The philosopher Confucius was onto something when he stated, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” This quote applies to many areas of life, but these days it makes me think specifically about conflict resolution, particularly on a national and global level. It seems that the higher the stakes are, the more complicated is the act of conflict resolution. But does it have to be?
I recently watched a screening of a documentary film entitled 333 that follows the practices of a centuries-old, exclusive congregation of Muslim scholars known as the Ambassadors of Peace. These scholars dedicate their lives to imparting wisdom on a variety of miscellaneous subjects. Their foundation is on maintaining a peaceful society, at the root of which is conflict resolution. They don’t just impart wisdom, however, they practice what they preach. And they do so in the most casual of ways… making peace look easy.
Residing in the legendary Malian city of Timbuktu and throughout the rest of Mali, the Ambassadors of Peace lead very humble lives, yet it is difficult to attain both the status and the title they hold. According to the documentary, the Ambassadors must declare commitment to this lifestyle by the age of five. By the time they are ten, they speak several languages and are able to recite the Quran by memory. They spend time living as beggars to master humility. As fully initiated Ambassadors, they meet before sunrise every day, in what they call the “Circle of Knowledge,” to discuss various intellectual and scientific topics, many linked to the concept of peace. They reference manuscripts of Islamic doctrine—that are nearly one thousand years old—that cover a very wide range of aspects which are relevant to society.
So, how do folks like this resolve conflict in their community? Well, that happens under the Palaver tree, or a talk tree. When the Ambassadors encounter differences, they gather under the tree and hash them out, and they won’t leave that tree until they have resolved their differences. One of the tactics, I recall, includes several members of the circle drafting possible resolutions, with the group ultimately coming to a complete consensus on the most ideal solution. The preferred solution is then explored fully and turned into a manuscript, to be referenced when future, similar, conflicts arise. While watching the documentary I thought, “We’ve gotta get America’s congress under that tree, pronto.”
Now, if you’re thinking, “This sounds naively simplistic! Who can settle anything by coming together under a tree and talking? Real conflict resolution is often messy and complicated…” then the question I pose to you is, “Does it have to be?”
In all fairness, I think our government already does something similar to this. When we have an issue with different opinions on how to address it, you will find members of congress proposing different bills to resolve the issue. The problem is—especially these days in our polarized political climate—it becomes extremely challenging to get the “circle” to agree on the best solution.
The difference between congress and the Circle of Knowledge is the pure humility, empathy, and tendency for direct approach that I presume comes with dedicating your entire life to promoting peace and harmony. I think humans are inclined to be good, but we are also far from perfect, and we often don’t acknowledge that aspect of humanity. Peace is complicated, because it is seemingly achieved by not just finding wonderful methods of conflict resolution or conflict transformation, but also by going to great lengths to condition the human soul to master this art. The Ambassadors of Peace, as highlighted in 333, do just that, and thus make peace look easy. This brings me to another quote I love, by Woody Guthrie, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” No disrespect to congress.
If you’d like to learn more about this documentary, go to Malian Manuscript Foundation. The film is a very thoughtful and well-crafted artistic illumination of a culture and society from which we can all learn. Check it out for yourself if you wonder, like I do, what it would take to achieve peace in the world.