Dr. Kenneth Cloke
Dr. Kenneth Cloketells us that every conflict “occurs at the intersection, or crossroads, between problems we need to solve in order to grow and skills we do not yet possess. With each level of growth and development, we experience fresh conflicts and transcend old ones that we not only successfully resolve, but develop the skills to move beyond.”
Let’s take marriage, or long-term relationships of any kind. Whenever I complain about a conflict with my husband, my friend the Buddhist reminds me that my husband is my Zen master. Her reminder focuses my attention back on myself and what I have to learn from the dispute I’m having with my husband.
The two of us are like the couple in Anne Tyler’s novel, The Accidental Tourist. We sometimes feel like rivals competing for the “better housekeeper” award. Should I win the prize for insight and understanding even though I am haphazard and mercurial in my habits? Or should the blue ribbon be awarded to my husband who is methodical and steady? When we first met, he loved my spontaneity and I his dependable nature. Now his steadiness irritates me and my disorganization angers him.
This intractable meta dispute – the dispute on which all others are based – evaporates when I realize it has something to teach me about my own character and presents a challenge against which that character could possibly develop.
What if we solved the immediate problem?
“If only you’d put your car keys in the same place every time,” my husband says for the umpteenth time, “you wouldn’t have to spend twenty minutes searching for them.” I could choose to shift the argument to my home court (“you are too controlling”) or take the lesson that a little advance planning might ease rather than burden my busy day.
Here’s the transformative part. When I change in a fundamental way, the people in my life inevitably change in relation to my change. Once my husband and I resolve the order-versus-chaos problem, he will have to find someone else to play the “I’m more orderly than you” game or give it up altogether. If his desire is truly to help me lead a more efficient and productive life rather than “trying to control me,” the two of us can move on to greater, more interesting challenges than this one on which we have been stuck for years. The same is true for relations between workers, members of extended families, red states and blue, and American against the rest of the world.
If we were finally able to resolve our differences over, say, the separation of church and state, we could free up our energy to address other pressing problems, like poverty and intolerance, the environment and health care, and full employment for anyone with the desire to work as a contributing member of the society.
Conflict among human societies has caused incalculable loss and suffering. It is also the way in which people have finally stood up for human rights, self-governance, peaceful dispute resolution, independence, and tolerance of differences. If we encounter conflict with courage and self-reflection, it can and will lead us, and those who surround us, to greater freedom and authenticity, to greater self-reliance, acceptance, accountability, forgiveness and, at long last, a far more peaceful world.