Back-to-Back on the Spectrum

This may come as a surprise, but Jeff and I have seen conflict in our marriage a time or two.

I know, shocking.

Fortunately, we share the values of honest and direct communication, and we work to see the perspective of the other, especially in places of disagreement.  These values, as well as shared commitment to attempt fighting fairly, result in misunderstandings that generally resolve quickly and without major casualties along the way.

It isn’t always the path of smooth sailing around here, though. There are times when our disagreements go very differently. Out of nowhere, tensions spike and anger flames. What began as a simple disagreement somehow morphs into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

We’ve found that even in our ugly fights, we’re often approaching the issue from a similar place. It helps to think about our disagreements as a spectrum, or a line extending infinately in each direction, each of us at a different point on the line. We’ve been surprised to find that most of the time it doesn’t really matter how near or far away from each other our positions are on the spectrum, but it matters profoundly the direction we face from our points on the line.

When our positions are close to each other and we face toward the middle, we see that we’re not as far off from each other as we originally feared. We see hope. When we face outward, pointing in opposite directions, it’s a different story. We don’t see common ground, and believe that the other perspective is so far from our own that it’s not even visible. We fight harder, and more extreme. We pull farther and farther from our original position near the middle, reaching toward the far ends of the scale.  This ‘fighting beyond’ what we actually believe moves us from conversation and relationship into a negotiating mentality: advocating for a more extreme position, knowing already that we plan on “giving a little” to move toward the middle (which, incidentally, is exactly where we started). We pour effort into entrenching ourselves in an outlaying position, gearing up for battle, rather than into listening, understanding, and working to see our common ground.

It seems like we do this as Christians, too. Sometimes we lose track of the reality that we’re all standing together in largely the same place, the ‘main idea’ of Jesus. We allow our observation that some of us more naturally face toward the side of God’s grace and mercy and others face toward the side of God’s holiness and justice to become fear—fear that our perspectives are so desperately far off that we’re not even on the same continuum. Grace see-ers begin to fear that those who see things differently are on a completely different plane, and worry that it’s a “God as vengeful, condemning, smack-bringer-when-expectations-are-not-lived-up-to” plane.  Holiness and Justice see-ers worry that those who see things differently are on a “willy-nilly, ‘anything goes’, pushover God” plane.  Standing together while looking outward seems to force our focus on our differences, rather than on the understanding that neither perspective is more right than the other—that both reflect important aspects of the character of God. Both are part of the same spectrum, together.

I wonder if the magnification of difference and perceived lack of common ground serves as a ripe compost of fear. And from the rich manure of fear grows disdain for those who see things differently, which yields a strong crop of pride, arrogance, and judgement of others at harvest time.

If this is true, it’s probably time to find new compost. How can we shift our focus from our differences onto our common ground instead? How do we turn inward after standing back-to-back, facing outward?