Becoming an Instrument of Peace

To walk a path of peace in a country that is deeply involved in war brings us to our growing edge. We are aware of the contradictions within our leadership, within our community, and within ourselves. Out of this press of competing ideas we have the opportunity to achieve new levels of personal development as we explore our commitment to becoming an instrument of peace.

My own experience with war has advised my approach to the present situation. I offer an account of this experience because the deep issues of war that stimulated my inquiry are the same in every conflict.

The war in Bosnia, in the early 1990s, touched my heart deeply. I watched in helplessness as the genocide progressed. I wanted to help and did not know how. A few years later, after my husband died and I was exploring a new phase of my life, I read an article about a Quaker group, The Community of Bosnia, that was bringing Bosnian young people to this country for high school and college education because the higher education system in Bosnia was in disarray. This felt like my opportunity not only to help some Bosnian people who had suffered great losses in the war, but also to help provide them with the kind of education that would give them the resources to rebuild Bosnia on a foundation of the toleration of diversity.

Thus began my involvement with a half-dozen young people from the countries in the Balkans that were created from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. As I got to know these students, they urged me to visit their families during the summer, when they would be at home to translate for me.

In the spring of 2002, I received an announcement of a peace conference to be held in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in June. It was sponsored jointly by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, of which I have long been a member, and Praxis Peace, whose founder, Georgia Kelly, has roots in the Balkans. I felt called to go to the conference. Once there, it would be simple to travel up into Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit my young friends and their families. One of my daughters chose to accompany me.

I had anticipated that the journey would be emotionally difficult. My spiritual discipline was to keep my heart open through all of my experiences, knowing that if I were to close my heart, I would lose my ability to be a healing presence. The Mahabharata tells us, "If your heart closes up, if it becomes bitter, dark, or dry, the Light will be lost." Some Friends from Gwynedd Meeting held me in prayer during my trip.

The journey shocked me with the reality of the devastation of war — to the people and to the land. And it deepened my inquiry into the nature of peace and what we can do to foster it. When I returned, I wrote some vignettes to capture a few of my experiences:

The Embroiderer

A conference about peace-building brought us to Croatia. It was a fitting site for the conference, for the former Yugoslavia had been torn by civil wars ten years before. Driving from the airport to our hotel, we could see the shells of houses that had been destroyed by soldiers firing from the high mountains that overhang the little seaport. Some houses had been rebuilt while some remained abandoned. There were a startling number of new roofs attesting to the extent of the damage to the community.

The next morning, four of us from the United States were walking along the seawall of Cavtat. We passed a woman sitting on the wall, doing the vivid red embroidery that is a signature of the Konavle region. She had her wares spread out on the rock wall: placemats, napkins, purses, all enhanced with dense, geometric embroidery. One of my companions stopped and bought a purse, pointing to the one she wanted and miming for the woman to write down the price. The woman began talking to us in Croatian even though the transaction was completed without the need for words. She picked up one piece of embroidery after another, showing us her work with great pride. We smiled and nodded our appreciation, repeating one of our few Croatian words—Dobro! Good!

As the woman continued to talk to us in Croatian, she began to look at us more earnestly, and her face changed from pleasure to sadness. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She held up three fingers with emphasis. When we looked puzzled, she pointed to the high mountain ridge above the little town. "Boom! Boom-boom!" she said. Then as she continued to talk, she pointed to a cluster of houses in the village, and again held up three fingers, with tears. We understood. The war had cost her three family members—perhaps even three children. We stood in silent compassion, witnessing the still-open wound in her heart.

The Soldier’s Tale

The mother and the two children fled the fighting in Sarajevo while the father stayed behind with the other men to fight. After more than a year of living outside the war zone, with the city newly secured by international peacekeepers, it felt safe for them to return to their home in the city.

But the father would not return to live with his family. He gave no reason. But his body spoke what his tongue could not: he looked like a wooden copy of his former self—not from bombs or bullets, but from his experiences. He chose to live and work in another part of the city. He stayed in some contact with his children, and saw them on rare occasions, while his gentle wife faced her future with puzzled eyes.

His behavior reminded me of a Vietnam veteran I had met more than 30 years after he saw action in the war. "I was a kid—18 years old. They told me the North Vietnamese were not human, they were gooks, and they would kill me if I didn’t kill them first.

"On my first patrol, we went out in the morning and didn’t see any signs of the enemy. After a couple of hours, we sat down along the road in the shade for a rest. I was sitting there when the leaves beside me parted, and a golden face smiled at me and said, ‘Hi!’ The next thing I knew, I was standing up and my service revolver was discharged in my hand and a small golden man lay dead at my feet. My sergeant walked up to me, put a cigarette in my mouth, and said, ‘You did a good job.’

