The 2014 Peace Prize Forum is now history, following four days of presentation, emotion, discourse, reflection and some degree of determination. As always, the ideas examined here are stimulating, inspiring, and full of hope that our future world might be less oppressive and violent than that of our past. It’s an intense period of learning and contemplation that is, by design, as insightful as it is confounding. Many of us even differ, it seems, on how to define the concept of “peace.” In the wake of so much stimulation about the topic, I have wondered whether there is capacity for us to truly create a peaceful world (however it might be defined). While there may seem to be endless obstacles to it, one in particular stands out in my thinking: an abundance of personal space.
During the course of every Peace Prize Forum, the audience is repeatedly confronted with examples of truly saddening realities: famine, disease, war, oppression and stories of inhumanity that defy comprehension by most of us. Of course, in balance the heat of those realities is dowsed by the tales of selflessness, rescue, relief and hope generated by the souls of humanitarian workers who risk their own lives in service to others. The profiles of these heroes is the very essence of the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is from the recounting of their efforts that the Forum intends every year to “inspire peacemaking.”
And it happens. In the course of the weekend, one can feel and almost see an awakening energy in the audience, a growing sense of empowerment and determination to act in the ways that have been exemplified by the Nobel laureates and the everyday workers who labor on behalf of the disenfranchised. I could feel it within myself yesterday as I watched a film about the courageous medical people of Doctors Without Borders (a Peace Prize recipient in 1999). I felt as though I wanted to join their ranks and contribute to the brave work that they do in ministering to the wounded and the sick. And I sensed a similar emotion from others in the audience who winced at the graphic aftermath of military attacks on civilian populations, and marveled at the against-all-odds determination of the medics. At that moment in the film, I suspect that a recruiting effort by Doctors Without Borders might have garnered a room full of inspired recruits.
Why, then, are efforts to end the ravages of an unpeaceful world so unsuccessful? What is there in us, as human beings, that allows us to witness atrocities and injustices and then act in such relatively quiet ways in response? I’m sure that psychologists have many intricate answers to the question, but in my layman’s view, it has to do with personal spaces.
When drawn into the plight of others, whether in person or in story or even in film, we are transported to a space outside of ourselves. When we are momentarily confronted with circumstances that scream injustice, we allow ourselves to feel the wrong, to sense a welling up of adrenalin and the natural desire to right the wrong. We can suddenly muster the strength to help. We’re willing, in that moment, to sign up for Doctors Without Borders and to do what must be done. We are “one” with the victims, the needful, and our humanity is as palpable as our lives. We’re in a close proximity with those who are hurting, close enough to even experience some of their pain. We can feel some of what they feel. We cry with them and for them.
It’s the stuff that makes passers-by become Good Samaritans. And if we could bottle up the moment, the impact could be world-changing. But too often, something intercedes. It’s our personal space, that time and distance that we all seem to demand for ourselves to isolate us from the intrusions of others and the world. As soon as we call upon the protection of personal space, we move away from the afflicted, the suffering, those who need us, and suddenly their plight feels less urgent, less demanding of us. In fact, we can rather easily put them out of mind altogether, not because we don’t care, but because languishing in our personal space anesthetizes whatever discomforts they have shared with us. It’s easier. It’s less painful.
And though it may not represent the person I’d like to be, it’s the person I am, and that most of us are. Today, I’m less motivated to drive a Jeep into hostile territory than I was yesterday morning, because I’ve been allowed personal space to quell the emotion of the moment.
I have no remedy for this conundrum, only an observation of it. And I know from my own experiences and observations while working in Nicaragua that only when we allow ourselves- force ourselves- to get closer to the impoverished can we understand their reality and to summon the energy and resolve to actually do the work of true peacemaking. We need to be close.
And the personal spaces that we carve out for ourselves are too wide and too insulating to allow for it….