The man who declared peace

Story based on an interview in 2014-2015, with Lawrence R Gelber, by Kirthi Jayakumar

One often hears of declaring war: whether in history, policy or in simply in the news. But to choose peace, and opt for a peaceful way to settle a dispute takes greater courage.  Showing the world just that: the fact that the path of courage is a wiser option, is Lawrence Gelber.

An only child born in the Bronx, New York, to a lower middle class family of somewhat observant Jews, Lawrence grew up in a household that emphasized the importance of education. His parents were both high school dropouts and children of the depression. He went to public schools in the Bronx in the 1950s and 60s, and a few months before he turned seventeen, Lawrence entered City College of New York in 1964 – a rather tumultuous time. John F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated, the civil rights movement was heating up, and the music scene was changing with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Beatles, among many other notable groups having a huge influence on the consciousness of a generation. In short, Lawrence was a hippie.

Just a few credits shy of a degree, Lawrence dropped out of college and made his first international trip, spending a couple of months in Ibiza in 1968. With the intention of finishing his degree, Lawrence made his way back to New York, and following graduation, he learned Transcendental Meditation. Then, after working some minor jobs, left the United States again, this time for 18 months, during which time he lived in Nerja, Spain and Heidelberg, Germany and then traveled overland from Germany to Nepal and back. His experiences in Afghanistan and India, among several other places, dramatically altered his world view, and made him realize that people were the same everywhere. While in Germany, notwithstanding that he was a pacifist who had resisted the war in Vietnam (Lawrence was not drafted out of what he deems ‘sheer luck’), he voluntarily worked for the United States Army, washing pots and pans at an officers’ mess club in a military village outside of Heidelberg. This too expanded his perspectives.

Lawrence soon became very inspired and influenced by Maharishi (Mahesh Yogi).  In 1977, when Lawrence was on a long Transcendental Meditation course in Switzerland, learning the Transcendental Meditation-Sidhis program derived from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he realized in a post-meditative epiphany that he should become a lawyer.  In the language of the Gita, Lawrence grasped that being a lawyer was his dharma. He then took to law school quite like a phoenix takes to the open skies. He has been practicing law since he graduated from Law School in 1981.
While many of Lawrence’s experiences while young were immensely formative insofar as his worldview went, it was 9/11 that proved to be a catalyst. In downtown Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, Lawrence’s office at the time was on the corner of Broad Street and Exchange Place, right next door to the New York Stock Exchange.  He was about to cross a street to the entrance to his office building when Lawrence met an acquaintance and stopped to chat. All of a sudden, things were hitting him on the shoulders. Lawrence described what happened:  “I looked up and the sky was a yellowish color and papers and other debris was falling, so I ran inside.  I went up to my office and looked out the window and saw the North Tower burning. Then I saw the second plane come in over the harbor, bank slowly and hit the south face of the South Tower.”

