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Marc Polonsky, a Sun reader from Berkeley, California, started out on the Great Peace March last spring with several thousand other anti-war activists. The eight-month, cross-country walk for global nuclear disarmament ran out of money before it left California, but a dedicated column of about 500 marchers continued on, crossing desert and mountains and prairie on their way to Washington, D.C., where they were due to arrive in November.
This is Marc Polonsky’s first essay on the Great Peace March. His second article appeared in Issue 135.
When I began on the Great Peace March I wasn’t worried about whether I would “make a difference.” I had already acknowledged to myself that I didn’t care. Peace and disarmament were important to me, but I knew I was on the march for my own peace. If nothing could be done to save the world, at least I wanted some peace of mind for myself.
When I walk it has often occurred to me that I should make it a moving meditation, like the Japanese monks, each step a heartfelt prayer for peace. But I do not necessarily have peaceful thoughts. If, now and again, I find myself contemplating visions of a peaceful world, it does not happen as the result of an effort to direct my thoughts. It feels random. Of all the thoughts that float across my mind as I walk fifteen to twenty miles day after day, a certain small percentage of them are bound to be global. More often than not, however, my thoughts are personal. They are concerned with me and my immediate world. Sometimes they are imagined scenes of the future. Sometimes I play entire songs for myself in my head, from records I’ve left behind at home. In any case, whatever crosses my consciousness comes through effortlessly.
Yet it works for me. After five and a half months of walking I have become more peaceful. I feel self-indulgent saying this, almost embarrassed, as if I may sound like one of those smugly self-assured “spiritual” types who blithely says, ‘‘Inner is outer. We’re all One. Whatever you do affects the entire universe, so therefore the best thing you can do for anyone else is to work on your own inner peace.” I think that’s simplistic and it infuriates me. There’s a grain of truth in it but it’s a half-truth. Obviously we’re here to do both internal and external work, and the challenge is for each of us to find our own unique balance. This balance will shift back and forth with time, which is why — with no excuses but certainly no boasting either — I find myself emphasizing the inner over the outer these days, even while I am “walking for global nuclear disarmament.”
This is peculiar when you think about it: walking for peace. What does it mean? I’m not talking about walking and thinking for peace, and certainly not walking and talking for peace, but just walking for peace. Does the fact that we say we are doing it for peace make it effective for peace? Couldn’t someone arbitrarily announce, “On Monday, December 15, at precisely 2 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, people the world over will pick their noses for peace?” Or is there something about the nature of walking itself that is inherently peaceful, and peace-inducing?
I think walking is inherently contemplative, relaxing, grounding, peaceful and peace-inducing. And when an action is dedicated to peace (provided it is not violent or thoroughly ridiculous), I think that intention and that message have some effect, too. Walking for peace, then, is effective in more than one dimension. As a matter of fact, one reason I feel no guilt over the aimless flitter-flutter of my thoughts is that when I am walking it is all dedicated to peace — every last sports score, sexual fantasy or astral vision. (Who is to say, after all, which thoughts are the best to think? I subscribe to the idea that thoughts have a reality, an electromagnetic charge if you will, of their own, and that they send out ripples just as sound does. But I don’t believe this necessarily means we should try and program thought any more than we should program speech. Do the syllables “I love you” bring any light into the world if they come forced and contrived?)
Obviously the “effects” I am speaking of here have got to be subtle (very subtle, I can hear the cynic muttering), but then subtlety is often very powerful. And what are the effects we are after, really? “Our goal is total global nuclear disarmament. Nothing less.” Absolutely. Anything less would presume a world still governed by fear, where the power of violence was still the bottom line. (Of course we also have subsidiary goals, specific steps-to-get-there goals, like no Star Wars, a nuclear test ban and a nuclear freeze.) But then what about after the bombs are gone? Love and a peaceful world? Explain. The eradication of fear? Be serious. Economic justice? It gets complicated, you see.
Not that there’s anything wrong with complications, but we have to start with what we know. Since I know that I’ve become more peaceful on the walk, I can talk about this. There is altogether less desperation in me. I feel less anxious about my life, and less fearful for the world. I feel more humble, which means I no longer have such an inflated sense of my own responsibility to direct and understand everything that goes on. I’m finally starting to understand that all I can do is the best I can, and beyond this I must accept what is.
To feel this way is a great comfort. It has so profoundly affected me that I just can’t worry about whether it “does the world any good.” I don’t want to exaggerate: I am not at peace every minute; I have not become enlightened; I still get uptight. There has been just a small change, but it’s a solid and substantial one that I don’t think will go away. As a matter of fact, it amazes me when I think that I’ve walked, at this writing, almost 2,000 miles, only to be changed just this little bit. It seems an incredibly long way to have come to get only so far. But this is the quality of my life I’m talking about.
Because what I feel is something tangible, I can see now how intangible my intentions have been in the past when I’ve “worked for peace.” Not that these efforts were unproductive or misguided, but looking back it’s clear now that my subjective experience was that I was shooting in the dark. Explicitly I may have been working to stop the MX missile or a nuclear power plant from going on line, but deep down I always felt that I was looking into sheer darkness. I did not genuinely believe that anything I could do would be effective or, if it was effective, that I would know how or why — and then still it would not be effective enough. Therefore, although all the political work I’ve done has satisfied and strengthened me to some degree, I never once had the feeling of completeness or wholeness that comes from knowing what I’m doing, exactly why I’m doing it, what the effects may or may not be.
On the peace march we are often asked, “Do you think this is really going to do anything?” Or, when we ask people to sign our four-point petition for nuclear disarmament, they say, “What are you going to do with all those signatures?”
I don’t know just what we’ll do with all the signatures. Sometimes I’ll mechanically reply, “Present them to Congress.” But if I’m honest I’ll think about it, admit I don’t know, and come up with a different answer each time. There must be many creative things one can do or statements one can make with a million signatures, but the most important moment in the life of a signature may be just when it is signed and the most important effect, however infinitesimal, may be on the signer. Today some people signed their names to a petition calling for nothing less than global nuclear disarmament, and joined their names with hundreds of thousands of others. Even if they turn right around and “forget” about it, does that render it an insignificant act? I don’t know, but I doubt it.
The biggest question, though, is “What do we think this march is really going to do?” It’s a great question and it should be asked more often — about everything. When we say “Good morning,” what are we trying to do? When we plan for the future, what do we plan for? We’re always trying to achieve peace and joy and satisfaction. We don’t think about it much but every action, word, smile, laugh or snarl is a prayer for peace and joy and satisfaction. Everyone wants these things, if not for the world then at least for himself or herself, and when I think about it myself, taking all my actions to their extremes, this is what they’re aiming for, step by blind step.
On the peace march I can say, “I’m walking to get to the next rest stop,” or “I’m walking to get to the next campsite and set up my tent and read a book,” or “I’m walking so the people who drive by and see me on the road will think about peace today.” At any given time all three of these things may be simultaneously true and, taken to extremes, they all amount to the same thing. Peace, joy, satisfaction.
The goal, however, is the Big triumph. But I don’t believe in that one anymore. I’m not saying we can’t get rid of the bombs — if I believed that I would be in despair. We have to get rid of the bombs but it won’t happen all at once, and it probably won’t even be clear when they are all gone. I think nowadays more in terms of trends than events, and I think of life as a series of unique moments rather than as a singular unfolding story. So I keep personal and political aims in mind, but they are more like directional magnets than like goals. Or, more accurately perhaps, my goals are realized constantly. When my heart is open, my gestures, actions and intentions are “offered up,” complete in themselves every moment.