catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 3 :: 2006.02.10 — 2006.02.25


The good fight

Learning the art of war, learning the art of love

The only good fight is the fight that never happens. If I am honest, that is my credo. Not only in obvious, large-scale conflicts such as war where really it is rather a sensible sentiment, but in every day relationships, especially in every day relationships. Somewhere in my past, in a moment lost in fuzzy obscurity, it was engrained that:



If we were living in an unfallen world, of course, that sentiment would be spot on. But we are not, and sometimes conflict is the best way, no sometimes it is the only way, to the greater good, to the peace for which we so long, in our collective memory of Eden.

When I am facing conflict, either which I must engage in or simply be an observer of, I begin to feel physical symptoms. It is not fight or flight, though perhaps this is my reaction to adrenaline, but my chest tightens and it is bit harder to breath. It feels like the anxiousness I have felt when depressed, like an anvil pressing down on my chest. It feels even more like the suffocation you feel when you are not being heard, being shut up, when you realize that to express your views would require a Prufrockian disturbing of the Universe, and your heart hasn?t the strength for the effort. If you are not heard by strangers, it is tolerable; if not by those you love, unbearable. And so it is with me and conflict. I do not have ?the strength to force the moment to its crisis.? I do not have the courage.

Perhaps a bit of hypnosis would provide a better answer as to just how this set of reactions coalesced within my person. Perhaps some trial and error biochemical experiments with SSRIs would further clarify the picture. But, I first remember being afraid of conflict while hearing my parents argue. It was many times I know, but my marker for this feeling comes from a memory of waiting at a city train crossing in Pakistan, with our entire family in a small Toyota Corona, in the dark. There was no violence, no name calling, but just raised, conflicting voices in strong argument, and I became deathly afraid that they would get a divorce. Upon expressing my fear, my parents assured me they would not. And they kept their promise, living happily together, more rather than less, until death took my mother near the end of my sixteenth year. And I never got see them fight as a man.

When your transition from careless childhood to, well, not manhood, but thoughtful childhood is as abrupt as was mine, it takes a lifetime of thinking to figure out just what you?ve missed. And it?s left to experience and extrapolation to imagine what your absent parent might have told you in any of a hundred different situations, to figure what they might have thought and felt. Especially, if for your remaining parent such questions immediately renew the rawness of loss, experienced now some twenty years ago, and produce glistening, rheumy eyes before the question is even fully articulated.

One school of thought proposes that parents should not argue in front of their children. And, for knock down, drag outs (which indicate failure in any case, even if the knocking down and dragging out are only metaphorical), I think this is probably a good idea, especially within earshot of wee and sensitive ears. I am almost certain that, if tested, the arguing voice would produce signs of stress in all but the fully inoculated and in those for whom it has become a sort of a game or, worse, a drug.

Granting that point, however, I think that as with most things, work, play, sexuality, devotion, a healthy dose of honest modeling is called for. Modeling of conflict can be the paper bag that short-circuits hyperventilation. ?Yeah, see you can do it. Breathe. Breathe.? That can teach about pain management. ?Yeah, it can hurt a bit to hear the truth when you?re wrong, but you?ll be fine.? Conversely, if one is only modeled sulks and tirades, then sulks and tirades is all one will produce. I think sulks-and-tirades, yes, it is a complex, is a special, slightly more honest but more oppressive, form of passive-aggression i.e. the passive part is also menacing, like a dark rain cloud accumulating moisture, getting ready to burst.

To be fair and not to seem an ingrate, the bulk of my childhood was a dream compared to the childhoods of many, and my parents loved me immensely. It is really perhaps only the unfinished lives of my mother and my father, though he is still alive, that has frozen my perception of their skills at conflict, that froze into stasis own immature skills of the same. Another dynamic that affected their relationship and that affects my relationship with my father, brothers, and consequently with everyone else I know arises from the clash of cultures. My father is Pakistani, and though he is very western and was educated in missionary schools and the University of Texas, many of his interactions are shaped by Pakistani culture. My mother was from Illinois. And I am sure, based on some of my own close relationships that have somewhat mirrored theirs, that this made for conflict over many things, even, perhaps, conflict over conflict.

