This has been a very divisive year for the United States. From how to handle the pandemic and political agendas to racial injustice and redefining our institutional principles, almost every topic that comes across your social media newsfeed or passes in conversation has two sides and you better know which one you are on.
More than the important and controversial issues our society faces, what I have been most disturbed by is the criticism and judgment passed from either side of any discussion. It seems an “Us versus Them” mentality has surfaced in the universal mind and we get quite busy looking for evidence that supports our viewpoint while axing anyone on our friend list that opposes. This ongoing state of conflict generates mental and emotional stress for everyone involved, particularly if you feel torn between any two sides of the argument.
During this time, I personally turned to a book that made a major impact on me while in college, The Anatomy of Peace by The Arbinger Institute.* Through fictional storytelling, this book teaches how we inadvertently invite or perpetuate conflict which we think we are trying to resolve. It explains the dynamics of interpersonal conflict and how our perception can become skewed. Most importantly, through this teaching, it reveals how bringing awareness to these tendencies can diminish their control, allowing us to see situations more clearly and work more efficiently toward solving problems of all sizes.
This process begins with simply seeing others as people instead of objects. Calling upon Martin Buber’s famous philosophy of I and Thou versus I and It, wherein he defined how we tend to adopt one of two ways of relating to the rest of the world, person to person (I and Thou) or person to object (I and It). At first pass, you probably do not consider yourself someone that would view anyone as an object. However, when our views of others lack respect, we have essentially, in our own minds, dehumanized them.
The philosophy in this book does not dispute that in any argument, someone might be right while someone else is wrong. It does not substantiate that you should be in agreement with everyone all the time. What it does posit, though, is that in every disagreement, your heart in the matter is either at war or at peace. The sad truth is that many of us fail to recognize when our hearts are at war, because we feel vindicated in our anger, our intensity, or our stubbornness. We may very well be on the right side of an argument, but if our hearts are at war, we cannot see the situation clearly enough to find a true, lasting solution. This is how we find ourselves being right while also still being wrong.
I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Everyone going faster than me is an idiot and everyone going slower is a moron.” I think we have all identified with this sentiment at one point or another and I think it highlights our tendency to evaluate others relative to our own perception. In both of these scenarios, my views of the other drivers lack respect, and at this time, I view them as objects or obstacles. I have not considered how the slower driver might be grieving the loss of a loved one and moving slowly through all their mundane tasks as a result, or how the faster driver might be manifesting anxiety on their way to an important interview because they were laid off from their last job. These, of course, are speculations, but they are examples of real humans with real problems and real motivations or struggles that go much deeper than how these drivers might be inconveniencing my day.
“As important as behavior is, most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy but failures of way of being…when our hearts are at war, we can’t see situations clearly, we can’t consider others’ position seriously enough to solve difficult problems, and we end up provoking hurtful behavior in others. If we have deep problems, it is because we are failing at the deepest part of the solution. And when we fail at this deepest level, we invite our own failure.” – Anatomy of Peace
Our world has some major problems. Major problems need major solutions. Let’s make them lasting. One great way to do that is to start with our own inner heart. When we cultivate a heart at peace we are able to bravely pursue justice and truth for lasting resolution for all.
*I am currently hosting an online study discussion group around this book on Facebook. There is a link on my website for anyone interested in learning more about this book or its concepts.