Nine years after that, somewhere around 2010, Lawrence woke up one morning and simply said, “I Declare World Peace”.  One of the things that Maharishi always emphasized is that all actions stem from thought, and it occurred to Lawrence that war usually starts after somebody says “I Declare War”. It similarly occurred to him that perhaps peace could start, or at least the thought of peace could be created, by the converse declaration. Lawrence became aware a year or two later that John Lennon apparently said a similar thing about declaring peace decades earlier.
As the next course of action, he went to his Facebook page and wrote the words “I Declare World Peace”.  Somebody opined that it was a great post and it should go viral. With time, Lawrence’s wife Rita designed the IDWP website, and together they started a separate Facebook page, while also running streams on Twitter with the hashtag #IDWP. One of their goals was to keep it from being a “lunatic fringe” project, and so Lawrence and Rita styled it as an art project modelled on The Gates[1]. So they promoted the phrase “I Declare World Peace” as a “flag” to be installed in the consciousness of humanity, a form of mental installation art. Working with the idea of raising peace consciousness, Lawrence and Rita have posted a number of meaningful documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an anti-war treaty that has been signed by over 60 nations, among other on the IDWP web site. 
Though IDWP is an art project, Lawrence is actually interested in promoting real peace. As a result, the IDWP project aims to see injustice eliminated and has allied with other groups across the world.  As a result, the I Declare World Peace project is growing at an ever increasing rate and the phrase, or affirmation (or mantra) is spreading throughout a vast range of social media.  The IDWP project does not accept donations, and instead, Lawrence and Rita spend their own money to promote the project. With simple activities that include tweeting, re-tweeting and posting online all of the content that resonates their affirmation and hash-tags, the IDWP project has grown to become a tremendous movement with over 262,500 twitter followers, growing by approximately 1,000 followers every week.  People attach images – photographs, memes, peace symbols – or include quotes, along with the phrase “I Declare World Peace” and the hash-tag #IDWP, and it has become popular.  The project also welcomes people to send in videos of themselves saying: “Hi, my name is [first name]. I am from [city, town country etc.] and I Declare World Peace.”  These videos are posted online on social media channels, and are a viral campaign in themselves.
Counting on being fortunate to have been born in a time and place where opportunities existed, Lawrence attributes much of the good in his life to the many opportunities he had.  The circumstances of one’s birth can be viewed as creating obstacles or opportunities. To him, growing up came with the freedom to do and be whatever he wanted: and though there may have been limiting factors, nothing was an obstacle. Personally, though, Lawrence counts naiveté, immaturity and ignorance among his greatest personal obstacles. As he progressed through life, though, he came to understand that all obstacles were of his own creation.  Fortunate enough to realize quite early on that blaming others for his mistakes was misguided, he soon developed the habit of not ducking responsibility.  The development of the I Declare World Peace project was premised in part on the notion that everything that happens in the world is the personal responsibility of each of us.  Due to his own “naiveté, immaturity and ignorance”, he encountered various frustrations, false starts and struggles as a new lawyer.  But, as trite as it may sound, Lawrence found that anytime one door closed, another door always opened.
The IDWP project has garnered widespread global support. People have written to Lawrence with a note to the effect that the project has made a positive difference in their lives. Many people have told Lawrence that they get up in the morning and audibly verbalize “I Declare World Peace” and that it has a positive effect on their days.  Convinced that social media can provide the vehicle through which human consciousness can be raised by the sharing of positive ideas in a way that was never before possible in history, Lawrence And Rita continue the promotion on a daily basis.
Despite growing up in a family that treated boys and girls equally, Lawrence once nurtured a belief internally that boys were better than girls. This “knowledge” was transmitted in very subtle ways – for instance, the word “doctor” could only be male and “nurse” female; females who drove cars were not drivers; they were “women drivers”. Somehow, Lawrence woke out of these misconceptions and came to understand that there cannot be male without female. As Lawrence moved through the various stages of life, it became crystal clear to him that, though different, men and women are perfect, necessary complements, each to the other and that necessitates unwavering commitments to equality.
Lawrence points to a Yiddish word – “mensch”.  While this word sounds like it refers to a masculine quality, it means “human being”.  It refers to a person of integrity and honour, somebody who does not take unfair advantage of a situation or benefits him or herself at the expense of another. This value was instilled in Lawrence since he was young, in the form of exhortations from his mother. While he may not have given thought to what it means to be a man, Lawrence frequently has given thought to what it means to be a mensch, a human being, a person of integrity and honour.  Once he grasped that men and women experienced all the same things, with the lone exception of looking at women as potential romantic partners, he looked, from then on, at men and women the same way. It made no sense to him to cause suffering if he could help it. This was a major realization on the path to becoming a mensch, and it meant do not cause suffering to any human being, male or female. Lawrence never felt that he was entitled to something simply because he was a man. Being a man, to him, means being a human being. Not more. Not less.
For Lawrence, promoting the idea of peace worldwide on social media through the IDWP project is a way to change, or at least try to change, the existing false paradigm that peace is not possible.  The project was set up with the idea that it would take 30 years for it to gain real traction. However, the long term goal is identical to the short term goal – World Peace. It cannot happen soon enough. In physics, there is a phenomenon called “phase transition.” It can be explained many ways, but one of its simpler explanations has to do with the effect of synchronization of a small population on the larger population. Viewing humanity as one giant complex organism, in order to “synchronize” or harmonize that organism, it would be beneficial if enough of humanity shared the thought “I Declare World Peace” in the hope of inducing a phase transition whereby the idea of peace is no longer far-fetched and the idea of war becomes as preposterous as it should be.
Persevering in the hope of achieving world peace, Lawrence labours on, advocating for the collective voice of reason in a world that takes, very easily, to battle.

[1] An installation art by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude called "The Gates" in Central Park in New York City. It was a giant installation of 7,500 orange fabric gates, 16 feet high (4.87 m) of varying widths, lining 23 miles (36.8 km) of footpaths in the park.