Journey Through Conflict

Steve Olweean

Perspective magazine,
December 2002

It’s clear to me that conflict, its transformation, and everything that occurs in between is as undeniably expressive of who we are as any other aspect of life. Our day-by-day, almost routine encounter with it places all that we use to define ourselves on the line, calling on our inner strength, wisdom, and confidence, and also often drawing out personal insecurities, anxieties, and blind spots that serve to both fuel our reactions and test our reason.

As individual as it is repetitive, the journey through conflict is never quite the same for each of us, and the most difficult rule to remember may very well be that no singular or finite set of rules can ever complete the process. Change is a steady reality, and when our reality changes, particularly in ways we don’t anticipate or like, it’s all too human to resist it and experience this thing we call conflict. If I’ve learned anything in the more than decade of coordinating the Annual International Conference on Conflict Resolution, it’s that developing effective personal tools and clarity along the way is crucial to navigating these straits. What I’ve also found is that going too far in attempting to overly “systematize” or “program” this process is likely to simply fall short. Once the essential dilemma is at hand what remains is to purposely engage in our own unique journey, exploring useful paths and choosing those that may naturally move us along toward more self-understanding, harmony, and peace.

There are, however, some clearly universal commonalities, particularly when it comes to truly deep, destructive conflict – the kind that can shake our fundamental sense of well-being in feeling connected to the real world around us. Such a profound disruption in our known reality, and the solitary despair that can often come with it, challenges our limitations to the extreme, while at the same time revealing more of what we’re capable of transcending.

Transformation at this level of experience isn’t wrapped up in simply containing or eliminating the flow and source of conflict. Transformation emerges as reclaiming that which we need to be “true” about our reality, and ourselves; that which validates the existence of “goodness” in the world, and our place in it.

It is by instilling vital elements like esteem, integrity, respect, and, most certainly, authentic trust into this relationship with the world, and even individual relationships where there’s previously been a deficit or loss, that we can achieve the restoration of these qualities in our world. To recover from such loss and recreate our reality, though, takes a lot from us; and sometimes a lot out of us. It can be tough and heavy work, testing our fortitude and patience, and very often our courage.

And yet it takes still more. Even courage, fortitude, and patience can fail at some point. What it takes is compassion; a strong, resilient compassion that comes from a deep faith in the intrinsic goodness of ourselves and others.

Healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation is a freeing dynamic for both victim and perpetrator; freeing from the chronically toxic energy of “wrong” and “wronged.” It is investing or reinvesting a healthy, life-endorsing “wholeness” into our world at large. When the acts of others, whether careless or with malice of intent, cause suffering and grief, it’s much more possible to achieve genuine healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation if the person involved is acknowledged as possessing at least the basic, elemental level of humanity and “potential” for goodness.

How we frame and define others and this world we share with them, then, is key to what occurs in the space between conflict and transformation. When we frame with broad-brush negative stereotypes that demonize and dehumanize those we’re in conflict with we risk creating the very untrustworthy universe we fear and rail against. Not surprisingly, we further concretize this version of reality if we respond by engaging in hostile reactions ourselves, ironically providing others with proof of their own counterpart negative stereotypes — of us.

The ability to recognize the fallibility of another person’s mortal dilemma, and sometimes painfully lost way, particularly those we have serious grievances against, presumes a certain truth about the nature of “our” human character, and in doing so allows us to face and transcend our own individual despair.

My experience has been that it’s not toward a state of “lack of discord or threat” that we strive so constantly and diligently in the largeness and smallness of our daily lives. It’s no less than simply toward a state of profound grace, within us, with others, and with the world. A grace that’s easily recognized and familiar down to our bones when it’s even slightly approached. A grace that forms the final confirmation of our belonging to each other and to the vastly interwoven universe. The best we can do is strive toward it, and honor the basic drive in each other as we do; sometimes faltering, sometimes misdirected, sometimes perhaps even grimly distorted beyond recognition; but none the less struggling toward the same horizon.

When defensive, fear-based emotions are triggered that test our lonely courage, fortitude and patience in standing firm against the painful actions of another, yet remaining open to acknowledging that person’s inherent human potential for goodness if and when it truly emerges – to offer forgiveness to, to reconcile with and welcome back into a state of grace – compassion is the essential ingredient needed. In the end, it’s compassion that will get us through.

The challenge here is to not unwittingly dismiss this view as naïve. It seems to me, in fact, the most sensible, practical, and responsible stance, not to mention the most hopeful for humankind. In light of today’s mounting global crisis, it’s no exaggeration to say that how well we choose to maintain this stance, even in the face of often overwhelming emotion and knee-jerk reaction, will invariably determine the ultimate fate of our species, and perhaps that of all other species.

Clearly, compassion doesn’t presume indiscriminate acceptance of destructive behaviors, or tolerance of them. Behaviors – particularly those that blatantly and intentionally inflict harm on others – can be more accurately, consistently, and fairly judged than people, especially groups of people clustered by some arbitrary or chance association. Indeed, judging “behaviors,” as separate from people, has historically produced the highest degree of common sense and moral consensus, both within societies and between them. It’s when we fall into justifying behaviors according to “who” perpetrates them that we begin to lose our consensus, and our common sense.

Compassion presumes that actions of violence, hostility, hatred, and cruelty are expressions of a gross distortion or loss of contact with one’s own innate goodness; a disconnect that leads to warped interactions with others, and even one’s self. It offers understanding and an unwavering endorsement of the ability for positive growth and change, for redemption, for remaking ourselves in the image of our own inner potential as positive, good, and loving human beings – all the while allowing for being completely resolute in condemning and holding “actions” firmly accountable.

Especially in the face of these greater challenges, then, the task is to cultivate deep compassion and genuine trust, as we reveal to ourselves the paradox of change – change we resist and rebel against, and change we seek or even demand — suffering and enduring with some, while discovering and empowering ourselves through others. And in the process we begin to further define ourselves; to arouse vital, fundamental questions to contemplate and integrate along the inner journey of rediscovering the essence, and the grace, of who we are.

Steve Olweean
Perspective magazine, December 2002

Copyright by Common Bond Institute, unless otherwise noted in the article.
All rights reserved