This blog is a duplicate of the essay at the beginning of Newsletter #40, but since blogs are slightly more "permanent" than newsletters (though past newsletters are available in our Newsletter Archive), I decided to make this essay a blog post too.
February 17, 2021
I've been struck over the last few weeks by the numbers of things that came into my inbox, or otherwise caught my attention, that focused on the importance of thinking positively about events, one's own life, other people, one's community and the world, rather than thinking negatively. It is extremely easy, perhaps even "natural," to be dragged down psychologically by the current state affairs. I need not list the litany of things we are all worried about, angry about, and afraid of.
But as I wondered aloud yesterday, does being worried make us happy? I know it doesn't for me (though I do it a lot!) What about anger? Does that make us happy? Maybe—when it makes us feel better than the person we are angry at, perhaps it does. But it also raises our blood pressure, makes us agitated, and overall, I would guess (though I am no psychiatrist or psychologist), that it makes us less happy than when we are not angry. And it makes us do what former President Obama so eloquently advised us not to do: "Don't do stupid stuff!"
One of the lovely items that came across my screen recently was an article shared by Naomi Kraenbring, one of the highly talented and perceptive students in my George Mason University course on Reconciliation. I had asked the students to find articles that related to "reconciliation" and post the links along with an analysis of what they had to say about the theory and practice of reconciliation as we were beginning to discuss it in the class. Naomi posted a story published in the Los Angeles Times in honor of Valentines Day, entitled My father's belief that he was in an ideal marriage actually made it so."
|Most relationships benefit from a certain degree of self-deception. At some point, successful relationships involve transitioning from being with the one you want, to wanting the one you’re with. People in successful relationships are not those who have partners without flaws. Rather, they are people who discount their partners’ flaws and accentuate their partners’ virtues. -- Shankar Vedantam|
The story started out by saying "My parents were married for 46 years. Right up until my dad died 10 years ago, he lived by a simple maxim: On all matters, big and small, my mother was right." It continues: "Regardless of whether such unswerving faith was good for my mother, I have come to realize it was very good for my father. His delusional belief in her allowed him to lead a very happy married life." The author, Shankar Vedantam (the host of NPR's "Hidden Brain") does not advocate that everyone turn over all decision making to their partner as his father did. Sometimes being too trusting can get people in trouble, he admits. But, he asserts "Most relationships, accordingly, benefit from a certain degree of self-deception. At some point, successful relationships involve transitioning from being with the one you want, to wanting the one you’re with. People in successful relationships are not those who have partners without flaws. Rather, they are people who discount their partners’ flaws and accentuate their partners’ virtues. They embrace “useful delusions” about each other." He later quotes Ruth Bader Ginsburg's advice for a happy marriage: "It helps sometimes to be a little deaf."
What's this all mean for conflict resolution and peacebuilding? I think it means that we should stop thinking about how all the problems we face are insoluble, that all the people in the "other" group are incorrigible, that the only way we can get what we want is if we take it away from the undeserving other.
|Ebrahim Rassool + Shankar Vedantam = understanding that we are all in one big unhappy family. But the key to changing that—to happiness—is giving our other family members the benefit of the doubt.|
I wrote in a past newsletter, I believe, about South African Ambassador to the U.S., Ebrahim Rasool's talk at the Alliance for Peacebulding in December of last year. It struck such a chord in me that I keep on coming back to it, over and over again. He said that South Africa was able to recover from Apartheid without an all-out civil war (which many of us alive at that time expected) by taking seven steps toward reconciliation. The first step was recognizing that "the other was there to stay." The second step was deciding "that South Africa belonged to all who lived there" and acting accordingly. If we put that idea together with the idea from Vedantam's article, we come to the conclusion that we are in a marriage, or at least a family, with everyone else who lives in our community and our country, and that the vast majority of those people are here to stay. So in order to be happy (which, I assert, is a healthier psychological condition than being angry or afraid), we should start giving the other people in our figurative family, no matter how large" the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that most of them are well-intentioned until we know firmly otherwise. We know firmly otherwise about some. But we don't know the character or the intentions of others, even if they did vote differently than we did in the last election, or are in a different "identity group." Those people, I think, deserve the benefit of the doubt, at least until we get to know them personally and find out that they really aren't deserving of that benefit.
|Instead of focusing on how to "beat" the other, or "make them pay" for their past behavior, we should rather turn our attention to how we can work together to make this a better world for everyone|
While we don't have to, and indeed, shouldn't, turn over all decision making authority to "the other," we should, it seems to me, try to figure out how we can work with them collaboratively to make our families, communities, nation, and world the best it can be for everyone. So that means rather than continuing to focus on how to "beat" the other, or "make them pay" for their past behavior, we should rather turn our attention to how we can work together to make this a better world for everyone. Let's start, as President Biden appears to be doing, to figuring out how we can work together to get a handle on Covid. Let's then figure out how we can work together to get a handle on climate change while trying to help the people who will inevitably lose their jobs as we switch away from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy. Once we start working together effectively, peacebuilding experience shows that relationships improve. Trust is built. Then, perhaps, we might be able to work together to address past wrongs in a way that is fair and respectful to all involved as the best truth and reconciliation commissions have been.
|"The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer."|
Our recent posts are illustrative of an effort we are now working on to accentuate the positive in conflict resolution and peacebuilding more than the negative—looking at things that have been done successfully to address difficult and intractable conflicts, and hence, according to Boulding's First Law (if it exists, it must be possible), they can be done again. Intractable conflicts are NOT impossible. They are just very difficult. But as was reportedly said during World War II, "The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer."