Conflict among people is inevitable, whether we like it or not. It happens at every level of society; within families, communities, parishes, nations and the world community. This is because, with our God-given minds and intellects, we each develop our own viewpoints on just about every issue – from sports teams and music preferences, from to religion to politics. At times, our viewpoints will clash with those of others. Depending on the importance of the issue and the intensity with which we hold our convictions, these disagreements can range from good-natured to volatile. While the reality of conflict is beyond our control, we can choose how to deal with it.
Often we read and hear about how conflict is mishandled. It seems that in our society today, more than in recent memory, diverse viewpoints have become sources of polarization and division. Whether it is due to the polemics of various political figures, social media bloggers and news/talk show hosts on television and radio, or just the stresses of daily life, we seem as a people to have lost the ability to disagree in a civil manner. As a former parish pastor and now as a bishop, I can testify that a tendency to divisive discourse has also infected the Church. It doesn’t seem enough to simply criticize the decision or position or a person, we have to attack the person’s character and motivations. This “take no prisoners” approach to conflict is having a corrosive effect on our personal and communal relationships as well as our spiritual, mental and even physical wellbeing.
Christ recognized that conflict was part of life, and he knew that it would be even among his followers; so in the Gospels, he taught his disciples ways of managing conflict that were healthy and respectful (e.g. Matthew 5:21, 38; 7:5; 18:15). While we can certainly disagree on important issues and should challenge the actions of others that we feel are wrong and harmful, we must fight the urge of playing God and judging the hearts and motivations of others. Even with those whose views we consider immoral or unethical, we must never forget that they are fellow children of God, due the same respect and consideration that we expect for ourselves. A healthy discussion truly strives to listen and understand where the other person is coming from, even if we don’t agree with their positions. This is not easy as it takes energy and patience. However, the grace of God makes it possible.
In order to “bring down the temperature” sufficiently to be able to engage in respectful and fruitful discussion and debate, we may need to step away from inundating ourselves with the negative and confrontational influences on television, radio and social media. If we aren’t careful, we can soak in hours each day of fiery rhetoric and overheated debates and then end up frustrated and angry about situations over which we have no control or influence. Where does this accumulated frustration go? It tends to make us anxious and depressed and/or always on edge, ready to lash out when our opinion is challenged. It can lead to simply being angry with the world.
If you find yourself in this position, try fasting for a period of time from surfing news stations and websites. Rather than listening to talk shows in the car or at work, try listening to music or recorded books. Follow enough news headlines to know what was going on in the world, but don’t get sucked into every heated commentary about current events or controversies. By not indulging ourselves with a constant barrage of opinions, even those with which we may agree, our minds are clearer and less stressed because we aren’t constantly dealing with conflicting ideas and worries about situations that are beyond our sphere of influence. We can fill that time and mental space with other more positive influences such as prayer and spiritual reading, good books, and time and conversation with family and friends. Then when we do have to deal with difficult issues, I think we will find that we are better able to prayerfully place them in God’s hands and seek his guidance. In this way we will be less likely to approach conflict with a knee-jerk reaction, and so will be in a better place to listen and truly discuss the pertinent issues at hand.
Yes, conflict is part of life, but it doesn’t have to be painful and destructive. With God’s help and a more thoughtful and deliberate approach on our part, we can try to move from confrontation into genuine discussion and dialogue. We see the fruit of divisive discourse. Isn’t it worth trying a different way?