What peace means, what it used to mean, & why the difference matters

When you hear the word peace, what first comes to mind? A still lake? Or a sense of calm within?

What if I told you those long before us thought of peace as something around us—as more relational than emotional. And I believe the way we’ve come to see it has serious implications for how we think about mental health.

This came together for me last Christmas while reflecting on the holiday spirit.

The idea of peace within couldn’t be more appealing after the turbulent year that was 2020. And it’s a huge Christmas theme, isn’t it? The angels bestow peace and goodwill upon us all, Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, churches across the world hymn to peace on earth.

As is common with language, the meaning of peace has changed over time. What we mean by it today is quite different from what the ancient Hebrews and early Christians did when they used shalom (Hebrew) or eirene (Greek—the root word for the name “Irene”). And this evolution of meaning has important implications for everyone, even if you’re not Christian or even religious at all.

Piecing it together

When we use the word “peace” we are generally thinking of something internal—something we feel within. We talk of feeling “at peace with yourself,” of “being at peace,” of “losing our peace.”

For the ancients,  peace wasn’t so much a feeling within as a state of affairs. Peace was a state of all things connected rightly, each element in harmony with all the rest, as in a perfectly functioning human body or an ideal society. It would, of course, be no surprise to find that people in such a place or system felt free of anxiety, but those would be the results of peace, not peace itself. In this sense what they considered a state of peace was an ideal state, like we might today imagine a utopia. 

To summarise, then: a state of peace is what leads you to feel “at peace.”

Double trouble

This view of peace sheds light on two things we might be in danger of losing due to how we think about peace today. It indicates that peace is:

  1. Relational, not individual
  2. Positive, not negative

Let’s look at each.

Relational, not individual: Peace comes from everything being in the right relationship, which means it’s more external than internal— less a state of mind than a state of affairs. The internal state, then, is a happy by-product—inevitable, but a by-product nonetheless. It’s something that happens when everything is connected in harmony, like in a healthy body, or an ideal society. This meaning of peace still exists in older English phrases like “disturbance of the peace” or “to breach the peace”: which means, not a disturbance of order, but of good feeling. Another instance: when we say people are “at peace,” we don’t mean they are feeling good about each other, but that there is harmony between them—or…

Positive, not negative: We often use “peace” negatively—defining it by what it’s not, instead of what it is. Like when we say people or groups are “at peace” or that we “just want peace”: that is, they’re not fighting, or we don’t want to fight—even if tensions remain. (Think the “peace” of the Cold War era.) Or we might describe a place as “too peaceful”—and by that, we don’t mean there’s “too much” harmony, but that there’s too little activity. One way I sometimes picture the contrast between these positive and negative kinds of peace is as the peace of death versus that of health—one is the quiet that comes with nothing happening, while the other is the harmony that comes with everything in equilibrium.

Speaking of health…

WHO defined peace?

We might have lost the perspective of peace that ancients had, but as it turned out, guess who recovered it in their definition of health? Yep, the World Health Organisation:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

WHO Constitution

Compare this definition with shalom as I’ve described it, and you see similarities: something that is positive (“well-being…not merely the absence of disease”), and relational (“social”). It’s even also all-encompassing (“physical and mental”) and comes across as an ideal we’re meant to aspire to. You might even say the mental aspect of health is how we think of peace today. 

It’s an almost perfect. Why “almost”? There’s one small problem: despite how it acknowledges health as having a social element, it’s just one element, not the overriding thing. We come away from that definition with the sense that health—or peace, including mental—is individual. And if you see it mental health as individual, it of course makes sense to seek it within yourself—or at least get it in.

But what if it’s not within, but around you?

Peace as a network

One of the commonest issues I find in my work is that people don’t understand why they have to put in work to be free of anxiety. If you’re stressed out, it’s understandable that the last thing you want is emotional work from your therapist.

But once we see peace as relational, it makes sense that it would require work—we intuitively understand that building healthy relationships takes work. How peace looks is not it how comes about.

We are, in the end, only as whole as our relationships: to be healthy, physically and mentally, is not something we can find inside, but around us, in the richness of our connections to the people and things that surround us.

I sometimes wonder how many mental health issues today are rooted in the idea that my health is “mine” when it is really about my connection with everything else. Good health arises from being in right relationship with food and activity, substances and the environment—and yes, even between our own minds and bodies. 

As I have written in an older essay, Therapists are the new priests:

The importance of social support is well recognised within mental healthcare, and has been for awhile, but it’s proven difficult to get going in practice on anything like a large scale.… That’s why patient driven groups have over time come to prominence. But even those have limits: people often come expecting to be served rather than recognising themselves as part of a community to which they are expected to contribute.

True peace is complex. It takes work: deep breaths aren’t enough, not fighting won’t cut it—what we need is true harmony. And that only comes about when we’ve built the relationships with everything else that makes harmony possible. For Christians, Christmas is a time to reflect on their connection to Christ as the foundational relationship, but whatever your faith (or lack thereof), the point is peace is relational before it’s emotional.

And with that I wish you peace, for real, in 2021.

God knows we all need it.

If you want a good explainer video on shalom and eirene, check this from The Bible Project:

My thanks to Adam Tank, Charlie Bleecker, Dan Hunt, Sara Campbell and Vandan Jhaveri for thoughtful feedback on this one, and to Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash for the photo.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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