Even when not overtly at war, our local and national communities are often far from peaceful. They are marked by deep social and and cultural divisions, daily acts of violence and harm, heated disputes, racial, gender-based and economic injustices, and pockets of war-like experiences from othering, discrimination and hate speech, to rioting, knife crime and gun violence.
All of this is sadly routine; but sometimes communities also experience more extreme conditions when external factors such as environmental catastrophes take place. At those moments, the rumbling tensions and conflicts in a society are apt to grow, although crises often see outpourings also of love, care and support (at least in the short term).
The Covid-19 pandemic was one such crisis, which saw communities coming together in many ways while also experiencing an uptick in many challenging conditions and behaviours (e.g. conflict over scarce resources, from food and hygiene products to vaccines; disruption to schooling; increased inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ as economies started to struggle; a rise in conspiracy theories and fake news, etc). Analogies made between the Covid-19 pandemic and armed conflict have rightly been critiqued; but there is no denying that it put communities all around the world under severe strain.
Combatting Isolation with Love Letters
One challenge which affected many during the Covid-19 pandemic was isolation – an individual problem which can lead to long-term negative health and mental wellbeing impacts, while also driving further social fracturing. While many different kinds of people were susceptible to isolation as schools, workplaces, shops, cafes, community centres and other gathering-places closed their doors, it was recognised that older people were particularly vulnerable. And so the project ‘1 letter 1 smile‘ was born.
‘1 letter 1 smile’ was founded by ten cousins, aged 14 to 24, who pushed their imaginations to picture a world in which, instead of the Covid-19 virus, the Love Virus could spread. They help to connect potential letter-writers with people in over 1300 registered care homes in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, England, USA and Canada. They set out five simple steps for putting a smile on someone’s face:
- Brainstorm a funny story or words of encouragement
- Submit your letter via their website, and they will send it to one of their partnered care homes
- And elderly isolated person receives the letter in paper format
- They have the chance to write or call back
- The letter-writer has brightened someone’s day!
This initiative has proved popular and successful, with over 1,000,000 letters sent in multiple languages, and it remains active even after the pandemic. In a busy, fractured world, it has been spreading love and care across continents; and, as research increasingly shows, taking love and care seriously is a powerful way of building peace. It should be a source of hope to all of us that something as simple as letter-writing can do this.
Crucially, such initiatives should not be considered as isolated events that simply restore our faith in humanity a little, but rather as viable systems and structures for building cohesion and community via the medium of love.[iii] Peace-making should be thought of as an activity undertaken only by politicians in overtly political contexts; it can also be achieved through the everyday actions of ordinary people, creating peace both within and between individuals.
The well-known political scientist Hans Morgenthau – a scholar from the realist school of thought, often seen as the most traditional theoretical approach in International Relations – has reflected on the complex and paradoxical relationship between Love, Power and Loneliness:
“And it [the modern mind] is unaware of that quality of human existence which is the root both of the lust for power and the longing for love: loneliness.”[iv]Morgenthau
Understanding loneliness as a driver that can impel humans to seek both power and love helps us to visualise it as an urgent problem to tackle in our wider work to build more peaceful futures within our local, national and global communities; but it also points to a key solution, namely care, compassion and the fostering of loving relationships as a key tool of peace-building. Small, daily acts of empathy and kindness.
Here is a letter that I found very inspiring and touching from the ‘1 letter 1 smile’ project:
Hello, my name is Delphine and I am going to turn 28 on the 19th of April.
I simply wanted to thank you. Thank you for the person you are.
Yes, I know that I don’t know who you are, but I have the firm conviction that everyone, in their own way, brings good in this world.
You have certainly enlightened someone’s day at least once.
You have certainly given a smile or a compassionate look to someone at least once.
You have certainly loved… more than once.
The truth is that you have done plenty of beautiful little things, many times.
For this, I would like to thank you, because we always ignore the extent to which little gestures have the biggest impacts. So, thank you for everything you have given in your life. And I hope I have, with this letter, given you a smile even for a small instant.
I do not know you, but I think of you.
Have a lovely day,
These letters, in their own way, have enhanced peace between people who might have by-passed or even disagreed with each other in another context. And that makes them powerful peace-building tools for the wider world, not just for the individuals who receive or write them. They may seem trivial acts compared to the negotiation of major peace treaties or top-down interventions that prevent war, but they are incrementally effective and lasting. For the recipient, knowing that someone else has thought of them, loved them a little and cared about their loneliness, not only boosts their mental well-being; it also makes them more inclined to pass love, care and empathy on. It can forge dialogues between people with different outlooks, and over time build bridges between generations and places.
What do you think?
- Is loneliness something that impacts you?
- What do you do to avoid the feeling of loneliness?
- Do you think much about other people’s loneliness – about what it does to them, and what it can do to society at large?
- Do you ever feel anger or resentful feelings for people you have never met, based on what you have been told about them? If so, where do those emotions come from?
- Do you think that small acts of love and care can build world peace as well as inner peace?
- Do you think that politicians think about love and loneliness when they construct peace processes? And should they?
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
Margaux de Seze, December 2022
[i] McCoy, A.W. (2007) A question of torture: CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
[ii] Gustafsson, P.E. et al. (2022) “Intersectional inequalities in loneliness among older adults before and during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic: A total population survey in the Swedish eldercare setting,” Social Science & Medicine, 314, p. 115447. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2022.115447.
[iii] Krystalli, R. and Schulz, P. (2022) “Taking love and care seriously: An emergent research agenda for remaking worlds in the wake of violence,” International Studies Review, 24(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viac003.
[iv] Morgenthau, H.J. et al. (2015) Love and power, Commentary Magazine. Available at: https://www.commentary.org/articles/hans-morgenthau/love-and-power/ (Accessed: November 25, 2022).