"I have carried ‘Hi’ with me ever since. I can’t get close to people because I know what I’m capable of. I’m a toxic person, and I don’t want to pollute other people, especially women and children."

From events such as these, I experienced how war ravages lives—those who die, those who suffered losses in the fighting, and those who had inflicted the losses. Never again could I consider war as something remote. Years of pictures and text became connected with real people grieving the loss of the lives they used to live, real houses with no roof but with a tree growing in the rubble inside, real cities with bombed-out buildings side-by-side with new construction and sapling trees lined up hopefully along new sidewalks.

And yet, ten years after the end of the fighting in the Balkans, the wounds of the people are still open and bleeding. Many houses have been rebuilt, but many lives have not. Old hatreds have been fed by more recent hatreds, with the apparent result that if the peacekeeping troops left today, there would be bloodshed by tomorrow.

A woman in Mostar told me, "I can never forgive them for killing my husband." She held onto her grievance in an unhealthful attempt to be loyal to the memory of her beloved husband and because it seemed as if forgiving meant agreeing that the killing of her husband was acceptable human behavior. But she did not understand the cost of her non-forgiveness, both to herself and to her society.

The cost to herself was the armoring that I sensed around her heart. It was blocking the expression of the full range of her ability to love. She was perpetuating the fiction that there are two groups of people, we who are acceptable, and they who are not. And she was expressing this attitude to her children and grandchildren. Her attitude was blocking her awareness of the oneness of all human beings. That armoring was also blocking her spiritual development, because at some level she could not forgive God, as she understood God, for allowing such atrocities to happen. And with her attitude of non-forgiveness, she was unable to participate in the rebuilding of her multicultural city and country in a way that would be respectful of diversity.

Those of us who followed the news stories about the origin of the Balkan Wars and the difficulty of crafting the Dayton Accords that ended the fighting are aware of the centuries of grudges that the peoples of this crossroads region hold against each other. When I experienced this woman’s unwillingness to forgive what had happened ten years before, and the embroiderer’s unwillingness to move beyond her losses, I was witnessing the present-day examples of the dynamic that was blocking the establishment of peace and harmony in the Balkans. It was the assumption that "If only we can get rid of those people (which were different for each cultural and religious group within the former Yugoslavia), then we will all be safe and happy." Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel laureate, addresses this common assumption:

If only it were so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were simply necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who among us are willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?

The soldiers who are unwilling to forgive themselves, and who have withdrawn from society, are likewise stuck in an unhealthful response to the complexities of life. They are, in fact, the ones who are willing to destroy a piece of their own hearts, and we all—not only their families—suffer from their self-imprisonment. Can we approach them and offer loving encouragement to forgive themselves, to grow from their experiences so that they can rejoin society as people who have returned from hell and can warn us of
its horrors?

The Balkan war hurt all but a handful of people whose own agendas profited from the chaos. It destroyed the Balkan people’s trust in human nature. It is easy to see how the same dynamics are occurring in the present wars overseas. But not all wars are so easy to identify.

Song of The dove

It was odd that I had to travel to the Balkans to meet the two brothers from the United States. It was in Dubrovnik, where 300 of us from the United States had gathered for a deep inquiry into peace.

On the second day of the conference the young peace activists made a presentation. The Balkan young people went first, representatives from each of the many cultures in that crossroads region between Europe and Asia Minor. They told of growing up in a multicultural society, and how the hostilities among cultures expanded into years of wars that killed hundreds of thousands, displaced many more, and resulted in the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia into a cluster of new nations that have, for the past few years, existed together in an uneasy truce maintained by international peacekeepers.

When they had finished telling their stories of the horrors they endured, it was the turn of the U.S. young people. Aqeela Sherrills stepped up to the mike. "Unlike my new friends from the Balkans, I cannot remember a time when my community was not at war. I grew up in Watts – a ghetto in Los Angeles. My housing project had four buildings: guys who grew up in two of those buildings joined one gang, and guys from the other two buildings joined the other gang. And we killed each other. After a hundred of my friends had been killed, I realized, ‘We need a peace treaty.’ So I went door-to-door, and people joined me and helped me, and we have had a peace treaty for the past ten years."

Aqeela’s brother, Doude, was in my breakout group. He talked about his involvement in keeping peace in Watts. "There was this guy came in one day. He had been in jail when we made the peace treaty. When he got out of jail, he came into our headquarters and he started saying, ‘I gotta get me a gun and kill them guys.’ ‘Hey, man, we don’t do that any more. We got a peace treaty,’ we told him. ‘I don’t care about no peace treaty; I gotta get me a gun!’ he said. So we gave him love. And he settled down, because that was all he needed."

