the Eye of the Hurricane: Finding Peace amidst Terror, Violence
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
"My family and I celebrated the arrival of
New Year in the famous French Quarter in New Orleans. I left with
the feeling that life cannot be too bad, when an old man could sing
the blues in New Orleans, with his white hair flowing in the wind,
and lucky pennies dropping into his hat from Heaven. As long as
we are free to sing and share our sorrows, there is hope for tomorrow."
This is what I wrote in my Editorial for Positive
Living Newsletter last year. But the New Orleans I knew isn't there
any more. It is hard to cling to good memories, when harsh reality
pummels you like angry waves. Now, the motto of New Orleans "Let
the good times roll" seems so distant and so incongruent with the
horrors that are still unfolding before our eyes.
blind fury of Hurricane Katrina
The Big Easy has fallen on hard times. For almost
a week, most of the once vibrant city was drowning and dying in
the wake of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has been laid waste and
reduced to a city of ghosts. The landscape is now a ghastly panorama
of death and devastation - buildings in ruins, piles of wreckages,
and corpses floating in grimy floodwaters. The once proud Superdome,
packed with bedraggled refugees, has become an abyss of suffering,
desperation and despair. So many images of faces distorted by agony
tell an unforgettable tragic story.
Helicopters are rushing in and out, frantically
rescuing stranded survivors from roof tops, tree tops and makeshift
rafts. Fully armed combat troops are stepping in to stop the anarchy
of looting, shooting and burning. Bodies can be found everywhere.
Homes have become sodden tombs. Many have succumbed to death after
days without food, water or medicine - they died alone on a rooftop,
in their attics or in wheelchairs, waiting for help that arrived
too late. The death toll could exceed 10,000. Much of New Orleans
has become a ravaged war zone in a third world country. The bowl-shaped
city looks more like a large cesspool, with enough toxins and bacteria
to contaminate all the living things in the Gulf region. The world
looks on in shock and disbelief. How could such a humanitarian and
environmental catastrophe be happening in the United States?
Nature and humans have conspired to create a
living hell. The worst tragedy is the mayhem created by looters
and rapists, who preyed on the most vulnerable Katrina survivors.
Neither hunger nor poverty can justify these cowardly acts of re-victimizing
helpless Katrina victims. These hoodlums crept out from their dark
hiding places to their new found freedom under the sun, but they
have only succeeded in exposing the dark belly of New Orleans -
its corruption, injustice, sexual and violent crimes -- for the
world to behold.
But the outpouring of good will has turned the
tide. More and more stories of individual heroism have come to light.
Relief workers and ordinary folks risk their lives to rescue others.
There are many instances of people helping and caring for the sick
and wounded. Strangers in every part of the United States have generously
opened their hearts and their doors to receive the displaced refugees.
Throughout the ordeal, so many have kept their faith and expressed
their deep gratitude for being alive.
Baker of London Times has summed it up well regarding the duality
of human nature:
"CATASTROPHE, as is the natural
order of things, brings out the best in most humans, and the worst
in some. When Katrina struck the US Gulf Coast this week, the
first images reflected man's instinctive compassion, heartening
tableaux of daring rescues and selfless giving. Then, of course,
came the looting, the inevitable exploitation of misery that contributes
the insult of human depravity to the injury of natural disaster,
a piteous reminder that in the race to the bottom, even the most
heinous of the elements are no match for the baser instincts of
The positive psychology of peace
In the midst of chaos, terror, and deaths, how
can one find peace? What can positive psychology offer to these
exhausted and broken people living in putrid squalor? How can they
find serenity, hope and joy when they are going through so much
pain? Ever since 9/11, I have been wrestling with these questions.
One finding that has emerged again and again in my research is that
authentic positive psychology cannot be built on positive illusions
and whitewashed walls that will collapse under pressure; it can
only be built on the rock solid foundation of confronting and transforming
dark reality through cultivating inner resources.
Joe Lasties, a drummer of the legendary New
Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band, told reporters, "I go around
the world sharing the joy that is New Orleans. And because of that
joy, I know my city is going to survive. The New Orleans people
are the type of people, well, you can't keep them down. Through
the joy of the music and the spirit of the people, we're always
going to bounce back."
Indeed, New Orleans will rise again, stronger
and better. But it will take a lot more than music to revive a city
that has been completely destroyed by storm, flood and lawlessness.
It will take more than money and technology to rebuild a shattered
cultural fabric. In times of troubles and disasters, we also need
courage, compassion and faith, which will enable us to discover
grace under pressure, and hope in hopeless situations.
According to LifeSiteNews.com,
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has called for a state-wide day of
prayer: "As we face the devastation wrought by Katrina, as we search
for those in need, as we comfort those in pain and as we begin the
long task of rebuilding, we turn to God for strength, hope and comfort."
Themes of need for cleansing and purification have also been openly
discussed by local political and religious leaders, who are well
acquainted with the ferocious history and the dark side of New Orleans.
