I have worked for inner and outer peace for years, and one of the hardest tests I ever faced started in the summer about four years ago when we were visited by ants. At the time, I was meditating and studying Buddhism, and was very aware of the ramifications of killing any living being. I ignored the ants as best I could until one day I came across an article on “Spiritual Pest Control.” The author mainly encouraged communication as the method of choice, and pointed out that since ants live in colonies, you can’t just talk to one of them. You must wait until you see a bunch and address them together.

So, I waited until a bunch of ants were congregated on the counter, and asked them nicely to leave my kitchen. My husband, Lane, loves to tell this story about me: one day, he says, he heard me talking in the kitchen when he thought I was alone. He came closer and overheard me saying, “Now listen, you’d better get out of here before Lane gets here or he’ll kill you.”

I doubt I said that. I really tried to avoid threats. However, I lost all my peaceful resolve the morning I found about one hundred little black bodies, many still moving, in the honey jar. I screamed, and, without thinking, I raced to the sink and washed them all down. The Spiritual Pest Control article had a pointer for that occasion, too: if you could not avoid taking drastic measures, you were to apologize and wish them a good next incarnation. Once I recovered enough of my calm, I did that for the ants.

Winter came and the ants went away, but this was our year for tests. Next came the mice. I searched all over town for a Have-a-Heart trap, to catch them alive and transport them away. For a while, that was fun. They were sort of cute. It became a family routine, to put the trap with the enclosed mouse in the car, to be transported to various places around town. We joked about creating church mice, city mice, and country mice. The children loved it. There are places all over town that are anchored in my memory because I got out of the car there to let a mouse go.

However, the more we transported, the more showed up. We began to feel we were operating a mouse travel agency. We couldn’t transport them fast enough, and the pantry began to smell. Then we heard them at night in our youngest daughter’s bedroom. Next they began to run across the living room floor in broad daylight. Then one day when I was in the kitchen, I heard a squeak and a thud, and the refrigerator stopped working. The repairman found a dead mouse tangled in the fan belt. When I told him about our situation, he suggested an exterminator.

Well, an exterminator is definitely not a peaceful solution to the problem. But I was by then working hard on organizing a conference (oddly enough, on the Psychology of Individual and Collective Survival), and was getting too busy working for “peace” to devote myself to mouse transportation. I called an exterminator. The mice are gone. I don’t know what to say. I still capture the little cupboard moths alive and let them go outdoors, talking to them as I do.

Sarah Conn
West Newton, Massachusetts

When my sweetheart and I hooked up, eight years ago, we were obsessed with the idea of nuclear war. In our bathroom we hung a map with the locations of all the nuclear targets. I kept a file of newspaper articles documenting the inevitability of nuclear war. I wrote letters on my own nuclear war stationery. “Yes, We Have No Mañanas,” it said at the top.

We were, on the one hand, very sad about it, but on the other, philosophical.

But we were pragmatic, too. Based on the prevailing winds and the protection offered by the mountains, we moved to Oregon. “We’re hoping for a limited nuclear war,” we told friends.

Years later, when Chernobyl blew up, Portland, Oregon — our town now — had the highest radiation levels in the country. We saw how silly we had been. We had planned for a nuclear strike against the U.S., when, in fact, it might be a bomb dropped on Russia that gets us. You can’t run from it.

When I was pregnant with our first child, I stopped thinking about nuclear war. I wanted a harmonious environment for my fetus. I didn’t listen to the news or read a newspaper. What a happy time that was!

After she was born, I said, “Maybe it’s OK if she doesn’t grow up. Maybe it’s OK if she just has a nice childhood.” But it was hard to feel very good about that idea. I don’t want this baby to die in a nuclear war!

I began carrying her to anti-war rallies. It was the least I could do, I thought. At the same time, I tried to forget about it. Helen Caldicott says that most people are numb to the idea of nuclear annihilation.

My children make the issue of war more immediate and profound and more heartbreaking. On good days (after a cup of coffee) I think that they make me stronger and more resilient. I want desperately for our planet to be here for them and for it to be a good place, friendly and accessible, lots of trees and organic produce, whales in the ocean, clean air, no bombs on the horizon. But while they have aroused me to action, they have also immersed me totally in the personal and present.

So we are working on peace on a personal level. Is it a cop-out? It is all I have right now. I don’t have a strategy. I love my children. I try to show them gentleness. We show them the world and its beauty, the ocean, the pine forests, the garden in our backyard, and teach them to love themselves.

All we have are these lives, these moments, our ways of doing things, the small, inscrutable changes that we make. Is this enough?

Alison Clement
Portland, Oregon

My biggest disappointment in myself, at age forty-three, is how little I’ve been able to get into the roots of my poor self-concept. Self-acceptance, let alone self-love, is so difficult, so tricky. Yet since acceptance and love of another is impossible without it, the lack of self-acceptance represents the deepest obstacle to peace.

The tricky part is that I want the self-acceptance to be based on a felt inner reality, not on meeting other people’s perceived expectations of who they feel I should be, or who they need me to be for them. It takes wisdom to separate these two very different types of self-acceptances.

