(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, December 10, 2022)
Today is a good day to talk about peace, starting with Alfred Nobel.
As the story goes, when Alfred’s rich brother Ludvig died, Europe’s newspapers mistakenly thought it was Alfred. So the Swedish scientist who’d invented, among other things, dynamite, awoke one day in 1888 to read his own obituary. He looked into the proverbial mirror, examined his life and grieved that he’d always be known as an inventor of destruction as much as anything.
So he changed, and later bequeathed his fortune for what we now know as the Nobel Prizes. Given annually since 1901, every Dec. 10, Alfred Nobel’s death day, the prizes recognize valuable contributions to humankind in fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and, naturally, peace. Better-known recipients include Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Today the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be presented in Stockholm, shared between the jailed Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, the Russian human rights organization Memorial, and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties.
This bleak winter in Ukraine you’d do well to stay alive. You’d crave the type of peace that is the absence of war, when nations lay down their swords and differences to live with a measure of what was sung in that old Coca-Cola ad, a world in perfect harmony.
Humans, by and large, are strangers to this type of peace. Last century was the world’s bloodiest. It’s estimated about 150 million people died in wars. And in 3,400 years of recorded history, we’ve seen a full absence of war on earth for less than 300 years. Worthy peace prizes aside, a gambling person wouldn’t bet the family farm that tomorrow will be different.
If you’re even near a war zone, the best you might do is make peace with your maker, then take precautions. Living in Yemen during Gulf War 2, I’d wear appropriate cultural garb when leaving the house. After a terrorist murdered our friends, American medics working in a Yemeni hospital, as a safeguard I also adopted the Arab pen name “Jamil Abdul Karim,” or “Beautiful Servant of the Most Gracious One.” When in Rome do as the Romans do.
Inner peace, on the other hand, is different than the absence of war. Consider the Arabic greeting “As-salamu alaykum,”or “Peace be on you.” This is a hallowed greeting not unlike the ancient Hebrew “Shalom,” which means “Be whole and happy.” Not happy-clappy, but more in a way where you’re filled with grace and all that you need to be fully yourself, complete.
This is inner peace. It’s not about the absence of the storm, but, rather, peace inside it. It’s like resting in a water-tight ship. You’ll be tossed around, but you won’t sink as long as the ship keeps its end of the bargain. So choose your ship, so to speak, wisely. I tell my kids this. Test the spirits, even the spirit of the times, the so-called Zeitgeist.
The Germans have another helpful word, “Gemeinschaft.” This refers to togetherness and well-being for the larger community. People with inner peace tend to create Gemeinschaft.
Then there’s the Prince of Peace. Despite our human frailties and failures, or maybe because of them, there are his promises. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got this.” This is how Christ put it in different ways, over and over, when he came to heal us and show us the way. His words ring through the centuries. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.” Peace.
This too is good to know while the season of Advent, which refers to expectation and arrival, is now observed in much of the world. Expectation. Arrival. Self-reflection. But a forever peace in some future kingdom, some new heaven and earth coming down the pipe? This too is Advent’s promise.
Some days it’s impossible to fathom. Other days it’s hard to imagine how anyone could trust anything less.