Promoting Peace Through Narrative
This piece is adapted from a speech given on May 22nd, at the 2022 Peace Scholarship award ceremony. High school seniors are challenged to submit essays on the theme of peace/peacekeeping. Pictured are Megan L. Anderson with 2022 winners Alison Kuns and Andrew Newcomer. To learn more, please visit https://peace40.wixsite.com/peacescholarship. Photo by Mark Stahl.
This year’s scholarship winners highlighted ways societies–whether they be on the global scale or more insular like the culture within a school system–can be reshaped by small, consistent choices. Some of the most fundamental choices we make are what stories we tell. What narratives do we craft around ourselves and those with whom we have conflict? We all have opportunities to promote peace within our circles of influence whether that’s through our interactions with classmates, coworkers, family members, and neighbors, or through volunteering or our professions. For me, it’s mostly the latter.
As a writer, I believe in the power of storytelling and the responsibility that comes with having an audience’s ear. Shared stories bring people together and inform culture. They inspire us. They educate us. Some even change how we see ourselves and the people around us.
Many of the most successful industries in the world–from streaming services like Netflix to print publishing houses, Broadway theatre to video games–are driven by people’s inherent love of stories. How many of us have a TV show we watch regularly? How many read for fun or to relax? In more ways than we probably realize, our lives revolve around stories. We crave them. We live them. They’re an integral part of the human experience.
By intentionally telling stories of peace, we create opportunities for uniting people across divides and liberating communities embroiled in conflict. Dramatic and idealistic as it sounds, one small experience of peace retold can ripple across the face of the world. Those small moments of peace we create for ourselves and others in day-to-day life have the potential for gaining momentum and making an immense impact.
I experienced one such instance on a visit to the library several years ago.
There was a frantic buzz about the place that morning as I hauled my writing materials in. Kids were squealing and running around, phones rang, a man yelled at the staff about not locating the books he wanted. It wasn’t exactly the hushed atmosphere I had hoped for. But I caught sight of the “Quiet Study Room” sign and made a beeline.
That beeline nearly punctuated in collision with another patron also desperate for respite from the noise. We stopped just before impact, looked at each other, and laughed at our mutual eagerness to get out of the fray. Her smile was framed by a beautifully draped hijab. We collected ourselves and filed in, fitting comfortably into adjacent seats as if we’d met there often before.
We unpacked our work–mine distinctly church-related, hers distinctly not. We smiled more and sat side by side in friendly silence. Though we hardly spoke, there was a sense of sacred ground about that plain little study room. A reverent atmosphere of respect and acceptance and equality. I’ve never felt a peace quite like it.
Of course, that’s not much of a story. A nice moment, sure. But two crucial elements of quality storytelling are context and conflict. You see, outside that little study room where a Christian and a Muslim companionably shared space, the media was awash in coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
Eleven lives were lost because one person chose violence in response to a Jewish community’s raising aid for migrant refugees–still a hotly debated topic today. Switch the channel and you’d find so-called Christian political pundits retroactively finger-pointing at Islam for most American domestic terror. And yet it was a Muslim group who raised the funds for their Jewish neighbors’ funerals and stood vigil with the grieving on those synagogue steps–an act of selfless compassion and unity despite religious differences. But that’s not the story most outlets told, was it?
Those fleeting moments in the library, on the surface, might seem like nothing amid such turmoil. Insignificant. How could brief, quiet exchanges between strangers in reading rooms ever work to turn the tides of violence or harmful stereotypes? Yet that day left a lasting impression on my life and work. I’ve shared it many times since in articles, performance pieces, and publications printed worldwide including war zones in the Middle East. Hushed and simple as that interaction was, it traveled. And it mattered.
It mattered to an Israeli reader who emailed me to share that a meditation on that experience had been published on Israel’s Independence Day. Though completely coincidental on my and the magazine’s ends, it wasn’t coincidental to her.
You see, she lived near a hotspot of the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. Her heart had been craving a word of peace as she questioned the possibility of reconciliation between the two states. She then carried that word of peace to her neighbors who were then influenced to consider the responsibilities God called Israel to when they were an infant nation–responsibilities including respect toward foreigners and care for the destitute.
That seemingly insignificant moment between me and my Muslim neighbor rippled across 6,000+ miles and inspired yet another story that hopefully ripples a word of peace around the world yet again. Stories have a funny way of multiplying, don’t they? Which is all the more reason we should be careful choosing which ones we perpetuate.
We are, of course, currently witnessing the heartbreaking consequences of false and destructive narratives. Three months ago, almost to the day [as of May 22, 2022] headlines reporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine flashed across the globe. While the rest of the world saw columns of Russian tanks breaching the border, civilians huddled in bomb shelters, and crucial resources like maternity hospitals reduced to rubble, Russian citizens were shown a very different story. Many Ukrainian residents fleeing for their lives called Russian family members only to be accused of lying. The pervading story across Russian media was that of liberation and humanitarian efforts. There was no shelling of Kyiv, only distribution of warm coats to the needy. Ukraine’s streets were calm. Anyone who disagreed with that must be on the side of the neo-Nazis Russia came to liberate them from.
It’s amazing how one pervading narrative can blind so many to the truth. There are 194 countries recognized in the world today, yet the influence of one’s condemning narrative about its neighbor has thrown the peace of the world into question.
Likewise, we mustn’t take for granted how influential the stories we create are–and often on people and in places we wouldn’t expect. We know from another popular story that with great power comes great responsibility.
You don’t have to be a writer to be an influential storyteller. You are a moving, breathing story with your own experiences to share, and there is great power in that as you write another chapter with every choice you make; choices like our scholarship winners shared with us: teachers assigning projects instead of assessments to ease the stress of the pandemic on their students, listening to those with whom we disagree and focusing on their value instead of what divides us. When made consistently, small choices on the side of peace can reshape ever-widening circles of society.
One small choice, like sharing a table with your Muslim neighbor, can gain such momentum that it creates openings for peace in the hearts of people on the other side of the world. How we choose to live our stories matters. The stories we tell are important. If we are to be peacemakers in our circles of influence and beyond, we cannot underestimate the power of narrative.
The question left for us is this: Will we be responsible for creating and perpetuating stories that divide, blind, and destroy, or unify, educate, and build into a future of peace?