Live To Tell
he lives surrounded by his stories
and the stories of others,
he sees everything that happens
to him through them;
and he tries to live his own life
as if he were telling a story.
But you have to choose: live or tell. '
- Jean-Paul Sartre
Six months ago I found myself at a World Peace Summit, after a year navigating the mountains of South America, the cities of the Middle East, the streets of Africa, and the wilderness of India. I had been on an extended journey chronicling stories, worlds, lives; being inspired by the young, appalled by cruelty, torn by disparity, enlivened by (com)passion, and weighted by magnitude. I met young, emerging artists: writers, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, dancers: the world over, all searching for a more humane approach to exploring the glorious madness of the human condition, all looking to promote, facilitate, discover and celebrate the hope in the midst of the hurt. We exchanged ideas about cross-cultural collectives, traveling exhibitions, residencies that bring dreamers together to collaborate on the themes that matter, of mentor-based training workshops to bring opportunities in the arts to youth in post-conflict countries. It was with these possibilities aflame in my mind that I returned to the hallowed halls of international politics to represent my generation. The outcome of the summit was dismally predictable: four days of somnolent speeches, weary diplomats who gave out promises as freely as pens, and a terrific waste of resources, energy and time at the swankiest hotel in one of the most conflict-riddled regions on the planet.
When it comes to peace, I could quote all those wiser, more perceptive and so much more eloquent than me. But they have said and done and screamed themselves hoarse, and still we hurt and maim and wound and bleed. Somewhere, it seems, the majority of us are not serious about this thing we call peace. Somewhere we have come to believe that conflict—as it has always been—will always be. Somehow we have been taught—and we teach—that there is no way to live without suffering. Somewhere, peace has become a compromise, a halfway house between unspeakable hatred and infinite love. Somewhere, peace, like war, has become a game. It is not a game I wish to play. But if peace involves serious inquiry into the way we live (and die), then before we can begin to speak of peace, we must be willing to own our words. As John Berger says: “For us to live and die properly, things have to be named properly. Let us reclaim our words.”
In a moment of frustration during a 2004 interview regarding the violence in Darfur, John ‘O Shea—CEO of GOAL—exclaimed, “Forget your mandates, forget your sovereignty, forget all these words that are sent out by the international community”. In a moment of recognition, I realized the import of this frustration. There is a widening rift between the discourse within and the world without; a worrying ease with which we (mis)use language. Language, which is meant to foster communication, can also be—and is often today—a weapon wielded to exclude, suppress, silence and hurt. It becomes a veil, a wall, a cocoon that encloses those of us that share its power, and excludes those who—with its dense, complex and ambiguous rhetoric—its vagaries and caprice often affect most. Peace concerns all of us equally, and if we are to take collective responsibility for it, we must learn to listen to each other without demands, and to let people sing to us in their own voices. Peace begins when we learn not just to allow, not even to welcome, but when we learn to celebrate this symphony in our lived experience. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us: “To educate people for peace, we can use words or we can speak with our lives. If we are not peaceful, if we are not feeling well in our skin, we cannot demonstrate real peace.”
Whether in gender, nationality, race, class, religion, language, culture or thought: the existence of difference does not necessarily imply the potential for conflict. The existence of difference is a condition of being. It is that which allows us to value diversity, to experience our being as distinct yet not separate from another. Conflict is the product of an economy which stipulates that the most desirable outcome of a transaction is profit, that the most desirable outcome of an interaction is gain. In other words, conflict can only exist within an economy where one outcome is consistently valued over the other. What will it take for us to move to a place where we are not just content to accept a little loss sometimes, but where we want to give more than we receive? And if we find ourselves in this place, would we dare to call it peace?
Peace is not an obligation. It is not a compromise. It is not a halfway house. It is a conscious, renewed and continual commitment to responsibility. It means caring for no other reason than simply because we care, because we feel for others the same way that we feel for those who are closer to us than our own breath. Lasting peace demands a revolution in the human spirit. It means becoming so sensitive that we feel another’s pain, that we cry their tears, that we breathe their breaths. To speak of peace without a broad vision and serious commitment is belittling, unjust, and an affront to dignity. Somewhere, this moment, a heart is breaking. Somewhere a heart is breaking, and if we are not prepared to respond to it with all of our being, with the fullness and urgency that it merits, by putting everything we most value at stake and walking into the very heart of responsibility, then what right have we to ask after peace?
The liberty that art affords must not take away from the responsibility that it demands. For the first time in the history of humanity, we have the resources, technologies and capabilities to ensure that every person on the planet has the fundamental basics that they need to survive. What will we do with this privilege? As storytellers, every one of us roams these streets that shelter the rich in spirit and in paper, the poor in possessions and in faith, the rich in compassion and in fear, the poor in knowledge and in time. Their voices and eyes, fingers and silences, tears and bones: they bring our words to life, they lull our dreams to sleep. Memory, storied backwards through time, is the promise that must spur our steps towards possibility: the possibility of every life lived whole. And in the midst of the brokenness that ravages our world, if this living possibility is to continue to shine through the eyes of every face we see, it will only be when we learn to give our voices to the silence of those lives which tirelessly teach that there is no such thing as independence, or, conversely, that we are always in dependence.