The Enlightened Generation: A Thought Experiment for International Day of Peace
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." (Nelson Mandela)
I was invited to participate in the International Day of Peace initiative by a connection in the educational community. Having spent a few years working with an ed sector nonprofit, I know a lot of educators and have a pretty good idea of how working miracles with our children is part of their daily job description. I think my connection was expecting me to share that kind of high-energy, boots-on-the ground enthusiasm. Believe me, I would if I could. However: big, spontaneous, real-world gestures of activist creativity aren't really my style; marching upsets me; and donating money and material support is beyond my means these days. I work best in the private act of written language. It's my gift -- a gift that I've received and a gift that I can share.
A Moment of Remembrance Let me begin my thoughts with a personal observation. The day chosen for International Day of Peace, September 21, 2018, coincides with the 11th anniversary of my mother's death, and in that way points to the core of who I am and why.
My parents were both solid Roosevelt Democrats who lived through the Great Depression and contributed their own gentle skills during World War II. My father served as a stateside optometrist with the Army Medical Corps, and my mother was a government-employed translator of civilian correspondence from Europe. They disapproved of war, believed that civil rights for all people were good and necessary, and raised their children in a sheltered, supportive, kind environment. I remember my mother teaching me the importance of looking beyond appearances and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. If things weren't going well, there would always be another chance to make it right. I think she would have been bewildered and disappointed by the current state of the world. I also think she wouldn't have given up hope.
Behind the Rants and Memes Social media came along too late for my parents to engage with it, but for better and for worse, I'm a fully engaged citizen of Reality 2.0. The social media visionaries among us might still preach how this modality of instant, reactive, and global communication will connect and transform humanity. Maybe so, but in dystopian terms, social media has been showing its dark side recently. It's an all-too-easy platform for dumping a toxic overload of misapplied factoids and angry opinions into our everyday lives, and far too many of us have piled on.
The downside of friending everyone that we ever met becomes painfully obvious when we're expressing or defending the opinions and beliefs that truly matter to us in these desperate times. All at once, we're facing the reality that our far-flung cousins and long-lost high school buds might have a very different frame of reference and set of values. There's a vast spectrum of opinions out there, many of which disturb or offend us, and there are also many communication styles for expressing them: explaining, condescending, testifying, ranting, threatening, insulting. Social media plugs us into the passions, misinformation, disinformation, and thoughtless shooting from the hip that make human society so extremely messy.
My proposal for international peace begins here. Let's look at those people we've lately regretted friending in happier times. Let's ignore their posts that fill us with despair or make our blood boil. (I know that can be hard, but please indulge me.) Let's pay attention to the other stuff they're putting out into the world. When we do that, we'll see how much they love their children, their happiness as they light the candles on their grandmother's 100th birthday cake, the sunsets and landscapes that take their breath away, their dogs and cats cuddling together on the couch, the excellent music videos they're sharing. Behind the political, social, and spiritual ferment that's poisoning so much of our public discourse, we see the humanity of our adversaries. They love some of the same things that we love.
Now pull your eyes away from your screen, pull back your view, and look across the natural boundaries of forests and deserts and oceans, across the artificial boundaries of state lines and national borders. Can you, for just a moment, see the humanity of the 7.5 billion other people with whom you share the world? Forget about the shape of their eyes and nose, the pigmentation of their skin, the clothes they're wearing, the language they're speaking, how they define their spiritual state, who makes their rules for them. Look at people who, just like you, love their families, savor the comfort of their homes, greet their neighbors when they step out their door, look with wonder at the natural world around them, enjoy the food, music, and other sensual pleasures that are familiar to them, and crave the security of a safe, satisfying life. Recognizing this moment, honoring it, knowing how to reclaim it when we lose sight of it, letting it inform the choices we make -- that's what the seed of international peace looks like.
A Human-Positive Curriculum So that's the idea: on one hand simple and obvious, on the other hand a massive undertaking if we hope to do anything with it. How do we find the talking points to begin the discussion?
It has to begin with acknowledging what we all have in common, with understanding that the same things are important to all of us. In a perfect world with an indefinite timeline, the conversation would start with teaching children. Nelson Mandela said, "No one is born hating another person." Our children haven't been here as long as the rest of us, and they have fewer layers of fear, indoctrination, and distrust to peel away. While this shift in thinking would ideally come from their parents, the most logical agents of change would be their teachers. A curriculum of human-positive information and tolerant values -- and let's assume, for one glorious suspension of disbelief, that the narrow-minded people of the world won't shut it down -- would prepare an entire global generation of good neighbors, enlightened parents, inspired teachers, motivated citizens, and future forward leaders. One generation of positive change would have the impact to set the world on a more peaceful, caring path.
Of course, this enlightened generation would have to keep it going, raising their own children while also keeping their less enlightened elders from unraveling this fragile experiment. It might be easier than it sounds to the cynics among us. I believe that most people, when approached with trust and respect, can be reasonable. Most people truly want to live their lives free of stress and fear. The troublemakers out there are probably a much smaller percentage than most of us think, and that number will likely shrink when people stop listening to them or at least start taking them less seriously.
Utopia or...? Sure, all of this is wildly utopian. And even though someone has always been preaching love somewhere in the world since the dawn of human civilization, look at where we are now. But on this International Day of Peace, let's dare to think utopian thoughts. Most of you are more practical thinkers than I am. Many of you are hooked up with powerful resources, or at least you know where to find them. You can do your part to help raise this much-needed generation of open-minded, loving children. And even if you never get any farther than recognizing the common humanity shared by people who disagree -- and recognizing it during a moment of disagreement -- that's a start. That's where peace begins.