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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

On the Pursuit of Peace

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.
      -- Jer 6:14

What does it mean to “find peace”?

Many are content to eke out moments of bliss and repose from the daily grind when they can, finding it enough to laugh with their children over silly cartoons, to share a meal with their clan every Christmas and Thanksgiving, to take the occasional moonlit walk with a spouse or alone, to read a book of poetry in a spare hour. Though they know it not, they are saying with Walt Whitman in their hearts, ““I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough, / To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough, / To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing laughing flesh is enough.”

Others have set themselves more purposefully on the path to personal peace. There is a store in downtown Vancouver called Banyen Books which is full of self-help guides by gurus willing to give out the universal answer for $25.99. The store is still in business – there must be people who read them. I do not have any idea what the “success rates” are with these guides, or even if success in these cases are a good thing. Perhaps all we can say here is, at least these people have thematized the quest somehow.

Then there are the gurus themselves. These seem to be people who have managed to find some level of detachment from the flux of history and appear at rest, indeed exude restfulness. Just listen to Eckhart Tolle talk – it comes out of his pours. Especially in times of political turbulence and unpredictability (most of history…), these questing spirits emerge to seek peace in transcendence. Such, for example, were the Stoics, who believed that the only available salvation must exist in what can be controlled, the emotions. In a self-induced ataraxia these figures nourished a level-headed desire to depart history and take refuge within the (apparently) only safe zone of inner indifference. This does not characterize all religious or non-religious “paths to peace,” but it suggests at least a common theme: a separation of self and world.

A person does not have to find themselves in any one of these positions, and most likely will not give much credence to the typology. There are about 100 other places one might be in relation to the age old quest for peace, including a complete indifference towards it. The question of peace and contentment often appears in the culture, if at all, only as a distant pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – hardly ever is the quest actually considered. Thus the question of whether or not it is an “ethical” quest is so far from even being posed that we cannot consider it sensibly. Neither can we consider the question of what sort of peace is in fact possible in our world when the quest is neglected, for the force of the question is lost in advance – like a salesman asking you how much of his product you want to purchase when you are not even convinced you need the product at all.

Nonetheless, I am compelled to do so, since I not only think of the quest for peace as a profoundly ethical quest (a la St. Seraphim: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved”), but as a kind of silent, unnoticed imperative upon the restlessness of the culture I find myself in.

I begin, then, by asserting against the gurus and Stoics and New Age crystal shops and Eckhart Tolle and some psychotherapists and all the Buddhist rip-offs out there, my belief that real personal peace, as it is imagined by such folks, is impossible. Not psychologically impossible, but impossible in reality. I say this because, obviously, though we can for instance measure a decrease in stress hormones in meditation, the point is that stress hormones are not the whole of reality. As a Christian I contest that in reality there are, in fact, no safe zones, nothing to retreat into. We live in world without corners. We cannot even hide within – especially not within. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “there is no place to which the Christian can withdraw from the world” (Ethics 198).

The essential problem that cannot be solved by retreats into self, the “true reality” according to many contemporary metaphysics, is that this very act takes place within and is made possible by a larger reality – for, unfortunately, this is a reality so complex and ambiguous that it even allows people do deny its reality, subordinate it to the self, or equate it with the self! Rest that relies on this reductionist move cannot be true rest, only illusory rest, experienced as the experience of the narrowing of experience, known as the knowing of knowing less of reality. This is what no quest for personal peace that involves some religious rigmarole of “calming the nerves” can get around (and this is why it cannot be interpreted as a kind of ultimate salvation) – essentially, such peace is the very act of ignoring, albeit a forced, "skillful" ignoring. There can be no accounting, in this act, for the fact that suffering happens outside the act, for the nature of this act is the very turning away from that horrible, disturbing reality. This is connected with the old dilemma inherent to any kind of Gnosticism (a religious system built around a secret, saving knowledge): with every and any piece of saving knowledge there is, like its shadow, the deeper damning problem that not everyone knows it. This fact no knowledge can save, nor indeed anything isolated within the individual. Only the salvation of others through this knowledge can “save the salvation.” So too, any practice of the pursuit of peace that implicitly or explicitly regards the personal experience of peace as ultimate and saving is met with this paradox. Only the peace of others can bring peace to the peace of the self, and if this does not happen that peace is a sham built on contradiction.

Such are my qualms against any rigorously individualistic paths to peace, or paths to peace that do not involve the whole of reality, in fact. Such insular peace is an illusory peace, a tent set up in a wilderness of scent-searching predators. It is a peace that is constructed “top down,” presupposing some likely unexpressed structure to the universe the knowledge of which can be used to personal advantage. The more this implicit ordering of reality is taken with confidence, the more the peace-seeker undergoes the narrowing of his vision which is the activity of his peace-making – just as the camper deceives himself by erecting the tent, thinking in his actions that he has “conquered” the wilderness, when in fact the only way to conquer the wilderness is to conquer it.

Is there not some humbler, “bottom up” approach to personal peace out there, for those of us who take it as a given that, because the world is fallen, there can be no true, ultimate joy here? “Peace here and now, whether the peace shared by all men or our own special possession, is such that it affords,” Augustine says, only “a solace for our wretchedness rather than the joy of blessedness” (City of God XIX. 27). How is it, then, possible to take seriously any quest for peace, knowing in advance that no peace is “ultimate” or “final”?