It is clear that the issues of international war have their parallels in local conflicts, such as that in Watts and those in every U.S. city. They also have parallels on a personal level whenever there are wars in a workplace or in a family. Someone who has been abused as a child or betrayed as an adult experiences the same psychodynamics as the victims of war. And our commitment to being instruments of peace must apply to all levels of conflict, beginning with ourselves. Sometimes it is tempting to neglect the war within ourselves or in our families and devote ourselves to the international conflict. But, if we do so, the quality of our service will be tainted. Healing our lives must be our first priority, before we reach out to become a healing presence in the world.

In order to heal, people need to tell their stories and know that they are heard, to grieve their losses, and then to move toward forgiveness. This is asked of every individual in order to build a tolerant and peaceful family, community, and world. It requires growing to a level of development that recognizes that, because we acknowledge that there is that of God in every human being, we include all human beings within our care as our own family. This attitude is fundamental to our becoming an instrument of peace.

Without forgiveness, there cannot be peace. There might be absence of overt conflict, as in the Balkans at present, but there will not be true peace. Forgiveness of someone who has wronged us is very difficult. Forgiving ourselves for our own transgressions is even more difficult. Forgiving life—for being what it is—is perhaps the most difficult of all. The first hurdle in practicing forgiveness is to understand that forgiving people does not mean that we approve of all of their behavior. It does mean that we acknowledge our shared humanity and the difficulty of the human journey. It allows us to act from love rather than from fear or negativity.

As I inquired more deeply into the essence of forgiveness, I came to realize that for me it means opening my heart to all people and to all of life. In particular, it means keeping my heart open to what I do not like in myself, in others, and in life. When my heart is armored, I cannot hear the leadings of Spirit. When I close my heart to any part of life, the voice of Spirit is blocked by my inner chatter about how I am right and they are wrong. My self-righteousness has the poisonous high of an addiction: I like it and I know that I have to root it out of my life. Over and over and over.

One of the most painful realities we are facing at present is our fear of terrorists. I am grateful to a client who showed me how to put a human face on terrorism:

The rose on the tracks

She had grown up in a family that offered her the basic necessities but no nurturance and only a vague sort of love. She married a man with a similarly deprived background. Although she lived a comfortable life and she worked in a field for which she had real talent, she consulted me because her life felt empty.

We talked for months about the people and events in her life, but nothing seemed to make a difference. She always had reasons for not making the changes in her life that would bring in more vitality. The result was that she continued to feel empty.

One day, she told me, "I was taking the train home from work and I saw a rose lying on the tracks." She was silent for a minute. We both contemplated the image. Then she changed the subject.

A few weeks later, she casually made reference to the rose on the tracks. I said, "That is a powerful image, and it clearly has a lot of meaning for you." She did not reply, so I ventured, "Who do you think might have thrown the rose on the tracks?"

"Oh, that’s obvious," she said with animation. "It was the terrorist!" The woman sitting across from me became a lioness awakening, someone I had never met before.

Mesmerized by her transformation, I repeated, "The terrorist?"

"Yes, the part of me that is so hurt and angry that I would join any cause and blow myself up and blow up anybody else because my life doesn’t matter anyway!"

Within myself I said, "Ohmygosh," for never before had I understood the mind of the terrorist. And never would I have suspected that a terrorist lurked within such a mousy human being. But now I knew how to proceed in therapy: moving past the hurt and the anger into the empty heart that cried out so fiercely to be loved.

Once we are committed to the practice of opening our hearts to terrorists and to war and to all of life, it is easier to attune ourselves to divine guidance that will allow us to become instruments of peace, which includes taking action that will make war and terrorists less common, and life more beautiful. But even when we are not taking action we are a peaceful presence that can bring out the best in those with whom we interact.

It is helpful to undertake the classic Quaker practice of sitting in meditation every day. Research has now demonstrated what spiritual teachers have always told us: that regular daily meditation will significantly increase a person’s level of psychospiritual development. By focusing our intention, we can move beyond the chatter of the mind by centering our awareness in the silence of our hearts. When I have difficulty in moving the center of my consciousness from my head to my heart, I find it useful to say inwardly, "I will see the world through the eyes of my heart." Within that inner quiet, we are better able to discern the leading of God.

When St. Francis prayed, "Oh Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace," he was moving beyond his own judgment about what needed to be done and allowing Spirit within himself to direct his actions. As we contemplate the distinction between doing good deeds for peace and being an instrument of peace, we realize that the difference lies in who—or Who—is directing our actions.

Actions arising from an open heart, centered in the Divine, have a power and wisdom that we admire in the actions of the early Friends and that we sorely need today.

Anne C. Highland

Anne C. Highland is a clinical psychologist; her private practice centers on the interface between psychology and spirituality. She attends Gwynedd (Pa.) Meeting.