Personal peace, public engagement

Last August I helped staff a booth for Peace House during the annual Peace Village at Jackson Wellsprings. At the booth we had literature describing our various programs to promote nonviolence and economic and social justice. I spent considerable time there over the course of that weekend.

The experience did not fulfill my expectations. On that occasion, at least, few of the attendees were interested in public peacemaking.

Let me stipulate from the outset that one cannot be a highly effective advocate for peace in the public forum if one hasn't done the difficult work of resolving internal conflicts. Both as individual peacemakers and as peace organizations, we must model the world we are seeking to bring into being. Especially when I was in my 20s and 30s, my work was much less effective than it could have been because I had not properly addressed the violence I carried within me. Nevertheless, although we fall short, those of us doing public advocacy understand this imperative.

So when Peace House offers nonviolence training, a portion of the curriculum is always devoted to self-scrutiny and the need for "inner work." But our trainings are not solely about inner peacemaking. They are also about using the peace we have achieved personally to transform the world in which we live.

But I believe the relationship between inner and outer is even more complicated than that. I suggest that developing inner peace and promoting outer peace are intertwined achievements. Just as the inner work is needed to be genuinely effective in the public work, so the public work is needed to develop an inner peace that is not so fragile that it must protect itself from accepting responsibility for the immense suffering all around us.

Even more fundamental is what happens to the brain chemistry of young children who grow up in violent conditions. The research on this subject is summarized in a readily available booklet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in 2008 titled "The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan."

Its basic assertion is, "Toxic stress results from intense adverse experiences that may be sustained over a long period of time — weeks, months or even years. An example of toxic stress is child maltreatment, which includes abuse and neglect. Children are unable to effectively manage this type of stress by themselves. As a result, the stress response system gets activated for a prolonged amount of time. This can lead to permanent changes in the development of the brain." It goes on to say, "The negative effects of toxic stress can be lessened with the support of caring adults. Appropriate support and intervention can help in returning the stress response system back to its normal baseline." That last finding is a call to activism.

We cannot take comfort in the fact that a small percentage of people achieve inner peace despite the terrible conditions in which they grow up. Our personal as well as collective obligation is to create conditions in which success is the norm, not the exception.

The organizers of Peace Village gave me a slot in its program of speakers. I addressed a sparse gathering in the Casbah on Saturday afternoon. What I focused on was human suffering, and the challenge of human suffering to peace. It was Siddhartha Gautama's starting point and Jesus' as well. And the question I posed was whether the quest for inner peace is to be understood as a flight from the overwhelming fact of human suffering, or as a transformative embrace of it.

If you have read this far, you know how I think we should answer that question.

Herbert Rothschild Jr., a retired professor, lives in Phoenix, teaches at Ollie and is currently the chair of Peace House, Send 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of Inner Peace to

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