World Peace: The Bathroom Paradigm

“How much longer will you be in there?” my older offspring queried the younger through the bathroom door last night.

“Oh, are you waiting? Just a sec!” the younger replied.

How times have changed.

Like the rest of the world, our household experiences scarcity. In our case, one of the main scarcities is “tub.” We have only one. On the household level, this is roughly the same degree of conflict as that experienced by nations and corporations over energy and water resources.

Years ago, when my husband and I shared our home with only partially civilized short people, the exchange would have been something more like, “GET OUT!” “I WAS HERE FIRST!” “YOU’VE BEEN IN THERE FOR AN HOUR!” BANG! BANG! BANG!  followed by wails of “MO-OM!” and more banging.

If no “Mo-om” happened to be handy at the crucial moment, the conflict quickly spiraled to boots in the door, shoving, pinched fingers – in short, a microcosm of what often passes for national or international politics.

The upshot of the kid combat was fortunately no memorable injuries – except for a hole in the bottom edge of the bathroom door. Once the door was clearly out of danger, my husband and I were able to patch, sand, and paint it back into a semblance of normalcy.

As Chair of Civilization Studies around here, I was mildly gratified by last night’s exchange. It occurred to me that I know a thing or two — okay, at least four things — about peaceable living. Yes, my credentials include Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) and Non-Violent Communication (NVC) training, a brown belt in Aikido (a pacifist martial art), and a lifetime study of arguably the least violent form of communal decision-making (Quaker Meeting). But my genuine claim to practical expertise may lie in raising children to resolve conflict. (I think getting two of them to the age of eighteen ought to be the equivalent of a PhD.)

So, in case any world leaders are listening, I hereby offer my ideas for the essential elements of world peace. Fortunately, since they mostly aren’t, these principles are also useful for individuals wanting a little more peace in their lives. The building blocks are: boundaries, a sense of proportion, mutual respect, and, as a last resort, arbitration.

Boundaries: The foundation is recognizing that each individual, (or state, or nation), is responsible for its own reactions to unavoidable realities. If I want a bath, and you want a bath and we both arrive bathrobe-clad at the door at the same time, I am not responsible for your feelings about the situation. My own feelings, on the other hand, are completely my responsibility, as is my behavior. They belong to me. I own them. It’s very useful for me to be aware of and even sympathetic to your feelings, but I am not in charge of them, and had better not participate in them. On the other hand, I need to be aware of and able to process my own emotions, be in charge of my own thoughts, and bend my personal resources toward a peaceful resolution.

Sense of proportion: Not everyone has the same degree of need or want. If we arrive at the bathroom door at the same moment, each clearly aware of our own need and able not only to articulate it, but also to see it in perspective, it will be much simpler to discern a solution.

For example, “I have a huge headache and need to soak for an hour,” vs. “I just cleaned the garage and need to bathe NOW” might mean the latter person will take a quick shower and be careful not to use all the (scarce) hot water. Or possibly the first will take two aspirin and relax while waiting for the tub.

The important thing here is not to conflate your passing whim with someone else’s desperate need. If you can wait, if you don’t really care that much, if your emotional resilience well is pretty deep today – be generous.  Be kind. Store up points in heaven, karma for your next life, or just a little goodwill. And remember that just because you can’t relate to someone else’s desperate need or might even disapprove of it, it still exists for them, just as real and valid for them as yours are for you.

Mutual respect: Let’s say you have a half-dozen people all counting on your coiffed arrival at an important meeting, but the other person has just cleaned the family dog in the backyard and is cold and dirty. If you respect the other person, and trust that they respect you, resolution can go either way. There are other ways to get clean, other ways to get warm, other ways to get coiffed.  Even if you’re the dog-cleaning type who cannot comprehend what “coiffed” even means, respect can bridge that gap. Accept that someone’s need for coiffing might trump your need for soaking.

On the other hand, even if you have a clear vision of how coiffing occurs in a bathroom with a tub, and can’t immediately imagine any other scenario, pause and entertain the possibility that you owe this dog-washer a debt of gratitude.

Arbitration: When your own skills and sense of proportion fail you, when neither you nor the other party can muster sufficient mutual respect, when you just cannot see around that corner to the other person’s point of view … that’s when you call on the mediators, the justice system, the United Nations. Those doing the arbiting need to be the wisest, kindest, most insightful people available. In other words, “Mo-om!” (Okay, or “Da-ad!”)

One of the most important times when arbitration is essential is when there is a massive power disparity between the parties to conflict. The power difference between a four-year-old and an eight-year-old is significant, but it pales before the disparity between indigenous occupants of land and the international corporation that covets their resources.

On a global scale, there must be houses of arbitration, negotiation, and international justice. The stakes are too high to leave combatants without at least the resources of your average siblings-in-conflict. Polluting the planet’s air and water, aggravating climate catastrophe, leaving millions starving or without basic human rights, and the wasteland of war: these are intolerably stupid outcomes of conflict. This “hole in the bathroom door,” no one will ever be able to patch.

Scarcity affects everyone — no matter how rich or poor, how isolated and powerless or surrounded by sycophants in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps the most important aspect of peaceable living is the realization that Apollo 8 brought us in 1968 after Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to see the Earth from space: one planet, whole, without national borders or economic divisions. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” Happy families know there is no amount of pushing and shoving that yields peace. In Aikido, we learn that pushing back (or pulling away) yields more of the same, while blending your own motion with that of your partner transforms the energy from conflict to collaboration. The key is to unite with your partner in conflict to the degree to which the conflict vanishes.

The tools of peaceable living are known. We have discovered and rediscovered them. The price of peace is a blend of creativity, kindness, and compromise.

It’s a bargain.

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