I began this series of reflections on conflict by stating that conflict is a normal part of human living. We do not always agree with each other. And even when we do agree with each other, we can still step on each other’s toes. I mentioned in my last post that we need to be careful in times of conflict because we can begin to confuse our interpretation of and our feelings about what happened with what actually happened; and, when we do that, conflicts and disagreements can blossom and grow.
We are all going to face times in our lives when other people hurt and disappoint us. We are all going to need to choose a path forward after we have carefully reflected upon what happened and have tried to interpret the actions of other people in the kindest way. We may decide that the relationship is still important to us and that we want to find a way to be reconciled, or we may decide that the relationship has been too badly damaged by what has happened and that we need to walk away. The process of deciding which of these is true is what I am going to call: Choosing Your End Game.
Let me lift two images before you that may help you to choose your End Game.
I have often heard people described as porcupines on a cold winter night. Porcupines can crawl through the snow and stay in their dens during particularly bad weather. Porcupines tend to hunker down when the weather turns fowl, and they spend their time in hollowed logs, under rocks, in abandoned burrows that other animals have created, or even under buildings. But just imagine a porcupine on the coldest night of the entire year. A couple of porcupines might decide to curl up with each other, so that they do not freeze to death. A couple of porcupines might decide to share a little bit of body heat in order to survive. But there’s a problem, isn’t there? Porcupines sometimes stick each other with their quills when they get close to each other. Porcupines sometimes do the sticking; and, sometimes, porcupines are the ones who get stuck by the quills on other porcupines.
Now think about your relationships with others. You might be able to find total peace and calm by going off to a deserted island and by living by yourself. Porcupines normally do not stick themselves with their own quills, right? But if you don’t do that and if you choose to live your life in relationships with other porcupines, you need to realize that you’re going to get stuck by other people’s quills once in a while, and you are probably going to stick other people with your quills once in a while, too. Welcome to life! I truly believe, as I’ve said before, that most people are trying to do the best that they can do; and yet, we still get stuck by other people’s quills and we, sometimes, do the sticking ourselves. And that’s why, when we find ourselves embroiled in conflict, we need to ask ourselves: Have I simply been stuck by the quills of a porcupine who is trying to do his/her best? Is this conflict being created by the fact that none of us can go through life without stepping on other people’s toes and without having our own toes crunched, or is something bigger going on?
Now, keeping that in mind, let’s move to another image.
Picture your relationships with other people as pieces of fine china and picture times of conflict as times when the fine china is dropped on the floor. A piece of fine china is changed when it breaks, and it will never be what it once was. However, two different things can happen after a piece of china is dropped on the floor: (1) the piece of china can be glued back together, or (2) the piece of china can be thrown in the garbage. This important distinction needs to be a part of choosing your End Game.
I have a piece of pottery in my home that was once broken, but the piece of pottery has been mended using the Japanese art of kintsugi (also known as kintsukuroi). Kintsugi in an artform where Japanese artists mend broken pieces of pottery by using lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. This approach to mending pottery isn’t designed to hide the fact that the pottery has been broken just as conflict resolution isn’t designed to say that what went wrong in the relationship isn’t important. We need to honestly admit that we’ve been hurt during times of conflict in order to be both open and authentic. What happened to us matters. However, during times of conflict, we need to assess the damage and decide whether the relationship can, or should be, repaired. That is the question that you’re always going to need to ask yourself and that only you can answer.
And so, it seems to me that there are at least three different kinds of conflict: (1) there are conflicts that arise simply because porcupines can’t help but stick each other once in a while, (2) there are conflicts where the relationship has suffered damage but can be repaired, and (3) there are conflicts where the relationship has been so severely damaged that there’s not a road back. Thus, when we find ourselves traveling through times of conflict, we need to step back, and we need to separate what happened from our interpretation of what happened. And then, when our minds are clear about what happened, we need to assess the damage that has been done and choose our End Game.
I need to lift one last thing before you while we are talking about choosing your End Game.
There are, very sadly, many relationships that are deeply scarred by physical and emotional abuse (we will look at that important truth in more detail in a subsequent post). People who are being abused can find that choosing an End Game is nearly impossible. Many people who are being abused have been convinced that they deserve to be abused by the person who is abusing them. Sometimes, there is nowhere to go. Sometimes, it is hard to leave the relationship because there are children involved. Sometimes, the decision is based upon available financial resources.
But, please, let me be clear. You do not deserve to be physically or emotionally abused. Many people who abuse others promise that their abusive behavior will stop, but it rarely does. Some abusers use something called “gaslighting” to confuse the people they are hurting and to make their victims doubt their own good judgment. Others try to blur the line between abuse and times of unavoidable conflict.
You are precious. You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We all have times when we are stuck by the quills of other porcupines and when we do the sticking ourselves. We all have times when the fine china plate has been broken and when it needs to be repaired or discarded. But, as you think about your End Game, please remember that there are times and events that break relationships in a way that repairing them is no longer possible. In many cases, damaged relationships can be repaired by separating what happened from your interpretation and your feelings about what has happened. Conflicts can, also, be resolved by deciding to grow through what went wrong. But there are also times when the piece of fine china has been broken beyond repair and when discarding what’s left is the best option. And, when that is the case, you may decide to walk away from the relationship for your own physical and emotional health, and for your own safety. Choose your End Game wisely.