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?

mhangeni pride, AA

Two Mhangeni Pride lionesses fight over a buffalo carcass. Despite buffalo weighing as much as 900kg and providing a lot of meat for the pride to eat, lions will still snap at each other as they feed. This is particularly true of when the hide of the carcass is very thick and there are only a few softer entry points to get into the carcass.

mhangeni pride

Lionesses can also get snappy with their cubs when youngsters interrupt their bouts of rest. Quite often these growls and snaps look more serious than they really are but they still knock the rambunctious cubs back into line.

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.

Two of the Majingilane male lions fight intensely with one another. Despite these two males being in the same coalition, a fight ensued over mating rights. It is only through conflict like this that dominance hierarchies are established within the coalition. Soon after this photograph was taken the two males moved off to rest with two respective lionesses as if nothing had happened.

A Matshipiri male lion tries to steal the remains of a young buffalo from a Sparta lioness. Despite the male being substantially bigger, females will not often give up their hard-fought carcasses without a fight.

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.

A young lion rubs itself affectionately against its mother before lying down to rest next to her. This sort of head rubbing is one of the primary ways lions greet one another and reinforce social bonds within the pride.

A photograph of the Mhangeni Pride taken a while back in one of their more peaceful moments.

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.

Filed under Lions Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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12 Comments

on A Different View on Conflict

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Aly
Guest

Well written piece

Aly
Guest

Is the picture of Sparta lioness and Mathshipiri male recent as the males were starting to neglect that pride

Amy Attenborough

No Aly, this picture was taken quite a while ago!

Jenny Nash
Guest

Excellent piece. An interesting perspective. Very much enjoyed that and your thoughts and observations. Amazing what we can learn from the animal kingdom.

Susan W
Guest

Powerful, eloquent, brilliantly written.
Amy, your prose is magnificent!
Your blog is on point today.

Lea
Guest

A really thought provoking blog Amy. I believe deep in my heart that Mother Nature can teach us mere mortals more than we care to acknowledge. Beautiful pics also. Thank You.

Bruce Finocchio
Guest

“Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.” Dalai Lama XIV

Amy Attenborough

So spot on Bruce! Thanks for sharing!

Diana Viney
Guest

WOW Amy! Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts and perspectives with us. I am so glad that your a writer and that I (we) are blessed with the opportunity to read your work. I will approach future conversations with this perspective in my mind and heart.

Les Moodie
Guest

A very thoughtful perspective, Amy. A very well written piece.

Cynthia House
Guest

Really enjoyed this insightful article Amy. So true it is that we humans have developed an unhealthy attachment to keeping the status quo at the great expense of honesty in our relationships. Perhaps that’s why I love nature so much, not just for it’s beauty magic and wonder but for it’s inherent honesty.

Patsy Crisp
Guest

What an interesting article on conflict – a refreshing and alternative perspective, which I shall embrace.
Thanks so much Amy – very insightful and a learning curve from our beloved and exciting lion behaviour.

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