Champion of inner stillness showed way to world peace

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 20, 2006

Forty-five years ago this week – Sept. 18, 1961, to be exact – one of history’s most remarkable voices for peace and understanding died in a plane crash in Africa. How his wisdom is needed this very moment when worlds are on a collision course to mutual self-destruction. To the memory of Dag Hammarskjöld, statesman, peace maker, and human being, I dedicate this column.

Dag Hammarskjöld was the second secretary general of the United Nations, a position he held from 1953 till his untimely death. Born in Sweden in 1905, the son of a former Swedish prime minister, he served his country in various governmental posts before moving to the UN, always with a strong conviction about the equality of all people before God and the importance of peace.

It was while he was on a peace initiative to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) that his plane crashed.

World peace, for Hammarskjöld, had its roots deep in the individual human heart. In his position as secretary general he built the United Nations Meditation Room, which he regarded as the world organization’s spiritual centre.

“We all have within us a center for stillness surrounded by silence,” he wrote. “This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense. It has been the aim to create in this small room a place where the doors may be open to the infinite lands of thought and prayer.”

Of this high ideal, Virginia Swain and Sarah Sayeed, speaking last year on behalf of their New York-based Institute for Global Leadership, lamented:

“Today, the meditation room is hardly visited by those who are engaged in the work of responding to and mediating violent conflicts. Perhaps the resulting lack of access to silence and stillness, and what Hammarskjöld also termed ‘the noise that impinges on our imagination’ can symbolize and help explain the slow rate at which conflicts are addressed, resolved, and healed.”

They cited a remark by H.E. Jan Eliasson, the president of the 60th General Assembly, who was speaking in honour of Hammarskjöld’s 100th birthday:

“‘You must have an inner life and an unfailing moral compass; we can’t deal with issues today without the spiritual dimension. Dag Hammarskjöld represented that spiritual dimension . . . he had moral compass; tremendous responsibility to exercise it rightly.’”

Throughout his professional life, Hammarskjöld kept a journal of short observations on life, death, duty and beauty. Published shortly after his death as Markings (English translation by W.H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg), the book is full of wisdom and reflection from someone who accepted the mantle of global leadership with grace and humility. Here are just a few gems I’ve gleaned from that book:

  • “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting-point of the road toward the union of your two dreams – to be allowed, in charity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mould it?”
  • “You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy, doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds.”
  • “We have to acquire peace and balance of mind such that we can give every word of criticism its due weight, and humble ourselves before every word of praise.”
  • “To exist for the future of others without being suffocated by their present.”
  • “Maturity: among other things, the unclouded happiness of the child at play, who takes it for granted that he is at one with his play-mates.”
  • “You can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively. . . . A successful lie is doubly a lie, an error which has to be corrected is a heavier burden than truth: only an uncompromising ‘honesty’ can reach the bedrock of decency which you should always expect to find, even under deep layers of evil.”
  • “Goodness is something so simple: always to live for others, never to seek one’s own advantage.”
  • “Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.”
  • “Give me a pure heart – that I may see Thee,
    A humble heart – that I may hear Thee,
    A heart of love – that I may serve Thee,
    A heart of faith – that I may abide in Thee.”

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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