In light of the experience of my Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies class, I have recently decided to pursue Peace Studies as a major. Perhaps it goes without saying then that I have been deeply inspired by the class and the field of Peace Studies as a whole. You may ask then, why study peace and conflict? What topics does the field address? Peace and Conflict studies appears to be an emerging field, at least in academic settings, so admittedly, I was unclear about these things as I entered the class myself.
I’ve chosen to study peace and conflict largely from the recognition that at the core of my heart and soul exists a powerful drive to offer my life in service to making the world a more loving, conscious, sustainable, just, and equal place for us all. This is undoubtedly my life work—though what that work will look like, I cannot yet say. The study of peace and conflict provides avenues through which I can explore how to begin doing this work, and it offers tools for doing it effectively. On a more practical and general level, who couldn’t use more peace in their life? Who wouldn’t benefit from a more complete understanding of conflict?
As for the scope of Peace and Conflict Studies, I assumed that it would include things like; mediation, non-violent communication, psychology, social and cultural conditions conducive for violence, non-violent movements, activism, and approaches to looking at and working with the numerous critical issues humanity now faces.
Indeed, all of these things are included within the field of Peace Studies, however, I have come to find that the study of peace and conflict is even broader than this. In fact, it seems there is scarcely a limb extending from the tree of human knowledge that this field does not touch. The sheer ubiquity of it points to what has been one of the most compelling and profound aspects of my study of peace and conflict thus far—the recognition of our radical interconnectedness and the implications this realization has on the work of peacebuilding.
The Zen monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this interconnectedness as “Interbeing” (Barash 227), or the witnessing of the interpenetration of all life. A plate of food is a prime example of this. As has been my practice for a few years now, I pause to consider before eating, all the forces of creation that have gone into each morsel upon my plate. This means considering the sun that has shed its light on the plants, the clouds which have produced the rain, the soil from which the plant grows, the hands that picked it, and the forces which delivered it to where I was then able to take it home and place it on my plate. In this way, I can see that it is not just a plate of stir-fry before me, but a reflection—an extension of all life. So how does this apply to the work of building peace?
Joanna Macy, the author, activist and scholar writes, “What is required of us, for our survival, is an expanded sense of self-interest, where the needs of the whole, and other beings within that whole, are seen as commensurate with our own” (Planetary Perils 23). If in the plate of food I can witness the whole of life, I can begin to see that, logically, this connection is not just limited to the food, but to everything. Suddenly, my actions and ways of interacting and moving through the world take on a whole new dimension and gravity—for everything I do impacts everything. I am the other and the other is me. This is Ubuntu, an ethical code birthed in Africa, meaning, “I am because you are.”
Indeed, it appears that the salvation of our species, and any hope for lasting peace exists in the recognition of this interconnection—of Ubuntu. For how could we continue to abuse the planet as we do, how could we justify bloody wars, how could we continue to view each other from behind the thick, bleak veil of prejudice and hatred, how could we tolerate the vast inequalities between rich and poor, if we understood, as Thich Naht Hanh reminds us, “…there is no such thing as an individual” (Barash 226)?
This recognition of interconnection is not a new concept for me; in fact, in many ways it exists as the fertile ground from which many of my actions, beliefs and responses to the world grow. Interconnection has deeply informed my awareness of the fact that, as Thich Naht Hahn writes, “Every day we do things, we are things that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our lifestyle, our way of consuming, of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment that we are alive, in the present moment” (227).
With this said, through the experience of my Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies class I have begun to grapple with a strong sense that this way of being in the world, though important, is not enough. I now struggle with how to actively implement this understanding. For I feel a tremendous empathetic connection to the whole of creation. It is a bond that has stripped my heart naked and exposed it to the overwhelming suffering of the world, and my love and appreciation for the sacredness and beauty of life compels me—demands of me—to act. But I am at a woeful loss as to how.
Reading Soul of a Citizen, by Paul Roget Loeb has particularly catalyzed this line of inquiry for me. Paul writes, “We wait for when our courage and wisdom will be greatest, the issues clearest, and our supporters and allies most steadfast…” Loeb articulately expresses many of the lines of thinking and justifications I have used for my own inaction, citing what he refers to as the “perfect standard” or the idea that “before we take action on an issue, we must be convinced not only that the issue is the world's most important, but also that we have perfect knowledge of it, perfect moral consistency, and perfect eloquence with which to express our views” (8). He goes on to express that, “There is no perfect time to get involved in social causes, no ideal circumstances for voicing our convictions. Instead, each of us faces a lifelong series of imperfect moments in which we must decide what to stand for” (10).
I strongly resonate with Paul’s words, and I am presently observing the ways in which I have adopted the “perfect standard,” or the ways in which I have allowed myself to be paralyzed by my fear of imperfection or my less than saintliness. For this reason, I’m excited for the opportunity to immerse myself in some service learning opportunities—to snap myself from the malaise of idleness.
However, what also exists at the core of my inaction is that I have yet to be provided the opportunity to serve in a way that was in true alignment with the desire of my heart—with the recognition of interconnectedness. I have yet to discover this niche, and have given serious thought to the possibility that it may not even exist just yet on the planet. Perhaps then, my calling is to help create it, to manifest it, not only for myself, but for others who have a similar inchoate sense resounding in their souls as well.
This is just a portion of why I feel the study of peace and conflict is so important. I am thrilled to be engaging in this work on a deeper level and to be challenged by it, to witness myself growing as a direct result of it. I feel strongly that through this field of study I will be gaining the skills which will help me with—perhaps even introduce me to—the work I intend to devote my life to.
Finally, it has been incredibly important for me to remind myself to shift my framing of the many crises humanity now faces from an individual view to a grander, wider, more interconnected view. It is the view of deep time, the view that sees this stage in the journey of humankind as but the frightening precipice before a developmental leap. Joanna Macy writes, “we can see that our planetary crises are impelling us toward a shift in consciousness. In that sense…[they] are a gift to us” (Planetary Perils 24).
Ultimately, it is because so much suffering exists, it is because the world hangs by a delicate thread that we are drawn to such noble and kind pursuits as the study of peace and conflict. The urgency of our situation propels us forward into the exploration of completely new ways of being human and of being in relation with the earth and each other. And for that, I am inexpressibly grateful to be alive in this time and to count myself among those who are the harbingers of profound change.