Thursday, 28 July 2011

Pondering World Peace with Shari Arison (and James)

'Um, if you wanted to achieve world peace, how would you go about it?’ I asked James as we took the SP for his walk.
‘Eh what?’ he said, giving me his best 'Mum's going mad again' look.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Turn it round. Why isn’t there peace?  Why don’t people just get along with each other?’
He stopped and bit a chunk off his licorice bar. 
‘Go on.’
‘People get chewed up about being different.  Like having different coloured skin or wanting different bits of land or believing in different gods.’
Couldn’t argue with that.
‘Or you get nutjobs like Gaddafi who wreck it cos they have to be the big boss.  They think they’re the only one who can do it right.’

Couldn’t argue with that either.  But then, ain’t it true of all politicians, to greater or lesser degrees?

‘But why do people care?’ I said. ‘Why does it bother them that people are different colours or worship different gods? I mean, if you strip off the skin we’re all the same bone and muscle and tendons.’
‘Ewww, Mum.  Do you have to?’  He paused.  'It’s kinda mad really but it’s like you get two people talking and getting on fine and then one says, ‘I support Arsenal’ and the other one says ‘I support Spurs’ and then they’re, like, ‘you’re a total arsehole’ at each other.’
yes, it's bog roll...

‘Tribe stuff.’
‘I dunno.  Or it’s like school bullies I suppose.  They don’t feel good in their own skin so they take it out on other people. You know, self-esteem shit.’
Okaay.  Hold that thought.

Shari Arison. Pic by Sally Whittle
In Tel Aviv we went to visit Mahuti, the visitor centre for the Essence of Life organisation, founded by Shari Arison.  Arison is Chairperson of the Ted Arison Family Foundation and apparently the richest woman in the Middle-East.  When she inherited an empire she decided, not just to make more money but to work on a broader, wider, far tougher mission.  In fact, really, it doesn’t get much bigger than world peace, does it?  And the irony was inescapable, that she was talking about peace in a country that is surrounded by enemies on the outside and disputes inside and on its borders.  But then, I suppose, there’s nothing like that kind of situation to concentrate the mind.
‘If we want peace in the world, we have to find it in ourselves first,’ she said. ‘We have to take responsibility for our selves and for our actions.  The first step always begins inside us.’

Her belief is that if we learn to listen, to respect one another, to act with compassion and open our hearts lovingly, then we may have a glimmer of a hope of achieving a more harmonious society.  It sounds woolly and New Age but actually it’s tough, inner warrior work.  Both as individuals and as societies we project our fear and loathing outside, onto other people, onto other races and creeds.  Learning to look in the mirror and take back those projections is bloody hard work, a lifetime’s work.  It takes commitment and awareness and humility and self responsibility.
Arison is relentlessly upbeat about this vast task. ‘If we focus our speech and our hearts on bad, bad will grow,’ she said. ‘If we focus on good, good will grow.  The way we think and act shapes our reality.’

Essence of Life runs workshops, has its own radio station and its own visitor centre (with everything spelled out in Hebrew, Arabic and English).  But its most interesting aspect is its work with children.  The Let’s Join Together programme is running in Israeli schools, from kindergarten to senior school and, interestingly, it has already been shown to reduce significantly the level of violence amongst children and teenagers.
It’s all about fostering solid self-esteem. About teaching children to become aware of their emotions and to realise that they are okay in themselves; they’re just fine.  And that, fundamentally, we are all the same, we are all one.  That’s a hard one for our ego-led society but, logically, you can’t escape it.  Like it or not, we are all one.

I like the concept of Arison’s work.  I would love to see children, from a very early age, learning to respect and approve of themselves so they can, in turn, respect others.   Is it pie in the sky?  Is it pissing in the wind?  Well, Arison is a firm believer in the hundredth monkey effect (in which learned behaviour spreads instantaneously from one group to others once a critical mass is reached).  And, you know what?  Where’s the harm?  If all schools taught these principles from a very early age, who knows?  It’s easy to be cynical; easy to think that the system will find a way of subverting the message (and indeed it may).  But you have to try, right?  
My main practical concern is that the programme’s image and delivery is too woolly, too New Age, too fluffy.  It’s the same issue I have with the Steiner system of education.  It’s  beautiful, it’s dolphins and rainbows and bunny rabbits and fluffy kittens.  But it doesn’t have the balance – it's all up in its head somehow; it isn’t terribly grounded.   And, because of that, it runs the risk of alienating the very people it needs to attract. 

I'd also love to see the programme reach out beyond the Jewish world.  Arison has the money and the clout to take this trans-global, trans-cultural, trans-faith. There seems to me a huge irony that Essence of Life with its message of 'We are One' is - at present - so insularly Jewish .

But hey, it’s a start.  And I cannot help but applaud anything that teaches people (and in particular children) to listen, to understand, to love.

So.  What do you reckon?  Should we have classes in self-esteem and self-awareness at nursery?  Would children grow up more balanced and happy if they learned meditation, yoga, self-questioning at school?   If we put peace right in the heart of our children, might we kick off a seismic reaction that could permeate society?  Or is that just hippy-shit?  Is it just being a dreamer? 


Isobel Morrell said...

It's a wonderful concept - and one to strive to achieve. Problem is that we are all also humans: and even starting with children, they become adults (and watch how adults behave in the process!) Perhaps an adult form should also be tried simultaneously?

Exmoorjane said...

Ah Isobel...I know... Arison is trying to reach adults as well (I maybe didn't make that clear)...But harder maybe to teach adults than children? Like getting a truck to do a three-point turn in a cul-de-sac... I dunno..but would love to see people trying. xx

Anonymous said...

I like the concept too and it is interesting to read that the programme is running in schools. I'm a huge fan of children learning to love themselves and support anything that boosts self-esteem. I think a lot of children's self worth, self belief, self-esteem etc, or lack of, comes from how their parents and close family members treat them. So Arison's work can support that but that foundation has to be there in the first place or there is very little to work with. Really intersesting post. It's certainly made me think.

Anonymous said...

Interesting even. Not intersesting! That is possibly a made up word.

Jackie Buxton said...

Thoughtful as ever, Jane. Hubbie always quotes something he heard at a conference, that the reason humans evolved and apes didn't, was because humans had the ability to lie. Unfortunately, this, and some of the other less impressive traits of human kind seem to be tribal, born out of a need for survival and as thus will be hard to change. However, people like Arison remind you that you can do anything you want if you want it badly enough. Love your son's clear take on life - he will go far!

Anonymous said...

I really agree that peace begins at home in one's own heart and actions, and ripples out from there. I like to think that in practising peace we are proving a spiritual principle that is inherently natural to all, yet needs to be discovered (or recovered?) and evidenced, individual by individual. Sort of like the fact that someone had to uncover the laws of flight in order to make airplanes viable...yet that underlying scientific law was always there. Beyond the self-limiting sense of ego and pride, it is natural - if not always easy - to forgive, to drop resentment, to let bygones be bygones...something we can often learn as adults from kids, rather than the other way round!