The characteristics of rivers can teach us that peace works differently from what we might suppose.
A few weeks ago, John S.K. Kauwe III, President of Brigham Young University Hawaii reflected on the properties of rivers. “Through sand or stone, rivers have a steadiness, persistence, and power that will carry it over, under, around, or through any obstacle.”
He then quoted the biblical prophet Isaiah, who compared the rivers’ power to the principle of peace (see Isaiah 48:18).
“I believe he (Isaiah) is talking about a peace that steadily and inevitably continues through every challenge of our lives,” President Kauwe continues. “Allowing us to proceed over, under, around, or through everything we face.”
So how does a river (and peace) do that?
Water is incredibly adaptive.
When it rains from the skies to start little streams, it rushes down to the valley floor. Does it hit an obstacle, like a hill or boulder, it will simply flow around it.
Should the barrier be bigger, a lake will form, and eventually, the river will break free at the lowest point, running over the barricade.
We also have seen rivers that seem to disappear when a mountain blocks their path, showing the water’s ability to go under.
Finally, the river is able to split up into its tiny water molecules, allowing it to sink through the soil and even stone. A river therefore, can even go through an obstacle.
Peace must be able to accomplish all of the feats as well. It needs to know when to avoid a confrontation when to wait and gather strength, when to look for alternatives, and when to seek an almost symbiotic alliance with the enemy, so a new path can emerge.
This is why there is almost no universal strategy to reach peace. It is a creative process that works with the environment it encounters.
Patience & Persistence
In all this adaptable-obstacle-overcoming, rivers show two properties that are rare in human beings: Patience and persistence.
Rivers are patient. If they need to go over an obstacle, they can amass water in a lake for years and decades before breaking over the natural dam.
The strength they pour into this lake is constant, but not monotone. It will wax and wane with the rain and melt of the seasons: a silent, pulsating persistence.
Our efforts at solving conflicts and gaining peace will be effective as we mirror the behavior of the river.
Peace is nothing accomplished over night. The rule of thumb is this: It takes as long to solve a conflict as we have allowed it to fester. Sometimes even longer. It will require persistent effort, but also patience to get to that better state that we desire for our relationships.
For this, we do not only need to develop peaceful characteristics with consistency and repetition, we need one more thing: the right skills.
Rivers have one ‘skill’ that can teach us the right approach.
The Path of Least Resistance
Rivers strive towards the ocean by a single force: gravity. And lacking pretty much any other force, they go the path of least resistance.
Now, the path of least resistance has a bad rep. It’s not the “blood, sweat, and tears” that is so prominent in our western culture. This leads us to equate the ‘least resistance’ with laziness or a lack of effort.
This could not be farther from the truth with rivers. They apply exactly the right pressure and ‘effort’ needed for the obstacle. Why? Because too much usually backfires (e.g. flash floods).
Try the following: Push against someone else’s hand. They will most likely push back. Increase the pressure. They will draw level. The more pressure we apply in our efforts to solve our conflicts, the more headwind we will create. Often with a roaring flood that leaves everyone and everything in its path devastated.
Pressure is a bad peacemaking tactic.
The more we try to force our opinions and truths on others, the more they will resist. The more we stack our arguments, the less they will listen. The more we exaggerate our standpoints, the more desperate and deluded we will appear. And when we finally end up attacking the other person, verbally and/or physically, we have lost not only our credibility but any chance at peace as well.
Following the river’s advice, we will be better at building peace when we adapt to the environment, are patient & persistent, and apply the least amount of pressure necessary.