This is the second post of our Toward a Spirituality of Conflict series. Do not forget to take a look at Part I. If you are finding this series valuable, we would love if you would share it with your community!
One of the most hopeful explorations of this dynamic of the self and other is provided by Barry Johnson. Referring to the either/or lens as a polarity, he proposes that while simple problems can be solved in an either/or fashion, polarities can only be solved with both/and thinking. Indeed, when we apply either/or thinking to something that is in fact a polarity, we fall into distorted patterns of behaviour that exacerbate and escalate conflict. Johnson’s modelling of this dynamic is helpful in understanding this reality:
According to Johnson, if one lives only at X, one will fall into the weaknesses of X, just as if one lives only at Y, one will fall into the weaknesses of Y. The only way by which one can pursue the strengths of X is to pursue the strengths of Y at the very same time. Unfortunately, when people are in conflict, they move further and further away from one another. Fearing the alternate perspective, they seek to pursue their perspective exclusively and in so doing fall into the negative expressions of their perspective. People in this type of conflict can be quite blind to what I refer to as the “diagonal nature” of their argument with the other. Rather than comparing strength with strength (strengths of X with strengths of Y) or negative with negative, those in conflict (or even simple disagreement) argue for the strengths of their perspective (strengths of X), while arguing against the negatives of the other’s perspectives (negatives of Y). This is, of course, an unfair argument.
By way of concrete example, let us consider a version of the self/other frame through this lens:
We see the lived experience of this polarity within the peace advocacy community (how much do we honour our own needs as we support another?), within congregations (how much do focus on openness and how much do we establish clear boundaries?), between parents (how much do I pursue my own dreams and how much do I devote to my children?) and between those in conflict (how much do I advocate for my own perspective and how much do I listen for the perspective of the other?)
According to this model, focus on self, at its best, generates positive self-esteem and self-confidence. Those who focus on self are clear about who they are, why they exist and where they are headed. They practice self-awareness; they recognize when they are triggered, they regulate their reactions and they exude inner peace. Focus on other, at its best, gives positive esteem to the other. Those who focus on others practice other-awareness; they recognise the needs of others, they regulate their interactions with others in recognition of these needs and they exude compassion. At their best, both foci are lovely, wonderful and good.
When one focuses exclusively on self, however, one falls into the weaknesses associated with this focus. At its worst, focus on self is narcissistic. The self is either elevated to be untouchable and better than others or the self is denigrated and seen to be worse than others. Either way, the image of the self is not only unrealistic it is dangerous to the self. An inflated or denigrated self harms the self by virtue of the distance created between the imagined self and the self that emerges in this negative space. This distance is a chasm that over time becomes harder and harder to cross, creating psychological distress and pain. But an inflated or denigrated self also harms the other. The absence of the other in the construction of the self suggests that the other does not functionally exist in the eyes of the self. At best, this gives the self permission to disregard the other. At worst, this gives the self permission to engage in acts of harm vis-à-vis the other.
Unfortunately, over-focus on the other is no lovelier than over-focus on the self. When one focuses exclusively on another, one falls into the weaknesses associated with this focus. At its worst, focus on the other is, ironically, also narcissistic. The absence of the self creates a vacuum in the construction of the self, which the self increasingly uses the other to fill. Acts of perceived kindness by the self for the other are generated not by compassion but by a needy grasping. In this space, the self uses the other to fill a well of unending need for a self. If the other cannot meet this need – and the other never can because the other is another and not the self – the self only grasps more strongly, placing the other in a state of perpetual obligation. In this relationship, the other is bound and ultimately smothered or asphyxiated. And the self? Although the self is perceived to not exist, the absence of self-awareness creates a type of blindness in the self. The self that is invisible to the self is ultra-visible to the other. The self and its needs bump up relentlessly against the other. The self uses its other-focus on the other to wield power over the other, power the self cannot or will not see or acknowledge.
Johnson’s modeling of polarities can be played on multiple fields – with regard to the rightness of one’s view of the world and the perceived wrongness of another’s view, with regard to how flexible or clear an organization’s culture should be, with regard to how open or closed one’s community should be, etc. Some might wonder, “Are there not conflicts that really should be solved with either/or thinking? Don’t we have to make a decision at some point?” The short answer is, “Yes.” The longer answer, however, is that a polarity resides underneath most (if not all) yes/no decisions. When we engage these underlying polarities we discover nuances we may have earlier missed, we see many more options over which decisions might be made. Most importantly, we are caused to see the humanity and goodness of the other, just as we are caused to see the limitations in the self.
It is this last point that leads us, full circle, back to the question of spirituality. What we know about Christian spirituality is that it tends to lead away from either/or thinking and toward both/and thinking (See Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward and Dorothee Solle’s Mystic and Widerstand). At the most obvious level, either/or thinking causes the self to see God’s presence with the self and miss God’s presence with the other. At a deeper level, however, either/or thinking causes the self to see a chasm between self and other that, over time, becomes too difficult to cross. Self and other are perceived as radically different and separate from one another. The both/and thinking of Christian spirituality nudges self and other to see themselves as belonging to one another, as even mirrored in one another. When this occurs, the chasm between self and other becomes much more like a plain. Self and other must still traverse over this plain. Given that this landscape is more passable however, the crossing now becomes a more realistic endeavour.