There is a solution to the difficult problem of war, but it is evolutionary. That feels bizarre to us humans, uncongenially abstract. No, we cannot grow new brains and hearts. But we can evolve how we think — and feel. We can become more responsive to what reality keeps screaming at us at the top of its lungs: a global population of seven billion and rising, along with nuclear weapons, asserts a grand limit, where the destructive potential of our sheer numbers and our weapons is bigger than the delicate natural systems that support life. Meanwhile we go on applying the hammer of war to ancient grudges that war itself will never solve, instead of expanding the spaces where it feels safe to engage each other from the heart.
When we boil them down, the great religions all offer variations of the same message: do unto others as we would want others to do to us. Don’t use violence to resolve conflict. Learn to want what we have, not have what we want. Be as good as our word, real, honest, truthful. Be present, for this moment is our taste of eternity. Be inclusive, even to the point of including the perspective of our supposed adversary, for he is a sibling from the same tiny region of a vast gene pool. Be cooperative — especially with “strangers,” because strangers are potential friends. Act as if we share responsibility for the good of the whole, because we do.
This implies both a humbling and an expansion which has seemed, up to now, impossibly difficult: the realization that being a good person involves something more fundamental and “less than” being a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Democrat, a Republican, a Shia, a Sunni. Those identifications can be supportive of our goodness, but often put us in violently dysfunctional conflict with others. So we need to know that we emerge from a common context that transcends those labels. We are the outcome of 13.85 billion years of evolution of the universe. We are just like everyone else — and we are a preciously unique expression of all that process. Our true identity is both less than the thought-forms of nationalism/religion/race/class and much more than those seemingly crucial but ultimately petty attributes.
In the record of our cultural development, there are some hints that we already get this: the native American understanding of how we are part of the great web of life; the Arab tradition of hospitality to strangers; the pan-religious perspective of the contemplative tradition that run through all religions; the insights of poets that tell us that if we could fully understand our enemy he would no longer be our enemy; even the clarifying rigor of the modern scientific method.
All of these glorious achievements point toward a potential greater glory: the end of war on this tiny planet. They help us to see reality more clearly and act upon that clarity for good of the whole. Many call this reality God, but it doesn’t matter what we label it. Life on earth is a vital, moving, ever-changing process to which we must learn to adapt and evolve, by seeing what all humans have in common: the same naked birth and death; the same hopes for each other and our children; the same suffering and the same compassion that suffering calls forth from doctors and nurses and teachers and public servants.
Does this mean that we cannot practice the rituals of our religions, rituals which give the stages of our lives order and meaning, the rhythm of initiation and work and rest and meditation? Does it mean that we are looking at a future in which there will be no more nations or religions or even separate races as we know them?
Of course not. If all sects and rituals were magically swept away, we would renew them as a comfort against the terrifying chaos of life. And there will always be differences among us, more conflict than ever, which will require the administration of boundaries and the exercise of compromise. But the conditions of life today, where all our most important problems transcend religious and national borders — climate change, feeding billions of people, finding clean water, preserving the health of the oceans and rain forests — suggest that while we may go on thinking of ourselves as Israeli, a Palestinian Gazan, Socialist, Brazilian, our primary identification must be as responsible citizens of one small planet. This amounts to no less than a deep evolutionary shift. Already it is bringing about new political structures, such as revised constitutions that give rights not only to people but also to natural systems like rivers.
The Gazans and Israelis enduring another futile round of eye-for-an-eye thinking are understandably disinclined to look upward and feel their connection to the creativity of the spiraling galaxies out of which they emerged; they are desperately focused upon day by day survival. So it is up to us living in greater security to promote — and model — the planetary expansion of identity that will make their agony obsolete.
Winslow Myers leads seminars on the challenges of personal and global change. He is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative, is a member of the Rotarian Action Group for Peace, and writes for Peacevoice.