Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Putting Out Fires

a nearby mountain fills the skies with smoke

It's fire season in this part of the world.  The hot dry triple digit desert heat coupled with high wind gusts provide the perfect storm for roaring blazes in the mountains. One little spark can turn into a raging inferno in a matter of minutes.

Living out here I have learned that firefighters never actually "put out" the fires that erupt on these mountains. They contain the fires - control them from spreading. 

Yesterday I was reading something written by a parish priest, posted on a social media page. He was bemoaning the fact that he had spent his entire day "putting out fires" - soothing the many conflicts that had been sparked in various segments of his church. 

When I was a parish priest, I also spent a lot of my time "putting out fires." Looking back, I now wish I had let some of those fires burn- maybe even set some fires of my own.

Several years ago, the psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, wrote a book about community building.  In his book, Dr. Peck made a distinction between "pseudo community" and "community," asserting that you never really establish real "community" with others until you are able to engage in conflict and manage conflict.

On the surface, a "pseudo community" looks like a real "community" - people on committees, in task groups, on church boards, everyone nice and friendly- no one argues and there is no dissension. But no one is really saying what they honesty think because they don't want to be disagreeable. They want to be nice and not make waves.  

When the group is able to trust one another enough so they can disagree, they are then on the verge of real relationship and able to enter into real "community." From my own life-experiences, I think this is totally correct:  You can't have "community" without conflict.

I spent a good portion my life avoiding conflict. I often found myself being "nice" to people because I wanted them to like me, and I feared that I might be rejected if I challenged or confronted others. I didn't make waves and I put out lots of fires. But  I realize now that my desire to be "nice" was very egocentric. I was nice to people not because I cared for them but because I wanted them to like ME.

I have come to believe that people can't have genuine loving relationships if they are always trying to be "nice" to one another. You can't be in relationship if you are always protecting your ego. Genuine, loving relationships happen when people take the risk of moving out of the safety of their ego by entering into conflict with one another. 

People often think that conflict is a sign that a relationship is deteriorating; however if managed properly, the opposite is true.  Conflict can be a sign that a strong relationship is emerging- and when the honeymoon is over, the relationship can then begin.

The people I love most in my life are people who have been honest enough with me to respectfully disagree with me and lovingly confront me with my bad behavior. The people who love me the most are the people with whom I have often disagreed. 

I learn a lesson from the blazes in the mountains around me: 

control the fires, don't put them out- start some fires of your own

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