Helen Keller said, “I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.”
In 1945, following World War II, while the world was reeling from the devastation, absorbing the horrific stories of what had taken place, the United Nations was born. It’s goal of world peace is more than a dream; with the advent of atomic-nuclear weapons it’s a necessity for the survival of humans on this planet, and in some ways, for the well-being of the planet itself.
That same year a young rabbi, Joshua Loth Liebman was writing a book that turned out to be the best selling book in America in 1946 – Peace of Mind.
His book was a sort of marriage ceremony between religion and psychology. About his book Rabbi Liebman said:
“It may seem strange for a man to write a book about peace of mind in this age of fierce turmoil and harrowing doubts. I have written this book in the conviction that social peace can never be permanently achieved so long as individuals engage in civil war with themselves.”
“In this book I try to present some answers that have proved helpful to me about the universal human dilemmas of conscience, love, fear, grief, and God — crucial problems that present themselves in every kind of society, and, I believe, will present themselves as long as man is man.” Two years after publishing his best-selling book, the 41 year old rabbi died suddenly of a heart attack.
Twenty-five hundred years before the founding of the United Nations, and Liebman’s book, these words were written and attributed to the sage, Lao Tzu (570-490 B.C.)
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
The name Lao Tse, or Lao Tzu, simply means ‘wise old man.’ Historians contend that he is a synthesis of multiple historical persons, mythical figure
The traditional story says that Lao Tse grew tired of the violence and moral decay of his time; he predicted the kingdom’s decline, and for his own peace of mind he decided to leave the City and live as a hermit in the unsettled frontiers. When he approached the western gate of the city, or kingdom, he was recognized by a guard. The sentry asked the old master to produce a record of his wisdom. This is the legendary origin of the Tao Te Ching.
The ‘wise old man’s’ book, and the rabbi’s book, respond to Helen Keller’s wish for understanding ‘that bringeth peace of mind.’
There are lots of things that get in the way of peace of mind: anger, fear, greed, resentment, jealousy, inferiority, hubris – it’s an almost endless list. What would you add to the list? Each of those things, while preventing peace of mind also contributes to the reasons for trouble in relationships, violence in the community, and war in the world. It’s all part of what we call the ‘interdependent web.’
As I thought about the question of inner peace, and things that get in its way, I realized that I started school the same year Rabbi Liebman’s book was published. One of the primary lessons we were taught was what to do in case of an atomic bomb attack – hide under the desk, or lie on the floor at the wall next to the windows, so the debris from the exploding bomb would fly over your head. We were taught that we had to live in fear of attack.
During my life I’ve been told about the dangers of pollution – the water and air are fouled – acid rain is falling like a silent killer in the night – the earth’s environment is in grave danger. In recent years we’ve been told how our irresponsible collective behavior has created climate change and that it’s probably irreversible.
The economy has been in dire straights and we see the interdependent web of money and greed, jobs being lost leads to housing foreclosures, creating havoc in the lives of millions, while billions in bonuses are handed out to the few at the top of the pecking order.
Unrest in the Middle East spreads…the Taliban is determined to destroy us as Afghanistan is turning into another Vietnam.
The list of things that eats away at our peace of mind is practically endless. No wonder we respond to Miller Williams’ little poem:
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.” —”The Ways We Touch”
We work for justice so that there can be peace in the world; we try to understand what makes us tick, so that we can have more peace of mind – and we know that there is a direct connection between injustice or economic disparity and violence often leading to war; there is a direction connection between peace of mind and peace in the world…peace in the family…peace in the community.
If you want peace in the world, work for justice; if you want peace of mind, you could do worse than following the advice of Francis of Assisi. In his famous prayer he says,
‘Make me an instrument of peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned…’
Being ‘an instrument of peace’ is the most direct road to the attainment of inner peace. I was thinking about my step-daughter’s musical instrument, the cello. I’ve watched as she has become a talented musician. One of the basic things she had to learn, early on, was how to adjust the tension on those four strings, in order to have it sound the way she wants it to sound. Not too much tension, but enough.
We need to learn to adjust the tension in our lives; the basic lesson is to accept a degree of tension. We need to develop a tolerance for turmoil. I know it sounds contradictory, but I believe there is often an unreasonable standard for inner peace – if you compare yourself to the Dali Lama or Thich Nat Han or some master practitioner of yoga, you’ll wind up feeling disappointed in yourself, creating an inner turmoil that prevents peace of mind.
A Russian proverb says, “Most people wouldn’t be so unhappy if they didn’t have such an exaggerated idea about other people’s happiness.”
A variation for our purposes here is that ‘most people wouldn’t be so ill at ease if they didn’t have such an exaggerated idea about other people’s inner peace.’ The same can be said about other people’s ‘faith,’ or ‘spirituality.’ “You do not know what wars are going on, down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”
That doesn’t mean we should accept the high levels of inner turmoil that come with anger, fear, resentment, greed and guilt, and all the other feelings that deprive us of a good night’s rest – all the things that create havoc in our interpersonal relationships. Some anxiety is inevitable and even necessary.
With Helen Keller, I’m not as interested in the ‘peace which passeth understanding’ as I am interested in the understanding that bringeth peace.’
One thing is certain: there is a direct connection between one’s lack of inner peace and turmoil in relationships with a spouse, partner or children…there is a direct connection between the ability to attain inner peace and one’s contribution to peace in the family, neighborhood, community and world peace. ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.’
Our affirmation includes the commitment ‘to dwell together in peace.’ In order to accomplish that aspiration we need to be at peace within ourselves, individually. As a reminder of that part of our covenant, our shared aspiration, I’ll close with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s wonderful piece, Keeping Quiet: translated to English by Alastair Reid.)
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.