I wrote a Christmas story about the Magi a few years ago, which was published this year, and in which I portrayed these three men (before they attained wisdom) fighting a perennial war among themselves somewhere in ancient Persia, until, exhausted with the effort, they see a star in the west (east, for us) and chase after it, hoping that it would bring them peace.
Since that magical star reputedly appeared eons ago, and despite our three wise guys’ desire never to fight again, there have been other wars, and there will be more wars, until the world itself boils over.
So why do we fight? Is war a congenital human condition, the outcome of our struggle for competitive advantage? The result of greed? Do protracted periods of peace, lead us to a sense of lack, a desire for more, and thus to war? Conversely, do periods of war eventually cause us to wear out and say, “That’s it!” and seek a bit of peace? Is there a constant need for a high and a corresponding low to give us form and definition?
Sometimes we fight wars in our misguided belief that we can thereby bring about peace. Some enlightened nations believe that they “know”; that theirs is the better way. This holier•than•thou approach has led to sticky situations in the last decade alone: Iraq and Afghanistan are notable examples, where no clear victor has been declared and the mess is still to be sorted out. And let’s not talk about Vietnam. Wasn’t it just under a hundred years ago when we put young men in smelly trenches to get their brains blown up in exchange for gaining a couple of feet of land at a time; land gained one day and lost the next in a counterattack when more brains were blown up? And if that was not enough, we were back at it just twenty years later, taking it up a few notches even, and leaving over 60 million dead in WWII. Was that enlightenment?
It seems to me that war and peace is a process of evolution towards the vision of enlightenment. We seem fated to go through cycles of war and peace, with occasional time•outs for stocktaking and reflection, when the real learning occurs. War and peace both contribute in an iterative way, leaving markers etched into our collective psyche that eventually may lead us—if visions can ever be realized—to the state of enlightenment: our one thousand years of peace as foretold in the good books of many religions. Nirvana. There are no shortcuts to this process for any nation it appears, and you can’t impose peace from above either; it has to come from within, just as the desire for war does. Perhaps Afghanistan and Iraq will get there, but on their own time•table, not ours.
But why only a thousand years of peace at the end of this bloody trail? Why not more, why not everlasting peace? Could it be because that during these thousand years we would have become fat and lazy, have taken peace for granted, and become restless and anxious to bash up our neighbours again in order to feel good? Will the thousand years have been just a pause before the re•commencement of another cycle of war and peace?
Wise Men, Magi, Three Kings, whatever you call yourselves, what did you learn from your trials? I have too many questions and am not interested in frankincense, myrrh and gold. What real gifts, in the way of answers, can you offer us this Christmas?