"Smoke over the Mountains"
- At the Desert Retreat House -
It’s fire season in this part of the world. The extremely hot and dry triple-digit desert temperatures coupled with gusty winds provide conditions for the perfect storm for roaring blazes up in the mountains overlooking our valley.
Since I have been living out in the desert, I have come to understand that firefighters here never actually try to “put out” a blazing fire in a mountain forest; rather they work to contain it - to control its spread. Sometimes they even have to start smaller fires along the periphery to combat the main blaze.
I have also learned that these mountain blazes aren’t necessarily seen as a bad thing out here; rather they are understood to be a necessary part of the natural pattern- without these “cleansing” fires, the forests would become wild and chaotic and new life could not emerge.
I just read a news story about a recent mountain fire. The residents of the nearby community declared that they were actually “relieved” that the mountain area above their homes finally burned. It hadn’t been on fire since the late 1800’s and the forest area was getting out of control. The “burn” had helped to clean up all the unnecessary underbrush and make way for new seedlings to sprout up.
I have always said that the world of nature is a great teacher - forest fires burning in the desert mountains are no exception. They teach me a lot about the value of looking at life and sometimes “allowing it to burn.”
Like many people, I have always been someone who was afraid of conflict and I would avoid it at all costs. In fact I spent way more time and energy than I should have putting out fires whenever they erupted- an argument at a meeting, a conflict or a disagreement with a friend, an acquaintance, a parishioner. I think now that maybe I would have done better to let the fire burn and to manage it. It may well have been what I needed to do to clean up all the mess and let new life emerge.
Several years ago, the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote about what he referred to as “pseudo-community” in human relationships. He specifically described how groups often “pretend” they are getting along with one another in order to avoid the pain of conflict:
The essential dynamic of pseudo-community is conflict avoidance.
Group members are extremely pleasant with one another and avoid disagreement.
People, wanting to be loving, withhold the truth about how they really feel in order to avoid a confrontation.
The group may appear to be functioning smoothly
but individuality, intimacy and honesty are crushed.
Dr. Peck suggested that it’s only when people can trust one another enough to be able to honestly disagree that authentic community can emerge.
When I think about my own life I am almost embarrassed to admit how much time I have spent avoiding conflict. I now know that I did this because I wanted others to “like” me and I feared that I might be rejected if I disagreed with or challenged them. So I usually didn’t make a lot of waves and spent a whole lot of time putting out fires. But I now realize that this almost-obsessive desire to be nice was essentially driven by my ego. I was nice because I wanted people to like me, not because I loved them.
Lots of people believe that conflict is a sign that a relationship is deteriorating; however, if the flames of conflict are managed properly, the opposite can be true. Conflict, individual disagreement and personal challenges can be symptomatic of a new relationship emerging – enough trust to allow for disagreement.
The people who have loved me most in life are the people who have been honest enough to respectfully disagree with me. The people I have loved the most are those who I have been willing to challenge.
Once again, I learn a lesson of life from the world of nature - a lesson taught by fires blazing in the mountains above me: A fire isn’t always bad, in fact fires are part of life and necessary for growth.. Control the fires rather then trying to put them out. Sometimes maybe even start a few fires of your own.