The Meaning of Peace

"If you could have one thing, what would it be?" The classic answer to this question, of course, is world peace. When I ask people what world peace means to them, I rarely get a coherent answer. When I do, they generally express the same sentiment: "Where everyone is happy and no fighting is taking place." Yet a dream scenario such as this can never truly exist, even in a utopia. This impossibility leaves me wondering whether peace is just an unattainable goal, or something different, more personal, and more possible.

A dictionary defines peace as a state of existence with an absence of conflict. Again, the unattainable goal of "peace" is the basis of this definition. Dictionaries, although they print a strict definition, cannot take into account all the different connotations of a word.

Dictionaries also cannot begin to explore what a word means to different people based on their experiences. I once knew someone who worked as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. He told me that his job description included disabling people who tried to disturb the "peace." He commented on how ironic this was, as he, by disabling people, was not actually being peaceful himself. He said that he had to break the peace in order to keep the peace. His definition of peace was one of organizations, religions, or groups of people that did not physically fight or hurt each other. My mother and father share a definition of peace. They believe that peace means the absence of conflict. My mother, however, went on to say that peace is not the unattainable goal I thought it was, but a rallying point, a place of agreement, something that unites rather than divides. The use of "peace" as a goal commonly strived for can bring together people from all walks of life in support of peace. Peace, then, leads to peace.

To me, peace is much more personal than anything I have yet described. Peace is the simple things in life. Peace is eating supper with my family, watching television with a cat on my lap, and lying in bed at night without the fear that seems to seep into one’s conscience with the darkening sky. There has only been one time in my life when I have felt more at peace than the basic, simple forms of peace that I just described and that everyone can easily experience. This is a kind of peace that may only be felt once in life, or several times to a lucky few. For me, this sublime experience occurred when I was 13. I was on a trip I had taken three times before with my small school, a trip to Earthshine Mountain Lodge in the mountains of North Carolina. The only reason this year’s trip was any different was because I knew in the back of my mind that I would probably never travel there again. It is still the only time in my life that I have tried to enjoy something that I knew I would probably enjoy anyway. The defining moment of that trip came on the last night I spent there. All 50 of us scaled the large, grassy hillside outside the lodge where a fire was waiting. It was freezing cold that night, but as I climbed the hill, I felt the glow of warmth and happiness coming from inside myself. After stories, marshmallows, and songs, I lay back as we sat in silence to look at the stars. It was as clear a night as I have ever seen; and since we were in the mountains, there were no city lights to obstruct the sky. Just lying there on the cool ground, staring up at the vast emptiness of space, with the warmth from the fire wafting over me, I was more at peace with myself and the rest of the world than I had ever been before.

As a Quaker, peace is the crux of my religious community. Quakers worship in silence, believing that provides an opening for God to speak directly to them. Quakers follow a unique principle called the Quaker Peace Testimony:

We are called to live "in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars." Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the spirit of war. Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence; yet always remember that they too are children of God.

—Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 1999.

As a Quaker, I believe in nonviolence as a principle, and believe that there is a peaceful way to resolve every conflict. In this case, peace is the ability and power to resolve conflicts without actually resorting to physical fighting and killing. The Quaker Peace Testimony, while outlining the ways we can live a peaceful life, never really defines what peace is. When I asked elders of my meeting what peace is, I received many examples: "living in harmony with nature," "respecting your fellow humans," and obviously, "not fighting," were common responses. Again, a complete definition was not offered. One interesting response I got was, "I don’t know, but that’s what I think about in silence at meeting."

The state of peace and its definition may exist as unattainable goals. Peace can be an ironic term, something used by governments to cover up what is actually happening. But the simple utterance of "peace" can unite worlds. Peace can be personal, a feeling that one can only really know once one has experienced it. Lastly, peace may just be an idea, without a true definition. The word "peace" is used at some time or another to describe all of these feelings, ideas, and thoughts. Peace appeals to me most when it is used personally. Maybe other ideas of peace stem from the personal feeling of peace. If people are at peace with themselves, it is easier to be at peace with the rest of the world. After that, the other parts of peace just fall into place.

Kelly Schoolmeester

Kelly Schoolmeester, a high school junior, attends Columbia (S.C.) Meeting. He is a volunteer with the Carolina Peace Resource Center. He is a graduate of New Garden Friends School in Greensboro, N. C.