Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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She called herself Peace Pilgrim. For twenty-eight years, she walked across the United States carrying a message of peace for anyone who would listen.
When she started on her pilgrimage in 1953, Americans were fighting a war in Korea. The United States and the Soviet Union were in an escalating arms race. Nuclear annihilation, either intentional or by accident, was an ever-present threat.
Having vowed to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the ways of peace,” she crisscrossed the United States six times. Over her clothes she wore a tunic with “Peace Pilgrim” lettered on the front. The only possessions in her pockets were a comb, a folding toothbrush, a pen, a map, and leaflets to pass out along the way. She never carried money and wouldn’t take money from others. Nor did she ask for food or shelter, accepting them only when they were freely offered. Yet she rarely went hungry for more than a day or two before someone fed her. When no one invited her into their home, she slept in bus stations, by roadsides, in haystacks, under bridges.
Peace Pilgrim’s early life had been decidedly more conventional. Born Mildred Norman in 1908, she grew up on a small chicken farm in New Jersey. Captain of the debating team and valedictorian of her high-school class, she had no trouble finding a job after graduation. Her sister recalled that “she was very much what they called a flapper in those days,” spending her money on clothes, matching shoes and hats, and a flashy car. But eventually she grew disturbed by her success while others lived in poverty. At the age of thirty, after the death of her father and during a troubled time in a short-lived marriage, she felt the need for a more meaningful way to live. One night, in desperation, she went walking through the woods.
“After I had walked almost all night,” she recalled, “I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something motivated me to speak and I found myself saying, ‘If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am, take all of me, use me as you will, I withhold nothing.’ That night I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations, to give my life to something beyond myself.”
For the next fifteen years she devoted herself to service, working with emotionally disturbed adults and volunteering with peace groups. She began getting rid of material possessions and avoided what she considered to be unnecessary activities. “If what you’re doing will not benefit others besides yourself,” she wrote, “it is not worth doing.”
In 1952 she became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one season. During this trek, she had a vision of herself as a messenger for inner and outer peace. The following year, she adopted her new name and began her first cross-country pilgrimage from Pasadena, California. It would be a journey, she said, undertaken “on foot and on faith.” She carried leaflets explaining her philosophy as well as petitions requesting an end to the war in Korea, a global reduction in armaments, and the establishment of a national Peace Department. Eleven months later she arrived on the East Coast and delivered the signatures she had collected to the White House and the United Nations.
In 1964, having completed twenty-five thousand miles on foot, Peace Pilgrim stopped counting miles but continued walking for seventeen more years. She became a frequent speaker at college campuses, churches, and on radio and television stations. In the summer of 1981, Peace Pilgrim was being driven to a speaking engagement near Knox, Indiana, when an oncoming car lost control and she was killed in the crash.
Peace Pilgrim never wrote a book of her own, but in the year after her death, friends compiled interviews, letters, and transcripts of her talks into Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, from which the following excerpts are drawn. The book is available for free from the nonprofit organization Friends of Peace Pilgrim. (peacepilgrim.org)
Spiritual growth is not easily attained, but it is well worth the effort. It takes time, just as any growth takes time.
There were hills and valleys, lots of hills and valleys, in that spiritual growing-up period. Then, in the midst of the struggle, there came a wonderful experience — the first glimpse of what the life of inner peace was like. That came when I was out walking in the early morning. All of a sudden, I felt very uplifted, more uplifted than I had ever been. I experienced timelessness and spacelessness and lightness. I did not seem to be walking on the earth. There were no people or even animals around, but every flower, every bush, every tree seemed to wear a halo. There was a light emanation around everything and flecks of gold fell like slanted rain through the air.
The most important part of it was not the phenomena: the important part of it was the realization of the oneness of all creation. Not only all human beings — I knew before that all human beings are one. But now I knew also a oneness with the rest of creation. The creatures that walk the earth and the growing things of the earth; the air, the water, the earth itself. And, most wonderful of all, a oneness with that which permeates all and binds all together and gives life to all. A oneness with that which many would call God.
I have never felt separate since.
The inspiration for the pilgrimage came at this time.
When I started out, my hair had started to turn to silver. My friends thought I was crazy. There was not one word of encouragement from them. They thought I would surely kill myself, walking all over. But that didn’t bother me. I just went ahead and did what I had to do. They didn’t know that with inner peace I felt plugged into the source of universal energy, which never runs out. There was much pressure to compromise my beliefs, but I would not be dissuaded.
