When peace broke out on Christmas Eve in 1914 on the Western Front, it had nothing to do with conflict resolution. Soldiers exchanged gifts with the enemy, sang carols and played football together in no man’s land. How such peace can come about and its relationship to conflict is the subject of this blog.
‘Break out’ is the correct expression since peace does not depend on an absence of war or conflict, indeed one or both are necessary for it to exist.
A break out or break through of peace can only happen when you see how profoundly stuck you are, and that there is no way to resolve the conflict.
The words ‘without memory or desire’ could easily be a line written by the First World War poet Wilfred Owen to describe a live or dead soldier. They were not. Instead they were written by Wilfred Bion who had been a tank commander on the Western Front. He later became a psychoanalyst and wrote these words to describe the best way to engage with patients.
Bion was not (consciously) referring to the First World War, nor was he (intentionally) writing poetry, rather he was describing what is necessary to be able to listen to patients with ‘evenly suspended attention’. He thought that being without memory or desire produces a sort of ‘reverie’ which is more than listening. Reverie is the state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts: as in a daydream.
I think Bion made an unconscious link between what he witnessed or experienced in the war and what it takes to be present.
Part of what made the break out of peace possible for the soldiers on Christmas Eve was that the conflict was not personal, and in a certain sense it was not theirs. They did not need empathy for the enemy, when they met him they saw themselves.
It is hard to imagine their state of mind as they looked out across the crater filled landscape strewn with bodies. The smell and sound of artillery fire, and the sight and stench of burnt flesh would have been inside them: they were surrounded and invaded by death. Death did not shape their reality, it was their reality.
Death viewed as a future event is a projection. When we take back our projection it becomes possible to live in the present. Many people seek this through spiritual practice, attending retreats, taking holy orders, meditating, finding a guru or through religious instruction; while others see a therapist or take psychedelic medicine in an attempt to achieve the peace, insight and wisdom of death.
Nothing could have prepared them for trench warfare. The majority of soldiers were young conscripts with only basic training, and now they found themselves confronted with death on a grand scale. It was as though they were forced into a fully immersive meditation on death.
Of the many soldiers who will have in one way or another cracked up, some will have then been able to accept death in such a way that it became part of their lives. Beneath the fear and trauma they might have found a deep sense of peace.
Peace is disturbing, it is a disruptor. A large enough break out of peace would be capable of ending the industry of war and conflict resolution. Even though a global break out of peace is unlikely the very idea frightens those in power as it threatens how they benefit from the industry of war and the façade of conflict resolution. Peace threatens conflict not by resolving it but by undermining it, and yet the spectre of peace can stir a desire for more conflict.
It so disturbed the First World War generals and politicians that they quickly outlawed displays of peace on the front line. They rightly saw it as a threat to war and as an undermining optic for the families of soldiers and the voting public.
Peace is never far away and it is capable of disturbing any soldier that goes to war. It seemed the closer they got to the front line the closer they came to peace. Besides personal safety, this may have been the main reason why generals kept well away.
It would seem that no man’s land was anything but, when enemy soldiers met for the first time it became every man’s land. Meeting the enemy in this way may well have been transformative, however it did not itself create peace, rather it provided an opportunity for a mass break out of peace.
They could not find peace in no man’s land since they brought it with them. Undoubtedly the soldiers would have longed to go home to their families and yet they could not go home for they were already there. Those who did return to their families would have taken home with them, however any peace they had was likely buried under the trauma of war and the challenge (and possible trauma) of joining in again with ‘normal’ life. It could well have been that for some, returning after the war was more difficult than war itself.
You cannot look to the world for peace, the world has to be looked at from peace.
The only football I watch is the World Cup. Watching football has become almost impossible without thinking of the soldiers in no man’s land. For me a football has become a powerful and unlikely symbol for peace.
England and Germany share a celebrated postwar rivalry when it comes to international football. Amidst the tabloid rhetoric and passionate rivalry, there remains the abiding peace that was brought to no man’s land.
