Let’s be more extreme in our passion for engaging those different from us, for justice and equality….

Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in defense of justice is no virtue.
– Marcus Tullius Cicero

Clearly, extremism is not the enemy, in spite of what many are inclined to say right now.

The real enemy is the lukewarm determination to address the dilemmas that fall disproportionately on the poor, on the lower middle class who see their situation deteriorating, on the disempowered, on the displaced, and on the dark skinned people of the world. The benumbed response of the privileged to the urgency of a number of shared problems redounds to the disfavor of us all in a world where so little can be masked or hidden.

For too long the West’s quest for the ideal life has been framed around notions of personal gain and independence.   Now we can see that passion for a fairer, juster, and more loving world, accepting of those who are different from us, is an essential part of the truly liberated self. In the new world that is emerging, we will not grow into fully realized human beings without connectedness, compassion and justice. Recognition of these truths is growing. How can we encourage more people to embrace them?

For starters, let’s take a few minutes to recognize the values that have gotten us this far, and use the particular time we live in to understand them afresh.

Equality before the law. Religious toleration. Liberty of conscience. The consent of the governed as a requirement for legitimate government. Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear. Freedom from want.

Thinking about them can be embarrassing, because we recognize immediately how much more needs to be done to achieve them. If we have allowed ourselves to sink into a mindset where these great truths have become pat phrases echoing something we used to hear about in high school, we have some things to attend to.

Perhaps the angst that is in the air right now arises in part because, in the years leading up to the turn of the new century, some of us deluded ourselves into believing we had arrived in the task of creating a better world. Maybe the collapse of communism in 1989 took away the West’s sense of urgency, or released a kind of hubris, best exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of “The end of history,” which dubbed liberal democracy the “winner.”

Embracing values is not the same thing as snapping your fingers and seeing the world become different. Embracing values is the first step in a way of life devoted to the realization of these values in the lives of individuals. We stand on the shoulders of a host of people who moved that struggle forward.

In this time when moderation is held up as the antidote to polarized politics, let’s be sure we are immoderate in protecting the values that undergird respect and compassion for those who are not our immediate kin. This is the minimum life asks of us.

What do I mean by “the Emerging Present”?

We are living in a world where “transition” is a failed descriptor. We can’t imagine a point of stasis down the road.

At the same time, we are bombarded with paradoxes and contradictions.

Genetics explain phenomena that only two decades ago were a mystery, while other repercussions of technology have created imminent climate catastrophe. Our knowledge of the brain develops exponentially, while dramatic increases in autism diagnoses remind us of how much we have yet to understand. Brutal beheadings are depicted to the world in a split-second. Electrification makes much more possible in the villages of India, while pollution hangs like a permanent pall over cities. Cheap oil prices suggest potential for economic expansion, yet instead they undermine confidence in the market. Social media have proven valuable in fomenting revolution, but at the end of the day are more successful at criticizing than at offering constructive paths forward. Religion takes on a fundamentalist character in some places, while churches in Europe close and one of the foremost writers on spirituality in the US brings out a book on creating your own religion. Democratization of authority brings many more people into the conversation, but threatens to paralyze leaders when we really need them.

In Europe, the failure to find a united response to the refugee surge, Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, Greece’s bankruptcy, Italy and Spain’s faltering economies, and the UK’s referendum on EU membership raise questions about the European project, which stood out as one of the outstanding achievements of the late twentieth century.

In the US, events of the past 18 months have produced greater awareness about the shocking plight of blacks in prisons and about “frontier” police tactics, but Syrian refugees are characterized as a potential threat rather than a group that needs help and support.   “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is a forgotten aspiration.

Facebook, registering one’s “friends” in the hundreds and possibly thousands, has proven not to improve the sense of disconnectedness of the lonely. Burgeoning numbers who work alone are instead finding community in shared office spaces and intentional common living arrangements. Indeed, the sharing economy raises hopes that the cold-hearted aspects of capitalism are being undermined. At the same time a self-help ethos is replacing service as a core philosophy.

This is a time when fear finds many entry points. We see it in the rise of extreme politics. But fear is often an unnoticed emotion that lies behind subtle behaviors – blocking out aspects of life we don’t understand, turning us towards people more like ourselves, shutting down creativity, urging us to pull in and become self-obsessed. Even those with the highest of apparent motives can adopt too narrow a focus, falling back on old patterns of thought, putting more time, money and effort into outdated endeavors.

