"Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on Earth,
the peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father,
brothers all are we,
Let me walk with my brother,
in perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me,
let this be the moment now.
With every step I take,
let this be my solemn vow,
To take each moment
and live each moment
in peace, eternally.
Let there be Peace on Earth,
and let it begin with me."
In 1972 our graduating class of high school seniors sang this song as we took our place on the bleachers beneath the same lights our boys had "beat Central" for the State championship earlier that fall.
We were graduating from a small regional high school surrounded by dairy farms, large summer estates, and the small pastoral villages that fed our student population with its "best and brightest."
We were Woodstock wannabes. We wore the requisite pumps and hose, but went bra-less under our white sundresses, and had a pair of tattered jeans and a halter top in the backseat of our get-away car for wearing to graduation parties after dinner with our parents and "honored guests."
We wore hope for the future on our faces and tried to keep our fear of the unknown hid well beneath a deep layer of optimism and folk music. We were a generation of activism and protest. We had watched our brothers, cousins, and friends be drafted into fighting a war we didn't believe in and die for a cause we were confused about. And soon, as we knew all too well, some of us would no longer be protected from this system (of drafting young men once they graduated from high school) by our childhood and youth. Soon, someone's boyfriend or best friend would volunteer, or be asked, to take an oath, don a uniform and travel to a place with jungles and monsoons to fight an enemy we weren't sure we hated. It was our last moment of childhood…and we knew it.
I remember walking up the steps of the platform where we would sit…waiting for the principal to make his remarks, the valedictorian to give her speech, and our names to be called in alphabetical order…and wondering how we could stop the madness of a war that took fresh-scrubbed boys from farms and small towns and turned them into fighting machines…or worse yet, the unthinkable…fallen heroes sent home to weeping mothers and girlfriends, fathers and teammates.
It was one of those moments burned into my memory like the initials my sister and I carved into an old beech tree…not faded by time, but remarkable for it's clarity "after all those years."
For the first time that I can remember, I actually listened to myself think what I was thinking…and then I listened to the words that were coming out of my mouth while I was thinking those thoughts…and the "coincidence" was staggering. I was terrorized by the thought that my friends and I were being launched into a world at war, a world where we felt hopeful, but somehow--in the deep recesses of our fears--powerless to make a difference, and yet the answer was falling from my lips with such clarity.
"Let it begin with me…"
I was very angry with a family member that night. I was hurt by what I felt was negligent disinterest. I had vowed earlier in the day that if this person actually showed up at graduation, I wouldn't even acknowledge their presence beyond the polite, "hello, thank you for coming." I had actually practiced being elegantly aloof. I would be above it…on the surface…but I would continue to seethe deep inside. I had the right…right?
Walking up to my place on stage that evening I suddenly realized that I didn't have the right to harbor a war within my heart….even one that seemed so reasonable and justified. I did have the right to let peace begin with me.
Sitting down in my place and looking out at my family taking up two whole rows near the front, I felt all that anger and hurt wash away. They were there. They had come to celebrate a milestone in my life. My parents were proud and my seven siblings were fresh-faced and dressed for a party. My grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and one great-aunt were smiling up, each with their own memory of me as a child skipping through their hearts as they waited for my name to be called.
I decided to actually think about what I was seeing. They were in the one of the closest rows to the stage. This meant that my family, who were customarily late for most appointments, events, etc., had arrived en masse early enough to get premier seating. My parents had driven 60 miles, from where they had moved earlier in my senior year, with a car full of seven children from age one to sixteen, and had kept them neat and clean, on a very warm June afternoon with no air-conditioning. My grandmother had driven with my great aunt almost as far, but very slowly, to be there. And my aunts, uncles, and cousins had carved out this evening from very busy schedules to gather on a football field, sit on hard metal chairs, listen to a guy they didn't know talk about a bunch of kids they would never see again, only to watch me walk a dozen yards, shake the principal's hand, accept my diploma and return to my seat.
Where was the war I was so hell-bent on continuing to fight only hours before? Where was the disinterest I was willing to sacrifice my own grace for? Where was the hurt I felt so justified in wearing like a badge of honor? It was not "out there" in the smiling faces of my family and friends. It only had a life if I gave it one…in my own heart. I suddenly realized that by perpetuating that war within, I would be the one missing out on my own "party." I was the one who, although I might get to parade around in my practiced aloofness, would miss out on all the warmth, affection, and joy that had brought my family to my graduation in the first place.
When the ceremony was over, and my friends and I had turned our tassels to the other side of our mortarboards before throwing them high into the air, my family crowded near the steps of the stage to congratulate me with tears (Mom's), hugs, kisses and my uncle's bearlike grip around my shoulders.
Instead of the cool "hello, thank you for coming" that I had practiced, they got the real me. I cried in my mom's arms, I jumped up and down waving my diploma with my sister and cousins. I was the oldest, so the first to graduate from high school in our generation. I picked up my little sister and carried her around as I introduced my family to the teachers, administrators and friends who had made my years of high school so wonderful.
As we headed off for a surprise graduation party at my aunt and uncle's house--something I would have been mortified to discover had been planned all along if I had been aloof and distant as planned--all the warring in my heart had ceased and there was a great peace in me as I squeezed into my place in the way-backseat of our 9-passenger station wagon with my sisters. It was a great night. I would join my friends at a graduation party later, but this was family time and I was ready to celebrate my first post-childhood lesson in being a real peace-activist in their warm embrace.
This would be one of the most important lessons I ever learned…one that I am still working for mastery in…but grateful for each "refresher course" along the way.
As I watch a new generation of young men and women march off to a questionable war, I can vote, I can protest, and I can write my congresswoman and senator. But I am still convinced that the most effective way to make a difference is to go to battle with any wars that may be raging within my own heart…with peace…."peace that floweth as a river, from the eternal source alone…" (hymn 276 - C. Wesley)