Building Peace: What’s Missing in the Definition

It has recently come to my attention that my use of the word “peace” extends far beyond the colloquial definition of “nonviolence”. A friend suggested that I write about my broader view of peace in order to provide context to my blog posts on peacebuilding in the classroom. So far, I’ve written about building peace as the purpose of education, redefining masculinity and femininity, use of words and language around students, and specific classroom situations that highlight the need for increased attention to peace. The purpose of this post is to clarify what peace means to me and how I envision a better, more peaceful world.

When I asked my students to define the word peace, most of them replied that peace means nonviolence, or the absence of war. They’re only partially correct. Merriam-Webster defines peace in four ways:

  • a state of tranquility or quiet: as
    • freedom from civil disturbance
    • a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom
  • freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions
  • harmony in personal relations
  • a state or period of mutual concord between governments or a pact of agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity

The bolded definitions above are what I see as missing from much of our conception of what peace is and how it plays a role in everything that we do on a daily basis, as well as everything we are. Seeking freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions, whether as an individual or working to do so with others, is a peaceful act. Working towards harmony in personal relations is a peaceful act.

It is those acts that are often missing from our interactions, society, and wider discussion of what it means to develop a peaceful world.

Going Further
I propose expanding this definition, however. I see peace as the keystone in the arch of what comprises a better world.

The keystone is the last piece that goes into an arch during construction. The keystone holds the rest of the arch into position and allows it to bear weight. Without the keystone, the arch is unstable and falls. Without peace, we cannot build a better world.

We have to want a society that allows all people to be free from any sort of oppression, far beyond that of thoughts or emotions. That means working to reduce causes of suffering, including poverty, homelessness, preventable disease, hunger, and lack of clean water. The same is true for developing harmony in personal relations. We need to act with kindness, compassion, and caring towards all others, whether we know them or not. This would open the possibility for dialogue as a way of resolving conflicts, which is an aspect of the “nonviolence” definition of peace. These behaviors need to become part of social norms on local and global scales if we want to develop a better world.

A broader definition of peace also requires concern for the environment. The purpose of peace among humanity is to create a world that is better and more sustainable than the world we have today. Being peaceful in actions towards the environment, working to protect and preserve Earth’s existing resources, and developing technology like renewable energy are all essential components of creating a better world for all. As Planetwalker John Francis explains in his TED Talk, “I learned about people, and what we do and how we are. And environment changed from just being about trees and birds and endangered species to being about how we treated each other. Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around us and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.”

Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around us and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.

Do we treat the environment peacefully? Or are we destructive, harmful, greedy, competitive, aggressive, and violent in our actions towards the planet? What does that say about how we view sentient life?

Peace and Sustainable Development
At the end of last school year, I spent a few days discussing the UN Sustainable Development Goals with my grade nine students.


Pairs of students chose a goal to research. They prepared presentations to teach the rest of the class what their goal means, work in progress towards the goal, and ways that students might be able to get involved in advancing the goal.

The way I see it, all of these goals reflect a peaceful world in which we care about those around us. The state of tranquility or quiet in Merriam-Webster’s definition will be realized when we end poverty and prevent diseases, assure that Maslow’s basic needs are met, and all humanity is guaranteed a financial safety net that provides the freedom to make choices, create, explore, develop, and achieve.

When we decide that we want to develop an age of sustainable development, we are choosing peace. Developing a peaceful world requires us to commit to treating those around us with dignity, and actively work to help all people increase overall well-being. Altruistic action is necessary towards humanity and towards the environment. These are inherently peaceful actions because they support those around us in the aim of improving our world for all. As Matthieu Ricard explains in Altruism, “In essence, altruism does indeed reside in the motivation that animates one’s behavior. Altruism can be regarded as authentic so long as the desire for the other’s welfare constitutes our ultimate goal, even if our motivation has not yet been transformed into actions.” This is how we will build and maintain a better world for ourselves, our children, and the rest of humanity. Choosing peace in this context requires active commitment to developing a sustainable world.

Truly choosing peace means looking at the world and its people and cultivating an attitude that reflects the messages we want to send. I think of peace as a state of mind and a way of being, which is what I try to explore with my students. It’s not enough to claim that we want peace for our world. We have to act, be, and think peacefully in order to make that world a reality.

That is the world I am working to build. I invite you to join the conversation about how to create our better, more peaceful sustainable world.

There can be no peace as long as there is grinding poverty, social injustice, inequality, oppression, environmental degradation, and as long as the weak and small continue to be trodden by the mighty and powerful. – Dalai Lama


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