Monday, September 10, 2012

Peace in the Home

When I graduated from high school I moved to New York City and got a job and an apartment. I wanted to find somewhere to volunteer so I called the crisis centre and after talking to them for awhile, offered to take some shifts on the phone lines. This was 1970 and what I didn’t know then was that this was only one of two crisis lines in the US. There was no training – or it was on the job training, common sense and compassion. I stayed there for 2 years until one of my co-workers came to me and showed me some information about a college, run by the Quakers that sent its students to different cultures around the world to study. Now that has always been a passion of mine. I wanted to study and learn but I didn’t want to sit in a classroom and write papers and read textbooks. I had wanted to go to India since I was about 13 years old. It wanted to meet people from other cultures, religions and backgrounds and learn from them. And live with them. I was accepted into the college and that is what eventually brought me to Canada four years later. I learned a lot about myself and about people in those years. I learned that what is acceptable and part of everyday life in one culture can be taken as an insult or threat in another culture. When I went to Kenya to study I was placed in a small village where no one spoke English. And so I learned to speak Swahili from several of the villagers who took it upon themselves to be my tutors. One of the first things I learned was how to greet someone. Jambo – habari yako? Mzuri sana. Habari watoto? So I asked how are you? How are your children? How are your cows? Habari wangombe? Have the rains been good? And so on – for perhaps 5 minutes or more. And with each question the person being greeted is happier and happier to know me. After a few months, as my Swahili improved, a villager very respectfully asked me – why are white people so rude? What do you mean? They just walk up to you and say “how do you get here?” or “What time is it?”. so rude. They don’t care about you or your family or your animals. I had many experiences like this in Africa and in India and even in my four months in a little isolated valley in West Virginia – where I visited people in their homes…had electricity and all the modern conveniences but still used outhouses. And when I expressed some surprise at that, their response was: Why on earth would I want to do that in my home? How can people live like that? So learning about other cultures and how people lived and how they viewed each other and how they viewed me - made a big impact on me. And I could see the misunderstandings and the prejudice and the fear that takes root when people aren’t willing to or unable to see others as equally valued as what is familiar to them. And why? Because other people, other ways of life, or activities are unfamiliar to them. They are unknown and there is no point of connection or common ground – no relationship. It is easy to fear the unknown. We all do. To hold it away from us. To judge and criticize it. One of the things I love about spending time in India is that people love to talk and share ideas and learn from each other. Our western way of being - not taking time to talk and learn from each other is a great mystery to them. When they see how isolated we live – and how even in restaurants when people are sitting close to each other they do not speak to each other. Every encounter is an opportunity to learn something. Any topic is fair game: life, death, birth, religion, old age, war, disease, marriage…… Even standing by the side of the road, waiting to cross usually leads to a short conversation or maybe a longer one or an invitation to chai in their home or shop. These are the small things that build understanding – that create connection – that sustain community and in the long run – peace. When we feel safe and understood it is easier to be a presence of peace. When we get to know our neighbours – we don’t even have to like them! But when we know something about them, we find it easier to stay out of judgment, criticism and condemnation. Lao-tzu – 2500 years ago said: If there is to be peace in the world, There must be peace in the nations. If there is to be peace in the nations, There must be peace in the cities. If there is to be peace in the cities, There must be peace between neighbors. If there is to be peace between neighbors, There must be peace in the home. So how is your ‘peace in the home’? within you right now, right here? How can we create peace around us? We can’t………this story illustrates what our job really is. There once was a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The king looked at all the pictures. But there were only two he really liked, and he had to choose between them. One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for peaceful towering mountains all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace. The other picture had mountains, too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky, from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest - in perfect peace. The king chose the second picture and this is what he said: “Because,” explained the king, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.”