Change Work October 2014

Sticks and stones

I've just returned from a holiday on the Isle of Harris, off the west coast of Scotland. Hurricane Gonzalo held off long enough to give us a calm ferry crossing to get home. And although the weather can be ferocious there, the sparseness of human population gives the Outer Hebrides a tranquil feel.

That tranquillity couldn't contrast more profoundly with conditions in so many other places in the world. After only a few days of insulation from the news, it seems that things have got worse in that time. The word that sums it up is "conflict".

Wars are fought between states (or would-be states), feuds break out between families or communities and may last for generations. Political ideas are championed by parties who then fight over them. They all make the news and obscure the positive, co-operative things that also go on.

To me, conflict is always painful. Perhaps my attitude is extreme, but Idon't like to watch most TV drama. I have a low tolerance for people behaving badly or cruelly and I'm not entertained by it. I need some uplift! I don't even watch "reality" contests on TV because they're transparently manufactured and emotionally manipulative. 
And yet I do enjoy sports, especially team events with plenty of physical contact.

What's the difference? Well, I see "competition" as distinct from "conflict" because it's bound by rules and the participants generally respect each other. It isn't real! So when competition morphs into conflict, I switch off.

Most conflict comes down to a dispute over resources: land, oil or water; jobs, housing or amenities.  But we also perceive recognition and love as being in limited supply so we can fight over them as well. Of course we hardly ever acknowledge that anything as soft as the need for emotional fulfilment can be driving our behaviours and we usuallybelieve that we've fallen out over a "principle".

And it's quite possible for one of the parties in conflict to be completely unaware that there's a problem. For them, it's just a debate or difference of opinion and they're sticking up for their position. For the other though it could be a disturbing or traumatic experience.

Perhaps something has been said or done that you found to be personally hurtful. It's unlikely that the other intended to hurt you (unless you are already "at war" - in which case you'll know about it!) because most of the time we don't take any account of what others are feeling. People express their own emotions (usually without realising what they're doing), so it's always about what's going on inside them.

How you respond is up to you. Even if they really did mean to hurt you, you're not obliged to be hurt! You can look at the situation with curiosity rather than with resentment if youchoose to.

I know that this isn't easy. I suppose our social evolution has left us with patterns (programs) that just happen to work that way - to distress us. It may be analogous to the pain response that warns you when your body is injured. Pain is a very effective warning that triggers reflex actions to get away from the cause. So it has served us well in evolutionary terms although if you were able to choose your own injury-warning mechanism, your choice probably wouldn't be pain!

As social creatures it's good for us to be part of a group and to be well regarded by others and maybe our emotional pain at being excluded has developed as a reminder, a prompt to give our attention to what others think. But by allowing other people's thoughts about you to be a source of pain, you give them the power to inflict it. And if they, or you, use that power then competition becomes conflict, and everyone suffers.

Wehave the ability to cause each other physical and emotional distress. You probably won't encounter the former very often (and it's outside my scope!), but the latter, emotional kind of hurt can be resisted by seeing it for what it is: either someone else's pain driving their actions or their insensitivity blinding them to the effects of their actions. Either way it only hurts if you allow it to.