Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Is Conflict Bad? Are We Alive - Individuals, Families, Communities?

I think lots of us think conflict is BAD. Many of us grew up in families where conflict was subtle, swept under the rug, blatant or all of the above. Dad could blow up in a second. That wasn't all he was, but he was often an angry man. I was afraid. AND I loved him. 

Women - may be Mum - and girls had/have a style that involved withdrawal - with a few exceptions I know - (Suzie?) -and many I don't know of . 

For some it begins with the arrival of a new baby.  A youngster I knew, age 3 at the time, asked their mother if she could mail his new baby brother back where he came from. Jealousy is normal. Comes in all sorts of forms. Starts young. Maybe it's simply one of our many human survival techniques manifested in various emotions gone wrong if it's acted upon in a destructive manner.

Hmmm...could be me and my brother a very long time ago...
Actually we got along pretty well most of the time, though he knew how to push my buttons. 
I threw an algebra book at him once.
(from Calvin and Hobbes)
I wonder why we're so hung up about the 'negative' emotions? Anger. Envy. Fear (often spoken of as a lack of faith or courage). Jean Vanier spoke once about a religious community he had visited, and the nuns walked past each other in icy silence (not the right and good silence that is part of the religious life.) He said he'd rather see a fight than glacial silence. At least with a fight, there is passion. We care. We are alive.

How some of us imagine conflict will look if we express our anger
It seldom looks like this image, although in some families it certainly did and/or does. It doesn't have to. Churches have (at least in the past - p'raps not so much now) been examples of "How not to handle conflict." How not to handle it was, of course, precisely that - don't touch it. Hope it will go away. No discussion or even acknowledgement of the issues. After all, we're good Christians, and good Christians love each other, accept each other, don't get mad at each other. Well, put a bunch of women in a room together, and there will be some interesting dynamics. I think (correct me if I'm wrong) men are better at getting at least the mad at each other part out. I'm not sure they were (are?) any better (in the church) at addressing conflict openly.  But, back to the women - what do we do? Do we live out of our own insecurities? Do we try to sweep things under the rug? Or does the other person have to be totally wrong in order for me to feel I'm right, heard, whatever? 

It's hard sometimes in leadership. We try to have a leadership that is community styled. The 'top' doesn't usually make decisions. When we do, are we bullying? Who's in charge? There's a t-shirt a theology student of long ago told us about: "You not da boss 'a me!" Is there a boss at all? What kind of boss?

What does it mean to take responsibility? Not to abdicate. To involve as many people as possible in activities? When is it taking responsibility for what seems best for the entire community, and when is it not listening? 

We hear about conflict resolution. Well, there's no such thing as conflict resolution. If it were totally resolved, we'd be dead. There's only conflict management. And  that is enough. Jesus said, "When two or three are gathered together, I will hear your/their request." 

Well, I wish they'd left in the part that he must have said: "Wherever two or three are gathered together, there will be conflict and it's normal. Especially three!" Watch three kids in the sandbox. Watch a community of three. It takes a great deal of consciousness, which we as adults can have, but the kids in the sandbox don't, to be aware of our own dynamics and not to exclude one or more people. The positive side of that would, of course, be "to include" everyone, respecting limits, needs, desires, gifts of each.

So, in any family, church, community, there is conflict. That's how life happens. We agree. We disagree. We make mistakes. We begin to take each other for granted. We're looking at an issue from different perspectives. We're good people who are human, and who live out of our own histories and perspectives. 

If conflict was unacknowledged in our early years, if we never learned to deal with things directly with each other, if we are getting into power struggles, if we think the other person isn't hearing us because he or she disagrees with us .... well, we're at least normal.

I seem to have connected with Elie Wiesel again today. Silence is NOT preferable to speaking our truths, expressing emotions and ideas, and disagreeing with each other sometimes.

In The Town beyond the Wall, Elie Weisel confronts a man who stood at his window and watched as Hungarian Jews - men, women, children, were restrained for days with no water or food until they were shipped to a concentration camp.  (Page 156)

"Let's talk," I said.
"About what?"
"A saturday in spring. Noneteen forty-four. On one side, the Jews; on the other, you. Only the window - that window - between."
"I remember."
"With shame?"
"With remorse?"
"With sadness?"
"No. With nothing at all. There's no emotion attached to the memory."
I leaned forward slightly: "What did you feel then?"
The muscles in my face tightened: "Outside, children were sick with thirst: what did you feel?"
"Outside, men were turning away so as not to see their children doubled up in pain: what did you feel?"
"Nothing." A silence; then: "Absolutely nothing."

Holocaust - Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 3 – Arrival at a concentration camp -
"Men to the left! Women to the right!   "Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother."

And the Sea Is Never Full (1999), Wiesel wrote: "The silence of Birkenau is a silence unlike any other. It contains the screams, the strangled prayers of thousands of human beings condemned to vanish into the darkness of nameless, endless ashes. Human silence at the core of inhumanity. Deadly silence at the core of death. Eternal silence under a moribund sky."

OK. So what Wiesel writes is extreme in terms of what most of us experience in our day-to-day life with families, communities, friends... But it's still true for all of us. And it's at the centre of a circle that expands outwards into the world around us. Never to care passionately about anyone or anything is to be dead inside. A family, a community, a church in which there is no interaction, no anger or no depth of emotion expressed, is dead inside. 

So - if there is conflict, we can be sure that we're not dead. :-) We don't need to check the obituaries to see. We're very much alive. Just uncomfortable sometimes.  So... ?

No to silence. No to brushing conflicts under the rug. No to seeing it only from my or your perspective. No to excluding people because I, or you, or whomever happens to be in a position of power. No to seeing conflict as negative. Surely it's only negative if it gets out of control or is an abuse of power. 

I wonder a lot - I am uncertain often enough, because I wasn't brought up to stand firm when something is important. To stand firm at all, actually. But, wisdom can come with age - and increasing consciousness and understanding of myself and of others.  

So, do things have to be seen as one way or the other?
Sometimes they are one way. Sometimes the other.
And sometimes somewhere in-between.

1 comment:

  1. Ann from across the water6 November 2013 at 22:59

    Definitely food for thought. No conflict....no making up!! No getting rid of frustrations.......as some people would say in Liverpool, "It's doin me ed in".
    Translated it means It really is annoying me. The answer lies in dialogue. It is good to talk, as BT are always telling us!!