If something in your interpersonal interactions with others at work, at home, at church or in a social setting doesn’t do it, just take a look at the daily news headlines. We live in an era characterized by secular relativism, under which religious freedom is under siege, respect for life is taking a back seat to the “right” of individuals to kill their babies, and Christians who stand up for their religious beliefs are branded as bigots. In connection with all of this, civility and respectful discourse have gone the way of the screen door and the Ford Falcon. The evil one is constantly stirring things up, looking for ways to put distance between us and God and between us and our neighbor. What happens far too often is the creation of an “us versus them,” environment, complete with name calling and other destructive behaviors.
Social scientists tell us that, once we’ve devolved into an “us versus them” scenario, it’s all too easy to further exacerbate conditions and make things worse. We may hear that someone from the other group spoke uncharitably about us. When we’re busy drawing a line in the sand and taking sides, it’s all too easy to assume that this person, if they actually said whatever it was, really represents the position of the other group. And that probably is not the case. In any group, you will have outliers—it doesn’t mean that the whole bunch of them is aligned with the outlier's thinking. But once we attribute this person’s thinking to the group, they’ve been tarred and feathered with it, and we go on to additional dysfunctional behaviors.
Let’s look at another dysfunctional behavior: attempted mind reading. We’ll attempt to ascribe intent to the other party’s actions—“They just did this because they wanted to [fill in the blank] us.” The problem I find in my work with people and groups in conflict is that, contrary to strong popular opinion among the conflicted, none of us actually can read minds. To assume and infer intent or motives from someone’s actions without really sitting down, face to face and having a dialogue with them, will compound any existing dysfunction.
But, as the guy in the knife commercial on television says, “Wait! There’s more!” Once we’ve set up our camp and they’ve set up their camp, it will continue to get worse. We watch them and look for behaviors on their part that just continue to “prove” our opinion of them as low-down, good for nothing, no-good-nicks. And of course, to keep the game even, they’ll do the same on their side. “You see? I told you they can’t be trusted. This just proves my point!” And it goes on and on, creating an inordinate amount of negative energy, drawing all sides into sinful behaviors and giving the evil one just what he wanted.
What can we do about this??? For one thing, it doesn’t hurt to get some outside, facilitative support to help re-open the lines of communication, work through the difficult issues and get everyone back on the path toward trust and charity toward our neighbors. But that’s a topic for another discussion.
In any event, to begin with, we need to take responsibility for our own actions. The old saw that, "It takes two to tango," has some truth to it. Recognize that each of us probably has some culpability in most disagreements, own up to it, apologize if that's the case, and move on to positive discussions. But in addition to this, from a spiritual perspective, pay attention to St. Paul’s suggestion:
Phil 4: 4-8
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. 6Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, RSV
Or, take some advice from a Spanish bishop from the 16th century (and as we read it, can we help but think that this guy is actually a contemporary of ours, from this generation, day and age?):
“Experience shows us that peace, which sows charity, the love of God, and love of neighbor in your soul, is the road that leads straight to eternal life.
Take care to never let your heart be troubled, saddened, agitated, or involved in that which can cause it to lose its peace…That which [the Lord] wants of you is that, whenever you are troubled, you would recover your calm, your peace…in all activities without exception.
Just as a city is not built in a day, do not think that you can achieve, in a day, this peace, this interior calm, because it is within you that a home must be built for God, while you yourself become his temple. And it is the Lord himself who must handle the construction. Without him your work would not exist.”
Bishop Juan de Bonilla, as quoted in Magnificat
What tangible steps can we take to grow our faith and our peace? St. Paul and Bishop Juan de Bonilla have given us some good advice. To boil it down might we need to PRAY? Pray for the grace to…
· Understand God’s will and to follow it obediently
· Learn what He’s trying to teach us
· Overcome our habitual sins and bad habits
· Be more patient and understanding with everyone
· Communicate more effectively with our brothers and sisters
· Bring others closer to Him
"Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin."
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta