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Alex Lickerman M.D.

How World Peace Is Possible

Just because something is hard doesn't mean it's impossible.

When I was in grammar school learning about World War II, I remember thinking how grateful I was that society had finally matured to the point in the intervening years that war no longer ever broke out. Today I can hardly remember what bizarre thought process led me to conclude that people had actually become less barbaric with time. I do remember I also believed racial prejudice had died out decades ago and that the pronouncement of guilt or innocence by our justice system reflected actual guilt or innocence.

But I've forgiven my earlier self this embarrassing naivete because I think his conclusions weren't based entirely on ignorance as much as on a hope for how things could be. And though for many years I scoffed at the notion, I have to confess now that I've become convinced world peace is indeed possible.


Countries don't go to war. The leaders of countries go to war. They marshal their reasons, stir up the public, dehumanize the enemy (as I wrote about in an earlier post, The True Cause Of Cruelty), and send out their forces. The number of people actually responsible for the decision to go to war can usually fit comfortably inside a single large-sized room.

Leaders, of course, only occasionally represent the best of what humanity has to offer so they usually exhibit the same failings and weaknesses as the rest of us. They get angry when they shouldn't, let their egos motivate them more than they should, and are entirely too concerned with doing what's popular rather than what's right. They suffer from the same three poisons as the populations they lead: greed, anger, and stupidity.

The true cause of war lies in the unchecked rampaging of these three poisons through the hearts of individual people. Though the situations confronting world leaders that lead them to decide to wage war often seem complex, the only way in which they're different from conflict that erupts between two people standing in a room is that they occur on a larger scale. But if in civilized societies we expect people to work out their differences amicably (whether themselves or with the help of the courts), why don't those same expectations apply to differences between civilized countries?


In a world in which tyranny continues to exist, war may in fact sometimes be justified. In the same way it's necessary to fight to defend oneself when attacked, so too it's sometimes necessary to go to war to put down injustice, or even the possibility of injustice when its likelihood is great enough. Rarely, however, is this given as a primary reason. Even democracies seem to be roused to war only by self-interest.

Fair enough. But when any leader chooses war, he or she should do so with a heavy heart. As the original Buddha, Shakyamuni, once said when asked if killing was ever to be permitted: "It is enough to kill the will to kill." In other words, we should strive to kill the the idea that killing others should be anything other than the very last action we ever permit ourselves to take. Shakyamuni was a realist. He knew the world would always be filled with people bent on committing evil, people whose ideas about how to live involved oppressing and killing others, and though he felt compassion even for them would speak loudly and passionately about the necessity of standing against them in concrete, practical ways.


To achieve world peace—to create a world in which war ceases to break out—seems impossible because of the sheer number of people who haven't yet mastered themselves, who haven't tamed their ambition to raise themselves up at the expense of others, and who haven't learned to start from today onward, letting past wrongs committed by both sides remain in the past. In short, it seems an impossible dream because we're in desperately short supply of human beings who are experts at living.

An expert at living isn't a person who never experiences greed, anger, or stupidity but rather one who remains in firm control of those negative parts (which can never be entirely eliminated), who's able to surmount his or her darkest negativity, and displays a peerless ability to resolve conflict peacefully. What generates this expert ability to resolve conflict? Wisdom and joy. Wise people are happy people, and happy people are wise. If enough people in the world's population became happy and wise, violence would be used far less often to solve conflict. If this pool of experts at living became large enough, we'd start seeing some of our leaders being picked from among them. And if enough leaders were experts at living, war, too, would be used far less often to solve conflict and further the interests of nations.

I'm no Pollyanna. I fully recognize that as long as there remain inequities between classes, as long as people feel they have little hope for a good life and remain unable to tolerate others believing differently than they do about important issues, violence and war will continue. Which means the real path to world peace can't be found in the passing of more laws, in diplomacy, or even in war itself. It can only be found in the actions individual human beings take to reform the tenets they hold in their hearts in order to become experts at living. Some argue human nature being what it is precludes the possibility of world peace, but I would counter that human nature doesn't need to change—it only needs to be managed. Haven't countless numbers of us already learned to do this every day, denying our baser impulses in order to contribute to solutions instead of problems?


The reason most scoff at the notion of achieving world peace is because if you buy the principle that individual human revolution is the real solution, then literally some billions of people would need to actively embrace the notion of devoting themselves to continual self-reformation. But—if you buy the principle that enough people becoming experts at living would create world peace, then you can't argue world peace is literally impossible—just extraordinarily unlikely.

I don't believe world peace will be achieved in my lifetime. But I do believe it won't be achieved in any lifetime after mine unless I make causes for it to happen now. How can I-and you-make those causes? As Gandhi famously said, by becoming the change we wish to see. Strive to become an expert at living. Be good to those around you in concrete ways. Create an island of peace in your own life. If you do, it will spread. If enough of us do this, our islands will meet, ceasing to be islands and becoming whole continents. World peace exists literally in the actions each one of takes in our own lives.

The most significant obstacle to achieving world peace isn't the extraordinary difficulty involved in becoming a genuine expert at living, though. It's that those most in need of reforming the tenets they hold in their hearts, who most need training in how to be an expert at living, are those least interested in it, a point well articulated here.

The only real lever we have to pull with such people is their desire to become happy. We must convince them to follow our lead by becoming so happy ourselves—so ridiculously, genuinely happy—that they decide on their own they want to be like us, that they want what we have. And then we have to show them how to get it. Good ideas are our weapons. When people come to deeply believe in notions that promote peace, peace will follow like a shadow follows the body.

To say this strategy is long-term would be an understatement. But all other solutions seem to me even less likely to succeed than the one I'm proposing here. You may think me as hopelessly naive as my younger self who thought war had already been eliminated for continuing to hope that widespread, lasting peace is possible, but as John Lennon famously sang, I'm not the only one. The ultimate dream of every Nichiren Buddhist is the accomplishment of world peace by the achievement of individual happiness.

We need to summon the courage to even voice a commitment to the goal. We can't worry about if it can be done at all, or how long it might take. It can be done. It will take a long, long time. But the argument that it can't be done and therefore shouldn't be attempted is the argument of cowards. If there weren't people throughout our history who refused to listen to that logic, we'd all still be living in caves. Look again at the last word in the title of this post.

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.