Pondering Paths to Peace

Nice people made the best Nazis. Or so I have been told. My mother was born in Munich in 1934, and spent her childhood in Nazi Germany surrounded by nice people who refused to make waves. When things got ugly, the people my mother lived alongside chose not to focus on “politics”, instead busying themselves with happier things. They were lovely, kind people who turned their heads as their neighbours were dragged away.

Naomi Shulman

Those words were penned by Naomi Shulman back in 2016 and they unsettled me. As they well should. She writes about a friend who says she chooses not to discuss politics in public, and goes on to post a picture of puppies. Another sends Naomi a message assuring her that she is part of the “private resistance”. Understandably, this upsets Shulman.

I feel unsettled because of the undeniable truth in Naomi’s words, because of what is happening in the world right now, but most of all because I identify with nice people. I hate conflict of any kind. Even when things get ugly in my own social network with people I love, my stomach cramps up, I forget to breathe and end up feeling dizzy and nauseous.

Well boohoo for me, right?

I want to think I would do something if my neighbours were being taken away. That I would brave an assault with…well, it would have to be something like a cast iron frying pan, because I don’t have anything conventional like a gun. Come to think of it, I don’t have a cast iron frying pan neither. Whatever weapon I grab, I doubt I would be very effective, but who knows? I do know for sure that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try. But maybe I would hide under the bed with my fingers in my ears like a coward. I hope not, but you never know how you’re going to react until something actually happens.

I do know there is also an argument to be made for nice people making the best activists. Not the so-called polite, look-the-other-way “nice” that Naomi references at the start of this post, but genuine, heartfelt, love and kindness for all humanity kind of nice.

The kind of nice that needs to happen before we start hauling people away because their beliefs differ from our own.

If everyone on the planet were full of active love and kindness…what would we have? A world full of love and kindness.

But if everyone is angry and full of hate…righteous or otherwise, what do we end up with? A world full of angry, hateful people and a whole lot of horrific violence.

I realize this is terribly oversimplifying things, but there is truth in it. Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Peace Pilgrim, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Lennon…okay now I am just spewing out names, but still. These are all people who did their best to walk their talk without anger, judgment, or violence and because of that they caused people to press pause and pay attention. To consider a different path to peace. They were the sort of “nice” one would hope we could all aspire to being. They were activists by example and profound instruments of change.

I don’t know what exactly I am trying to say, except I desperately want to be the change. And I do believe kindness is the most powerful weapon we have as a human race. So if in doubt of what exactly you can do to make the world a better place, first and foremost be kind. Right or wrong or just plain naive, that’s all I know for sure that we absolutely must find a way to do.

But here’s the rub.

This sort of steady, unwavering kindness isn’t easy.

Just look back over these last two years. Are there any people in your life you have unfriended or blocked because their views on the pandemic differed wildly from yours? Were these people someone whose friendship mattered before their opinions drew lines you were no longer willing to cross? Does it bother you that people you used to call for lunch, you now call stupid idiots? Knowing you probably won’t change each other’s minds, are you able to set aside your differences and listen to each other’s viewpoints with respect? I mean, really listen. The kind of listening you do out of genuine curiosity of why someone thinks the way they think, instead of simply pretending to listen while waiting to pounce on why they’re incredibly misguided and wrong. Are you able to just listen and accept your differences and remain friends? Can you still be kind to each other even if no one changes their view?

If we can get so outraged by people we love, if we can cut them out of our life and refuse to be in the same room anymore, then what hope is there, really, for world peace?

I think for there to be any kind of dramatic shift in the world, it has to start with ourselves. As many people as possible have to dig deep and be willing to be curious and kind, instead of hardened and angry. Buddhists refer to these people as bodhisattvas or spiritual warriors. People who are willing to put aside their egos to achieve peace.

You can still – and should – intervene if someone is being bullied or physically put in danger. You can still disagree with a person’s opinion, but the bodhisattvas quest is to be able to do so while still having great compassion and empathy for the person you differ from. We are all more the same than we are different. We are all cut from the same cloth. We all want to be safe. We all want our families to be safe. We are simply threatened by different things.

It is my belief that the biggest threat humans face is our own anger. We should work fervently to eradicate or minimize the hate and anger in our own hearts. We should do so with the same motivation we would to keep out an enemy force. Because that’s what our anger is. Our enemy. The only one we truly have.

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