(Note: Originally posted Christmas Day 2001.)
Most of the time, day or night, you can turn to one of the news channels and see footage of people killing one another, or heads of people talking about people killing one another. And if you do this often enough, you might conclude that peace as a concept is as remote as Neptune, and as unlikely to be reached in your lifetime.
And this conclusion works, sort of, if you are inclined to define “peace” as something contingent upon the absence of war. In which case, erase “Neptune” and replace with “Betelgeuse”: man’s inhumanity to man is a seemingly-permanent feature of the landscape, at least to the extent that man himself is a seemingly-permanent feature of the landscape.
But it’s not every man, on either end of that equation. Like so much else, peace, as a process, must begin with the individual. And peace on an individual level is more complicated. Life itself is fraught with conflict: things just refuse to fall into nice, neat little patterns we can follow by rote. At some point, we are faced with questions as basic as “Should I stay or should I go?” Can you just walk away? Sometimes you can. Sometimes you can’t.
When I was younger, so much younger than today, a radio station once had the temerity to follow John Lennon’s “Imagine” with his “Working Class Hero”, a mordantly bitter tune that demonstrated pretty convincingly, at least to me, that the lightest and brightest of dreams could — maybe even had to — coexist with fear and loathing and disillusionment. Finding a balance therein is, I think, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I suspect it will take me the rest of my days. But it’s a conflict from which I cannot walk away.
A short time later, I was in the Army, and during this time I had some cards made up which identified me as “Specialist, United States Peace Force.” Unofficial, of course. Some noted — some will note, even today — that I wore a uniform and carried a rifle (and sometimes more), and that by so doing, I belied my own self-description. I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now. The argument that you should never, ever strike first is awfully close to the argument that you should never, ever take vitamins. I don’t know any homeowner who will say, “Aw, let’s give the termites a chance.” If conscience demands, as it will, that we think things over before we commit ourselves to some frightful war in the Middle East, it demands also that we consider the consequences should we walk away.
Peace on the individual level: “Can you live with the decisions you have made?” I’m working on it. And thank you for working on it for yourself.
We now return you to your regularly-scheduled greeting-card sentiment.