When our girls were very young, we discovered a handy system for turn-taking — Lucy, born on an odd calendar date, got first dibs on odd days, whereas Rosie, born on an even date, took the even days. This settled most disputes over pushing elevator buttons, taking turns in the bathtub, and choosing the bedtime book.
Things aren’t quite as simple in our current stage of life. With an 11- and 13-year-old in the house, conflicts run deeper than something that can be resolved through an even-or-odd-day system. I find myself regularly negotiating quarrels that seem simple on the surface (“She hit me first!”) but which really have roots in deep questions of personal worth, lovability, and significance in the world. At these moments, we make an attempt at a regimen of careful listening, self-examination, and releasing power — none of which feels natural for any of us, much less pre-teens. We try to create a safe place for working out conflicts, but it always takes a fair amount of work and a whole lot of time. Sometimes we make progress. Sometimes we end in tears and need to take a break. Most of the time I wish for a better manual on parenting.
I’ve been working on these conflict-resolution skills in other contexts as well. These skills are pulled out regularly as our local church congregation wrestles through intense feelings and convictions on important topics (money! sexuality! church polity!). These skills also find a place as I engage in political discussions with friends and family where the desire to cling to our varying opinions feels almost irrepressible. These are the kinds of skills that we all need to have at the ready as we find ourselves disagreeing with colleagues in a meeting, challenging a student in class, or inviting a client to look at things from a new perspective.
And in all of this, I keep thinking about Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5.9) The call to peacemaking feels relevant right now in many spheres — and to be honest, it can be a real struggle. It feels much easier to choose a side and stick with it. But there are moments when we can serve as mediators, helping to unpack the issues that contribute to division — until we find a path into togetherness and deep respect.
As I’ve sat with this peacemaking business for a bit, I’ve taken fresh note of what else Jesus said about peace. He certainly didn’t promote status quo peace or even be-nice-to-your-laws peace. The peace Jesus advocated wasn’t the “let’s not fight” kind, but rather the “let’s remember what’s important” kind. No matter the audience, he constantly invites his followers to listen carefully and remember those things that are the most real and true.
I’ve been reminded lately of a book that deeply shaped my young adult life. I read Difficult Conversations shortly after its 1999 publication and was immediately struck with its usefulness in sorting through the discomfort I felt around conflict. I loved the way the authors created a logical framework for the overwhelming emotions I regularly experienced when I found my own opinion to be at odds with another’s. A very brief summary of this framework looked like this:
- What are the facts in this conflict?
- What feelings are present in this conflict?
- What issues of identity arise in this conflict?
As a 24-year-old, that question about identity was mind-blowing. Finally, a way to articulate my fears! Am I a bad daughter if I don’t call my mom every day? Am I an unfaithful Christian if I skip Bible study? What did it mean about my deepest self that I sometimes swore under my breath I was irritated with someone? I’m not sure if the writers from the Harvard Negotiation Project knew it, but they gave me language for grace in a way that I had never understood before. They called it “the And Stance.”
The And Stance allows for complexity in conversations and in your own personal identity. You can love your mother and establish boundaries in your relationship. You can be a growing Christian and miss a Bible study. You can follow Jesus and swear sometimes. (For fans of Ellen DeGeneres, you might remember the caller Gladys and her famous words: “I love Jesus but I drink a little.”) For a young woman gradually maturing out of a very black-and-white understanding of Christian faith, this was gold. The authors of Difficult Conversations recommend this process:
Complexify your identity (adopt the And Stance). This means moving away from the false choice between "I am perfect" and "I am worthless," and trying to get as clear a picture as you can about what is actually true about you. As for everyone, what is true about you is going to be a mix of good and bad behavior, noble and less noble intentions, and wise and unwise choices you've made along the way.... A self-image that allows for complexity is healthy and robust; it provides a sturdy foundation on which to stand. (page 118)
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that a sense of flexibility and self-awareness around issues of identity is the key element to being a peacemaker in our day. The cultural forces (do I even need to name the media channels?) that press us into choosing a side and aligning one’s identity with it are formidable indeed. The task before us requires critical thinking and regular self-reflection — and, perhaps above all, a deep understanding of our most fundamental identity as beloved children of God, all messed up and loved fiercely despite it all.
Where does this leave us when the discussion wanders into Trump territory? or gay marriage? or gun restrictions? I would venture to say that the old adage “Don’t talk about religion or politics,” while certainly safe, does lack a sense of courage. What if, instead, we got curious about one another’s point of view? What if we began asking questions to understand one another as fully as possible? What if we, as mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport advocated, postponed persuasion until we can “state the case of the opponent to the opponent's satisfaction”? (You can read more about this concept through the work of John Gottman and his institute.)
This is not to say that we abandon our own beliefs and convictions. Instead, being secure in our own sense of identity and values, we stand on solid ground, confident in our ability to find a way forward that aligns with our deepest sense of self while also promoting peace within our extended and contentious human family.
In our home, we find ample opportunity to practice these skills on a relatively small scale. Yet, even when the conflict focuses on something trivial (who gets the last cookie?), I sometimes find myself witnessing magical moments of self-sacrifice, love, and deep compassion for one another. Let’s be clear: not always. But sometimes. Whether it is in our kitchen, or the church, or the classroom, moments like these are holy, a sanctified space in time where we can take a breath and recognize our shared life together. Part of the blessing we receive as peacemakers is the growing awareness of God’s Spirit at work in those around us, teaching us to posture ourselves in a way that honors the Creator and acknowledges the dignity of his created children. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
So I’m doing my best these days to listen carefully, think before I speak, and get used to living peaceably even in an atmosphere that holds some tension. I’m learning more about mediating conflicts daily, and I’m increasingly convinced that the skills required to negotiate pre-teen arguments aren’t that much different from the ones grown-ups need to use for big grown-up issues. Between an upcoming election year and our one-bathroom house, I think I’ll have a fair number of opportunities to practice what the Holy Spirit is teaching me about being a peacemaker. I know I need all the practice I can get.