Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Embracing Conflict

"Fire in the Mountains"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

The extremely hot and dry triple-digit desert temperatures over the last few days coupled with gusty winds have set up the perfect storm for roaring blazes to flare up in the mountains of Southern California.  Although the fires are hundreds of miles away, yesterday I could see billows of smoke wafting into the valley where we live.

Since I have been living out in the desert, I have come to understand that firefighters here never actually try to “put out” blazing fires in the mountain forests; rather they work to contain them, to control their spread. Sometimes they even have to start smaller fires along the periphery to combat the main blaze. 

I have also learned that these mountain fires 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 have always said that the world of nature is a great teacher - forest fires burning in the  desert mountains are no exception. 

Like many people, I have always been someone who was afraid of conflict and I would avoid it 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, a colleague or an acquaintance.  I think I always avoided conflict because I was so concerned about wanting others to “like” me. Maybe I would have done better to let the fires burn and to manage them. Instead of avoiding conflict I might well have done better to embrace conflict and let new life emerge. If I did that I may have found that more people would have “loved” me.

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 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.

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 can be symptomatic of a new relationship emerging, a relationship where there is enough trust to allow for disagreement.

In one of his epistles, St Paul advises:

Speak the truth in love

I think this is excellent advice. We grow spiritually when we are in healthy relationships with others,  and relationships grow and develop when conflict is embraced and managed. Whenever we speak our truth, even when the truth hurts, if we speak it in a spirt of love and respect, love will grow.

Once again, I learn a lesson of life from the world of nature, a lesson taught by fires blazing in the mountains above me: control the fires rather then always trying to put them out, sometimes maybe even start a few fires of your own.


  1. Thank you, Paul, for this reflection. Part of the challenge around conflict is helping people do it well! Now retired as a Imago marriage therapist, I was able to help couples learn how to channel conflict in a constructive, healing, and life-giving way. Couples can learn to ask for what they need without emotional violence, domination, manipulation, passive -aggressive behavior, and punishing abusive verbalization. Stuffing conflict is not healthy. We can learn to mine the gold beneath the hot lava. I appreciate your meditations. Do you have a physical retreat house in the desert, or is it virtual only?

    1. Thanks Bruce. The Retreat House is virtual however from time to time I have conducted some personal retreats out here for various individuals and small groups...thanks for your insight.