When I wrote last week about the multiple inferences contained in the Hebrew word shalom, I realized quickly that any attempt on my part to explain the many implications and nuances of meaning it can have would be pretty inadequate. For one thing, this is a topic that is new to me too. I’m doing to research as I go along, pairing it with my own experiences to try and take apart the nature of a word that refers to all-encompassing peace that is also used to say “hello.”  

But in considering the broad application of shalom as a spoken word, the wide range of inferences it may indicate isn’t really all that unusual for us as English-speaking folks. We use a lot of words and phrases that mean many different things, and most of the time we are able to interpret the speaker’s intended meaning by considering the context of the communication and of what the speaker is describing. Here’s one of my favorites:  

If you put yourself in the position of someone who isn’t a native English-speaker, it would probably be harder to figure out what sort of “take out” is being implied without a little extra thinking time, but assuming English is your first language, you could probably figure it out quite easily, I hope. It would be a problem if you confused a Door Dash order with a murder.  

Anyway, because shalom essentially means “peace,” but also implies that such peace is all-encompassing, to truly understand shalom – to truly understand full, complete peace – we need break down this nebulous concept and see what it’s made up of. Peace, I think, is a relative term, and one person’s experience of peace (shalom) will be different depending on the circumstances she finds herself in. So I’m going to show you a little psychology here.  

This is a diagram first designed in the early 1940s by Abraham Maslow, and if you’ve ever taken a basic level psychology course you’re probably familiar with it – the Hierarchy of Needs concept. It’s a hierarchy because the most basic physical needs represented in the bottom layers must be fulfilled before a person can truly experience the higher-level mental-emotional needs. So, if you are, say, stranded alone by the side of the highway in the Arizona desert with no cell phone service and no water on a hot day, you’re probably not thinking a whole lot about personal growth. You’re probably laser-focused on your need for water and air conditioning, not to mention a tow truck. On the other hand, if life is pretty good and things are going well in your relationships and your work, it frees you up a bit to think about personal growth, like working toward new goals or achieving something big.  

I think that, because the idea of peace, and specifically the kind of peace implied by shalom, covers a huge range of potential experiences, it may help to think of peace with this hierarchy in mind. Just as you’re not thinking about personal growth when you’re stranded in the desert, you’re probably also not too concerned with it when you’re trying to stay alive in an active war zone. To put it another way, your search for peace will change with your circumstances, and because wholeness is a specific characteristic of the kind of peace that shalom implies, the type of peace we each experience is dependent on the present situation we are each in.  

The base level of Hierarchy of Needs is our physiological needs, so our experience of shalom will revolve around our sense of personal safety and wellbeing as its foundation. Yet it’s not all that uncommon for those of us who aren’t facing prolonged hunger or homelessness on a regular basis to neglect or question these basic necessities in times of emotional turmoil.  

This slice of pizza is literally the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. I mean, it’s just Domino’s, but I am way too ravenous to care. Domino’s is the best pizza on earth when you’re hungry enough to eat the box. I didn’t even realize that I hadn’t eaten all day until it was almost dark. Today was hell. When the social workers showed up yesterday all I could think of was getting their list of demands completed, like yesterday. The faster I fulfill this contract they forced me to sign, the faster this all goes away. The thought of them coming back, with that empty car seat, ready to take my baby, makes me dizzy immediately, regardless of the fact that I am now eating my fourth slice of pizza in less than fifteen minutes. I’ll eat the whole thing if I have to. I’m in a living hell, and this is emergency pizza. 

Physically speaking, I was at the bottom of the pyramid on that particular night, and although obviously I wasn’t in a famine situation, I was in the middle of a personal and family crisis so severe that I unwisely made no time at all to eat that day. I hadn’t even considered food. I was so panicked that day that taking a moment to make and eat food seemed like a foolish luxury.  

I know I’m not the only one that does this at times. That was one of the worst days of my life, and was quite abnormal, so I don’t have that problem to that extent anymore. But it is common for me to push myself through my day thinking mostly about what I want to get done, only to get sidelined by a headache and realize that it’s 3PM and I haven’t eaten lunch. (As I write this, I’m doing that right now, but in this case it’s dinner. Just so you know that I’m advising myself too.) 

That said, if I started to eat too quickly and ended up choking and unable to breathe, oxygen would trump food. You get the idea. The point is that when you’re in that crisis-mode mentality, it’s next to impossible to consider things like your career trajectory or starting a vegetable garden. And rather than looking at an abstract, broad concept like shalom as a lofty, incomprehensible daydream, we can see it as an achievable state of being that we can build on gradually, change and redefine as our lives require us, and although we know that complete shalom may not come to fruition this side of heaven, we can still get a taste of it if we know how to recognize it and how to build it.  

With blessings of peace,