I see the alternative as the pursuit of an analogy of peace. Here and now, in the utmost hope and the utmost realism, our peace can only be the pursuit of peace – and I mean this in the very literal sense that this peace is the very pursuit. It must be so if it is to operate under the knowledge of the final limitation: there is no true joy unless it is universal joy. Knowing this, our peace, personally and communally, must consist in the fight against non-peace: injustice, suffering, indifference, confusion, envy, or just plain mediocrity and foolishness.

This is a difficult paradigm shift. It means, among other things, that peace as it manifests in the here and now might not always feel like peace. As Karl Barth has said, in this fallen state “we can see the stick dipped in water only as a broken stick. But though we cannot see it, it is invisibly and yet in truth a completely unbroken stick” (I/1 243). It can be no other way in a world so far from its ideal, and in fact this discrepancy – peace not always feeling like peace – indicates that our pursuit of peace is on the right track. If we instead simply worked on seeing the stick as unbroken, we would be practicing a denial of reality by bending our vision instead of attending to the way things are: the stick is halfway in the water and must be pulled out to be seen in its truth, i.e., as straight.

Therefore we must not imagine “peace” by conjuring images of meditating Buddhist monks. Meditation may be a part of the pattern of life of the peace-seeker, used, as it were, as a well-spring of hope and strength, but never regarded as the “real thing,” the object of the quest. We are not at peace until all of us are at peace. It is a step in the path of peace to realize this, and therefore insofar as meditative or other calming techniques make this fact unreal, satisfying us in the feeling of peace, they are part of the non-peace we must struggle against.

For this reason the true search for peace ought not to follow any metaphors of escape or inwardness. It is not a man being heli-lifted out of turbulent waters. Rather, it must follow a metaphor of rightly-directed movement, so that the man, still in the water, has begun to swim, dodging flotsam, ducking waves, aiming his strokes, finding his path by the stars. This change of imagery expresses the relationship between the peace-seeker and her world, which amounts to this: true peace cannot be had if we make ourselves incongruous with the world. I have expressed my opinion on finding peace in blindness, in the act of ignoring – setting up tents in the wilderness. I am negative towards this path because I cannot believe that true peace is not also caught up in the search for truth and coherence, which for me is part of the same search. One must want to be at peace in reality, not outside it, and this involves having a sense for what reality is. A true search for peace is exactly that, true, and accordingly does not dump overboard any element of reality to get going faster. 

Inevitably it is left with a very messy whole. But it is in this mess that one must search for peace, and – here is the point – not peace as some object within the mess but as the calming of the mess itself. To repeat, it is in this world that we search for peace, so how could we therefore achieve peace by making ourselves incongruous with it? But this does not mean we ought therefore to mirror the mess by making ourselves a mess too, thus finding our rest by so perfectly mimicking chaos that we merge with it, erasing those differences that rub against each other. This “going with the flow” cannot lead to anything but an even greater disaster. The very opposite is required – we are already part of the mess, and so unless we make the mess not a mess, we will never cease being all tossed up with it! My salvation is bound up with every person and thing. This is only a description of reality, a reality that exists in moments of empathy – though one cannot make it any less real by removing empathy.

So this is my conclusion: our peace is more immense a task than is peaceful to think upon. But unless we come to grips with this, we won’t have peace at all.

Even though such peace cannot be strictly arrived at in any individual life, it can in another sense be constantly enacted, so that it possess an already/not yet, dipolar structure. We can, therefore, find peace in the very pursuit of it, knowing that it involves the whole world. There must be a kind of impudent relaxation that occurs when we become truly convicted that it is not possible to have perfect peace. The awareness that one’s discontent involves all of reality, rather than just one’s personal insecurities, dopamine levels, relationships, financial hardships, etc., points us to truth, and, therefore, knowing we face the right direction, we may gain confidence and contentment in the hard journey.

If thought with delicacy and with a double-vision that does not exclude goodness, joy and, yes, experienced peace,  it is not wrong to think that “everything is wrong,” that “wrongness” is a part of everything – just as it is not improper to call a broken toy broken. But the point becomes to see it fixed. From one perspective, incomprehensible to the Stoics and their look-alikes, our being in the world is like this: there is a problem in front of you, some complex mathematical equation, or perhaps just a leaky faucet, and it vexes you. Is your desire to be free of vexation so strong that you run and hide from the problem? Obviously not. The greater your desire to see it solves, the more intensely will you look at it. You attempt to solve it, because you know the vexation is not in you but in the problem. It is external and as such can only be resolved externally.

If I were to attempt to describe this sort of pursuit of peace (rather, the analogy of peace) I would find it too manifold in the forms it takes with each individual. It might look like the making of hard though ultimately restorative policies in some governmental office; it might look like the tending and sharing of gardens; it might look like the mediator's diligent and patient use of kindness and compassion; it might even look like meditation. The only thing binding these actions together, actions which might occur under any telos besides that of universal peace, is that telos. This pursuit of peace, however it looks, is therefore always the very peace found in making strong choices oriented to the widest good imaginable. It is not a peace of isolation from the world, one that simply manifests in “relaxedness.” The making of strong choices and the alleviation of ills must become this relaxation. But it does not work without hope, the cosmic vision of wholeness, and the telos of true peace: shalom.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. "There is no joy unless it is a universal joy."

    This is absolutely wonderful. The solution to the pain and confusion and despair of the modern world isn't a withdrawal from, but an enmeshing into, that very wold.

    Superlative, well done.