to crisis of self-esteem that needs us to assault the self-esteem and worth of others. Killing someone’s personal psychological security to temporarily buttress our own shaky psychological security IS violence, and eventually leads to killing on massive scales, to genocide, to driving species to extinction, to throwing the balance of the Earth into crisis.
Does it have to be this way? Can there be Peace on Earth? Yes. But it will require evolving human culture out of egoic separateness and competition. There must be a new embrace of the peace OF the Earth in which human civilization with its technology is turned to supporting the harmony of the World and not its conquest. It will require the transcendence of psychological violence, the compulsion to make more of me by making less of you, of taking what does not belong to us. It will require the meaning of civilization to be compassion and cooperation, not competition and exploitation. It will require love and goodwill to all.
Are we actually capable of this? Of course we are, for we have experienced this peace many times. We experience it in moments in Nature, in the forest, on a mountain, at the ocean, looking into a starlit sky. We experience it when we hold a baby, when we look at a loved one and realize we love them. Perhaps it is experienced in meditation. Yes, we are capable of love and peace, it is just that we must bring this peace into everything we do and with everyone we meet and insist on it as the guidepost for our society. And, yes, let it begin with me – and you. Where else can it begin?