Visions of Peace Through Literature
Visions of peace through literature. Several times recently, I have been asked to speak on that topic for gatherings of teachers, and I have always agreed. Why not?
The very title presumes that the work I do has the power to make a difference in the world, an immensely gratifying suggestion. And I enjoy gathering with a group of teachers -- the people I have the most in common with except for other writers -- to discuss something every one of us cares about, believes in.
But then I find myself looking into the faces of the gathered teachers, faces that show little enthusiasm and even less hope for the topic they have come to discuss, and I find myself wondering. Do we believe in the "visions of peace" we offer our children? Really?
Or do we believe that our visions, however peaceful they might be, are meaningless, irrelevant? That the world is going to do what it's going to do? That everything is in the hands of leaders who don't care in the least about preserving us or our world, leaders whom we don't trust and over whom we have no control? That that includes even our own democratically elected ones? That violence, a brutal expediency, and war are inevitable and that it is a part of "maturity" to face this inevitability as a fact? That it's nice to talk to children, to sing to children, to write books for children about peace?
After all, it helps keep them feeling secure, and it makes us look good to boot. (Don't blame me, kids! I'm not one of the ones who made the world the way it is. I'm one of the good guys. Can't you tell?) But we do it with our fingers crossed behind our backs. We all know that these same children we talk to so blithely now about peace will be the ones we'll send off to fight the next war. Who else would fight it? Those of us who remember the futility of the last one? Hardly!
There is something curious going on in our society. We take our highest ideals, our purest dreams, and we invest them in our children. There's nothing wrong with that. Every society throughout history must have done the same. But then -- and this is where it gets curious -- we expect our children to outgrow what we have taught them! It is as though we use the "innocence" of childhood -- or would ignorance be a better word? -- as a repository for those ideals we haven't the slightest intention of living up to in our own lives.
I am a fiction writer, not a politician or a preacher. Professionally and by inclination, I deal in a world of ambivalences, of grayed truths very much tattered around the edges, of feelings, not facts. I am not accustomed to making pronouncements. But there is one pronouncement that has been demanding voice more and more strongly in my life.
As long as only the powerless desire peace, believe in peace, then we will continue to live by war. As long as we invest our desire for peace in our children's hearts and not our own, then those same children will continue to die by the war we have taught them is so wrong.
Ten years ago I wrote a novel called Rain of Fire (Clarion, 1983) because I was anticipating Desert Storm. Ten years ago was, of course, a time of peace. At least, the United States forces were no longer in Vietnam. Our involvement in the battles of our neighbors to the south was considered peaceful because it wasn't our own sons and daughters dying there. Nonetheless, I feared Desert Storm without having any idea what it would be called or whom we would fight. I am sure I was not alone.
For the first years after this country withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, I had been thinking, with a kind of sad relief, that one good thing had come from all the horror, all the loss. This nation could never again, I told myself, get itself tangled in such a useless, bloody exercise. The American public wouldn't allow it. But by 1981 and '82, the national climate was beginning to change, slowly but forcefully. We were no longer against war. We were only against fighting a war and not winning.
There was militarism in the air. It was coming out in clothing styles, in our music. It was present in the new vigor of organizations such as the National Rifle Association (freedom through guns). It was seeping in through a renewed interest in the old war movies, the ones where we were the good guys and "they" were the bad guys and winning was all that mattered. It was apparent in the kids (especially boys) who were fascinated by World War II. Teachers and librarians told me that they were reading everything they could find on the subject. (The last "good" war.) There was a strong sense that somehow our national "honor" must be restored, could be restored by fighting again and, of course, by winning this time.
And besides that more general concern and awareness, I had a very specific one. In 1982, my own son turned eighteen. And I looked at my child -- and make no mistake, eighteen-year olds are still children, even when they are armed -- and asked myself, "What would happen to Peter in the military?"
I wasn't thinking only about the possibility that he might be sent into battle and killed, though of course no mother of an adolescent son can ever discount that possibility. Rather I was asking myself, what damage might be done to him if his country, one day, decided to send him out to kill. Would the songs I had sung him, the stories I had read him, the love I had surrounded him with be enough to protect him then?
I couldn't protect my son against the possibility of war, and so I did the only thing I, personally, had the power to do. I sat down and wrote a story for children.
There is no such thing, I said, as a "good" war. There is no "them" out there, separate from, less important than, less feeling than we are. Violence, I said, always, always hurts the perpetrator as deeply as -- sometimes even more deeply than -- the victim. And wars don't begin out there, in the abstraction of governments, of armies. They begin right here, in our neighborhoods, in our hearts.
