Conflict was a reality of daily life in the early Christian
and Tibetan monastic communities I study. As monks and nuns (both
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 relatively rigid orders with the same bunch of
To survive and thrive, these communities studied the ways humans
tried to manage disagreements and—noting the dismal failure
of most attempts—drew conclusions and crafted responses that
still are useful for us today, especially as we discuss the meaning
of freedom of speech at Emory and as our nation moves toward confrontation
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 now are sharing space with others. 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. Too often
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.
Life happens in an ambiguous world. Add a religious perspective,
and you engage other ambivalences about encounters with gods and
humans—and about 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 serious disagreement 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 decentered.
Can we disagree and wait? Listen and hang in there amid the tilt
of weighted ideas and feelings pressing our ideas, politics, religions—amid
all that crammed together?
To hang in there without immediately pursuing your 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, the
remembered and ritualized experiences, the deep feelings of another
Disagreement is at some level always about that location. It is
about identity, about holding onto one’s place in the family,
in the neighborhood, bio-region, identified group, religion, 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 the monastics) that at least
certain aspects of our identity are tied to place. They are in our
blood and bodies, our boundaries of self, tales of homeland, rituals
and prayers, 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 also
is 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 (a very useful tool, by
This notion first came home to me in the academy. I chose my new
location by 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 deeply Southern 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 historically deserved in some sense and
also, finally, taught me about the importance of waiting and listening.
Over time, conversations opened and we learned that arguments over
what we thought were solely ideas about politics, religion and economics
were also about more.
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 a few years ago at a 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, talks would disintegrate.
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 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, for shared understanding and for transformative communication.
essay first appeared in Academic
Exchange and is reprinted with permission.