One positive thing that can be said of total
destruction is that it offers a rare opportunity for renewal and
new beginnings. Like a clean sheet of paper, it invites us to fill
it with visions of bold imagination, hope and faith. Perhaps, at
the end of successful reconstruction, New Orleans will shed its
old image of "Sin City" to earn the new title of "Shining City"
as a shining example of recovery.
The psycho-social-spiritual aspects of rebuilding
are equally important as the physical and financial reconstructions.
New Orleans needs to recover her soul, purified and strengthened.
Elsewhere, I have written on the positive psychology
of peace making and community building. In this article, I want
to explore the inner workings of humanity that are responsible for
both peace and war. More specifically, I want to focus on the steps
we need to take in order to experience peace in the eye of the hurricane.
Is peace an impossible dream?
To deny the dark side of humanity is to ignore
warnings about the destructive powers of Hurricane Katrina. We need
to know our shadows in order not to be trapped by them. We need
to descend to hell to appreciate heaven. Likewise, the positive
psychology of peace must be built from the carnage of war and violence.
The world has lurched from one disaster to another.
Most of the catastrophes, such as armed conflicts, the Holocaust
and terrorisms, were created by human beings. It is very sad that
after thousands of years of blood-soaked history, human beings have
not yet learned how to live together in harmony and resolve their
differences through dialogue.
Might makes right - the use of power remains
the preferred way to resolve conflicts and achieve one's own goals.
We see this principle at work everywhere - from the halls of higher
learning, chambers of law makers to the mean streets. Power seems
to be an irresistible addiction, more destructive and powerful than
crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Individuals drunk with power
can never have enough of it - they keep on expanding their power
base regardless of the human cost. Absolute power in the hands of
a single mad man can destroy millions of people.
Just last month, we remembered the end of World
War II, in which some 17 million troops died, including more than
400,000 Americans. Millions more civilians perished.
At the same time, we commemorated the 60th anniversary
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Close to 200,000 civilians perished in
the blinding flash of nuclear explosions.
As we remember that dirty and costly war, how
can we forget the Jewish Holocaust (Levi, 1995), the Nanking massacre
(Chang, 1998), and the thousands untold stories of atrocities committed
by human beings against other human beings?
Some veterans can still recall General Douglas
MacArthur's hopeful words: "A better world shall emerge out of the
blood and carnage of the past." But where is it? Shortly after the
end of World War II, we had the Korean War and the Vietnam War,
which again claimed millions of lives. What has been accomplished
by these sacrifices? Where is lasting peace?
Ethnic cleansing and genocide
The world is still at war. Hitler's style of
campaign of terror against the Jews is still being copied around
the globe. The pandemic of ethnic cleansing and genocide continues
to spread, inflicting high causalities, especially against civilians,
for no reasons other than ethnicity. Samantha Power (2003) has documented
most of the acts of genocide in the 20th century, including Khmer
Rouge in Cambodia, the grisly killings in Bosnia and Srebrenica,
and the massacre in Rwanda.
Hatzfeld (2005) interviewed many who took part
in the Rwanda genocide, where an estimated 50,000 out of a total
population of 59,000 Tutsis were hacked to death by their Hutu friends
and neighbors. How could such a large scale of killing, rape, infanticide
and torture go on right before the watchful eyes of the United Nations?
How could ordinary people get swept away in the orgy of butchering
their neighbors and friends?
In the 2lst century, genocide is still happening
in spite of the declaration of Universal Human Rights by the United
Nations. According to the report Darfur
in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan, The National Islamic
Front (NIF) government forces have joined the Arab militias in indiscriminate
attacks and massive bombing of civilian targets. This campaign of
terror in Darfur could approach the scale of Rwanda without UN interventions.
The invisible war of terrorism
Since 9/11, after President George W. Bush's
launching of his war on terror, the world has experienced an invisible
but ever expanding warfare of terrorism. There are no recognized
borders or cognizable enemies. By whatever names they are called
- terrorists, militant Islamists, Al Quade, or Jihad groups -- they
are the most fearsome enemies, because they are fearless of death
and they may be living among us (Emerson, 2003).
theatre of terrorist attacks has expanded to Europe. The March 11th,
2004 Madrid train bombings were a series of coordinated terrorist
bombings, which killed 191 people and wounded 1,460. On the 7th
of July, 2005, a series of four bomb attacks struck London's public
transport system during the morning rush hours. No amount of security
can prevent suicide bombings in an open society.
As the war in Iraq drags on, the potential threat
of a full-scale civil war hangs heavy. When that happens, the bloodbath
in Iraq can over flow to other parts of the region. Peace cannot
prevail until the different ethnic/religious groups are willing
to settle their differences through dialogue.
What is fanning the flames of terrorism which
seem to be spreading across the globe? It seems naive to blame it
all on America's foreign policy. Ominous threats to human civilization
will likely come from extreme nationalistic and religious fanatics,
who are willing to sacrifice their own lives and innocent people
in order to impose their ideology on others. There can be no truce,
no peace, until people with different ideologies can sit across
the table and work out a way so that they can share the planet earth
without destroying each other.
