Saturday, January 03, 2009

A Peaceful World

The news has been pretty rough lately. A bunch of guys trash Mumbai and kill lots of people, so India and Pakistan mobilize some armed forces. Rockets, jets, and ships send screaming hot metal into Israelis and Palestinians whose lives then end. Speedboats threaten ships in the Gulf of Aden, and some unlucky people are kidnapped for ransom. Russia threatens to turn off Ukraine's gas. It goes on and on. Will we ever have a peaceful world?

I heard an interesting discussion on NPR the other day. A former drug addict, who has written a book about accountability, rather convincingly made the case that people have no excuse for the adverse consequences of their own actions. She dispassionately tore apart the "victim-oriented" argument that some make - that, were it not for life experiences beyond an individual's control, the person would not have committed the destructive act. For example, the idea that a drunk driver who ran over a child is less accountable because he drank to excess because he had lost his job that day. Her argument was that such rationalization can ultimately eliminate accountability altogether. I agree.

One of the most powerful admonitions in the Bhagavad Gita is the instruction to make each decision based on the information immediately pertinent, and then go on without attachment to the results. In other words, to decide what action is likely to have the most "good" or "positive" result, and simply do it; repeat endlessly. This is accountability on steroids! Under this rule, almost any action is permitted under certain circumstances - even the action of killing someone - but selfish actions that generate a net "negative" consequence are proscribed. We're seeing far too many of the latter, these days. But in truth these days are just normal days in our imperfect world.

Recently I've been ruminating about the fabulous discoveries of our time, and about the discoveries that seem just around the corner. We routinely send people into space, we split and recombine genes, we communicate immediately with people around the world, and we collide protons at close to the speed of light just to see what's in the debris. If we can do all these things, why can't we make rapid progress toward creating a peaceful world? Isn't a peaceful world the dream of people everywhere? Perhaps the idea of accountability is the key to establishing some inertia in that direction.

I know what you're thinking...can this writer really be as naive as he sounds? Yes, and no. I believe, for example, that people make every decision based on what they think is best for them at the moment. The drunk driver, for example, made a conscious decision to get drunk in order to relieve the pain of losing his job. The dead Mumbai terrorist was committed to either exacting revenge or forwarding an agenda that would benefit his fundamentalist Muslim culture. Virtually every destructive act has been done by someone who saw it as a "positive", at least at the moment the deed was done. That's what needs to change.

One thing I like about Obama is his willingness to speak clearly about accountability, his willingness to set the bar high. That's what change is all about: setting a new standard and pushing through the obstacles that would nullify it. The baggage of history, the pernicious cancer of selfishness, and the often daunting complexity of evaluating competing "positives" stand firmly in the way of our achieving a peaceful world. Yet, at this beginning of another year, I hope that Obama and each of us will do our part to explain the world as it is in each moment, to perform or support the immediate actions which forward the "good", and thereby take us step by step closer to a peaceful world.


ThomasLB said...

Right now it seems like everybody has the same peace plan: "I will kill all of my enemies, every single one of them, and then there will be peace."

I don't think that's going to work.

I think Obama is falling into that same trap with his emphasis on troops in Afghanistan. He seems to be a smart enough guy, but hasn't notices the inherent contradiction in killing your way to a more peaceful world.

Emily said...

this is a big issue for me as a parent and former teacher. parents seem to think they are doing their children a service when they make excuses for them.

Ron Davison said...

I really do feel inadequate following Thomas' comments.

It seems to me that one of the hardest things to teach is consequences. At a glance, some lives and some actions look perfectly delightful; often it is only after months or even decades that the mistakes become obvious. There is always a harvest - it just isn't always in this year or even in your own life.