To my delight when I asked a young man why he had chosen me as his therapist, he replied, ‘From what I’ve read it looks like you won’t try to fix my problems.’ It seemed he did not want me to get in the trench with him, I think he wanted us to kick a ball around, and for me to become someone who might sing with him and help make sense of his life.
He did not want me on the opposing side as the therapist that would tackle his defence. He also knew he would fight on both sides and often at the same time. In a sense he wanted me to meet him in no man’s land. He had had enough, and although he was desperately tired of conflict he knew it was valuable and perhaps essential. Afterall, his conflict brought us together and gave us somewhere to meet.
Conflict is necessary and inevitable, it can take up a lot of energy and it can also generate it. Internal and internalised conflict provide an opportunity for self-overcoming.
There is great value in the death of a therapist. Such a therapist is unlikely to try to resolve conflict, instead they see it for what it is and do not get distracted by it, or let it disturb the peace.
Of the two so-called therapists I have, one is dead and the other is as good as. Like two unknown allies working separately and with different means they nonetheless work toward the same end, the dead one (Nietzsche) helped me to live, while the live one has helped me to die.
Both have shown me the way home without going anywhere.
Like any small child I left home to keep it safe. And to keep it very safe I forgot about home. It did not feel safe since, like all of us, I had no choice but to join in with the drama and conflict of life and family. So I boarded it up, hid the key and forget where I buried it. Since then my life has been about returning home. This meant understanding that it was not conflict that forced me to leave, rather it was the pressure to join in that gave me no choice.
Just as a soldier returning from war struggles to reestablish home, a child struggles to stay at home when joining in.
The child is alone only in the presence of someone.Donald Winnicott
Some children sacrifice themselves by trying to become the solution, many of whom grow up and become therapists only to continue trying to be the solution.
It is a mistake to believe conflict resolution is the way to peace. Many people with good intent believe peace is possible through resolving conflict, they may do good work and achieve much and yet their mistake is understandable given that the dominant narrative tells us that conflict is the obstacle to peace. Ironically it is these beliefs and conflict resolution itself that take us further away from home.
Anyone in a long term relationship with a lover, a husband or wife, a partner, a family member or a therapist will recognise that conflict resolution can work with the small stuff, either by negotiation, accommodation, compromise or coming around to the other’s perspective. However, a big enough conflict is not resolvable, these provide the necessary friction required for peace.
I think when M Scott Peck wrote, ‘people marry for the friction,’ he was acknowledging unconscious motivation when pairing up. An ‘unconscious fit’ is when you choose someone with whom there is just enough friction to be able to not resolve conflict thus providing the context and opportunity for peace. This is why friction is so valuable in a relationship.
People often make the mistake of looking to a relationship or partner for peace, relationships and people do not provide peace, but it is possible to recognise peace in yourself while in a relationship. To bring peace into a relationship is perhaps the greatest gift, although it may not be appreciated or seen as such. However, the reward for peace is not appreciation, a peaceful relationship or resolved conflict: it is peace.
Recognising peace does not mean the relationship will survive or flourish, peace is not invested in successful relationships, or in conflict resolution.
The soldiers fighting in the trenches were not trying to live in the moment, they were forced to. What is so challenging about being in the present moment is that it is always slipping away. To live in the present is to always be slipping away, and so being present is to not be.
To truly become yourself is to accept your constant slippage. In other words death is never elsewhere, it only appears so if you choose not to live in the moment.
To live in the present, in the ‘here-and-now’, is in a certain sense to live death, which means to disappear. To live death or disappear is a sort of reverie, a kind of lucid day dreaming where you create your own evanescent world out of the day residue.
Psychoanalysts that pretend to be a blank screen, or psychotherapists that present a professional, or personalised, preferred or therapeutic version of themselves have presence, however the ‘disappearing therapist’ has the most peaceful presence since they alone are fully present.
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