Facing Inward

So, where did we leave off?  Ah, yes.  Fighting.

I really believe that the spark of disagreement is often faned into a blaze of an ugly fight by the magnification of difference and perceived lack of common ground. Our perspective informs our feelings, which often drive our actions. More often than not, the situation isn’t as desperate as we fear.

It seems that it all boils down to fear. Fear that we’re alone, that we’re not enough, or that our work to see the perspective of the other person might uncover our own wrongs. We fear that our weakness will be exposed, and that we’ll be hurt deeply. We fear that we’re so far off from each other that we need to fight more extreme even have a chance of being heard.

Our fear seems to drive our desire to self-protect and to “fight beyond”, and does little to move toward restoration or healing.

Something that’s helped Jeff and I get through the these “standing together but looking outward” cycles has been counter intuitive, and often really, really scary. In the moment of deepest vulnerability and frustration, we try to (note the inclusion of the words ‘try to’ lest you think my feet aren’t firmly anchored in reality) step away from our attacks on the other, and look at why we feel so defensive. There’s usually a reason, often only tenuously linked to the topic being argued, that is a deep insecurity or wound. Whatever the reason, we feel so vulnerable that we shift seamlessly from conversation into defense mode, lobbing attacks on the other person to fend off assault (real or perceived) on our place of hurt. It’s only when we realize our insecurities and wounds that we are able to break the nasty cycle.

Realizing our own insecurities and wounds, actually naming them and saying them out loud, is horrible. What’s even harder, though, is sharing those vulnerabilites with each other during conflict. It feels like a major tactical error—like mailing the enemy a map to the weakest section of the fortress wall during a fierce battle, with a direct route to the slumbering King’s bedchamber clearly displayed. It feels like a death wish. It’s scary because we don’t know what the other person will do with our disclosure. Will they hold it gently? Or will they use it to destroy us?

It seems that sharing weaknesses with each other is the key that opens the door to grace, though. Sitting with each other, holding brokenness and humbly asking for mercy, opens our hearts to see another perspective. It loosens the entrenching work that’s been done, and changes our posture of facing outward back toward the middle. Facing the middle brings relief— we see each other on the same spectrum, and realize that we’re not actually as far off from each other as we originally feared.

In a climate of polarization, in the world of politics as well as in the Church, how do we avoid letting our insecurities, wounds, and fears dictate our actions? How can we move toward vulnerability with each other, even (especially?) those with whom we disagree? How can better ask for, receive, and extend mercy?

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?