As part of my Certificate in Nonviolent Studies, I’ve been studying the conflicts going on in places like Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela. In almost every radio and podcast interview I’ve heard, the following question is asked:
What will it take for the two sides to reach a compromise?
I have studied the Ukraine conflict most closely, so I’ll use that as an example. Naturally these things are always much more complicated than what you hear on the news, but in a nutshell the problem is this: ethnic Ukranians want to become more closely allied with the EU, while ethnic Russians living in Ukraine want to maintain close ties with the Kremlin.
Within this context, what would a “settlement of differences by mutual concessions” look like? Either you are of Ukranian heritage or you are ethnically Russian. Either you are from the city in the west or from the countryside in the east. Either you think the economic future of Ukraine lies with the EU or you think security will come from Russia. These things are mutually exclusive and stable. Concessions may lead to a cease-fire, but they are unlikely to lead to a decrease in hostility.
As long as we frame this issue in such either-or terms, compromise seems impossible. But maybe it’s all about perspective. Looked at in a different way, maybe the chasm isn’t quite so wide.
Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing. All Ukranians, whatever their ethnic heritage, want economic security, freedom and self-determination. While they may have differing opinions as to how this can best be accomplished, the dispute is in the details.
What is true writ large on the global stage is also true in the microcosm of our personal relationships. We all want the same thing out of life. We want to feel cherished, important, worthwhile, safe, happy.
While we may choose to employ vastly different strategies for getting these needs met and we may not understand the choices other people make, we ultimately aren’t so different.
I have this conversation with my 8-year-old daughter all the time. There is one girl at school who really rubs her the wrong way. This girl always wants to be the center of attention, always has to one-up the other children, always has to be an expert on everything. While I understand why Bess finds this annoying, and I don’t expect them to be BFFs, my daughter has to learn how to get along with all kinds of people.
So we talk about it. We discuss how, just like Bess, just like all of us, this girl wants to feel special and loved. Obviously she has decided or learned that the way to get her emotional needs met is to seek attention and approval from others by any means necessary. We may not like or understand the behavior, but certainly we can understand the motivation. That’s not to say that one must be willing to be a doormat. If this girl is doing things that are hurtful or dishonest then it is okay, even necessary, to speak up. But even though she is frustrating, doesn’t she also deserve our compassion?
And after having had this conversation eleventy thousand times, gradually, my daughter is gaining the skills she needs to compassionately deal with difficult people while demanding respect from them.
The world isn’t made up of right and wrong, me and you. As long as we think it is, we will continue to have all sorts of unresolvable conflicts.
But when we see that the world is actually made up of 7 billion other people who are just like me these conflicts become manageable and compromise becomes truly possible. Maybe all those people don’t look, talk, act, eat, or worship like me, but they are just like me in the ways that count