I was in a classroom in Bethesda, Maryland talking to high school students in a Peace Education class.
Their teacher, who is a remarkable human being, had invited me to speak about my work for the Peace Corps, but our discussions that day were wide-ranging. The class was a mixture of juniors and seniors from varying backgrounds. Some were born here in the US; a few had parents who were former Peace Corps volunteers. Others immigrated to the States with their families – many of them from war-torn regions of the world. As you can imagine, “war” and “peace” were not esoteric concepts or abstract notions to them, but rather a very real part of their personal histories.
One young man was from Peru. He spoke about the sadness and frustration he and his family felt about terrorist groups who were gaining strength and establishing footholds in his country of birth. He asked, “What can we do about it? What can I, as one person, do to make a difference and to help make peace happen in the world?”
Certainly, that’s a question many of us have asked. We see the conflicts in the world or in our communities and we feel helpless in the face of overwhelming death and destruction. When will it ever end? And what, if anything, can we do to stop it?
I told the young man that if you want to help improve the situation in (fill in the crime-ridden, violence-laden, or war-torn location of your choice), then begin by being nice to the person next to you. Peace starts at home on an individual and person-to-person level. It starts with our own choice whether or not to contribute to the chain of negativity that circles the planet. We can decide to be a part of it. Or we can decide to break the chain and refuse to propagate its force any further.
For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic and you respond with anger or hatred, you carry that with you. You go into the supermarket and say something nasty to the clerk. She goes home and yells at her son. He goes to bed miserable, and the next day, he gets into a fight at school. That’s a negative chain. Conversely, if you consciously decide not to react with anger in traffic, then you may end up complimenting the clerk, she goes home and hugs her son, he doesn’t get into a fight, and … well, you get the picture.
The young man from Peru thanked me for my answer, but I could tell he wanted more. And I understand that. It sounds simplistic. Telling someone to “be nice to people,” as a way to counteract terrorism and despicable acts of violence and war sounds hopelessly inadequate and naïve. Surely, his reaction was similar to that of the apostles (and to millions since then) when Jesus said, “Love your enemies” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The natural human response is, “That’s it? That’s all there is to it?” Although it may sound easy, we all know that it’s hard to be positive on a consistent and daily basis – to generate and sustain that positive energy force in the face of overwhelming negativity. It’s exceedingly hard. But with consistent effort and with enough momentum, propagating a positive energy chain gets easier and easier.
It all comes down to the laws of physics. A positive energy chain in motion tends to stay in motion — and the inertial factors help it build momentum and power. Of course, the same could be said for negative energy chains. But we know that thoughts are energy patterns that vibrate at certain frequencies. The more positive the thought, the higher the vibration. Higher vibrating waves can eventually overwhelm and cancel out lower ones — even the dense, dark negative energy chains that have become knotted together over war-torn areas of the planet.
Perhaps the Buddha was aware of this physical reality when he said, “The thought manifests as the word. The word manifests as the deed. The deed develops into habit. And the habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care. And let it spring from love, born out of concern for all beings.”
Every day, in everything we do, we have the power to create or participate in chains of thought that are projected outward and travel as energy patterns that become part of the electromagnetic grid around the planet. All those individual choices add up to create a powerful force – for good or ill – that can transform the world. I can happily report that positive chains are happening more and more all around us everyday — in supermarkets, in traffic, at work, and on the street in places all around the globe. These positive thought chains lead to acts of kindness; they can and do have a cumulative uplifting effect that is far-ranging.
So when the negative chain circles around to you and demands a response, try to resist the urge to join in and forge another link. Generate a chain of loving kindness instead. It couldn’t hurt to try.
Meanwhile, here’s a quote from someone else who was obviously pondering this question long before you and I were around:
First keep the peace within yourself, then you can also bring peace to others. — Thomas a Kempis, 1420, German mystic & religious author (1380 – 1471)