Pakistani culture resembles the little that I have gleaned about Southern culture, except that I think in Pakistan politeness and decorum and honor and shame drive cultural interactions even more prominently. It is not ?nice? to be direct about certain matters. It is rude or insolent to speak your mind if you are not in the appropriate social position to do so. Not all of these impulses are completely bad, but they are bad when either they are used to suffocate someone?s spirit and views or when they cause the bottling up of disagreement and emotion, which like a boiler with no outlet can only lead to one thing. And in my extended family, in my immediate family, and in my personal relationships, I have seen and participated in some spectacular blow-ups, not simply of anger but also of other emotions that have flowed and flowed and flowed until they equalized with the pressure of the atmosphere, with reality.

In Wednesday night house church this year, we have been using a study guide that often tries to find antecedents for modern counseling wisdom in the character of Jesus or some other bit of scripture. Often, I am less than impressed with the pastiches they attempt, not doubting that Jesus in his beautiful perfection possessed that bit of wisdom about human psychology and wholeness, just doubting that he actually had that particular principle in mind as he, say, ?carefronted? the Pharisees. Nonetheless, the life of Jesus and scripture in general, particularly the end bits of the epistles and the wisdom literature, do provide us with instructions for soundness of body, soul, and spirit as we face conflict:

?Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.?

?A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.?

?In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.?

The most prescient advice for me personally, though, comes from warnings to false prophets in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel who are given a prophecy of woe because they declare peace to the people of Israel while they are in rebellion against God. ?‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.? The passages, respectively, use the images of a wound that is bound and not taken seriously (think a deadly cancer which is ignored and bandaged over), and a wall that is flimsy which is simply whitewashed over to hide its weakness. Both of these metaphors illustrate a sort of emotional slacking or cowardly avoidance which will lead to ruin. And when it comes to conflict, well, I am pretty good at whitewashing. Hey, I?ll even spackle. It looks so much smoother. Only, of course, it too never lasts, and then it is all cracks and fissures, and then collapse.

God is gracious, though. He does not treat us as our sins deserve nor does he leave us disfigured by wounds made worse from misdiagnosis and neglect. He is all about excising and straightening and healing. And, yes, the healing of our ills will be slow and painful, but there can also be a lot of humor in the convalescent ward.

I am convinced that one of my brother and sister-in-law combos, yes, they are a two pack, intentionally argue with one another when I am over just so I will learn how to do it better without getting verklempt. After their usually trivial disagreement, they will, together, laugh with great delight at my discomfort and tell me they are training me for marriage. Well, I do not know about all that, but it does help me in my process of learning how to fight the good fight.

I imagine there are any number of variations to a ?good,? honest fight, and I have nowhere near covered the ground rules of keeping it fair and loving. Different individuals may have to come up with different modus operandi about how and when they will choose to express their disagreements. I can imagine a dynamic in which one might say ?Yes, I?m angry. Give me some time and we will talk.? Others may be able to more directly air and address their concerns. Communication and getting it out there, though, is the key starting point.

And, if that can be done, if the baby alligators of our disagreements, with all their spiky little teeth can be faced, if we do not simply flush them down to the sewers where they grow into the leviathans that crash up through the floorboards to devour love and limb, then we will be on our way to back to the peaceable kingdom having re-tamed the beast.

So, God is providing the models, and I am paying attention, sometimes still wide-eyed and fearful, as I listen to his soothing voice whisper in my ear, ?Yeah, see, you can do it. Breathe. Breathe.?

Neil E. Das is a reference librarian at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois and author of The Dassler Effect . The quotes in paragraph three are from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.

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