Conflict Resolution as a Sacred Practice

As a nurse educator with 25 years of clinical experience in mental health, I had long considered myself proficient in helping others negotiate and settle differences. More recently I have come to recognize my approach to situations of discord as singularly secular, and one in which my ego all too often assumed responsibility for positive outcomes derived by those embroiled in dispute. Reading Jan de Hartog’s trilogy, The Peaceable Kingdom, A Peculiar People, and The Lamb’s War last summer led me to perceive the process of conflict resolution in a new light, thus illuminating its sacred nature.

Though fictional accounts of Quaker experience and history, de Hartog’s books create a visceral sense of what it would be like to be in the Religious Society of Friends when doing so had very tangible and threatening consequences. His vivid accounts of how our forebears did, or did not, remain true to Quaker testimonies left me questioning whether there would be enough evidence to convict me of being a Friend, if so being were again to become a crime. In describing a method oft used by earlier Quakers to deal with contentious situations, de Hartog provides guidance for modern Friendly living.

De Hartog delineates four steps to conflict resolution. First, one must avoid using one’s opponent as a means to an end; rather s/he must be regarded as an end in and of her/himself. I interpret this to mean that one seeks to identify in some regard with one’s adversary. Once something of the self is apparent in the other, the way is clear for the second step: that of speaking truth to power. The third step involves somehow moving into silence with one’s opponent. Finally, one bears down on one’s opponent with all the love s/he can muster. Throughout his trilogy de Hartog attests to the power of this simple means of drawing the Divine into human turmoil. Shortly after reading his stories, I had an experience that speaks to the veracity of his assertion.

My proof that the above described conflict resolution method works occurred late last summer when I attended a weeklong seminar for parish nursing faculty. Parish nursing is a fairly new specialty that takes a holistic approach to health promotion and disease prevention. It is distinguished from other kinds of nursing by its emphasis on the relationship between spirituality and health, and because it is practiced within the context of the mission and ministry of a given faith community.

I was asked ahead of time by one of the seminar leaders to take responsibility for leading a morning devotion. I wasn’t really clear what a devotion was, but because I liked the leader and wanted to be helpful, I agreed. Then, I spent a fair amount of time ruminating about what to do and say. In spite of the kindness and good intentions of the parish nurses I have known, the foreignness of their faith traditions and practices sometimes makes me uneasy in their company. Often I feel estranged by the language they use to express their spirituality. A multiplicity of factors, including the periodic insensitivity of others and my own proclivity to be judgmental, conspire to alienate me from my peers in parish nursing circles.

I continued to fret about what words to speak, until it finally occurred to me, on the morning of my debut, to seek them in silence. When it came time, I acknowledged to my audience that devotions were not a part of my faith repertoire, and that I did not know what I was going to say. A number of questions I had been asked earlier in the week, including whether Friends are Christians, indicated that many of those present were curious about my spiritual orientation. I offered my belief that what principally differentiates most religions is the relative emphasis each places on sacred texts, spiritual leaders, or continuing revelation in knowing God. For many Quakers, myself included, the latter way of knowing (i.e., personal experience) is primary. Hoping to provide further context for understanding, I explained that Friends sit in silence to facilitate discernment of Divine will. I told them I was going to sit in silence for a bit because I was unclear on how to proceed. For a short time we all sat quietly.

My heart did not beat with the vigor that precedes knowing when I must speak in a meeting for worship, but after a few moments I felt enough clarity to rise again. I remember quoting from an old nursery rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," and then saying, "I beg to differ." I proceeded to tell those present what I had learned from Niyonu Spann at Friends General Conference’s centennial Gathering in Rochester, New York, in July 2000. She described words as having vibration, and said the vibration of some words can be very intense and enduring. To illustrate her point, Niyonu used the word nigger. I imagine she selected that particular word because there are very few people living in the culture of the United States who would not readily recognize it as having a tremendously negative, ugly vibration. As a young college student, Niyonu had attempted to assert her authority over the word by applying it in an exclusive way to her peers and herself. She no longer does this as she has come to regard the particular vibration of nigger as one that will not lose its sting, or be dissipated for years to come.

I continued, saying I suspect that for Niyonu the word nigger vibrates with the rage, hurt, helplessness, and hopelessness associated with being part of a people who, for nearly 400 years, have suffered unmerciful oppression. I admitted having difficulty even saying the word. For me it resonates with the profound shame associated with being part of a people who for nearly 400 years have oppressed Niyonu’s people. I have no doubt that for both of us the word reverberates with an acute and painful recognition of the inhumanity humans all too often demonstrate.

From there I pondered the vibration of the title parish nurse, and how the words parish nurses use in their practice might resonate with those being cared for. I noted that words are indeed powerful, and how they can sometimes be hurtful even when arising from the best of intentions. I queried how a sincere expression such as "Our Father who art in heaven" might be felt by those who do not experience the Divine as a patriarchal, anthropomorphized being somewhere "up there." That led to sharing my own, though decidedly Quaker, belief that the Divine resides in me, in all people. I briefly described the process of worship sharing sometimes used by Friends to explore issues that are contentious or of great import. I invited my colleagues to make known their understanding of the Divine, using that format to be mindful of their words and the others in the room. A multitude of nodding heads had me assuming agreement to do so, until one woman leapt to her feet and shook her fist mightily.

The woman, barely two arm-lengths away, was clearly furious with me. Caught quite by surprise, I grasped for understanding. She was African American, and I wondered if the word nigger had continued to throb for her, though I had ceased to feel its pulsation. With a still-raised fist, and in a tone both threatening and threatened, she snarled that she could no longer sit and listen to my blasphemy. She proclaimed adamantly, "The only way to know God is through the body of Jesus Christ. I cannot stay to hear more of this."

I was astounded that my most recent words had precipitated her furor. I was shocked by their impact, and had not a clue what to do. The silence of the others in the room was palpable, and it was clear that they were immobilized by the dissension I had engendered. I felt alone and scared. Somewhere from the depths of my being came a barely audible utterance, "Is there anything I can do that would allow you to stay?" The answer was vehement. "The way to God is through Jesus Christ!"

The undeniable passion of my opponent’s message struck a chord with me. Once again, words whose origins were beyond my awareness appeared, though this time I spoke them with a conviction equal to hers. "You must speak your truth!" Bewilderment softened her face, and I repeated, "You must speak your truth!" Clearly I had her attention as I declared for a third time, "You must speak your truth!’" She appeared fully receptive when I concluded with, "And, I must speak mine."

Suddenly speechless, we both sat down. Silence engulfed us. I felt emotionally spent but could not shift my gaze from hers. Rays of light began catching in the mist that had formed in her once ominous eyes. These spread across her face, creating a gentle radiance that caught my breath. Her beauty was overwhelming, and I wept.

With my tears came a new awareness of the others in the room. I was struck by how still, and yet clearly moved they were. I rose a few moments later and spontaneously shook the hand of the person closest to me. The handshake flowed from one person to another, closing our gathered meeting.

Though my fleeting foe and I did not become the fastest of friends, we interacted pleasantly through the rest of the week. We parted with a cordial hug, each altered by having honored our differences. Comments from many of the other participants revealed they were as awestruck as I by what we had experienced. Some wanted to credit me for handling a precarious situation with such skill and finesse, but I did not take the bait. The Divine had primed me with the words of de Hartog and Spann, and granted the peace that came when I delivered mine with love.

Pamela Minden

Pamela Minden teaches nursing at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis., where she also serves as clerk of Madison Meeting.