“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
The Korean word for hello, ahn young ha se yo, translates literally to, “Are you at peace?” When I asked my daughter’s Korean language tutor about it, she said it’s a little bit more like “Are you well?” but I think I prefer, “Are you at peace?”
Peace eludes me often. Most days I feel like I’m walking in a minefield. A few weeks ago, the train that goes by our house and into NYC crashed at one of the stations in NJ killing one, a young mother, and sending over a hundred people to the hospital. We take this train often. Last month, multiple bombs were found in NYC and in NJ. A few days afterward we were headed into the city to the American Girl store for my daughter’s birthday. Over the summer, I worry about mosquitos and tics—West Niles, Zika, and Lyme’s Disease. Heading into fall, just as I feel relieved that the bugs are dying, I start seeing the articles about the flu and how we must get vaccinated because it’s very serious and could be deadly. It’s the time when I start buying extra immunity gummy vitamins and washing my hands constantly. Each day when I go to the mailbox, I hold my breath hoping that there aren’t any unexpected bills. The health insurance I buy sucks and it seems like five months after every procedure I need, the bills come, whether or not they’ve been paid. I visit the dermatologist to examine freckles, get a second opinion on the lump that I found. I try to buy organic and not wear any products with parabens or phthalates. I ask for wisdom in my prayers when mean girls are surfacing at my daughter’s school.
My life is fairly typical on a day-to-day basis, so I know most of us deal with these same concerns. Is it possible to have peace in the world we live in? In a world where the nightly news is disturbing and a quick scan at Facebook’s trending headlines tell me about creepy clowns luring children and that the earth’s carbon dioxide levels have “passed the point of no return?” Breathing helps. Breathe in…breathe out.
A widow friend in California tells me once that she kind of lives in a bubble with her children. She is a strong woman, active, working hard, and raising two children. But something about this bubble idea appealed to me. There certainly is wisdom in turning off the news and putting down the constant feeds of endless information.
As I was waiting last week for my biopsy results on that lump, I thought a lot about peace. A week I spent completely alone at the University of Virginia where I went to school came back to me for the first time in years, but memories do often return when we need them most. There’d been a huge blizzard that year, and the choir retreat I’d come back to school early for that winter break, was cancelled as a result. I was there though, so I made the best of it. I stayed in my apartment, usually filled with five other girls, by myself. I walked around the still, not yet plowed campus stepping in my own footprints on the way back. My apartment room though, was very pretty and well lit. My large window overlooked the hills and a freight train that ran by. I was at peace there playing my guitar and singing, reading. When one of my apartment-mates arrived herself only a day or so early, she knocked on my door. She was lonely and uneasy with the quiet. She was surprised when she came in from the darkened hallway to find my room bright and cheerful. “How did you stay here all week by yourself?” she asked confounded.
I am an introvert and able to be by myself for quite a while, but I also didn’t feel alone then. I certainly was more sheltered about the general state of things in the world. All I really had to manage was myself. I was 19- my whole life and all of its ups and downs still ahead of me. What did I know really?
But the quietness and coldness of walking around a deserted college campus in deep snow and not seeing a soul, has stayed with me as a symbol of peace. I haven’t had this kind of peace for a long time.
My mind and thoughts have been scattered. Neither my heart nor mind has been stayed. Stayed. It’s been my word for the past few months. Apparently, the Hebrew word means to stay in one place, like the stake holding down a tent to keep it from moving. Amidst the information overload, the activities of my daughter, my financial concerns and spiritual concerns, what does it mean to be “stayed” on something? A few friends happened to text me the same verse while I was waiting for my test results, “You will keep in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You because He trusts in You.” But I wondered how to “stay” my mind on an invisible God in the face of cold doctors’ offices and uncertainties in my life and our world.
Peace is hard to grasp. I couldn’t even find a photo to represent the kind of real peace I’m meditating on, not warm and fuzzy peace or even nature photos- to post here. You can keep a gratitude list of things you’re thankful for in black and white in an effort to become more grateful. It’s much harder to keep a “peace list” to become “more peaceful.” It is contrary to the popular concept of meditation, which I’ve studied, acknowledging your thoughts, but viewing them as clouds rather than a part of you, letting them pass by. “Oh, there it goes- my crazy anxiety.” Peace isn’t just about evicting anxious thoughts; it’s about replacing them with a mind stayed on something else. Fixed. Not just an absence, but a presence. If anxiety comes from fear and guilt, peace is the gift of love and reconciliation. It’s paradoxical in nature. To have your mind fixed on something that “surpasses all understanding.” It’s Jesus sleeping in a boat, while it’s tossed in the tempest. They’re also the first words He spoke to the disciples after the resurrection when he entered the locked room where the terrified men were hiding: “Peace be with you.” It’s not earned, but given and just received, but we also must choose and participate in it actively. “My peace I leave you.”
When Tolstoy had his own existential crisis, more about why to live at all than how to live in peace- after much deliberation, he came to this: “So that besides rational knowledge, which had seemed to me the only knowledge, I was inevitably brought to acknowledge that all live humanity has another irrational knowledge — faith which makes it possible to live. Faith still remained to me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible.”
He also writes, “And I understood that, however irrational and distorted might be the replies given by faith, they have this advantage, that they introduce into every answer a relation between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution.” This relation between the finite and the infinite seems integral to peace also.
I admit, I have not mastered this kind of irrational knowledge, this kind of mind stayed on him—this peace. It still seems more theological and abstract and less “with” me. But as I waited for my results last week, (which were negative)I had an image of walking in the snow in his footsteps, and just following in those steps wherever they might lead(though I confess, pretty begrudgingly if they led somewhere really hard). Peace is not an absence of trouble or suffering. Like the Korean greeting, the Hebrews also referenced peace in their greeting: “Shalom.” Its meaning is more complex and closer to “wholeness.” It’s not just wishing someone would have no troubles, but that they would in fact experience the highest good. Not an absence, but a presence. Presence is something we sense. Even in the dark, or blindfolded, we can sense the nearness of another human being, their presence. Perhaps any irrational knowledge, any connection of the finite to the infinite, true peace— is a lot like this presence in the dark.
These thoughts are in no way complete, but I’m especially curious to hear how others experience or incorporate peace in our current world. Please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic. As always, thank you for reading.