Just a few days ago we watched the Mhangeni breakaway pride finishing off a carcass. As six lionesses scrambled for the remains of the kill, teeth and claws flew along with a huge amount of snapping and snarling. Then when the carcass was finished and their bellies were full, the pride gathered together in the shade of a tree, lovingly grooming one another, all conflict seemingly forgotten. The same is true for when lions raise their young. The adults are not afraid to snap and growl at their cubs. They let the cubs know that their behaviour is unacceptable, the cubs jump back in line so to speak and the peaceful status quo is re-established. If this is nature’s way and it works so well for other social animals then why is it so difficult for us humans to deal with conflict at both a personal and political level?
Recently I read an article that felt as if the author had read my mind on this matter. She stated it so beautifully though that I believe to have cut up the article or inserted my thoughts would only reduce from the power of her piece. Which is exactly why I’ve inserted this hefty chunk below. Taken from a website called OnBeing that opens up discussions core to human life in the 21st century, this author speaks about the necessity for conflict in the human context.
As far as I can figure, I think I somehow came to believe that human relationships are more fragile than they actually are, that humans themselves are more breakable than is, in fact, true. One of the worst lies that polite culture teaches is that “good relationships” are nice — prizing peace over truth and the appearance of easy contentment over the experience of hard-earned understanding. I fell for that. I continue to fall for that on many days, despite the fact that evidence is all around me of the opposite.
The relationships I admire most are not steady or nice; they are genuine, imperfect, held together by unconditional love and emotional courage and a belief in the possibility of endless renewal. The people I admire most are those wise enough not to fight about everything, but to fight about and for the right things, those who don’t idealize harmony, but trust in the necessary beauty of rupture and repair.
My smart friend Katie Orenstein has said that humility is a great value, but taken too far, self-abnegation becomes selfish. If you have something to offer the world — some insight, some resource — holding back actually deprives others of something that might enhance their own lives. It’s not about you; it’s about them.
The same could be said for the great value of equanimity. It’s a powerful and necessary baseline. To pursue peace is wise, but to pursue peace when loving confrontation is actually what’s needed is foolish. It deprives both you and the person you’re in a relationship with of discovering the endurance of your emotional bond. Humans are shockingly resilient; their relationships, no less so.
Maybe, just maybe, the polite culture’s misguided lesson about doggedly pursuing peace, or at least the appearance of it, also shows up in our public lives. Maybe we shirk talking with people who vote for different political candidates or worship different gods because we haven’t developed the muscles to weather disagreement with those in our most intimate spheres. As this political moment is teaching me, as my personal life so often has, the losses of single-mindedly protecting peace above all else are epic.
I aim to grow up, to disavow the polite culture and its unhealthy, inaccurate lessons about human relationships. I aim to pretend I am made of heartier stock until I actually feel it in my backbone. I aim to step into conflict more often, earlier, with more trust in myself, those I love, maybe even those I am supposed to hate.
Conflict feels intrinsically scary to many of us but it seems to me that instead of avoiding it we should be looking for safe and loving ways to engage in it. In a lion pride, cubs don’t learn how to behave in socially appropriate ways without conflict, clear boundary lines of territories are not held without conflict and meals are not shared fairly without conflict. In nature, communities of animals find themselves stronger for being honest about where they’re at, even when it looks ugly. The resultant injuries are mere nicks and scratches on a lion’s tough skin. Maybe we need to start trusting the resilience of human relationships just as much.