I have conflicted feelings about conflict.
It’s a fascinating word: con+flict or with+strike. To strike with. Not to strike against. With. I think that all my regular readers know by now that I am staunchly committed to nonviolence. (Hey, “com” and “con” are variations on the same prefix for “with!”) We think of “con” as being “against” as in “the pros and cons.” Conflict is where we grow. Conflict is where we learn. Conflict is where we have the opportunity to celebrate being unique.
I talked about this with my 2nd grader earlier. She went right to the point. The only way to have no conflict is to live on one of the dark planets from A Wrinkle in Time. Without conflict we can have no life, no love, no laughter. I suspect that heaven is full of conflict. I can’t imagine that a loving God wants us to be all identical and stagnant and stunted. It’s the reverse of a dark planet, a place where conflict may even be celebrated and used as a springboard for greater understanding and intimacy and empathy. Only in heaven there won’t need to be any competition (there’s that root “com” again!) for the basic resources to meet our basic needs. The nature of conflict is radically different when all parties are on equal footing and have their basic needs met first.
It’s not really conflict itself that I find so conflicting. It’s how conflict is handled. This has been on my mind and then tonight’s school reading was on conflict transformation. Most of the bigger conflicts in my life have been with people who hoarded power in relationships. It’s the nature of inequality to breed destructive conflicts. Conflict can’t be either resolved constructively or transformed in a relationship between to people who don’t have equal investment in and power within a relationship.
I think that heaven will be a place where there are no such inequalities. Conflict may also be the only way to rid the world of inequality. Without conflict there will only be more of the same-old, same-old. If we as a species don’t find a better way of dealing with conflict we can expect more terrorism, more violence, more war, more suffering. We might even wipe ourselves right off the face of the earth.
One of the most hypocritical stances we can take is one that favors world peace and equality while our own personal relationships are dripping with the slime of inequality and violent ways of handling conflicts. There’s obvious violence in the form of black eyes and broken ribs. And there’s the more insidious psychic violence which perpetuates injustices large and small and always “resolves” conflict in favor of the more powerful party.
Conflict is about change. Little J and I discussed this, too. We were making God’s Eyes and chatting. They’re an easy project, nothing more than colored yarn wrapped around popsicle sticks:
We made some working from the backside and then changed to the front. Change is hard. As soon as we changed we had to pay more attention to how we did it. After making only two of them our hands were already printed with a muscle- memory of how to wrap the string.
It’s the change part of conflict I think people hate. Positive methods of dealing with conflict require change and require the most change from the people with the most power. When people have nothing to lose conflict isn’t frightening. When people have everything to lose conflict is terrifying.
I don’t think that’s the sort of conflict in heaven. It won’t be heaven if anybody has more or less than anybody else. There won’t be the sort of relationships where one person hoards all the power by threatening to leave every time he doesn’t get his why. There won’t be people saying “we don’t communicate well” when that they mean is “I refuse to listen to you or to speak with you.” (There’s that root “com” again in communication!)
I’ve been thinking about my very first “real” romantic relationship. “Real” is in quotation marks because it is such a blurry thing to try to define. So let me try to explain slightly better. It was a longer term committed arrangement between me and a young man I knew in which we participated intimately with each other on several levels. We never really fought. Which isn’t to say that there were no conflicts. There were. But we never screamed or yelled, never hung up phones, never slammed doors, never threatened to break it off, never hurt each other over a disagreement. (If you must know, my parents decided I needed to move and that’s how it ended.) We certainly weren’t perfect people. Actually it’s fair to say that we both came from less than ideal backgrounds, had relatively little experience in how to handle conflict, and were often relating in stressful situations. But we never fought and there was no drama. We had a survival and problem-solving outlook on life and our relationship. Conflict was a place we grew together. We had no fear discussing even really hard and frightening topics. We still don’t. We still talk sometimes and I am always amazed at the comfort and ease with which we can talk.
I can only take half the credit for communication that worked like that. I did my part and he did his part. I look back and think that the magic of that came from neither of us having anything to lose but the other. The idea of breaking up because we disagreed was off the table. Obviously I can’t speak for him but it never crossed my mind and he never mentioned it if it did occur to him. We had a sense of security and a set of “we” attitudes. This was the relationship that was printed on my brain as “how it’s supposed to be.” It’s taken me the better part of two decades to get it through my thick skull that that isn’t normal. It probably should be but it’s not. I’ve never seen it again. I kept walking into new relationships thinking that they’d be like that one was in this respect, and kept ending up shocked and heartbroken to discover that even after signing a marriage license it still wasn’t a “we” thing.
It would be too easy to live with that bit of my past on a pedestal. Too easy and absolutely unfair. It wasn’t perfect. I suppose if it was we’d still be together no matter what obstacles arose. But we aren’t. Perhaps we would have grown up and grown apart or become bored with each other or started to fight if we’d had more time. Perhaps we would have felt the pressure life places on young couples and buckled under it as many do. It doesn’t really matter at this point. The point is that I have had personal experience in seeing that it is possible to have conflict without violence, to find win-win solutions to problems, to learn that conflict leading to change leading to vulnerability leading to intimacy is beautiful.
Heaven must be a place full of conflict. A place where billions of opinions and world-views are all free and celebrated. A place where people have the freedom to disagree, where diversity doesn’t mean ethnic food and one month a year for women’s history. But it is also supposed to be a place where there is peace. This means that conflict can and will be peaceful, healthy, and growth encouraging. It will be a place where tax-collectors and prostitutes and farmers and teachers and single-mothers and HIV carriers and drug users and environmentalists and poets and trash collectors and prodigal children and politicians and veterinarians and vegetarians and cattle ranchers and maybe even preachers all eat at one table.