Concentrating On Essence

From family to community to nation and biosphere,
peace on our planet depends on the power of love

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 52
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Can consumers make peace with the planet? To do so – according to peace researcher Elise Boulding – we must first look at how we raise our children.

Elise has for many years been one of the peace movement’s wisest voices. By drawing connections between peace and family, community, and international development, she brings global and personal perspectives together in a way that is at once very concrete and very far-reaching. After raising five children, she earned a doctorate in sociology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (where she participated in one of the first "teach-ins") before going on to chair the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the North American Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development.

Elise currently serves as President of the International Peace Research Foundation. Her most recent book, Building a Global Civic Culture, has been published by Syracuse University Press, 1600 Jamesville Ave., Syracuse, NY 13244-5160.

Alan: What does the word "development" mean for you?

Elise: When I think of development in the kind of world I would like to see, I see a world of spiritually developed people. The word "development" has lost its human and spiritual meaning, and it is left with only an economistic kind of meaning. That’s very difficult, because development is a good word. We have been robbed of it, you might say.

In my position as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, I keep pointing out that nobody can engage in the process of diplomacy and negotiation – or any alternative to military threat behavior – beyond the capabilities they develop as individuals in childhood, in their families, in their communities. All of the peace-making that we need on the planet begins with the infant and the infant’s environment – the home. There can be many kinds of home and family; I’m very interested, for example, in the wonderful contribution to peace-building that gay families make. But I see no way to a peaceful and healthy planet except through a lot of attention to the development of the individual in community.

By the same token, we’re never going to have respectful and reverential relationships with the planet – and sensible policies about what we put in the air, the soil, the water – if very young children don’t begin learning about these things literally in their houses, backyards, streets and schools. We need to have human beings who are oriented that way from their earliest memories.

Alan: Is that achievable in a culture consumed by consumerism?

Elise: The culture sure doesn’t assist us very much, does it? There’s such an extraordinary difference, for example, between households that either don’t have TV or use it in very limited ways – households that are creative and interactive, where everyone is doing or being in a mode of full presence with all their senses – and the households where people are glued to the TV set and are primarily oriented towards what they can buy.

I’m not saying that there aren’t right ways to use TV, and we’re all consumers in the sense that we all need need nourishment and shelter and so on. But having even a small amount of involvement in the making of our lifeways – such as growing food whenever possible, even if it’s in apartment window boxes, or some involvement with the making or mending of clothes – gives us a different sense of being present on the planet.

You know, each home is a garden. My husband, Kenneth, wrote a sonnet many years ago for a Quaker wedding, and he described families as "planting one small plot of heaven." That was extraordinarily meaningful to me, the idea of making a home – and there can be many kinds of home or family – that represents the essence of humanity and divinity.

To me, this all seems a part of developing a different kind of human being who will live in society in a different kind of way.

Alan: Obviously one cannot have the kind of household that you’re talking about without using resources. But one certainly doesn’t want to put hair shirts on all of one’s children, either. How can a household – or an individual for that matter – know how much consumption is enough?

Elise: Well, there’s no formula for it. I think genuine discernment is what’s required, as well as a kind of centering and not getting uptight about things. It is possible to be a very uptight environmentalist who’s continually worrying. But relaxation and enjoyment are also very important. There are beauties to be enjoyed, and when people have made beautiful things they are to be enjoyed. Good food is to be enjoyed, and cooking it is to be enjoyed, and growing it is to be enjoyed.

I did some research a few years ago now on time budgets in families, and I discovered something very interesting. The children did "play-work" for their families. In other words, they played for them. And once children left home, the family didn’t know how to play anymore. The sense of play is so important. I mean, God plays! Creation plays! And who are we humans to get all tied up in knots and not get in there and play?!

Life is an adventure. We never know what’s going to happen next. We can’t simplify the world – there’s no wand we can wave to remove the complexities around us. So, in a profound sense, we have to take responsibility for living on the planet. We’re part of Gaia. We have to, in some way, try to create the environment we’re in. And I always say it doesn’t matter what lifeway you choose if you choose it with care for the planet. You can choose to be a teacher, or a farmer, or a sociologist, or a business person. The way in which we do it is the important thing.

Alan: So there’s no simple prescription, is there?

Elise: No. It’s partly about listening for our own inner promptings and for our talents, and following those. And always bringing a nurturing attitude to any setting that we’re in. And having a sense of humor, and a sense of limits! Without those two things, for instance, I could go nuts in my present position.

Alan: I believe it! One could retitle your position, "Secretary General for Finding Answers to the World’s Problems."

