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Becoming a Twenty-first Century Peace Ambassador

Review – Cultivating Peace by James O’Dea

With many decades of experience working on behalf of and helping individuals and communities come to terms with trauma, James O’Dea is abundantly qualified to write a book dedicated to the practice of Cultivating Peace: Becoming a Twenty-first Century Peace Ambassador (2012). His book is in essence a guide, containing both information and a collection of instructions to help readers uncover within themselves the passion, patience and strength to contribute to the promotion and nurture of peace throughout the world.

His book actively encourages the reader to engage with the concept of and even accept the responsibility of peace ambassadorship: for example, in writing of the benefits of halting the inter-generational perpetuation of violence, O’Dea poses of his reader the rhetorical question, “Can you see how this might be possible?” (p. 74), challenging us to imagine – and contribute to building – a more peaceful world.

O’Dea focuses on one key element of peace ambassadorship in each of the book’s ten chapters. Each chapter begins with a discussion of the issue under consideration, in which O’Dea fuses research and facts with personal experience and anecdotes. Thus combining the collective with the personal, the global with the local, and theory with practice, O’Dea emphasizes the fact that peace is something which occurs in the real world – in our real world. Peace, he makes clear, is not only the work and responsibility of multi-national organizations like the United Nations; rather, peace is something to which every person can contribute, and at all levels of society from familial to international. We all have within us the capacity to become twenty-first century peace ambassadors.

The discussion presented in each chapter leads into two further sections, entitled ‘The Call’ and ‘Reflection and Practice.’ It is here that O’Dea translates the research and narrative of the preceding discussion into lessons which foster the knowledge and impetus for readers to strive to become peace ambassadors. To this end, O’Dea suggests certain activities with which aspiring peace ambassadors can engage. These activities can be either internal (self-reflective) or external (dealing with other people), because O’Dea’s book stresses the fact that while the need to build peace between other people is evident, peace ambassadors must first be at peace with themselves before attempting to foster peace externally.

For this reason, he suggests activities like creating a “Values Inventory” (Ch. 3) which will encourage each individual to recognize his/her opinions on and reactions to issues such as the use of military force and the sanctity of life. It is through knowing one’s own values framework, O’Dea argues, that people are able to put across this worldview to others. Further, as O’Dea notes in Chapter Two, our moral codes and beliefs need to be constantly reappraised in response to new experiences.

Aware of the fact that each individual is unique, with different experiences and abilities, O’Dea has obviously taken care to avoid making the ‘Reflection and Practice’ activities too specific or too structured. This approach means that aspiring peace ambassadors need to invest time and energy into ‘reading’ O’Dea’s roadmap for peace, a situation which leads to two main realizations. We recognize firstly that the path to peace (both internal and external) is not necessarily an easy one to navigate, and secondly, that just as each individual interprets the activities in his/her own way, so too are the paths which each peace ambassador will develop.

James O’Dea – Photo: FacebookO’Dea’s style of writing combines his personal experience with scholarship, and information with instruction. This preference for fusion echoes an important lesson which is continually underscored in Cultivating Peace: the interaction between mind and body. In several chapters, O’Dea makes it apparent that a peace ambassador’s thoughts and feelings manifest in the physical being, and vice versa. Chapter One in particular makes reference to the human body as a vehicle for peace: cultivate an “inner smile” (p. 14) O’Dea encourages, because what we feel on the inside manifests in our behavior to ourselves and to others. This idea is further developed in Chapter Six when O’Dea draws attention to the idea that the human body can function as a truth indicator because of the interconnectivity of mind and body.

Just as the links between the human mind and body can either further or hinder peace work, other connections exist between the two parts. O’Dea points out that physical and psychological wounds, including those received through conflict, become part of our identity (Ch. 4); in other words, become intimately linked to our very being. In this way, the physical body echoes and shapes who we are inside, and thus how we respond to the idea of peace ambassadorship. The reciprocal relationship between the external and internal mean that aspiring peace ambassadors need to focus firstly on cultivating peace within themselves before attempting to spread this message to others.

One overarching sentiment which can be traced throughout Cultivating Peace is optimism. The most exciting aspect of this sentiment is O’Dea’s belief that a world movement towards peace is gradually taking hold in contemporary society. In addition, he claims that the creativity of the twenty-first century has resulted in countless ways of interpreting and discovering peace practices and of inventing new and innovative pathways to peace. Another cause for optimism in O’Dea’s view is the fact that there are currently multitudinous actors on the world stage, in contrast to earlier times when omnipotent leaders dominated (p. 43), meaning that different voices can gain recognition. Resulting from the thread of optimism which O’Dea weaves, the book manages to serve not only as an instructional guide for aspiring peace ambassadors but simultaneously also provides them with hope and encouragement to pursue their cause.

Accepting the challenge of following James O’Dea’s specified roadmap to peace requires time and dedication. But if enough of us try to complete the tasks, perhaps one day directing people down the road to peace will be as straightforward as directing someone new in town to the local cinema. Just imagine being able to say: “Ah, you’re looking for World Peace? Turn left at Harmony Ave and continue straight along Reconciliation Drive until you reach it.”

This review was originally published, November 1, 2012, in PCDN Book Reviews.

The video to the right is a 12-minute introduction to Cultivating Peace by James’s O’Dea.