The Rocks and Soil in our Pockets
Lessons on conflict, identity, and place from early monastic life

By Barbara Patterson, Senior Lecturer in Religion


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Conflict was a reality of daily life in the early Christian and Tibetan monastic communities I study. As monks and nuns then and now laughingly remark, humans haven’t known conflict until they have lived in a religious context for many years, in small spaces under rigid orders with the same bunch of odd people. To survive and thrive, these communities studied the ways humans tried to manage disagreements, and noting the dismal failure of most attempts, they drew some conclusions and crafted some responses. I think their conclusions and responses are still useful for us today, especially as we discuss the meaning of freedom of speech at Emory and as our nation moves toward confrontation with Iraq.

Pervading the monastics’ writings is the sense that to disagree genuinely with another point of view or person is, in part, to become disoriented. The tensions that naturally emerge from clashing ideas and assumptions throw us off-balance, de-center our position, because our ideas are now sharing space with other ideas. When a differing perspective weighs in with its political, ideological, cultural, and religious heft, we feel the tilt, at least a few degrees. And we try to reorient, to re-place our assumptions at the center by having “our say” as quickly as we can. We perceive orientation as regained equilibrium, as “better.” Disorientation is to be on the cusp of losing the argument, as “worse.”

The monastics discerned, not surprisingly, that conflict was part of being human and that learning to deal with it usefully, compassionately, and justly was crucial for intellectual, personal, ethical, and spiritual growth and maturity. Living happens in an ambiguous world. Add a religious perspective, and you engage other ambivalences about encounters with gods and humans—their meanings, ensuing actions, and forms of interpretation. This partially reflects what Scott Appleby writes about in his book The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. Staying with the disorientation and ambivalence is part of learning to resolve conflict.

This is true on the smaller scale of the monastic community that espouses love and fights in the name of god. On a larger scale, religious traditions that both create conflict and resolve it reflect this ambivalence. Real change, new ideas, and shifted and negotiated positions require the space of ambivalence, the open ground that no one can claim when one or both are de-centered. Can we disagree and wait, listen and hang in there amid the tilt of weighted ideas and feelings about our ideas, politics, religions, and all that crammed together?

To hang in there without your “say,” to live with the slight nausea that can come with this kind of disequilibrium, is not to relinquish completely your position. It is not to cave in or give up your values. These practices, to the monastics, developed head and heart skills for a flexibility that left space between disagreeing people. In this space, one could ascertain a more complex view not only of the conflict at hand but also of the person engaged in the argument. Practicing a listening and waiting posture, we learn to overhear what’s also at stake—the strongly held beliefs, remembered and ritualized experiences, the deep feelings of another person’s location. Disagreement is at some level also always about that location. It is about identity, about holding onto one’s place in the family, in the neighborhood, bio-region, identified group, world. Though the church may have tried to suggest that disagreement and conflict are only about ideas, these practitioners never bought it. Nor should we.

Many of us disagreeing with one another at Emory today may feel that we don’t belong to any particular place; our identity is beyond that. Some contemporary globalists believe the predominant experience is one of displacement, conscious rejection of place, or a longing for place and identity that goes unfulfilled. I remain unconvinced. I believe with those monastics that at least certain aspects of our identity are tied to place. There are in our blood and bodies, our boundaries of self, tales of homeland, rituals, ways of reading the calendar, foods, words—even if only through resistance and/or fantasy. So when we argue, we need to remember that something about our place-identities is also on the line through the energies of communication. Disagreeing, then, is always somewhat personal, even when we try to isolate it in the impersonal sensibilities of ideas (which is a very useful tool, by the way).

This notion first came home to me in the academy. I chose my new location wanting to re-place my Southern heritage. I had high hopes for the molting process and the new identity that would emerge. Some of this happened. But from the start my accent did me in. Even in this supposed free space, there was little real room for the sound of my voice. The accent meant stupid, racist, poor, uneducated. This was deserved in some sense and also finally surface learning for me. The deeper learning came over time and especially in heated conversations over what we thought were solely ideas about politics, religion, and economics.

To disagree usefully, then, requires recognizing that the words being thrown back and forth are also identities and place. No wonder humans hold on so tightly to their ideas in an argument. Much is at stake. The tension of that open and flexible space, that growing potential, is hard to stay with. The disequilibrium of listening and silence is difficult to bear. A speaker for a recent Psychoanalytic Studies Brown Bag group on campus told the story of his work on the State Department negotiation team
working with the Bosnian/Serbian/Kosovoan conflict. Each time the group almost reached consensus for resolution of the conflict, it would fall apart. The cycle repeated until he saw what was happening. Certain negotiators from these countries would put their hands in their pockets just at the point of imminent resolution. One touched a rock from the motherland, another a small ziplock bag of dirt from his home country. Then things would fall apart. As complex and subtle as the languages, symbols, and songs are that we use to communicate, so are the locations that become the self.

The ancient monastics believed we all have rocks and soil in our pockets. To disagree is to become more skilled in recognizing the depth of what’s at stake as we try
to communicate. The practices of listening and waiting are crucial if there is to be enough space at the table of confrontation for each one to place on it his or her rocks, dirt, trees, songs, poems, self. And there they will be shared and honored in order that ideas and positions may clash vigorously but not pollute or pathologize anyone else’s place, to use a notion of W.D. Winnicott’s. Noting a sick tree or a blocked river, questioning a priority, a use of resources—these are perfectly permissible. But these occur only in the context of the open space, the shared experience of slight disorientation. That’s the location of genuine possibility for movement, shared understanding, transformative communication.