The Art of Productive Conflict

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Chalice lighting

We light this candle
Flame without haze - flame that is bright - flame that brings warmth
The candle could equally be consumed by smouldering - filling the air with smoke and odour
May the lingering cloudy smouldering be transformed
May our lives and our loves have the clarity of flame

Reading: The Return by Daisy Zamora

The return will depend on how things are.

To talk to you as if nothing happened and

apologising was not easy knowing that you too

were making your own final plan in your eagerness to

dispose of the unpredictable heart.

More distant than if you were living afar

or lived no more, neither describes

the secret fire that, encircling us,

shattered dreams & the backs

now forever turned avoiding the

eye’s treacherous spark.

Message, part 1 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

Today, as we continue to work our way through the theme of human relations, we’re going to explore conflict. Conflict is a part of human relations most of us would rather avoid. Maybe you think of conflict as something you’d like to remove from your life experience entirely. There would never be a harsh word or a hard feeling - never a phone put down on someone or a friend unfriended.

But, of course, the vast majority don’t avoid it. Or we can’t avoid it.

I don’t mean only the hot kind of conflict with red faces, raised voices, elevated heartbeats, and maybe even physical violence.

But I think many of us become very accomplished and adept at cold conflict. Cold conflict is when those feelings of anger or hate or shame directed at another person take on a less explosive form. We might feel this way and carry these hard feelings toward someone because of what they’ve done to us. It may be because of their values or that they’re on the wrong side of the political spectrum. And it may just be that the way they are annoys us, gets under our skin, makes us want to scream.

We may even have had a hot conflict with them at some point that we reconciled - or at least we said the words of reconciliation and apology and shook hands as we knew we should. But we never got as far as a real resolution. The conflict - pushed underground - festers. It is a poison that emerges from time to time that we quickly push back underground.

We don’t shout or hurl insults or dirty looks most of the time and we don’t go into a full-on rampage. Instead, we go into cold conflict.

This is what Daisy Zamora’s poem, The Return, suggests. The hot conflict is over and we have returned to a semblance of peace. But it is not over. The damage has permeated more deeply. You know that you’re resentful. You know that I am resentful. But we go on acting as though everything is fine. It’s just that we encounter each other and experience “the eye’s treacherous spark” and, before we can look away, we know where the poison lies.

Cold conflict is usually mutual. Unless you’re a master of cold conflict, the other person knows it too. Beware masters of cold conflict. I think there are more of them here than in most countries. In an interaction with a cold conflict master, you might not even know you are in a cold conflict until one day when the dish said to be best served cold - revenge - is laid upon your table.

Conflict is scalable. We can have a conflict with one other person and we can be in conflict with a political party, a movement, or even a whole nation.

In the big sense - the one we’re more ready to admit and maybe even be proud of - I’m in conflict with Brexiteers, Theresa May, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Republicans, the NRA, and dozens of others.

But let’s stay focused on the kind of conflict that’s closer to home - conflict with friends, partners, exes, parents, siblings, in-laws, bosses, neighbours, coworkers, and even, dare I admit it, other members of New Unity - maybe even people in this room.

We may wish to be entirely free from conflict - never to feel that anger, that irritation, that desire to avoid or to get even. I wonder if there is anyone who ever lived who accomplished that - anyone who was able to encounter insults, lies, harshness, deceit, or cruelty and have it not affect them. If there was, they would have to be either the most perfect human being or one that was impervious to all feelings - pain and pleasure, anger and joy, hate and love.

For the rest of us, conflict is a part of life. What can change and what can make an enormous difference in our lives is what we do with conflict. Will it be hot or cold? Will we hold on to it or let it go? Will we be able to resolve it? Will it diminish us or help us grow?

Reading: Conversation Creates the Space for Change, by Pierce Delahunt (excerpted and adapted)

Can we look inward together? Will you look

through that glass, vulnerably, with me?

Exercise: Imagine a loved one.

What do we see?

Exercise: Imagine a loved one who disagrees with you is having second thoughts.

Would they turn to you about it, knowing you are a safe space to explore their doubt?

Or would they fear you, pouncing on their slips?

We have become the people our loved ones fear.

We have become the people our loved ones fear,

and this devastates me. Our loved ones fear us.

Nathan Bedford Forrest: founded the KKK. Later renounced them to work toward racial reconciliation.

Derek Black: once the heir of White nationalism. Left it because his Jewish college classmate invited him to Shabbat dinners.

Megan Phelps Roper: once the heir of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Left it because of conversations on Twitter, which she managed for the Church.

