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Thoughts on Peace from a Humanistic Perspective

This is a short speech I delivered at an interfaith service in Louisville, Ky on 13 November 2011, organized jointly by the Louisville Peace Action Community and Occupy Louisville—the kickoff service for their "Seven Days of Solidarity" event.

In 2006 my wife and I took our kids to the theater to see Gary Winick's brilliant remake of Charlotte's Web. During that penultimate scene, when Charlotte crawls out of sight to die alone, my five-year-old son began to sob. He was experiencing profound grief for this fictional character, a character who wasn't even human, not even a cute, cuddly cat or dog. It was a spider—just about the least lovable critter you can imagine. Yet there he was, crying his eyes out. No one had taught him that he was supposed to feel that way. He just felt it—naturally.

Thomas Hobbes famously claimed that it is natural for humans to be "nasty" and "brutish," and many share his dim view. Humanists don't deny that aspect of our nature. But from a Humanist perspective it is just as natural for humans to be caring, compassionate and kind. Feeling empathy is just as natural as feeling antipathy toward others. Humanists strive to extend our empathy to all human beings. By expanding our circles of concern to encompass ever wider swaths of the human landscape we might make progress towards minimizing strife and engendering peace.

Yet being natural doesn't necessarily equate to being easy. For some reason it's easier to dislike the people we don't know. We readily judge strangers. We criticize their clothes, their hair, their weight, their accent—and we let those superficial characteristics influence our attitudes toward them. Why is it that my five-year-old son was able to feel empathy and grief for a fictional spider, yet we adults find it so difficult to do the same towards so many of our fellow human beings? The difference is that for an hour and a half prior to that scene in the movie, he had the opportunity to get to know that character on a personal, emotional level, and through that connection came to care for her.

In other words, through personal knowledge of others we are able to humanize them. When we know people personally, we know that they love and are loved by others, and that they sometimes feel grief and sorrow. But that's a luxury we don't have with the billions of humans who are strangers to us. We can't get to know everyone. And all too often we limit our empathy to the small portion of humanity we know. But when we encounter strangers—either in person or through the media—it's safe to assume that they too love and are loved, that they too sometimes feel sorrow and grief, just as you and I do. So why not begin with that assumption? Why not take that as our starting point when we encounter strangers, rather than judging them?

I realize that's easier said than done. It's difficult to humanize strangers without the chance to get to know them. So I'd like to share with you a simple technique that I regularly use to help me feel closer to strangers in the hopes that you may find it useful in your own life. When you encounter strangers in your day-to-day life, the moment you look at them, bring one of these images to mind: if it seems appropriate, imagine them coming home after a long trip to a small daughter who runs up to hug them; or, picture them at the moment they received news that their mothers had died. It only takes an instant to conjure up such an image, yet in that brief instant we are able to transform our attitudes toward others, to see them as fellow human beings rather than as strangers. With this simple technique we are able to bypass the long process of getting to know them personally and jump straight away to the empathy that comes with such personal relationships.

Looking at others in that way is, to me, an essential aspect of the Humanist perspective. As a Humanist, I believe that ultimately all we have is each other, and if we want to live in peace, we have to work that out together. My hope—and the aspiration of Humanism in general—is that we can overcome those obstacles to recognizing our common humanity. How much more peaceful would our world be if our first impression when we encounter strangers was to humanize them?