How we can transcend the cycles of war and trauma in our world
All Quiet on the Western Front is up for the best picture at the Academy Awards. It is not a happy or inspiring movie, but an important one. It sheds light on the horrors of war, tracing the experience of a young German soldier in the trenches of WWI, from the initial euphoria of adventure and glory to the quiet desperation of an endless and brutal fight.
The quiet at the end of the film is fleeting. Just a pause. The film is a reminder of how trauma returns and repeats in cycles. The damage of WWI triggered WWII. The legacy of WWII produced the Cold War. WWII and the Cold War are the underlying currents animating the war in Ukraine today.
Neil Howe and William Strauss’ book “The Fourth Turning” offers a thesis that great wars break every 80 years or so partly because a generation who directly experienced the horrors of a prior great war passes away, and the rest forget what was not directly experienced (https://www.businessinsider.com/protests-coronavirus-crisis-fourth-turning-theory-millennials-boomers-2020-6). We are now 80 years away from WWII.
In the midst of the horror of All Quiet on the Western Front is also a quiet lesson about the way out. The soldiers care deeply about their friends – the ones they share water and food with as well as stories about families left behind. So, as they viciously attack the enemy, they feel the deep hurt from the loss of friends cut down. What hurts is not death itself, but the loss of those we care about. We can be indifferent and callous to the suffering of strangers but much more deeply affected by the suffering of those we know and love.
So, at the end of the day, we need to care about each other. How is that possible in a big faceless world filled with strangers whose identity is shaped in our minds by distorted second-hand information and social media memes? It is by creating direct experiences with those we don’t know. When we sit together, eat together, and share our stories together, we invariably find mutual respect and friendships. At the Center for Creative Leadership where I worked for more than a decade, we found that you could put a random group of people from around the world and a variety of organizations in a program and the strangers would leave at the end of the week as trusted friends. This is no different from the soldiers in foxholes. They sat together. ate together, they told stories of their families. Real connection creates caring and compassion.
The most peaceful places in the world today – the Nordic regions – developed a strong sense of unity and mutual commitment through folk schools that kids from around the country attended together. The goal at these schools – as much as learning and self-development – was fostering relationships. Singapore, which today is peaceful and prosperous, once faced deadly race riots in the 1960s. They created a housing model where different ethnic groups were placed as neighbors in apartments side by side. The wall of separation and bias broke down and gave way to friendship. The examples are plentiful from around the world.
A finer point is that just placing people in the same place doesn’t automatically result in us interacting. We need structures for interaction and connection. In parts of LA, police-community animosity diminished when the police were invited to play basketball with inner-city kids.
So, if we want peace and mutual prosperity in the world, we need to create direct experiences and authentic connections across our tribes, ethnicities, socio-economic grouping, and national boundaries. Not the superficial exchange we have on social media, but presence, interaction, dialogue, and sharing. An intimate small group conversation over a meal matters more than a giant festival filled with strangers.
The organization I created, CoMetta (www.cometta.co) which means community loving kindness, has the tagline: Meet. Share. Love. I believe this is the path to peace and prosperity. Let’s meet. Let’s eat. Let’s talk. Together.