The Work of Conflict is the Work of Peace

Last night,  a friend was talking about an exchange he had with his wife. He concluded: “Well, I just wanted to keep the peace, so I didn’t say anything.” Who doesn’t want peace? Actually, a lot of people don’t want peace and I’m sure you’ve met them. They are the flip-side of my friend who strives to keep the peace. They are the people who always seem to be catalysts for conflict. I see the conflict catalysts and my friend as being on opposite ends of a spectrum. I used to be wired to lean more towards being a conflict catalyst. Now a practicing mediator, I strive to resolve conflict. But I don’t think I’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum; I don’t subscribe to the “I want to keep the peace” mantra. I don’t subscribe to it because I believe conflict is inevitable in life – in relationships (I use this word in its broadest sense). Not only is it inevitable – it is a valuable tool, a resource. Or, at least, it can be. For me, the question isn’t “How do I avoid conflict?” but “How do I work with conflict constructively and fruitfully?” Right now, I’m playing around with thinking of peace and conflict in terms of yin-yang: the seeds of each lie in the other and we benefit by embracing both.

In my playing around, I’ve developed some new assumptions. One of them is that what my friend sees as ‘keeping the peace’ is an illusion.  In his case, keeping the peace means suppressing conflict.  What’s happening is that he is carrying the conflict within him while on the surface, in the dynamic between him and his wife, a semblance of peace is sustained. Possibly, he subscribes to what I think is a mis-guided belief: “conflict is bad.” This belief closes down opportunity because getting to a more meaningful, truthful state of peace requires engaging openly with conflict, rather than suppressing it. 

If, for example, my friend were to voice his concerns and he and his wife were able to have a dialogue about what they are both feeling, needing and valuing in them selves and each other, then they potentially could arrive a resolution to the conflict which serves them both well – leaves them both feeling peaceful with regards to a particular incident/dimension of their dynamic. And through working with conflict, they both might learn more about themselves and each other and ultimately deepen their relationship. Working with conflict becomes nurturing and peace-generating. And we have to do it over and over again in life. Oddly enough, therefore, keeping the peace seems to require regular connection with conflict.

In this way, I feel certain that the seeds of conflict are always within peace, and vis-versa:  a yin-yang dynamic is at play. With conflict and peace, neither is good nor bad and each in their extremes can be destructive. For example, my friend’s effort to ‘keep the peace’ leaves him with an internal conflict that festers away and likely does all sorts of subtle destruction. Also, we can end up working with conflict in destructive ways, e.g., physical and verbal violence.  

We – social activists and changemakers, tend to be the opposite of my friend. Like him, we say we strive for peace. Unlike him, we often want to use conflict to get there. We want to challenge people, stir things up. Yet, what happens when we lose sight of the seeds of peace that led us to wanting conflict in the first place? Or what happens when we get in the habit of generating conflict without being at all connected to the peace within? For example, what happens when we are being conflict catalysts to show that we are right or we are better? What happens when we use conflict to put other people down?  How can we work with conflict in ways that are nurturing, affirming and creative?

I am playing around with these questions and an overarching one: How can we consciously work with this yin-yang dynamic present in peace and conflict to become more effective as social activists/changemakers?  



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