Growing up, I attended Catholic mass flanked by my grandmother, who usually was deep in prayer with her rosary beads, and siblings who struggled as did I to follow the Latin service. When the Second Vatican Council instituted changes in the mid-1960s to revitalize the Catholic Church, they reestablished the rite of peace into the mass, believing peace and justice were central to the church’s mission and that of all Christians. This ritual calls for offering one another a sign of peace, an expression of hope that peace fills our hearts and world—families, church, and communities. While practices vary in different countries, the sign of peace typically is a handshake or embrace with family members and close friends, and the statement “Peace be with you.”
The ritual invoked controversy. Some liked the expression of peace, while others resisted contact with strangers. When we discussed the new practice around the dinner table, my grandmother, who’d worn a hearing aid for many years, asked, “So what are they saying?” We replied, “Peace be with you.” A broad smile appeared on her face; she chuckled and said, “Oh, I thought they were saying, ‘Pleased to meet you.’”
Peace has many definitions: tranquility, coexistence in harmony and freedom, a stress-free state of security and calm, mental or emotional calm, and serenity, to name a few. Today, the world is far from peaceful; in many areas, people suffer from human rights violations and war takes the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. Emotional unrest within families, poverty, and debilitating diseases threaten peace for our neighbors at home and around the globe.
Each December, we revisit holiday rituals that underscore our yearning for peace on earth, where we strive for peace to triumph over war; for hope and love to triumph over adversity; to correct social injustices; and to eliminate enmity between peoples. We focus on community festivities, enjoy religious celebrations, and extend good will to strangers, offering to brighten the lives of those less fortunate. One of the songs reminiscent of the season, “Let There be Peace on Earth,” written by Sy Miller and Jill Jackson, was introduced in 1955 to a gathering of youth from different backgrounds and religions. The group joined hands and voices to sing of peace and spread a spirit of friendship and understanding, which reverberated worldwide. The song’s message, Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me, transcends culture, race, economics, and religion. The song has received the George Washington Honor Medal by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge and the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt reflected on the conflicted role of the United States as an armed community in a civilized world, declaring, “Peace, like charity, begins at home.” As nurses, we welcome strangers into our “homes”—hospitals, clinics, community organizations, nursing homes, and any other place where we practice. Perhaps our greatest gifts are the ones we provide every day to bring peace to the men, women, and children who come into our care. We vow to keep patients safe while providing compassionate care to individuals and families. We strive to provide a peaceful death at the end of life. We treat the homeless, who must confront financial, social, and behavioral health issues. The homelessness rate has decreased in the past 4 years, and an active campaign seeks to stamp out homelessness among veterans. Yet many are still without peace and the comforts of home.
Another less visible vulnerable population we serve are the victims of sexual and domestic violence. We may not recognize them as our friends, neighbors, or even family members. Organizations promoting freedom from such violence have adopted the slogan “Peace begins at home” to sponsor programs ensuring safety, security, and sanctuary. In addition to the obvious threats and injuries from domestic violence, a recent survey revealed long-term health consequences in female survivors of abuse, including above-average rates of depression, diabetes, asthma, digestive disease, and drinking problems. As well, intimate partner violence is a growing concern among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.
We may not like to think of these problems at this festive time of year. But we should be on the lookout for individuals who need our help by detecting an unsafe environment or relationship and helping them find shelter from harm or the outside elements. Signs of peace adorn greeting cards—doves, olive branches, the globe, and children of all colors with hands clasped together. Although there’s no perfect picture of the absence of poverty, freedom from personal threats, or escape from physical or mental stress, we can help create personal pictures of peace one person at a time. For those who enter our care, peace can begin with us.