Right Relationship: Fighting fair

I remember, as a child, watching an episode of The Three Stooges. I don't know if it made it over here, but the Three Stooges was a very slapstick comedy series about the adventures of three goofy, foolish, awkward guys who often hit, poked, and otherwise pounded one another for comedic effect.


In the episode I recall, one of the Stooges was in a boxing match and the referee announced "I want to see a clean fight." I want none of this, and he proceeded to poke the Stooge in the eye. "And none of this" as he stomped on his foot. "And none of this" as he grabbed and twisted his nose.


With this great wisdom, I learned that there were ways to fight fairly and ways to fight unfairly. 


Today, I'm not actually going to talk about physical fighting - something I don't excel at and don't recommend. I want to talk about conflict. I want to talk about disagreement that goes beyond the simplest level - beyond "my favourite colour is red and yours is blue." More to the "we should paint it red." "No, we should paint it blue" level. Disagreement that needs some kind of resolution. Disagreement that is discordant and cannot comfortably stand as it is.


Whilst we can dream of a day when conflict will never again lead to the kind of harm and destruction we see regularly, we will never be rid of conflict - nor should we be. 


As Gandhi put it, "Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress."


As uncomfortable as it may sometimes feel, conflict - the process of actively addressing disagreement - is in many ways a good sign.


Consider what lack of conflict can mean.


We don't have conflict when we don't interact. 

We don't have conflict if we are not open enough to discover where we disagree. 

We don't have conflict if we don't care about anything enough to have an active disagreement. 

We don't have conflict if we don't value someone's opinion enough for it even to matter to us. 

We don't have conflict if we are so defeated that we just accept anyone else's views and actions as better and more right than our own. 


I think Alice Miller captures part of this well. She says:

"One of the best ways of keeping your temper in an argument, as most of us know only too well, is not to listen to anything the other person has to say."


So, there is lack of conflict which can be unhealthy because it means we aren't listening, don't care, or are too depressed to bother. And then we know that conflict can blow up terribly and destructively.


Perhaps conflict is like eating. Not eating at all is very, very bad. Yes, we may eat the wrong things and eat too much, but eating is pretty much unavoidable if we are going to exist.

The challenge is how to eat healthily so it strengthens us and makes us more able? 


Some conflict is like MacDonalds, KFC, and piles of sweets. It does nothing good for us.


The question is how we identify and engage in healthy conflict, the kind where misunderstandings become clarified, where errors can be admitted, apologized for, and forgiven, or even the kind where no resolution can be found except to continue to disagree, but with respect and where discord is put aside.


Conflict is most unhealthy when it is not addressed directly. At our worst, we take our conflict to everyone else but the person with whom we need to address it. We tell everyone we can what a villain that person is - how he wronged us - how she insulted us - how he was cruel - and how she was inconsiderate.


It makes us feel a bit better about ourselves, but it doesn't do a thing to address the conflict at all.


In fact, it makes it worse for everyone involved. We become polarised. Both sides become the good guy in their own dramas with the other person as the villain complete with waxed moustache.


And then we start to hear what that villain has been saying about us behind our backs. We are appalled - ignoring, of course, the fact that we may have been doing much of the same thing.


The spreading of the story makes us feel attacked, vulnerable, paranoid, fearful. We may redouble our own campaign to accrue allies.


Resolution becomes more and more difficult. Humanising our opponent becomes nearly impossible. Forgiveness seems unimaginable.


And then we run away - or they do. We've created a situation where like matter and anti-matter, we can no longer exist in the same place and time.


Or, we gather up the strength to sit down together and begin the very hard work of standing down our armaments, clipping the barbed wire, removing the land mines, and noticing once again the very human person on the other side of the drama we've built together.


Worse yet, the situation I just depicted has spread far beyond the people who initially disagreed. Opposing camps have been set up. Loyalists on both sides peer across the battle lines at those who have been identified as "enemy."


The conflict has becomes a disease affecting not only the people originally involved. It infects and weakens a whole community.


So, we all know how badly conflict can go and we've probably all had some direct experience with disagreements that have gone wrong in a way that seems at least a bit similar to what I've described.


Why does it go this way? Why is it so easy to exacerbate conflict and so seemingly difficult to handle it in a way that is like a salad with a bit of grilled fish with a lovely light vinaigrette - healthy for you and pleasant as well?


It's not because it's technically hard to handle conflict in a healthy way. We'll talk about that.


But it's hard nonetheless. You've seen how it is. You've felt how it is. As the great liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith said:

"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."


It's not technically hard to handle conflict in a healthy way - it's emotionally, psychologically, and maybe even spiritually hard.


It is because we are fragile. As tough as some of us may seem on the outside, just about all of us are like eggs - we have a seemingly hard shell, but inside we are soft and extremely vulnerable.


The risks of conflict seem tremendous. We could be wrong. We could have been thoughtless. We could look foolish and be embarrassed. Our very sense of ourselves as valuable people feels as though it is in danger. 


And with so much on the line, we do everything we can to protect ourselves from the threat to our fragile centres.


We have to prove the other person wrong.

We have to win.


In the traditions of many Muslim cultures, there are stories about Nasreddin - a cross between a Sufi wise man and a fool. Nasreddin stories are usually both foolish and wise at the same time.


In one story, Nasreddin was asked what he prays about. He responded this way; "when I was young I asked Allah to give me strength to change the world. As I became older and had a family I prayed asking Allah to give me the strength to change my family. Now that I am an old man I pray to Allah asking for strength to change myself."


Before we can follow a better way, we have to be strong enough to change ourselves.


We may think that strength is shown in battle. The opposite is true. Battle - gathering allies - spreading rumours - demonising the other - this is the weak and cowardly way forward. It is the path that requires the least of us.


The path that requires courage is the one that risks being wrong, looking foolish, looking like we might have hurt someone else.


This is the hard path to walk.


And we can only walk it when we have enough strength within ourselves to know that we are good enough and worthy enough that - even if we are wrong and do the wrong thing from time to time - we are still possessed of enormous worth and dignity. We are still good. We are still worthy of love.


In southern Africa, there is a tribe called the Babemba. It is said that this tribe has what we might find a very unusual way of dealing with wrong-doing and wrong-doers. When someone transgresses the rules in our culture, we bombard them with everything they've done wrong. Somehow, we believe that focusing on their weakness - on the worst they have to offer - is the best way to get them to change. We believe that weakening and tearing down is how change happens.


The Babemba instead stop everything else in the village and form a great circle with the one who has transgressed in the middle. They then proceed to bombard that person with details of everything they have ever done that was good or kind or helpful. They remind them of every positive attribute they possess. They bombard them with love to build them up and strengthen them.


And this is what this community must be about - this is what right relationship is about. We must be a place and a people that builds individuals up enough to be present with their fragility - strong enough to admit being wrong - strong enough to be direct - strong enough to apologize. 


The rules of fighting fair are easy: speak directly, try to understand, apologise for what you have done wrong, forgive what another has done wrong. Focus on the feelings and the emotions behind the issues at hand. Love the person behind the words.  Simple.


The hard part is loving and valuing yourself enough to do that - enough to have that strength.


And this is what we can give to each other. Treat one another like the sacred, worthy, delicate, gleaming, fragile gems of beings that we are.


And then we can fight fair. And then we can love.