The Forces That Are Changing Us... World (And) Peace #1 of 5
A deep dive on the five forces that have upended us
I don’t know about you, but most days, I look in the mirror and see no change in myself. But when I look around me, it seems the world is changing at pace. However, I must pinch myself and remember that I, too, have changed in the eyes of others. I’m hoping to weather the changes, but there’s always a risk of getting enclosed or hardened in my thinking. As we explore these changes around us, so too must we look inside to see how we ourselves are changing and keep tabs on who we really are.
In my last article, “How have we ended up with all this divisiveness and lack of proper debate?” I laid out five forces that have changed us. These have been the driving forces that have led us to this place of great division, where we are so deaf to one another and where dialogue is either ascetically sanitized or corrosively combative. Several of your comments have enriched my thinking and I’m very grateful for your inputs. I will now endeavor to expand on the five forces. Let’s start with the first one: World (and) Peace.
(1) World (and) Peace
When Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace”, it reads as a description of our human condition, displayed in all its majesty and agony. Today, if many people aspire for world peace, we cannot say it exists. While World War II ended in 1945, ever since the list of wars and armed conflicts is long and growing: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Syria, Yemen… Even in places without current armed conflict, the level of tension is tangibly high. Think: Iran-Israel/US; China-US; India-Pakistan; Israel-Palestine. Of course, we now have an ongoing war in the Ukraine. The peace-time vitriol between and within ‘peaceful’ countries (especially during elections) is distressing, although far from unprecedented. It’s worth reminding ourselves of History… I take, for example, my great-grandfather, Senator Nathaniel B. Dial, who made an impassioned speech on the US Senate floor back in 1924:
"There is almost total partisanship, both on the right and the left.... neither side talks to the other, and… the divide just seems to be getting worse."*
And, in the US, it was far worse in 1858-1860, in the lead-up to the Civil War. So, this is a solid reminder that we should remember (and study) history to gain perspective on what is going on now.
Keeping the horrors of war at bay
The vast majority of wars and conflicts that have occurred around the world since 1945 have been far afield from the West. As Jean-Louis reminded us in his comment, we hear many pundits wrongly announcing, with the war in Ukraine, that ‘war is back in Europe for the first time since 1945.’ Moreover, journalists are quick to posit that this war is potentially ‘the biggest conflict’ in Europe since WWII. However, one should not forget the intense conflicts in former Yugoslavia – where up to 250,000 people were killed – that occurred in Europe proper, between 1991 and 2001. What is true is that, in any of the wars since WWII, the numbers – and tolerance – of Western casualties have come down dramatically. So, too, can we say that the number of ‘victories’ has diminished dramatically. There have been no clear wins to speak of since 1945, except perhaps the Gulf War. Moreover, the ongoing war with Islamic Jihadis is far from over.
The battle of ideas
The Islamic Jihad war rages in many countries around the world, including in many Islamic countries. As far as the West is concerned, Islamic terrorists have carried out a slew of attacks bringing the terror onto our soil, causing great disruption and provoking some existential questions. The ideological war pits two different concepts of society, of civilization. As with any religious war, when it’s their god over ours, I believe there is a more or less conscious link with our immortality. The reasoning follows: if my god is superior (and the dominant religion on Earth), this will guarantee my existence in life after death.
Keeping death at arm’s length
We’ve gone from a culture of fighting literal enemies to protect our freedom, to a more abstract fight for many more niche freedoms. We’ve gone from accepting to die for our freedom to a society that wishes to keep death at arm’s length. From the existential clash with the Islamic Jihad movement to the global crisis of the pandemic, where virtually all Western cultures sought to avoid any and all deaths, our societies have been pushed face-to-face with the struggle between freedom and the natural constraints of our finitude. In our striving for a World at Peace, we seem to have lost all ability to tolerate the loss of a single life. [See my recent thread, All Deaths Matter?]. We’d prefer to live our perfect Instagrammable life forever rather than come to grips with some of the messier, less perfect and completely common realities of our existence. And that includes death.
War and a common enemy sharpen the mind
Now with Russia invading the Ukraine – in NATO’s backyard – the nature of full-scale war has come into sharper focus. And, one of the side products of this war has been a greater collaborative spirit among the west… There’s nothing like having a common enemy to put aside lesser worries.
The struggle to find meaning
All in all, since the end of WWII, we’ve gone from a culture where war and death were commonplace to a civilization keen to focus on our freedoms, material possessions, hyper individuality and the trigger of words. In the absence of mortal worry, up until the pandemic in any event, we have preferred to get excited by the infinite possibilities of life. In a form of Pollyannic idealism, behind globalization, we spread the word that we must love everybody all the time, everywhere. We’ve attached meaning to abstract terms and beliefs in which we now place so much value that we are not aware of or willing to countenance the reality of death. I call it our DISPLACED MEANING, although Freudians might prefer his concept of Transference. It’s not that these beliefs or other issues are not important. It’s just that they carry a borrowed sense of meaning, detached from our own sense of self. And that gap is at the root of much of the extremism and volatility we see in debates today.
Meaning takes struggle
For the most part, we’d rather fight each other on the basis of morals, values and words – often behind the safety of a screen – rather than actual bullets, bombs and violence. The Western world’s approach to Russia is to use resolutions, sanctions, cyber-attacks and blue & yellow emojis, which seem unlikely to be the most effective language to win this war. As Viktor Frankl exposed in his phenomenal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, we find meaning (“logos”) through our struggles. Our existence and sense of self depends on how we deal with these challenges. In each of us, we have lightness and darkness, war and peace. In an irony of the circumstance, for the Russian speakers among you, “world peace” in Russian is мир во всем мире, (“mir vo vsyem mirye”) where both world and peace are the same word: mir.
As we explore these changes around us, so too must we look inside to see how we ourselves are changing and keep tabs on who we really are.
Your thoughts please!
Please do let me have your thoughts and reactions. I’d be happy to engage in a live debate! In my next piece, I’ll dive into the second force: The 1960s social movements.
*Passage taken from my book, The Last Ring Home, A POW's Lasting Legacy of Courage, Love, and Honor in World War II
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