Riding the Peace Train

italian_peaceflagAs I begin to write this, I am 49-1/6th years old to the minute.  I love being this age.  I love that I have memories of being a child in the 60’s, a teenager in the 70’s, a young adult in the 80’s, a 30-something in the 90’s, and an early-middle-ager in the 2000’s (or whatever you call that unpronounceable decade).

My undergraduate degree in History left me with many gifts, among them a profound appreciation for the power of the individual to impact the course of the world throughout their lifetime, and the simultaneous influence the world has on each of our own life experience.

Maybe it’s the latent social scientist in me, but thinking back on my views of the world through these decades is a frequent pastime for me, because it helps me make better sense of my world today.

Arguably, all of our lives’ experiences and views are set on course by the simple incidence of our birth at a particular moment and in a particular place and, if we’re lucky, into a particular family.  It may be true that the placement of the stars and the planets factor in as well, but personally, I tend to reflect more on what has happened here on earth while I’ve been alive, and what I have been able to discern from all that.

Take my strong feelings about war and peace, for example.  They don’t come from nowhere (and I’ve never read Tolstoy).  It starts with this — my mother found out she was pregnant with me the week that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and I lived my first ten years with the Viet Nam War as the white noise in the soundtrack of my life.

When I was 3 or 4, I saw a man on the sidewalk outside of the Baskin Robbins parking lot. His trunk was touching the pavement because he’d lost both of his legs.  I imagine I would have looked up from my ice cream cone and asked my parents about it, and of course they would have done their best to explain to me something about this happening as a result of the war.

Their way of talking about war with me, their very young child, would naturally have been filtered not only through their own individual lenses, but also through their shared view, one that I might now call the “West Coast Liberal Jewish Democrat” perspective, that contained a set of beliefs that to this day is still, to some degree, hardwired in me.  While my parents were (and still are) far from provincial in their worldview, I was probably a college graduate before I started to seriously consider that their belief system did not necessarily match the majority’s.

The year I turned four, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed, and the military draft kicked into high gear.  I don’t remember any of this, not consciously at least.  I do, however, vividly recall singing, “We all live in a yellow submarine!” at the top of my lungs with my nursery school pals, and wishing someone would buy me one of the blow-up Beatles dolls that were swinging from the rafters in The Akron.   Ringo would have been nice.

By the time I was in elementary school, flower power was in full swing. A a child, I understood at a fundamental level that fighting was bad and peace was good – it just made sense to me – and that’s what I was taught as school too. I doodled peace signs all over my papers, and wanted McGovern to win in ‘72 because he was going to end the war (plus my parents didn’t trust Nixon — for good reason, it turned out).

“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” I would belt while drinking an icey bottle of Coke.  And I meant it.  I mean, who wouldn’t want a home furnished with love?  So many people, and I was one of them, were chanting in our own ways for peace… it just seemed like it was a logical thing to want, and the right thing.  Peace, man.

There was always a story about the war on TV.  My parents would watch the news after my brother and I went to sleep, but sometimes when I was at my friend Clare’s house for dinner, I’d catch a glimpse of Walter Cronkite saying something about the war that I couldn’t really follow. Stuff about counts of dead soldiers. Footage of helicopters flying over jungles.  Protests in Washington.

When the soldiers started coming home, we’d watch them arrive on TV.  Some of them came off the plane and hugged their kids.  Others were carried off in coffins.  I watched the planes land and must have wondered where all the flowers had gone.

I knew there were wars in other parts of the world too.  On a day off from school when I was in fourth grade, as my family was heading out to Yom Kippur services, we heard the news that the Egyptians and Syrians had launched a surprise attack on Israel.  Another war that no one I knew wanted.  More dead soldiers. More kids whose parents would die on the battlefield, fighting a never-ending fight.

Now I’ve been crying lately, thinking about the world as it is…
Why must we go on hating, why can’t we live in bliss?” ~ Cat Stevens

When I think about it, the sense that we’re farther away from peace today than when I was a child overwhelms me, but doesn’t surprise me.   The news reports talk about a million Syrian children who are now refugees as a result of that country’s civil war.  Fighting spills daily into the streets of Lebanon and from there into Israel.  Egyptians are killing each other over politics and religion.  Millions have been killed in the conflict in Afghanistan.  Somalians haven’t ceased their civil war in over 20 years. And so on, and so on. The fighting never stops. Religion and politics.  Poltiics and religion.

It’s easy to lose hope.  I’ve come to accept that some people will never stop fighting with each other.  To avoid despondence, some of us take the “think globally and act locally” tact, and we do what we can on a personal basis.  Personal development is important, building strong families and community essential. But I think we all know it’s not enough.

I know a lot of amazing activists.  They’re all looking at making the world better in one way or another – some through their work with nonprofits, others through business (social entrepreneurs, impact investors, etc.), some through sector capacity building and still others through direct action.  They haven’t given up on the ability of humans to turn this world around, and are working incredibly hard to create social and environmental change at a global scale.  And to be sure, there are certain areas where we can actually see progress.

Sometimes it strikes me, though, that all this work that all of these people are doing is, at best, a drop in the bucket.  All of this work, and still no peace.  There is no government on the planet that will lead us to it… so we have to find our way to make it happen, as individuals together working at a far greater scale.  I believe that it is each of our responsibility to work for collaboration and understanding between factions who have been fractured.

The peace movement and my West Coast Liberal Jewish Democrat roots are just two factors that have had a huge impact on who I am today, on what I believe and why I believe.

Though my rational mind might say otherwise, I’m thankful that I’m hardwired to believe that peace is possible.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go put a flower in a gun.

“All we are saying is give peace a chance.” ~ John Lennon

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