I love a good story. There are a couple of elements in most captivating stories- a conflict, a protagonist and an antagonist, and hopefully some resolution. For example, the Joker (villain) threatening Gotham City (conflict), and Batman (hero) trying to save the city (resolution).
Our lives are stories, albeit a bit less dramatic than the Batman saga. There are inevitably some problems and conflicts. Conflicts in marriage, with our kids or our parents, in our church lives, work lives, our neighborhoods. (For the record, I use the word ‘conflict’ in a very broad sense. Conflict is anywhere there is disagreement or a problem, whether obvious or subtle, verbalized or not.) We long for resolutions to these problems. But that hero and villain part? Well, that’s where it can get messy. You see, when confronted with conflict, most of us want to imagine that whoever or whatever is on the other side of that conflict is the villain. We tend to imagine we are the hero, or perhaps the righteous victim. In any case, our instinct is to see ourselves as right and good, and that other person as wrong and perhaps bad. But here is the thing- there is no way in reality that we are all the hero all of the time.
The problem is that our lives aren’t actually action movies where the guy in the cape is all good and the guy with the evil laugh is all bad. Don’t get me wrong- good and bad are real things of course. It’s just that no human is all one or the other.
Another problem is that we don’t often have real clear pictures of ourselves or our conflicts. We have an inherent selfishness that interprets situations in the ways most favorable to us. Ask two people on two sides of a conflict about what is going on and you will see what I mean. The details you hear and the details omitted or minimized often depend on whose side of the story you hear. If I tell you about a fight I had with my husband, the temptation is to focus on the insensitive thing he did or said, not the fact that I totally set him up.
One more problem: fear. You see, deep down, while many of us fancy ourselves the hero of our story, we have a lurking fear we are actually quite flawed. We know we are not so right and good, and we fear being exposed. We are afraid of being humbled, of being called out on our selfishness and our slanted way of seeing ourselves and our conflicts. We are insecure… so we put on a secure and confident face, subconsciously trying make everyone, including ourselves, believe we are the good guy.
We need to figure out a fresh way to handle conflict.
In the dramas of our lives, there is something that can help us move through conflict to resolution: understanding.
Understanding. Such a boring word for such a relationship saving concept.
If I can understand you AND me, and you can understand me AND you, we have the most hope for peace to be made. In other words, when I have a conflict in any area of my life- family, work, church, friendships, then I must be willing to seek understanding. So how do we do this?
1. Imagine. Take some time and step into the other persons shoes. What is their motive? How might your actions, words, or attitudes look to them? How might they be right, reasonable, or good in this situation? Allow yourself to imagine that the situation has a lot more ‘gray’ than ‘black and white’.
2. Ask. Ask God to reveal your own issues, attitudes, and selfishness to you. Ask a trusted adviser or friend for their perspective… and I mean their real perspective, not ‘please-let-me-tell-you-my-hero-and-villain-story-so-you-can-nod-your-head-and-agree-with-me-so-I-can-feel-better,-and-if-you-tell-me-I’m-somehow-wrong-I’m-going-to-bite-your-freaking-head-off.’ Nope, their REAL perspective.
3. Get uncomfortable. Actually doing steps 1 and 2 bring out a lot of discomfort in me. Imagining that maybe the other person isn’t pure jerk means I may not be pure ‘good guy’. Imagining that their perspective might have merit might mean I have to change. Asking a friend to give me their honest feedback will mean I get to hear my flaws pointed out to me. My shoulders tense just thinking about being critiqued on such personal matters like my motives and attitudes! In reality, though, we can’t hope to get stronger if we don’t know how we are weak. We NEED to be willing to get uncomfortable.
In reality, mutual understanding and resolution only work to the extent that BOTH sides will seek it. I can only control me, you can only control you. But sometimes when one party is willing to seek understanding, willing to own their flaws, willing to humble themselves, the ‘other guy’ finds they can let their guard down and do the same. On the other hand, sometimes people never come around. Like forgiveness however, ‘understanding’ benefits YOU, even if the other party never reciprocates.
In the end, the best way to become more of a ‘hero’ is to be willing to admit that we aren’t always a hero.
*Disclaimer- The point here isn’t to get you to believe that the person you are in conflict with is necessarily ‘the good guy’. The point is to be able to honestly look at reality in both yourself and others. If you actually are dealing with someone who is abusive or otherwise toxic, then you have to act accordingly, no only for your good, but theirs.*