I believe the poor self-concept I suffer is also suffered by millions and millions of people, enough to weigh down the consciousness of the planet to the level of serious stagnation and collective depression. To compensate, people still cling to the false and remote hopes that wealth will bring happiness, that revenge will be sweet, that sex will lead to love, that power will create security, that lazy, secure, dull lives will be rewarded with eternal bliss after death, that worldly achievement will represent proportionate inner attainment.

Until we discover, individually and collectively, our true worth, and through that worth, rediscover the magic of existence the way a loved child perceives it, we will not know ourselves well enough to want to survive the twenty-first century.

Jim Ralston
Petersburg, West Virginia

We do not know what peace is; surely that must be one of our greatest obstacles to achieving it. Not only have we never known it globally, we almost never know it personally, which is actually more to the heart of the matter.

Peace, of course, is not just the absence of war, and yet when speaking or thinking of that ephemeral thing we call “world peace,” that is usually as far as we get. It is rather like our Sunday School versions of “Heaven,” a picture we accept quickly because we know we are supposed to, but a picture whose details remain vague. How odd that our concept of Heaven would turn out to be so bland and boring that we wouldn’t be caught dead there.

Some time ago I was trying to describe to a friend what I experienced in times of certain dynamic connections to nature; when by the ocean, for example, how a feeling would rise in me, fill and pass beyond me, how as my breath became the wind and my heartbeat the waves’ rhythm, my life would seem to lose all its questions and become something timeless, tidal. I told her how hard it was to pull myself away from those places, how precious and rare that feeling was. As I struggled to name the feeling, it suddenly astonished me to realize that what I was experiencing in those moments was peace — something so rare that I hadn’t even recognized it for most of my life. It made me clearly see that real peace is dynamic, moving, and alive, not the static, vague utopia we tend to imagine and shun, preferring a world of conflict which we feel we need in order to test and prove ourselves.

Renais Jeanne Hill
Joshua Tree, California

I used to think war was caused solely by capitalism. My own private life was separate from it.

Now I think the two are intertwined. There is a “macro” peace, or the absence of armed conflict between countries, and a “micro” peace, a harmony between individuals. Maybe if we try hard enough, the latter can lead to the former.

I read a speculation once that Lee Harvey Oswald had shot President Kennedy because Oswald had quarrelled with his wife that morning.

I’ve marched and written letters, but there doesn’t seem to be much I can do for peace in the “macro” sense. Opportunities don’t come very often.

If you work at “micro” peace, you can do so every day, and you never know how far your influence may extend.

Mary Umberson
Paris, Texas

Surely not just peace among nations, but peace among individuals. An end to murdering, lying, and cheating, an end to violence, and the beginning of a new and exciting investigation of the universe — probably the universe of the mind.

Neither wars nor tough laws nor consumer delights will ever bring about such peace. Only a change of heart and mind at the individual level will do it, a “metanoia.” And we arrive at the heart of the matter: how to make aware one who is not aware. Experience tells us such changes only come about when we are obliged to grapple with a problem on our own, and to work out a solution on our own. Nevertheless, parents, priests, and professors stubbornly continue to lecture, as if a digest of their own discoveries or a set of rules could produce awareness in anyone but themselves.

This is a very small planet and our family includes Jews, Arabs, Chinese, and Russians. It is as unthinkable to do violence to those on the other side of some border as it is to do violence to our own mothers and brothers. Until we find out how to spread this and other awarenesses — in a way that respects the laws of awareness itself — we can’t even begin to dream of peace.

John J. Pint
Ciudad Granja, Jalisco
Mexico

One of the fundamental obstacles to the realization of peace (both inwardly and societally) is the desire for a quick cure for all our wrongs and shortcomings: the desire for a magical abatement of the storms. There is a hidden arrogance in this desire for a cure that will bring about a happy ending without having to own up to one’s brokenness or squarely face one’s negative potentiality. We need always to remind ourselves that our goal, as individuals and as planetary citizens, is not easiness, but shalom, or true peace. It is challenging to be a caring person in the nuclear age, for to be caring is to share in the pain of it all as fully as one can. What remains is the confession of our caring — a confession hidden beneath the self-deception that we are unbroken. “Amen,” we are broken; and “amen” again, we are wholly whole.

Elliott Robertson
New York, New York

Obstacles to peace? An obstacle would imply a goal. Peace is not so much a goal as the way things are when you leave them be. Which is not to say there’s no peace in agitation. That’s the heart of the paradox: the power and worth of life are not so much found in stasis as in disruption. Peace — balance, equilibrium — is good to tune into for relaxation and deep psychic healing, but it is not the stuff of creation. Imposing Universe onto the static Void is hardly a passive act. Creation is aggressive, and aggression is life-force. It is the restless ocean more than the stagnant pond that recharges human vitality. Again the paradox: there is a grade of peace which can be gotten to only through conflict, and it is generally more valuable than what you might find, say, in Eden. That’s what is meant by the eye of the hurricane, or the calm in the center of the storm. Even in flux peace is the fundament. Of course the problem is that aggression can end in destruction as well as creation. But if allowed to follow its course, natural aggression seems most often to circumvent violence and somehow lead to an act of creation.