Some things don’t seem so difficult, like going without food. I seldom miss more than three to four meals in a row and I never even think about food until it is offered. The most I have gone without food is three days, and then Mother Nature provided my food — apples that had fallen from a tree. I once fasted as a prayer discipline for forty-five days, so I know how long one can go without food. My problem is not how to get enough to eat; it’s how to graciously avoid getting too much. Everyone wants to overfeed me.
Going without sleep would be harder, although I can miss one night’s sleep and I don’t mind. The last time was September of 1977, when I was in a truck stop. I had intended to sleep a little but it was such a busy truck stop that I spent all night talking to truck drivers. The first thing after I went in, a truck driver who’d seen me on television wanted to buy me some food. I sat in a corner booth. Then truck drivers started to arrive, and it was just one wave of truck drivers after another that were standing there and asking me questions and so forth. I actually talked to them all night and I never did get to do any sleeping.
There is a spark of good in everybody, no matter how deeply it may be buried. It is the real you. When I say “you,” what am I really thinking of? Am I thinking of the body? No, that’s not the real you. The real you is that divine spark. Some call this the Kingdom of God within. Buddhists know it as nirvana; the Hindus refer to it as the awakened soul; the Quakers see it as the Inner Light. In other places it is known as the Christ in you, the hope of glory, or the indwelling spirit. But it is all the same thing dressed in different words. The important thing to remember is that it dwells within you.
If you want to teach people, young or old, you must start where they are: at their level of understanding — and use words they understand. When you have captured their attention, you can take them as far as they are able to go. If you perceive that they are already beyond your level of understanding, let them teach you. Since steps toward spiritual advancement are taken in such a varied order, most of us can teach one another.
We seem always ready to pay the price for war. Almost gladly we give our time and our treasure — our limbs and even our lives — for war. But we expect to get peace for nothing. We’ll get peace only when we are willing to pay the price of peace. And to a world drunk with power, corrupted by greed, deluded by false prophets, the price of peace may seem high indeed. For the price of peace is obedience to the higher laws: evil can only be overcome by good and hatred by love; only a good means can attain a good end. The price of peace is to abandon hate and allow love to reign supreme in our hearts for all our fellow human beings over the world. The price of peace is to abandon greed and replace it with giving, so that none will be spiritually injured by having more than they need while others in the world still have less than they need.
During the war in Vietnam I asked my correspondents from all over the world the same question: “What country do your fellow countrymen consider to be the biggest menace to the peace of the world?” The answer was unanimous. It wasn’t Russia and it wasn’t China. It was us! I asked, “Why?” The answers varied a bit. The Asians answered, “Because you are the only nation that used the nuclear bomb to kill people, and there is no evidence that you might not do so again.” In South America and Latin America they tended to say, “It’s Vietnam today — it will be us tomorrow.” In Europe and some other places the answer tended to be, “Your economy works most smoothly in a war or war preparation period,” or, “In your country there is big money to be made on war or war preparation.”
I don’t like to report this because it’s a negative thing, but I do think we need to see that the countries of the world do not always see our kind heart when they look across the sea. Instead they are apprehensive about our actions.
You can only expect to change one nation — your own. After your nation has changed itself, the example may inspire other nations to change themselves. If any influential nation had the great spiritual strength to lay down its arms and appear with clean hands before the world, the world would be changed. I see no evidence that any influential nation has such great spiritual strength and courage. Therefore disarmament will be a slow process, motivated by the wish to survive.
I would say to the military: Yes, we need to be defended; yes, we need you. The Air Force can clean up the air, the Marines can take care of the despoiled forests, the Navy can clean the oceans, the Coast Guard can take care of the rivers, and the Army can be used to build adequate drainage projects to prevent disastrous floods, and other such benefits for mankind.
In order for the world to become peaceful, people must become more peaceful. Among mature people war would not be a problem — it would be impossible. In their immaturity people want, at the same time, peace and the things which make war. However, people can mature just as children grow up. It always comes back to the thing so many of us wish to avoid: working to improve ourselves.
Never think of any right effort as being fruitless. All right effort bears fruit, whether we see the results or not.
There was the time when a man stopped his car to talk with me. He looked at me, not unkindly, but with extreme surprise and curiosity. “In this day and age,” he exclaimed, “with all the wonderful opportunities the world has to offer, what under the sun made you get out and walk a pilgrimage for peace?” “In this day and age,” I answered, “when humanity totters on the brink of a nuclear war of annihilation, it is not surprising that one life is dedicated to the cause of peace — but rather it is surprising that many lives are not similarly dedicated.”