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Celebrate the U.N.’s International Day of Peace with a book

POSTED: August 24, 2017 9:32 p.m.
Sarah Allen/

Flags fly in front of the United Nations in New York City. Sept. 21 marks the U.N. International Day of Peace.

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World peace isn’t only a beauty pageant answer — it's also a U.N. goal celebrated every year on Sept. 1.

The International Day of Peace has happened annually since 1981, after being established by a unanimous United Nations resolution. In a time when even neighborhood peace can seem an impossible goal, a day dedicated to international peace is a good reminder for people to look outside themselves and see those around them as fellow global citizens.

The theme for the 2017 celebration is "Together for Peace: Respect, Safety and Dignity for All." Countries around the world will mark the occasion in a variety of ways, such as with a minute of silence at noon in each time zone, planting peace poles and individual service opportunities. There’s even an online synchronized meditation event.

It’s no secret that getting to know someone different from you increases your empathy towards them. One study published in ScienceDirect stated that “Racial bias in neural response to others' pain is reduced with other-race contact.” Our biases, even unconscious ones, are reduced when we are exposed to and become familiar with those who may appear different from us. We are better able to, as the New York Times best-selling author John Green put it, “imagine others complexly.”

Even traveling to other countries can increase our open-mindedness. An article in Psychology Today stated: “Extended foreign travel takes people outside of their comfort zone. Travelers have to adapt to new people and new cultural practices. …The more that these travelers engaged with new people from different countries, the more that promoted goals related to Openness.”

So for those of us (probably most of us) with schedules and budgets that won’t allow for world travel, how can we become more informed global citizens? How can we decrease our unintended biases and increase our empathy and understanding?

One possibility is to celebrate this year’s International Day of Peace with a book. A study from The New School in New York City found “evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.” A cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto wrote, “When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine it's like being that person.”

Book blogger Ann Morgan took this charge to heart, reading a novel from far-flung and little known countries like Burkina Faso and Burundi as well as all of the 193 countries recognized by the United Nations, plus Taiwan, the Holy See and Palestine. And she did it in one year.

She turned her reading expedition into a book, Reading the World, that, she explained on her website, “explores how reading can change and shape us, and reveals the extraordinary power that stories have to connect us across cultural, geographical, political and religious divides.”

Morgan shared the master list of the books she read, complete with many other recommendations as well. For each country, she wrote about her reading experience, and the challenges she faced trying to find a creative work to read from certain countries. For her book from Sao Tome — an island located off the coast of Gabon — for instance, she had to work with a team of translators just to have a book for her project.

As the International Day of Peace approaches, perhaps readers can take a leaf from Morgan’s project and learn more about the international community through its many stories. Come Sept. 1, we may not be able to attend large international events or afford vacations in other countries, but via the portal of our nearest bookstores, we can still make friends from any country in the world.
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