It says something about our species that we have eradicated smallpox and invented vaccines and antibiotics for yellow fever and the Black Death, but war continues to plague us; that in the past century — this supposed pinnacle of enlightened modernity — war has claimed or maimed more of our children’s lives than any virus or bacterium. It says something about both our immense imagination and our immense blind spots: Our species’ failure to eradicate war is a failure of the imagination, a failure to imagine what it is like to be anybody else, without which there can be no empathy and compassion — those vital molecules of harmony, the other name for which is peace.

While I stand with Kathleen Lonsdale on the question of war, I also understand that there are myriad complexities keeping human beings from simply refusing to take part. On the phone with a poet friend the other night, sorrowing with heartbreak for the lives with hopes and dreams and loves slain at that very moment on the other side of our pale blue dot by this failure of the imagination, she read to me a passage from Sapiens author Yuval Harari’s op-ed in TIME Magazine, capturing with such openhearted clarity the human predicament in wartime. His words, so deeply personal yet so perspectival, came as a spell against hatred, summoning into being the part of the human spirit we must nourish so that there may be no more war — in the world, and in the heart. Hearing them was a salve for me that night.

Illustration by Oleksandr Shatokhin from Yellow Butterfly — a tender wordless story about war, hope, and keeping the light alive.

Harari writes:

Most Israelis are psychologically incapable at this moment of empathizing with the Palestinians. The mind is filled to the brim with our own pain, and no space is left to even acknowledge the pain of others. Many of the people who tried to hold such a space… are dead or deeply traumatized. Most Palestinians are in an analogous situation — their minds too are so filled with pain, they cannot see our pain.

But outsiders who are not themselves immersed in pain should make an effort to empathize with all suffering humans, rather than lazily seeing only part of the terrible reality. It is the job of outsiders to help maintain a space for peace. We deposit this peaceful space with you, because we cannot hold it right now. Take good care of it for us, so that one day, when the pain begins to heal, both Israelis and Palestinians might inhabit that space.

Complement with Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence, penned in the interlude between two World Wars, about human nature, war, and the path to peace, then revisit Tolstoy and Gandhi, corresponding in the first years of the first century of World Wars, on why we hurt each other and how to stop.

Maria Popova

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