Elise: And the world is clearly in a mess now! So knowing what I can do and what I can’t is important. Since I’ve just turned seventy, I have less energy than I used to. That can be very frustrating, to accept that there’s a different rhythm to life now.

Alan: What kind of focus has your work been taking recently?

Elise: I want to study the conditions under which ethnic groups are creative and peaceable and make the world better, and the conditions under which they turn into hate-filled, violent, bloody mobs. The vast majority of ethnic and tribal groups live together peacefully with others. But when hate gets going, oh, it’s so hard to stop. It feeds on itself.

Recently we’ve had an enormous revival of ethnicities that have been dormant for as much as five hundred or a thousand years – people are reaching back that far. My guess is that much of that revival is the search for meaning in a world that seems not to give people meaning. It’s basically a spiritual search. We can make this a very creative search, and the grounds of a peaceable society, if we get the nation-states shrunk down to a rather modest type of unit with new arrangements for recognizing the participation of these other kinds of identity groups.

Alan: You recently wrote about the massive growth in people’s networks and non-governmental organizations [NGOs], and how these structures exhibit "a viability and resilience that nation-states no longer have."

Elise: Studying NGOs and these people’s networks has been very important for me. I began it back when our kids were small, when I was trying to find a way to feel, myself, that I was doing world peace-making while working in the home and the community. As I began talking with community groups, I made the connection that our local chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was part of a world community. And when our kids went into Scouts they were part of an entity spread over 110 nations – a different identity. So looking at these NGOs as sources of an identity contributes to what I call the "global civic culture." The faith communities have also been very important in this regard.

Looking at ethnicity, as I am now, is just another approach to the same problem of how we build global community through people’s associations that aren’t governmental.

Alan: It strikes me that one of the great substitutes for the addiction to material things is that feeling of relatedness one gets through international organizations and the cross-cultural ties that they provide.

Elise: It’s extraordinary how deeply related you can feel to people whom you may never have met, by working with them and networking with them. When you do meet, it’s as if you’d always known each other anyway. It’s a marvelous experience. It’s so sad that so few people know what’s there – what the world really consists of. The nation-state, gobbling up lots of resources and despoiling the planet, does very little for anybody. Not the way it is now.

I think about the world a lot, especially in these days of so much ethnic hostility and violence. I think of the world in terms of what anthropologists sometimes call "the ten thousand societies" – the groups that have some sense of shared identity and common history. Each of them has something precious in their heritage, something that makes them more fully human, some knowledge of how to live and how to be. And there is no structure in our world that takes account of those ten thousand societies. The nation-state is designed to swallow them up, homogenize and integrate them. It’s okay if they just want to sing songs and dance dances, but if people want to be or do any more than that, they face a difficult road.

Alan: And God help them if they want to have any economic power.

Elise: That’s right. So my vision of the future is a world in which we will have completely altered the international order of nation-states. Obviously we have to have all kinds of linkages and networks and feedback systems, but basically people would be able to live locally. Bioregionalism is a very important part of that.

Alan: How important is simplicity in your vision? In your essay "Born Remembering" you write about feeling the call to strip oneself of excess. How do you feel about such stripping now?

Elise: Once in a meeting I was at with Kenneth, it came to me very clearly that there were the "strippers" and the "elaborators." The elaborators are the ones who create works of art – new things for humans to play with or work with – which strippers would probably never do. Both are very important, but extreme stripping, like extreme elaborating, can be bad.

Complete stripping, where you go right to voluntary poverty, only has meaning if it’s also a spiritual stripping – that is, a spiritual focusing, getting right down to the bare essentials. Otherwise, it’s just another lifestyle. It’s an uncomfortable one, but it is a lifestyle! [laughter]

Spiritual stripping has to do with concentrating on essences. Let me tell you a story: In a Quaker meeting one Sunday, I had a kind of vision. I was reflecting on the fact that this was Easter Sunday, and Ramadan and the Passover were just completed. Quakers don’t make a big thing of Easter. Nevertheless, I had this vision of all these celebrations, the fastings that precede the feastings both in Lent leading up to Easter and the Ramadan. I sensed this tremendous amount of spiritually-inspired feasting and celebrating going on in every country in the world.

Then I started thinking, where was the real spirituality in that? In all those goings on, how much was true prayer? And true loving? As it happened before my mind’s eye, the way these things do, I saw all of this activity distilling down, and down, and down, until I saw one drop of the pure prayer of love. One drop. I felt very sad, because I thought it was so little to come out of all that activity. Then I had a sense of God looking at that one drop. And suddenly I knew that in the eyes of God, it was enough!

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