Peace On Earth by George Merrill

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“Peace on earth and good will to all” is our holiday mantra. The holidays are upon us. So is the mantra. Whether peace and good will are upon us, well, that’s a whole different matter.

I have a book written in cooperation with the American Friends Service Committee. The committee promotes peace education worldwide. The book is no bigger than the spread of my hand, maybe an inch thick. Each page contains up to three brief commentaries on the subject of peace. I thumb through it periodically.

The book is remarkable in the sheer variety of the world’s great iconic figures commenting on the nobility of peace. The 582 contributors affirming peace include names like Gandhi, Einstein, Rachel Carson, Walt Whitman, George Patton, Jimmy Carter, Tolstoy, Dwight Eisenhower, Buddha, Ovid, Anne Frank and Matrin Luther King Jr.

The statements depict yearning, the hope the authors have rather than identifying any achievements in establishing peace.

The message is clear: worldwide, the human heart longs for peace. So why, after the ‘war to end all wars’ was there WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan to mention major conflicts, not including the hundreds of internecine conflicts within African nations and in the Middle East? Is there a darker side of this we are not seeing, or wish not to?

I think so.

All affirm the ideal, and one quote from Thomas Hardy suggests why it’s difficult to achieve. Hardy, writing at the turn of 20th century, comments about peace, but puts it in a different light, namely that there is actually something alluring about war. He writes, “My argument is that War makes rattling good history, but Peace is poor reading.” I think Hardy brings to the table a disturbing thought that few wish to own: there is pleasure in war. Mortal combat produces an adrenaline rush. Skirmishes with death are exciting. At a more benign level, the murder mystery is one of the hottest sellers, some filled with muted violence, others bloody. Video games sell like hot cakes and they are not games that promote our finer sensibilities. ‘Annihilate the enemy’ is the goal of these games. Kids are mesmerized by them. I know adults who play.

In graduate school, I studied psychotherapy. I had two friends that were Viet Nam vets, Reggie and Rock. Rock served as a marine, Reggie with the army, both in Viet Nam. We were all ordained clergy. Occasionally we’d gather for drinks and talk about our classes or anything on our minds.

One evening we discussed war. I had no military experience so I enjoyed some of the tales of military life that were delightfully zany. I learned the origins of the acronym, SNAFU and how just saying it lightened the drudgery of military life. Reggie was quick witted, a fun guy to be around. Reggie had seen considerable jungle combat in his three-year tour in the Army. He brought it up for the first time in one of our conversations.

One evening Reggie talked about the war. He said how few will tell you this, but there is an undeniable adrenaline rush in the midst of combat. What we don’t hear about the rush is how exhilarating it is and when the fighting is over, you miss the high. I remember him saying specifically, he knew no high that could compare with it and to this day he confessed that he missed it. Rock agreed. They knew what ‘highs’ were all about and war was a special one.

Perhaps it’s not so strange that we continually wage war over thousands of years even as we claim to abhor it; Everyone deplores the carnage, the suffering, the destruction of war. Yet war goes on and on and on. Is it that peace is boring, as Hardy suggests? Do we need drama, constant stimulation or even catastrophes to maintain our attention, to make us feel vital and alive? Where there is a spiritual vacuum, violence is energizing.

A closer look at today’s way of life is instructive? It’s frantic and overstimulating. Communication has become flagrantly sensational. Our leader’s foibles, predictably flamboyant and bombastic, are aired, televised or printed only moments after his tantrums issue. Most stations air “Breaking News,” not just news. To gain our attention there is a need to create urgency and an anticipatory excitement for what is about to come. I’ve also noticed that some news stations on TV begin with drum rolls just before the anchor speaks, not as if to announce news, but as if they were introducing a death-defying circus act. On one TV screen, we may have three things going on simultaneously: the show, the latest data crawling along base of the screen, and in the corner of the screen, the blinking of the station’s identification logo. TV multitasks all the time. It keeps us multitasking or, if it doesn’t, we think something’s gone wrong with the set.

We’re rarely at peace. We’re mostly multitasking, busy about many things.

A statement by Anne Frank sums up the book: “I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Anne Frank did not have the luxury of a thousand diversions. She was confined, with nothing to do but manage the inevitable stresses that come with being cramped in crowded quarters. What she developed was an inspiring inner life. By becoming aware of her thoughts and feelings, investigating the small circumference that constituted her entire life and writing her thoughts down, she transcended the physical limitations imposed on her. She found an inner space that was far more expansive than even the country in which fate had trapped her.

Through her suffering she discovered peace on earth and good will toward all.

Peace begins in the silent spaces of the heart; it’s an inspired vision of possibility.

Anne Frank was inspired by in inner vision. It was forged in her suffering. How she did it is not clear, but it offers hope for greater possibilities for a world vision.

She wrote: “If I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

I pray for that vision.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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