Did writing Rain of Fire do any good? Did it change even the smallest jot or tittle of the world around me? It certainly didn't prevent Desert Storm. It didn't even diminish in the slightest the great tide of euphoria that Desert Storm set off. We had our "honor" back, and I stood in the safety of my own beloved country, ashamed that this pummelling of a small, already war-torn nation could be called "honor." Even if the war was necessary -- and I am yet to be convinced that it was -- surely the jubilation over our "smart bombs," the euphoria over our "Patriot missiles" spoke poorly for our collective humanity, our responsible use of power.
Has Rain of Fire helped any young person struggling with his own choices and with our society's deeply held belief in our right to intervene around the world? Will it ever help one in the future? I will probably never know. I know one story and only one, and that is because a kind teacher shared it with me.
A boy in her classroom, whose father was a veteran of Vietnam, would read only books about war. Fiction, nonfiction, current or past, it didn't matter, as long as the subject was war. He gloried in them. One day the teacher gave him Rain of Fire, and he read it avidly. When he was done, he walked slowly to the front of the room. "You know," he said, setting the book on her desk, "I've been thinking. Maybe war isn't so great."
I wrote Rain of Fire for that boy. If it never touches another, my months of work to bring the story to fruition have had their reward.
Have I changed the world? No. Will I ever write a book that changes the world? Of course not. At least not in the way the question implies. I don't even dream such dreams. But the longer I live, the more convinced I am that the only real change possible begins with changing myself. If I want to live in a peaceful world, then I must find ways to live and love and write the peace that I have struggled to find in my own heart.
Peace isn't passive. It isn't merely the absence of violence, the absence of war. Peace is an active, viable, hopeful way of living. Especially peace is hopeful.
It begins with respect, self respect first, followed immediately by respect for others -- all others. Those who are different in culture, ideology, race, religion, class, education, gender, sexual preference.
It begins, particularly, with respect for the powerless: children, the elderly, the disabled, the undereducated, the poor; and yes, even today, women are often powerless, too. A society can be judged by the way it protects or fails to protect its most vulnerable members. And I believe that this society, racked with violence, rife with neglect, is being tested and found seriously wanting.
When we are as anxious to educate the children of our ghettos as we are to send them to fight (or to build prisons to contain them), when we are as ready to buy books as we are bombs, when we are as willing to train and support and reward our teachers as we are to criticize and complain about our schools, then we will begin to see the rewards of peace.
When we spend as much time talking and listening to one another as we do mesmerized by our television sets, when we are as angry about the steady diet of violence being fed our children as we would be if poison were being slipped into their food, when we are as willing to live our ideals as we are to teach them to our children, then we will begin to see the rewards of peace.
Peace requires a hopeful heart. We can't have it unless we have the capacity, first, to hope for it. And hope, along with everything that is lofty and good-for-us and unattainable is, unfortunately, considered to be the province of children.
Let us give our children hope. Let's fill them with stories that tell them, over and over again, that peace is important, possible, worth striving for. Let's give them stories that allow them to understand the differences that separate us, to experience the humanity that connects us.
Let's give our children stories that empower them. I am absolutely convinced that the reason stories were told around campfires in front of caves and continue to issue forth from our word processors is that they empower the listener, the reader. And that we are all starving to be empowered.
Perhaps the single, most universal experience that comes with being alive is to feel helpless, overwhelmed, without power. A good story moves the reader inside another human being at a moment when that human being is ready to make a choice. And in the moment of that choice, character and reader are empowered.
Let us give our children stories that fill them with power, with hope, but perhaps even more important, let us feed and nurture our own power and our own hopefulness. We have offered our children nothing -- less than nothing -- if we give them what we expect them to throw away once they come into the "real" world.
Rain of Fire received the Jane Addams Children's Book Award for "its effective contribution to peace," and I am proud of that award. But every one of my novels and many, many stories written by others speak as strongly to that theme, whether they deal with the activity of armies or not. Stories prepare us to choose peace when they prepare us to understand and accept ourselves, to understand and accept others.
Peace is not just possible: it is essential if we are to survive. It is not just essential: it is a choice that you and I have the power to make. But the question is, do we believe ourselves when we speak of peace, write about peace, read stories to our children about peace? Even in the face of our bewildering, overwhelming, sometimes disheartening adulthood, do we still believe?
If we do, we can change the world. No, that's not quite right. If we believe in peace, if we live peace, if we offer peace up daily in our classrooms and our homes, we will change the world...one heart at a time.
Marion Dane Bauer, author of Rain of Fire, Face to Face, and other novels, delivered this speech at the Upper Midwest Regional 1992 IRA Conference.