The past year has been a hard one. Strident. Violent. Frightening. We’ve seen the worst human impulses acted out in public, sometimes by what seem to be fanatics and sometimes by people very like ourselves and our friends. The future seems uncertain, with threats of further violence and injustice looming. Where do we look, then, for peace? How can we find inner peace in a turbulent world?
True peace is never external. For one thing, there has never in human history been a time when any society has been free of conflict. Tension and disagreement are natural characteristics of human existence. There has never been a “golden age” of peace and tranquility. We can’t recapture a time that never was.
Yet most of us have experienced times of peace and joy. Moments so filled with love and beauty that they linger with us, enriching our lives. We can choose to live in the elements of those moments, even though the moments themselves are past. We don’t have to live in the conflicts and threats of violence that surround us.
If enough of us choose to live in peace and connection, we can draw others away from the desire to act out their worst fears in violence and injustice. Inner peace leads to connection, and connection leads to peace in the world.
So how do we find peace within? That’s the first question.
Peace is individual; we each have to make our own way to it. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I do believe that what I’ve experienced is not very different from the experiences of others. So when I speak for myself, I’m hoping that you will find resonances there that connect with you.
For me, peace begins with the spiritual practice of looking for God’s presence everywhere and in everyone. I find the sacred in everything that is beautiful, and in everything that is ugly but has the potential for beauty within it. That covers just about everything I encounter.
It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful.
The lessons of deeper knowledge, though,
Instructed me to embrace God in all things.
– – – – – – – – St. Francis of Assisi
When the potential for beauty is not realized, it can be heart-wrenching and even tragic. But the potential is still there – God is still there – and I can choose to love the presence of God in even the worst circumstances. People don’t have to be good or lovely or admirable or “right” in order to be loveable. God is present in suffering and in what appears to us to be evil. And it’s that presence of God that makes it possible for us to connect, to be aware that we are all part of the interconnected and interdependent universe.
A vitally important component of that awareness is self-understanding. I have to know and understand my own emotions and the behaviors that grow out of them before I can be truly aware of others and live out my connection to them. That means that I have to look closely at what I most dislike in myself, not just at what I like. I have to examine my own fears, anger, grief, hatreds, shame, and guilt, as well as my own joys, passions, and loves. And I must apply what I learn about my feelings to my own behaviors. In every circumstance, I must ask myself, “What in my own self and in my experience has led me to feel what I feel?” “Why did I act the way I did?” When I understand myself and my emotions, I gain a new perspective that makes it possible for me to find peace within myself.
We are all often afraid – or sometimes just wary – of what we don’t understand and foolishly think we should somehow be able to control. Understanding diminishes fear. When we see our fears clearly, we can learn to lament them, express them fully to ourselves, and let them shrink in importance. All of this is hard work, and it takes time. But it is truly worth the effort.
The second question is this: how can we find peace in connection with others, and build greater peace in our world?
When I understand myself, it becomes much easier to understand others and be aware of our connection as part of a shared universe. Human emotions are universal. There are dark places in all of us; claiming my own dark places makes it possible for me to understand and forgive the dark places of others.
We all have light places in us, too. The connection that grows out of self-awareness makes it possible for us to share light with others, both our light and theirs. And in that shared light, we can see the real proportions of our conflicts and disagreements. They generally turn out to be much smaller than we had thought, and our shared connections much larger. After all, we don’t have to think alike to be human together.
In that shared light, we can find peace. Even though conflicts continue, we can choose not to be defined by them, choose not to live in them, be consumed by them. We can choose to live in our shared humanness. And the flow of peace in the universe increases.