King intended these words as a comment on the Vietnam War specifically, and on war generally, but when I hear them I think of more day-to-day concerns, and of the way in which our ideals—the way we want to live our lives—become separated from how we actually live, moment by moment. We may want peace in our lives, but we more often end up with strife.
It seems every close relationship we enter is begun in the future hope of continued shared happiness, intimacy, and joy. And yet if we’re not careful we end up with distance, bitterness, and blame. We’d like to get from point A to point B, but end up at point Z (the end of our dreams). How does this happen? And perhaps more importantly, how can we prevent it happening so that our lives can fulfill their promise?
One trap we fall into is what I call “blind hope.” Years ago it occurred to me that hope is a negative emotion. That might sound puzzling or even upsetting because people generally regard hope as being a very positive thing — even as a sacred virtue. But what I mean by saying that hope is a negative emotion is that hope is often just clinging to the idea that something we want to happen will come about, even if we do nothing to bring that goal about. We think that hope is a path. Hope can easily involve a kind of magical thinking, where we assume that just because we want something, it’ll happen, as if our thoughts can directly affect the world.
This has become part of a number of New Age “philosophies” involving visualization and “the power of attraction.” I even heard one young woman say she didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant because the mere fact of not wanting to get pregnant would stop conception from happening. All I can say to her is “good luck with that.”
It’s necessary to have a goal. We have to have at least some sense of where we want to go in life, because it’s unlikely we’re going to find ourselves stumbling into a peaceful existence with others. But we need to know what to do to bring about peace in our lives, and to actually do it. We need strategies. We need tools. We need to have a sense of what is and what isn’t the path. Just “wishing” to be at the goal isn’t enough.
We may actually want to have peace and love in our lives, but we may also have other goals that make it impossible for us to bring those things into being. We may have mixed motives. So we may want to be always right. Or we may wish to avoid conflict. Or we may be fearful that if other people knew what we were really like, they would reject us. Or we may need the high of constant excitement and drama. We may want any of these things (and others), and not realize that they’re taking us in entirely the wrong direction. We want, on some level, to have loving relationships with others, but we’re doing things that bring about distance, or even conflict.
Actually, this kind of thing is inevitable. We’re always going to have mixed motives. What’s important is that we decide what’s important, and keep coming back to that, over and over. We have to learn to spot when our habitual tendencies are creating conflict or alienation, and learn to come back to what’s important. Life is an ongoing act of clarifying goals.
Lack of tools
We may have the goal of bringing more peace into our lives, but not know how to go about it. We may lack the tools for transformation. Or at least we think we do. Ordinary virtues such as patience, kindness, and the capacity to forgive and to apologize are vital, and are always accessible, at least in theory. But many of us find that just “trying to be a nicer person” doesn’t work in the long term.
We need some kind of spiritual discipline to help us grow. We need to cultivate mindfulness so that we remember that we have a choice to be patient, or kind, or to forgive, or to ask for forgiveness. We need to develop lovingkindness so that we are more aware of the living reality of our own and other’s emotions, and so that we can learn to make kindness a way of life. We need to cultivate an awareness of life’s brevity and fragility so that we can learn to appreciate the present moment, and the people we share it with.
When we have a goal of creating peace (shanti) in our lives, when we patiently sort through our mixed motives, and as we strengthen the positive within us through spiritual discipline, peace increasingly becomes a part of who we are. We find that we’re less likely to get upset, more likely to care about others. We’re less inclined to judge and more inclined to be accepting and patient. We worry less, fear less, and have the courage to face life obstacles. And our lives are imbues with faith and hope, not as bling qualities, but as a deep confidence in the rightness of the path of peace along which we daily walk.