Monday, June 26, 2017

Speak the Truth in Love

"A Hot Summer Day"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

It's always pretty hot in the summertime out here in the desert where we live; but over this past week we have been breaking all the records. An “extreme heat warning" has been issued and afternoon temperatures have reached (and even exceeded) 120 degrees. These extremely hot desert temperatures coupled with gusty winds have set up the perfect storm for roaring blazes up in the mountains overlooking our valley and in regions throughout Southern California.

Living in California has helped me to to understand that firefighters here never actually try to “put out” the blazing fires that regularly sweep through 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 blazes aren’t necessarily seen as a bad thing 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. They teach me a lot about the value of looking at life and sometimes “allowing it to burn.” This past week as the temperatures scorched the desert valleys and fires blazed in the mountains, I reflected on the nature and value of “conflict” in our lives and on a spiritual journey.

It seems to be that lots of people nowadays are “figuratively” living under an “extreme heat warning” as the simmering flames of conflict have often erupted into full-blown blazes. So many of us seem to be extremely divided by politics, ideology, race, religion and ethnicity. I have heard several reports about “one-time” friends and even some families who now avoid one another because they just don’t want to get into heated political arguments.

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 disagreement with a friend, an acquaintance, a parishioner. As I think about it, I avoided conflict because I wanted others to “like” me and I thought that engaging in a conflict would diminish my chances of being liked.

I now think that maybe I would have done better to let the fires burn and to manage them. Instead of avoiding conflict I probably should have embraced it and allowed new life to emerge from it all.  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, 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.

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. A therapist friend of mine suggested that embracing and managing conflict is like “mining gold beneath the burning lava.”

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 “inevitable” conflict is welcomed and managed. Whenever we speak our truth, even when the truth hurts, if we speak it in a spirit of love and respect, love will grow.

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