Daryl Davis: Black man, traveling the US to perform music and speak with Klan members. Inspired by Davis, over 200 members have left the Klan.

If Matthew McConaughey ever does go vegan, he will thank friend Woody Harrelson more than the internet trolls shaming him for his ranch.

Every enemy is a prospective comrade.

Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?

Every comrade is a prospective friend.

Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?

Every friendship is a prospective union.

Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?

Every relationship is a self.

Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?

Hold to account. Hold. Not pin.

Lift, even, up and out of this.

Klanners suffer violence, too.

We cannot berate those who self-harm into a cure.

We cannot shame each other into repentance.

We cannot use hellfire & brimstone to reach the kingdom of heaven.

We cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

We cannot polarize ourselves into unity.

We cannot leave bigotry untreated, and expect to remain healthy, unravaged.

What are we bringing to heal?

Life After Hate: run by formerly violent, far-right extremists, still people.

On their website for extremists with second thoughts, in bold & capitalized:

No judgment. Just help.

Are we not meant to center the voices of those most affected?

No judgment. Just help.

I cannot emphasize enough that I am continuing the march.

I will keep my boots on the

ground, not on the

necks of those whose

heads, we claim, are

buried in the

sand.

Message, part 2 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

At the beginning of our Sunday Gatherings, I often say what may seem like a terrible wish - “I hope you will feel uncomfortable.’

That statement is not sadism - it is a plea for the possibility of growth and transformation.

The psychiatrist and author M Scott Peck described it this way: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

Conflict brings discomfort. It all the parties to the conflict uncomfortable. It makes everyone around the conflict uncomfortable.

In this way, conflict can be a tremendous force for positive change. I know - it is also horrible - but sometimes our worst experiences can lead to the greatest growth.

What I don’t mean by this is something about conflict being the best way to open up an issue intellectually and help us to find a better answer. I don’t mean that the winner of a debate or argument is necessarily the one who has found the truth.

The philosopher John Dewey wrote that “conflict is the gadfly of thought”. He claimed that “it stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.”

Some see this as a justification for argument - as a suggestion that heated, painful argument is the best way to arrive at a truth. John Dewey was a privileged straight white man and this justification of argument as the path to truth is imbued with the bias of privilege. What comes out of an argument is often a result of who has the most power, who talks the loudest, who is most clever, and whose education best taught them how to debate.

I offer a wish for discomfort because when we are comfortable, we don’t question ourselves. We don’t learn about ourselves. We aren’t compelled to wonder why we are reacting as we are and why another person is acting as they are. This also describes the potential of conflict.

Marshall Rosenberg, who originated the system called Nonviolent Communication, wrote: “At the root of every tantrum and power struggle are unmet needs.” Whether we think in terms of unmet needs, wounds, struggles, insecurities, or longings, the uncomfortable experiences of life are the ones that give us a view of what is really happening for us. When we can say “Why am I reacting this way?” and “Why is interaction with this person causing me to feel this way?”, we have been given access to unresolved aspects of our beings.

With conflict, we are presented with a path to understanding ourselves and a path to growing to be the best us we can be. When we don’t know ourselves in this way, we are drawn into more conflict because we don’t know the buttons and switches that have a direct line to our greatest doubts and fears. When we do understand ourselves, we have the power to be mindful of what is happening and, in this knowledge, to short-circuit the provocations that otherwise send us into rage or sorrow.

In some ways, the hot conflict we dread is likely to be the most productive. There is little opportunity to stifle the truth then - to pack it away quietly without examination. Despite its danger, hot conflict forces us to look at ourselves carefully - slams open the door to self-knowledge.

This is not a justification for screaming and shouting. This is not a justification for cruelty. It is an invitation into the deep mutual discomfort of excavating cold conflict and bringing it into the light.

The poison of cold conflict afflicts all parties to a conflict and eats away at the fabric of relationship. There is never a resolution, never a moment where we are forced to confront and potentially address the truth of the conflict. Instead, we live in a lie of politeness.

Hot conflict creates something we have to deal with one way or another. If we are wise, we will all learn about ourselves and each other. We will grow. We will know each other more deeply and profoundly. Hot conflict, paradoxically, can lead to better relationships and more love than can the polite tendency to bury our feelings.

In the words of our reading: “Can we look inward together? Will you look through that glass, vulnerably, with me?”

Conflict at its best allows us to dare to look and dare to understand ourselves and one another. It allows us to dare to love.


Closing words

A closed door guards us from change
A closed mind keeps out confusion
A closed heart keeps out pain
It is comfortable to be closed
It is transformative to be open
Let your mind be open to inspiration
Let your heart be open to love