Monday, May 14, 2012

Give your Gas Can to God

Jonathan Haidt says we have some chance of resolving society's moral challenges successfully if we can bring together people of opposing intuitions in an environment where the charging elephants of emotion can be stilled and reason brought to bear.

Could that same process work, self-induced, in the even more incendiary, intimate realm of interpersonal conflict, such as the next fight with, say, your spouse?

I get the impression that even my great hero, preacher/teacher Rob Bell, feels the temptation of interpersonal conflict. In one of his Mars Hills podcasts he admits he's one who can't resist pouring a little gasoline on the glowing ember of conflict. I personally despise fighting, but likewise find it difficult not to react, not to defend myself in heated discussion. 

And over the years I've seen some couples who seem pacific in the presence of other people, but there's just something about them, some body language or telltale clues in the ways they react to one another that make me suspicious that their home life is a firepit.

My wondering about the possibility of finding a moment of reason and perspective, an "equipause" amidst interpersonal conflict, was prompted the other day, when I came across this quote, in a different context:
Much of the root of conflict resolution resides in our own selves – in dealing with our own unresolved hurts and biases, as well as finding personal balance, so that we can control the urge to jump to conclusions and react without thinking. And so that we can have the courage to stop in the moment, take a deep breath, and think about how to control our default thinking to be able to react with compassion instead of anger and defensiveness. -- from Personality Differences Matter by Rita Brhel (I added the emphasis.) 
Thinking about this possibility, I remember that on one of his lecture tours a few years ago, Bell overturned my view of Jesus' response to injustice. I'd thought of "turning the other cheek" and "going the extra mile" and "giving the shirt off your back" as meaning people should just passively endure abuse.

No, Bell said. If a first way of dealing with abuse was returning fire with fire, and a second way was passivity, then Jesus' response was a "Third Way," which essentially introduced an "equipause" into the conflict -- a moment in which the perpetrator could see his or her actions from another viewpoint -- a moment in which to find courage and 'react with compassion instead of anger and defensiveness.'

Turning the other cheek, Bell said, would force the perpetrator to use the "unclean" left hand for the second face-slap. In Jesus' time, this would have been deeply demeaning to the person doing the slapping, rather than the person being slapped.  Equipause... Do I really want to do this???

Going the extra mile, Bell said, sprang from the law at the time, which said a Roman soldier could ask any native of a conquered country to carry his gear for one mile. But any further was strictly forbidden. "Going the extra mile" would force the soldier to break this rule and get in trouble with his superiors. Equipause... Do I really want to do this???

And giving the shirt off your back, Bell said, would have been deeply embarrassing -- not to the person who was nude, but to the person who forced and looked upon the nudity. Equipause... Do I really want to do this???

It is hard, especially in the heat of argument, to come up with such brilliant "Third Way" responses. But  what Brhel suggests, just pausing, taking a deep breath, and trying to control the charging elephant of emotional reaction -- that seems a little easier. And who knows -- maybe in that moment of stillness, a creative Third Way will appear. Or maybe the aggressor will have a playback moment in which to see him- or herself from another viewpoint.

I should stop here, but this reminds me of a brilliant passage in Fingerprints of God by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She recounts the near-death experience of a man named Edward who found himself at the feet of God. There, he recalls, he saw
... memories spanning from his childhood to just a few days before the accident. He relived the memories from a 360-degree perspective, not only what he, Edward, had done and thought and felt, but how his actions affected others. He saw the girl in elementary school who had a lisp, and he recalled teasing her because he wanted to be accepted... 'I not only recalled the experience, I felt how she felt. I experienced the consequences of my behaviors...'

Could we somehow force our brains to take in God's 360-degree view in that invoked moment of stillness? And if not something so lofty as God's viewpoint (or if you don't believe in God) could we at least aim for the relentless practice of love?

I facebooked this great quote last week from blogger and Presbyterian minister Mark Sandlin:

Hate will never be conquered by anger.
Ignorance will never be defeated with judgment.
Love will not prevail until it is practiced relentlessly.
from All MEANS All - Amendment One and Bad "Righteous" Anger -- 05/09/2012, The God Article Blog 

Again, I'm using this quote in a different context than its author. Sandlin was writing about "righteous anger" in response to the North Carolina vote against gay marriage. But isn't the relentless practice of love even more important in our own homes and personal relationships? Is it possible to resist the temptations of responding in anger in favor of reason, a broader perspective, or at least a deep breath?

No comments:

Post a Comment