I am proposing that the principle of “now” or “awareness” or “capturing the present moment,” clearly relevant to our personal inner lives, and widely expressed in popular literature on mindfulness and meditation, surely has something to teach us about our stance towards the world right now.

What does living in the present mean for those of us trying to do constructive things in the world?

Feeling this emerging world with my whole being seems to be part of the task. Awareness free of judgment, we are told, is the greatest agent for change. Instead of giving fear the upper hand, this is a time to love all the crooked, ugly, dysfunctional and glorious pieces of the planet right now. Of course we must act, but let’s act from a place of humility and listening. And let’s challenge the temptation to place limits on others in order to feel better about ourselves. It is good to be remembering that in uncertain times, encouraging those working alongside us might be our number one priority.




“I am here because I want to change the world,” announced one of my students, Chantal, on the first day of the semester. She spoke for a swath of idealistic engaged young people who have traveled through my classes on peacemaking and conflict resolution over the years.

These students remain in touch with me from Suva, Kigali, Manila, Juba, Bogota, London, New York, Tokyo.  They have worked with the Peace Corps in Burundi and Bulgaria and Mongolia.  They have become teachers, professors, public defenders, social workers, business executives, artists and international NGO workers.

What keeps us tied together?  It is more, surely, than the common experience of spending a semester together in Washington, DC.  I’d like to think it has something to do with the fact that we are together absorbed, in spite of being far apart, in a life of world engagement.

In the 1990s I joined the ranks of academics teaching and practicing peacemaking and conflict resolution.  I was attracted by that developing interdisciplinary field because it highlighted something unavoidably true about the world, namely that the inner life would have to be better understood and harnessed if humanity’s destructive tendencies were to be altered.

We have Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali to thank for  the term peacebuilding, which refers to endeavors to rebuild a society after war, but in addition captures the vision of social justice in its global form. Peacebuilding is an interdisciplinary field, drawing on anthropology, social psychology, religion, geography, ecology and group dynamics, as well as politics and economics.  It pulls insights about human character and motivation into the discussion about political tangles.  It is intellectually rigorous, but requires academics to be practitioners and to develop their thinking based on experience on the ground.

As such, it is more than a political science venture.  It is more like an experiment with a philosophy of life, where our engagement with political and social forces depends on our willingness to explore anything and everything that will enhance our tool box.  The field invites us to break away from expected paths and taste the exhilaration of risktaking.

But this task now, undoubtedly, looks quite different to my former students than it did when they were setting out with newly-minted degrees and exploding excitement about how they were going to make a difference.  Now, engaged in the day-to-day toil of the workplace, often balancing the pulls of family life and profession, struggling with the sluggishness with which the social environment embraces change, confronting shortage of funds and political barriers, I wonder how they feel about this world changing endeavor they have embarked upon?

I want to tell them that this is where it gets really interesting – this point where idealism and realism collide.  I want to encourage them to think of their endeavors in larger terms than the day-to-day. Facebook tells them they are not alone.  But there is a more profound way in which they are not alone – they are connected across the globe with others who have put their hand to a similar plow. In the midst of the practicalities, the moments of satisfaction and victory, or the days when it feels like one step forward and two steps back, their number one support should be coming from this global esprit de corps.

What are the touchstones of this life we have embarked on?  What conundrums do we wrestle with in this peacemaking task we have undertaken? What gives us joy and energy and keeps us going?  How do we deal with negative news that can push us to cynicism and pessimism? How do we sustain boldness and creativity?  How do we define success?  How have the core elements of conflict resolution – dialogue, advocacy, integrated solutions, teamwork – actually worked out in practice?

How do we preserve, in the pressures and busyness of our work, the space for experiences of growth, love and meaning, especially when we live so close to the pain of the world?

We are engaging with the world in a new time.  Some say a new consciousness wants to be born.  Certainly those of us who earned our degrees before the Cold War’s demise have seen our intellectual framework upended.  But now the change is so rapid that even the young are tested in their capacity to keep pace.

This space is a place to discover more about the personal side and the professional side of the task of peacebuilding as it has developed in the last twenty years and continues to develop.  I invite all those who visit it to respond with your experiences, insights and the ongoing questions that your work is forcing you to ask.