Graduate Theological Union

Living Peacefully in a Time of Turmoil

A talk delivered at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Development of Peace & Well-being, on April 21, 2003

by James A. Donahue
GTU President and Professor of Ethics

As a theologian and ethicist, my research focuses particularly on how people find meaning and purpose in their existence. These goals are severely challenged in times of turmoil, such as the current age marked by anxieties over war, terrorism, and the economy. How can we manage to find meaning in life—how can we find inner peace or practice peace toward others—when our world seems mired in instability and despair? I suggest three critical components to living peacefully in such a time of turmoil: narrative, transcendence, and hope.

What do I mean by “narrative”? Our lives are a story we are perpetually telling ourselves. In order for any event or experience to make sense, it must be able to fit in, and be explained by, this constantly evolving narrative. This is extremely difficult to do during a time of turmoil or chaos, when our experiences are often deeply unsettling. Much of what we struggle with at these times, and why finding peace becomes so elusive for us, is there is frequently a dissonance between the world we experience and the narrative we have constructed for ourselves. Things we experience are often so traumatic that they do not fit exactly into our larger framework for understanding the world.

How we understand and explain violence when we see it is a superb example of this. When we see violence, whether it is violence among nations, among social groups, or among spouses and partners, there is a need to explain its presence and to account for it in some explanatory way. Is it is explained as an aberration, a result of previous abuse inflicted, a manifestation of human nature, a strategy for peace? What is the story that explains the violence we see? We frequently develop a story that explains difficult events or actions with some overarching false narrative or some received story that provides a coping mechanism. Frequently, our denial or our self-deception with our stories is so profound that our ability to really understand those stories or to have stories that have sufficient breadth to them to be able to incorporate a wide range of interpreted meanings is very challenging.

In contrast, a true narrative is one marked by such qualities as consistency, coherence, and continuity with an overarching framework. Our narratives must be true to the world we experience, and they must be able to incorporate complex realities and interpreted meanings. Without the ability to distinguish between truthfulness and falsehood in our narratives, and thus without clarity about their constructive or destructive function, living peacefully will continue to be elusive.

The implication of this insight is that it is critical that we ask questions about our narratives. Every story and each interpretation of the story needs to be assessed and reevaluated in light of the present context, times, and demands. We need to correct our stories where there are inconsistencies, misleading coping mechanisms, and deficiencies; new insights are required where the demand calls for new responses. Our narratives must catch up and be true to the demands of times of turmoil. This is the first step toward achieving peaceful living.

In addition to re-examining our life’s narrative, the goal of living peacefully can be aided by considering the notion of transcendence. One of our common pitfalls in thinking about how one finds peace and satisfaction in life is that we frequently believe our capacities for personal or collective transformation are self-grounded. That is, we work under the individualistic assumption that the means to deep-seated peacefulness or satisfaction lies solely in ourselves. In locating the potential solution in ourselves, we also define the problem in similar self-grounded ways. For example, we sometimes blame personal or social problems on an intrinsic fault in an individual—in our genes, for instance—when the real roots of the problem are for more complicated. I think self-groundedness in some ways becomes a form of idolatry: the self becomes the sole reference point for the truth and we are unable, in turn, to see the complexity of problems that are in reality larger than the self. As a result, self-groundedness is ultimately unable to steer us toward the kind of complex and visionary approach that peaceful living requires. It is for this reason that I find myself gravitating toward and being grabbed by religious notions of transcendence.

By transcendence I mean nothing more than the fact that there are glimpses of “the more” in an experience —something more than the self through which we can explain and come to understand our true powers and capacities for transformation. I am not referring here to any deus ex machina but rather to an awareness of a transformative dimension of experience where we find ourselves in the presence of something more than the self. We catch such glimpses of a transcendent element in many kinds of situations, from religious experiences to our relationships with other people. The acknowledgement of transcendence has the potential to rescue us from the false narrative of total self-groundedness, a necessary step toward both inner peace and peaceful dealings with others.

Finally, peaceful living in a time of turmoil must include hope. Any narrative that is to carry us into the future and give us the reason and inspiration to make the world or our own lives better must be generated by a sense of hope. Otherwise, why go on? Why invest the energy required to create change? Our task is to discover the sources of hope in our midst and to allow ourselves to be moved by the dynamics of transformation that hope allows.

Where do we look for and find hope today? I suggest we look in everyday places and to everyday people. Stories of hope abound around us and yet they are not the grandiose stories that are usually captured in the media or elsewhere in the public eye. Rather, they are stories of people who have been able to create good lives for themselves in spite of adversity and obstacles that have been placed in their way. They are the stories of the people we know who believe that life is a treasure, and who aspire to make that treasure bring happiness and joy to others. They are the stories of our families and the stories of people and groups who are making a positive difference in their communities.

We need to look at the many stories of hope that surround us if we can only develop the eyes to see them.