One of the hardest things a priest has to deal with is counselling people who are in conflict with each other. Husbands and wives arguing, brothers against sisters, children against their parents or just friends or fellow parishioners.
How do you reconcile people who are angry with each other? People study for years to learn counselling skills, yet even then the success rate is low – just look at the number of broken marriages there are in the world around us today. Prayer can indeed do miracles, but in this area its effectiveness seems limited.
Perhaps that’s because conflict is a free choice that we make, and God will not intervene to the point where He takes away our free will. “Free will?” I hear you exclaim, “I didn’t choose to have this conflict! It was all his fault!” Ah, there’s the rub. Few people enter into conflict intentionally. It just seems to happen all by itself. There’s nothing you can do about that is there?
Or is there? There are some people in this world who seem to avoid these personal conflicts all their lives. They appear to live a charmed life: happy spouses and children, happy extended families, happy friends, happy neighbours, happy fellow parishioners. What’s their secret? How do they do it?
For some of these people the secret is isolation. “Good fences make good neighbours” goes the old proverb. You keep away from me and we’ll be best of friends! Sure, that’s one solution, but is it really a viable way of life? We are social creatures and like it or not, we need, we yearn for closeness with other human beings. The peace of this lifestyle is the peace of the grave – it is only half a life.
Others live in apparent peace but only achieve this at the cost of their health. Too shy to enter into conflict, they bottle it all up inside instead while smiling on the outside. But this can only ever be a short term solution to conflict. Sooner or later the pressure builds and builds until some apparently insignificant incident acts as the final straw and sets off a nuclear explosion of anger and conflict. No, the price for this kind of peace is just far too high.
But there are those who neither isolate themselves from others nor bottle it all in, and yet they somehow avoid conflict. How do they do it? My suspicion is that the secret is something that lies at the very heart of the Gospel of Christ: unconditional love. It is the only thing I can think of that gives a person the strength and wisdom to stay out of conflict with others.
Not all conflict is avoidable, mind you. Even Jesus Himself found Himself in conflicts with the Pharisees and the lawyers. But these were not personal conflicts, they were ideological conflicts; the kind one cannot avoid without sacrificing one’s deepest values. I am not talking about avoiding these, for these are unavoidable if one is to be committed to truth and justice.
The conflicts I am talking about here are personal ones, the kind that come about out of hurt feelings, a sense of injury, a personal dislike of someone, a feeling of indignation at having been slighted or mistreated.
Not that the two types of conflict are never mistaken for each other. One of our most effective strategies for self justification is to depict a conflict over personal issues as a conflict over the highest of moral principles. “Oh no, it is not at all personal! All I am fighting for is the principle of the thing. I will not speak to her until she apologises for insulting me, because if she doesn’t learn that she can’t get away with that sort of thing, she’ll just go and hurt others. It’s the others I’m thinking of, not me!” Oh really?
Which is why unconditional love is such a good remedy. It teaches us to love the unlovable. It teaches us to love our enemies even while they are still our enemies, not just when they repent and apologise. That’s why it’s called unconditional. It is the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. This love never wants to teach people a lesson, not even from such ‘good’ motives. It only wants to love.
How can such love not find inner peace? If anything is capable of changing the heart of another, it is this love. It can achieve what design and wisdom and strength and force can never achieve: a change inside another person.
It inspires love in others. Patience with love motivates others to be patient; mercy with love inspires mercy; acceptance with love inspires acceptance in return. Unconditional love goes out and returns not empty.
Genuine reconciliation may well be nigh impossible without the intervention of this kind of love. So perhaps it is also the best way to prevent conflict from arising in the first place. Do you want to be at peace? Seek not to change others, but to change yourself. Learn to love unconditionally.