Peace, then, is the way things are before they’re messed with. It is the white noise of being, the blanket reality against which all else takes place. Rather than obstacles to peace, there are perturbations and seasonal fluctuations which take place within the fabric of peace.

If you note how a mockingbird can sing at 3 a.m., bouncing notes off an unseen audience and building rhythmic interruptions to accompany silence, you can see that not perceiving peace — not perceiving grace — is a flaw of consciousness. But we’ve chosen that kind of consciousness, and in it there’s as much rise as fall, and much that is worthwhile.

In regard to the kind of peace “activists” often demand, which too often seeks to overlay itself on the world before taking time to see how the world is: not only is that state unlikely to happen, it may not be worth having. The human significance of Earth will pretty much be done with when all the problems are solved. It seems we keep making problems because the burden of finding solutions both challenges and puzzles us — and we adore challenges and puzzles. Consciousness loves a quandary. Indeed, quandary could be said to create consciousness. It is the state that leads us to perceive ourselves as separate. The bird singing at 3 a.m., however, is not caught in quandary. He perceives no lack of peace. His — at least for the moment — is a song indifferent to disruption. We, of course, have chosen disruption, but then look at all we’ve made of it. Our path of judgement and the power to distinguish, incrementally, one thing from another, is sometimes painful, but from it we forge a world of fabulous diversity. Really, we’ve got more songs to sing than the mockingbird.

 

A world where people no longer violate one another, nor over-disrupt the eco-balance, is not only possible, but already underway. Probably it will come about without effort (like the trickling of an Otis Spann blues piano lick, fluid because unforced). Things work that way. You can’t fight for peace. You can’t hate war away.

The main obstacles to a world without violation are political and economic: specifically, all political action which sustains economic hardship and imbalance. If there’s anywhere we could use a bit more equilibrium, it’s here: money, trade, sharing of resources. Present-day political thinking — communist and capitalist — is provincial and antique. It still operates on the false assumption that the earth does not create enough life-force to go around. Its primary tactic is centuries old: “keep ’em divided.” It encourages disequilibrium by making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Power is both its raison d’être and modus operandi. At its core lie two utterly false, yet unchallenged suppositions: 1) that land can be owned; 2) that money can make money.

Really, though, all this is stupid, out-of-date idealism, a mode of thinking passed on to us from a time before people were able to go to the moon and look back and see that Earth is one place. If unfair distribution of goods is the itch behind revolution, then the powerful new concept of One World will eventually seep into the mass mind and goad us to scratch what ought to be scratched.

Brian Knave
Davis, California

My six-year-old has been exclaiming “fuck” all morning. Now he’s telling me how much he likes to say these words. “Go fuck a pig!” he says, with an explosiveness he finds thrilling. He tells me he has learned it from his friends. Now he’s telling me of the people he hates. Sometimes he says, “I love you,” and talks about how much he likes peace. Yesterday he said, “I love war. Fighting is my favorite thing.” I try to tell him that it is only the play that he likes and that he wouldn’t really like it if people got hurt. My own child is my greatest aikido challenge.

Suzelle
Redway, California

To me, the biggest obstacle to peace is tribalism. This is an unfashionable view in an age of tribal resurgence, when every little ethnic group wants its homeland and identity fortified against “the empire.”

I know I have no right to criticize, however, because I have never known the passion of belonging to a tribe; I was brought up an assimilated Jew in a World Federalist family whose gospel was The Family of Man. Still, I can’t help observing that the ferocity of people’s feelings for their tribe are proportionate to how much that tribe has been beaten on by other tribes. The Germans took a beating in World War I; Hitler rose out of the ashes. His supernationalism incinerated the Jews, and out of those ashes rose Israel, displacing the Palestinians. And out of those ashes rose terrorism. . . . It makes you wonder now much of tribal pride really is a love for unique cultural treasures, and how much of it just feeds on attack and counterattack — with politicians on both sides the only real winners.

It’s a disadvantage not to belong to a tribe. You have no qualities, you have no obvious community, it’s hard to explain yourself, and you can’t count on predictable enthusiasms and hatreds. I made a forlorn attempt to join a tribe once: the sannyasins of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who preached the end of all traditional tribes. Ironically, it was the tribalism of his movement that drove me away. I kept thinking of all the people I love, all the people I could love, who wouldn’t talk to me if I were dressed in red with a guru’s picture around my neck. Maybe I lack the courage to take a stand, I told myself. Maybe I just want everyone to like me. But there is this thing in me that goes for the “we” feeling in every encounter, the way a taproot seeks water. I have a friend who was a hostage in Lebanon, and the story he told that made me cry was that two of his captors cried when he left them, the tears running out the eyeholes of their masks.

Annie Gottlieb
New York, New York