“Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.”
I know I am not the only one who occasionally thinks our species is insane. It is hard to explain hatred, racism, slavery, murder, war, torture, terrorism, mass shootings, genocide and the Holocaust without considering that we are capable of indescribable cruelties to our fellow humans. It is not easy to explain how a person can hate so much that they can kill. Or how many of us can rationalize what we do to others that we would not want done to us.
And yet I get it. The number of things about this world I don’t know and understand is a great big number but if there is one thing I understand pretty well, it is human conflict. I am not special for this knowledge. I am like the guy who sits out in the rain and gets wet. It’s not a hard job. Spending 37 years in a therapist’s chair has meant I get a daily shower of truth regarding the frailties and foibles of the human animal. Even a slow-learner like me is capable of understanding why conflict is not only common but inevitable. It’s hard-wired in our brains.
Why can’t we get along? Maybe I am deluded but I believe all human conflict in the world can be explained by the very same things I find in working with couples at war with the person they love. And so in the next few columns, I will share my thoughts and invite you to respond as the spirit moves you. Here we go.
- Life hurts. To be alive is to experience pain.
- Humans use their minds to explain their pain.
- Sometimes (often) people blame someone else for their pain.
- When we hurt and we think someone else caused it, we connect with an idea of blame, which often triggers us to feel angry.
- When we believe we have been harmed, we identify with a relationship of perpetrator and victim where we assume the innocent role and we assign someone else the guilty role.
- If we believe the provoking person hurt us on purpose, we will usually think they were wrong to do this and “bad.”
- We will think they “should not have done it.” Reality should not be what it is and it’s someone’s fault. We will vote no. We stand up to resist reality.
- When we publically identify ourselves as a victim, the other person may then understand our truth, even while it might not be their truth.
- And because we have been hurt, we may feel it is “fair” that we hurt them back. Hurt people hurt people. We might retaliate. An eye for an eye. The most compassionate people are capable of completely shutting off empathy when they have been hurt. When we feel hurt, many of us want someone else to feel what we feel. This is often deeply visceral and mindless.
- At the same time, however, our enemy, the instigator of our pain, may be sweetly oblivious of our experience. It is highly unusual for this other person to share our view. Instead, it is a truism that our opponent will have a very different perception or view of reality and will likely disagree with several elements of our truth.
- They may not agree we were hurt. Or they may accept we feel hurt but disagree they are responsible. Or they may concede they hurt us but claim it was unintentional or not that bad. They may not see themselves as guilty, responsible, bad or wrong. And they will frequently disagree that they deserve to hurt in the same way we feel hurt.
- Blaming them for harming us may be experienced as hurtful to them. They could feel unfairly blamed. They may very well experience reality as a mirror image of our own. They may feel hurt by us (for unfairly blaming them) and blame us for it. They may feel we hurt them on purpose with our blame and see themselves as innocent and us as the guilty one; they may see us as bad and wrong. They may think we should not have done what we did. They might vote no. They might stand up to resist our reality.
- When we feel blamed or criticized, we are likely to get defensive. When we get defensive, we are likely to blame the person blaming us. This will likely trigger them to get defensive and blame us. This could (and often does) become a frustrating, self-perpetuating or endless cycle.
- Furthermore, when we believe someone hurt us, we expect them to take responsibility, sincerely apologize and make amends. Since someone else caused our pain, we are not responsible. It is up to the other person to make it right. We not only feel angry or resentful. We feel powerless. We feel helpless. We feel unbalanced and unresolved. When both people in conflict feel the same way, they are at a stalemate. They feel frustrated. They feel stuck. They might get so mad, they say or do things they regret.
- Until we understand and accept that our view of truth or reality is unique to our own experience, we will probably continue to engage in what we call unworkable action. We will keep engaging in behavior that does not work but since we don’t know what else to do, we keep doing it. I fail to see that my truth is not your truth. Your truth is not mine. I “know” I am right and you are wrong. My truth becomes my enemy. Your truth becomes your enemy.
- If I place my truth or perception of reality above my relationship with you, I will harm the relationship as I fight for my truth. If you do the same, we are both harming “us” as we fight for our individual view of reality. Our truth is our enemy but we view it as our friend. Our partner or loved one might be our true friend but we see her or him as our enemy. This isn’t good. Our ideas about reality become more important than our love for one another.
- It is helpful to understand that none of us has access to the whole or ultimate truth. We only have our limited understanding of what is real and true. With billions of persons on the planet, we accept there are billions of realities. A simple focus on rightness and wrongness is doomed to fail.
- Reality or truth is not the problem. It never will be. It just is. It is what we think about truth or reality that is the key to understanding conflict. What we think matters. Our thoughts are extremely dangerous. We don’t see reality as it is. We see reality as we are. We observe reality and decide what it means and react to our interpretation of it. But it isn’t real. It’s just one extremely limited slice of the reality pie. Each of us possesses a different truth and yet each of us thinks our truth is the whole pie. This is crazy but we all do it. We are all making up our own reality and then seeing the world through this filter. It is not surprising that people are in conflict so often. We can see our own truth clearly while we are blind to what others see as truth. We “know” we are right and the other is wrong because our brains tell us so.
- We are all self-centered. We are centered in self and each self is a unique expression or flavor of reality. We experience what we call reality or truth in our self. But it is not “the” reality or truth. It is just a version or representation of what might be true or real. We are not seeing the world from the perceptions of others. We have our own private perspective on reality or what we call the truth. We can imagine how others look at the world, but we still see it through our filter. It is not real. We are stuck with our limited reality but we fail to see it. It is impossible to use our limited sight to see how limited our sight actually is.
- Because we are stuck looking at the world from a narrow perspective, we have a tendency to relate everything to ourselves. Since we experience the world through our person, our experiences feel personal. This is dangerous because it is easy to make other people’s behavior about us (it never is). If I take your behavior personally, I am apt to become emotional about it.
I have a busy practice because all of this is normal or common behavior. We all do this, including me (ask my wife—she will tell you). We often feel hurt because we take so much of reality as a personal attack on us.
In my next column, I will explore this issue more deeply as I attempt to shed light on this process and offer a few clues regarding how we might overcome our natural, ineffective strategies at managing conflict. Until then, hold yourself (and others) kindly.