Let it Begin With Me

Ultimately we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace these is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.” -Etty Hillesum

The concept of Peace resonates within me these dark days of Soulstice. Even just saying or thinking the word helps to conjure the feeling of the thing itself.

And I need Peace. Need it within me. Need it in the world around me. 

I came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a time of great social unrest in this nation. Peace was the word on every young person’s lips, mine included.  I was in my mid-teen’s during those years, just feeling my oats, using the written word to penetrate a lifelong shell of mild-mannered shyness.  As editor of our school paper, I called for student participation in the Moratorium, a nationwide walkout to protest the Vietnam War.  I encouraged my history teacher to assign letter writing to our elected officials in which we could express our views on civil rights, the Arab-Palestinian conflict, the War. Because I had always been a “good girl,” and had always stayed within the bounds of good grades and good behavior, my teachers were very generous with their support. 

In those years, I read the newspaper every day, watched the TV news with combinations of excitement and righteous indignation. I yearned to be one of those marching, carrying signs, making an outward statement. But my young age, my sheltered life, my innate introverted nature  - all of those things kept my emerging activism at bay. I spent several years in a state of perpetual inner agitation, relieved only by my incessant writing about it. 

These days, I find myself in a similar situation. The world right now is in such turmoil. There is anger and unrest and incivility the likes of which I have not seen since those long ago days of the 1960’s. I feel the weight of all of it, pressing hard against a soul already taxed with intense amounts of grief. 

So, Peace. 

Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam during the Nazi regime, writes that is is our “moral duty to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves...and to reflect it toward others.” Certainly the times in which she lived surpassed ours for “trouble.” During the years prior to her own transport and ultimate death in Auschwitz (1941-1943), Hillesum wrote a diary, not so much to chronicle world events but to “think and to comprehend the essence of human nature while simultaneously rebuilding her personality.” At age 27, she admits that “until a few months ago I believed that politics did not touch me. Now I don’t ask that question anymore."

Hillesum came to believe that survival depended on her inner landscape, as much as the outer one. “I must work on myself some more, there is nothing else for it,” she wrote in the diary. “A few months ago I did not need all this effort, life was so clear and bright inside me and so intense.” 

I am many decades from my 27 year old self, or any sense of life being “clear and bright inside me.” In fact, I feel as if I’ve been “working on myself” for almost a year now, ever since my mother died. Working on living in a world without her totally unconditional love. Working on finding meaningful ways to fill the empty place in my heart. Working on seeing a path for the future.

All of those are just euphemisms for “reclaiming peace.” Occasionally, amidst the tumult, I catch a glimpse of the inner peace I long for.

When late afternoon darkness falls, I settle in my chair with a book and a glass of wine. Both dogs come to their spots immediately: flanking the ottoman they are sentinels at my feet. Gentle holiday music plays on Pandora, lights on the small Christmas tree cast a golden glow over the room. The familiar aroma of my mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe fills the kitchen, an olfactory reminder of her everlasting presence in my life. This is Peace. 

I sit in auditoriums and sanctuaries and let the sounds of familiar hymns and carols cascade over me, removing me from time and place and connecting me with the musical heritage I hold dear. This, too, is Peace. 

I lace up my shoes, layer on coat, earmuffs, scarf, and mittens, fasten the dogs collars and leashes and head out into the brisk winter air, relishing their joy as they fly down the street, waiting patiently as they stop to savor every enticing odor on the way. Because this, for them, is obviously Peace. And thus it becomes so for me as well.

I find ways to take a stand for what I believe in, gather with others in groups both online and off where we resolve to remain aware, vigilant, and informed. I pledge to be a better citizen of the world and of my very neighborhood, which is where the world really begins. I contribute money, I write letters and emails. I supply food and gifts and dollars to people in need, both near and far. And here I find some modicum of Peace.

 “Peace is what we all yearn for, and peace is the gift we can offer one another -  in a word of forgiveness, a kindness done, a gratitude expressed,” writes Katrina Kenison, in her book Moments of Seeing. 

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” read the lyrics of the 1970’s song we sang in the gym of my Catholic high school where I played guitar for weekly mass. There are layers of meaning in these simple words. This elusive Peace on Earth, the true hallmark of this season we travel in, begins with each of us and the attitude we bring to all of creation. 

Yes, it begins WITH us. But it also begins IN us. 

“This is where I must work on myself some more,” Etty Hillesum wrote in those dark days six decades ago. “There is nothing else for it."

There is not.

So let it begin.

How do you find peace within during these decidedly non-peaceful days? How do you hope to bring peace to the world around you?