Small steps towards peace
Scholars have been pondering long and hard on
the horrors of violence. They may be defective losers trying to
exact revenge and assert power. They may feel justified to gain
what they cannot get by peaceful means. They may want to destroy
their rivals to maintain power and control. They want to expand
their empire to leave a legacy. They may feel called by God to advance
their beliefs by force. Theories abound in trying to explain the
phenomenon of violence and war -- Social Darwinism, human depravity,
class warfare, power motive, Type A personality, dysfunctioning
families, capitalism, nationalism, or ideological dogmatism. We
may never understand how people could commit the most heinous acts
of cruelty and atrocity against other human beings. But we can learn
to take small steps towards peace.
In the last few months, it has been nearly impossible
to watch the TV news without being bombarded by images of violence,
terror and wars around the globe. How many more million years will
it take for humans to evolve into cooperative, peace loving creatures?
The sad truth is that as long as there is one
ambitious person who wants power more than anything else, there
will be no peace on earth. The basic desire for power is one of
the common threads running through all human conflicts. We have
not yet learned how to handle power in a wise and humane manner.
The only proven way to prevent the corrupting influence of power
is checks and balances, but why should the powerful and mighty willingly
subject themselves to restraints and accountability? Those who are
addicted to power can never be satisfied with the power they have.
Like all other drug addicts, they cannot stop themselves - they
need to be stopped. But who will stop them?
Another sad truth is that there are still no
organizations, no nations, which have the political will or capacity
to prevent a power-crazy man from killing masses of innocent people.
The powerful but dangerous leaders are often feared and even admired.
Most people would remain indifferent as long as the violence does
not directly affect their self-interest.
The world was far safer, when people fought
each other with swords and arrows. With more and more people acquiring
the technology of nukes and biological warfare, it is a distinct
possibility that some dirty bombs may one day explode in our public
transit systems or shopping malls.
In such a violent world, what can we do as individuals?
Can we find peace by escaping to a remote desert or mountain, far
away from the madding crowds, and living alone in harmony with nature?
Should we be peace activists, marching and demonstrating for world
peace? Perhaps, we can begin by cultivating peace in our own lives.
We are living on borrowed time. Terror may strike
anytime. The Big One may erupt when we are least prepared. The end
may come like a thief at night.
We are living on mortgaged time. How many have
sacrificed their lives so that we may live in peace and freedom?
How many more must die to secure peace?
Can anyone measure the price of peace? Can anyone
quantify the human suffering and grief of losing a loved one?
I hear the distant gunshots, and I see the carnage
of war. But we can still celebrate peace as long as it lasts. Let's
dance to the joy of living, without shackles of hate, because we
have learned to forgive.
The long march to peace begins with a single
step. And peace is every step, says Thich Nhat Hanh (1991). We can
learn to breathe peace and make peace right in the moment, regardless
of how desperate the situation. To be fully alive, to be mindful
of the moment, is to savor and share peace.
We can walk with peace by remembering our common
humanity. In one of his sermons, John Donne wrote these oft quoted
"No man is an island, entire
of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the
main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy
friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to
know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
In Stockholm on August 9 2002, on the occasion
of commemorating the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Joy Kogawa said:
"When we murdered the other, we are murdering our own family, our
Isaac, our Ishmael, our Jesus, our children, our futures. The enemy
whose face is hidden from us is our friend, our close relative,
someone we love."
Each day, we can make small steps of peace.
We can choose to turn the other cheek rather than strike back. We
can refuse to play the power game and suffer the consequence of
doing what is right. We have to learn to let go and let God in the
face of grave injustice. We need to celebrate our differences by
embracing our common humanity.
We can learn from Jesus the way of peace in
our everyday walk. He promises: "Peace I leave with you; my peace
I give you. I do not give you as the world gives. Do not let your
hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid" (John's Gospel, 14: 27).
Jesus has indeed shown us his way to peace.
It is the path of humility, poverty, self-denial, suffering and
death on the cross. Gandhi dared to follow this path and gave his
life for it. Do we have the courage to follow the way of peace?
Each small step of peace makes world peace more likely.
As the storm of violence swirling around us
gaining its destructive power, we can stay in the quiet center of
the storm - an inner sanctuary of peace, mindfulness and selflessness.
What abide are love, hope and faith even in the wake of Katrina.
Emerson, S. (2003). American
Jihad: The terrorists living among us. New York: Free Press.
Chang, I. (1998). The
rape of Nanking. New York: Penguin.
Hanh, Thich Nhat (1991). Peace
is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life.
(Edited by Arnold Kotler). New York: Bantam Books.
Hatzfeld, J. Machete
season: The killers in Rwanda speak. New York: Farrar, Straus
Levi, P. (1995). Survival
in Auschwitz. New York: Touchstone; Reprint Edition.
Power, S. (2003). "A
problem from hell": America and the age of genocide. New
York: Harper Perennial.