June 2013

War and peace within and beyond

Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner reflects on a book that “expounds a profound teaching on peace-making that is as applicable to interpersonal tussles as it is to any global hostility”.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

My colleague isn’t one to over-enthuse, so when he said he couldn’t put the book down and shared some insights, I was intrigued, curious and soon devouring my own copy of Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. “Aha” moments kept coming as I worked my way through this compelling, yet easy to read book, published by the Arbinger Institute.

More parable than text book, Anatomy of Peace tells the fictional story of two men, Israeli Yusef and Palestinian Avi, whose families have each suffered atrocities in the seemingly intractable cycle of Middle-Eastern hate and retribution. The two men work together, so the story goes, to try and help young offenders and their parents learn how to handle the conflicts that consume their lives.

Using this scenario as a backdrop, the authors expound a profound teaching on peace-making that is as applicable to my interpersonal tussles as it is to any global hostility.

They draw on the philosophy of Martin Buber, who observed that there are basically two ways of being in the world: we can see others as people or we can see others as objects. Buber famously called the first way of being “I-Thou” and the second, the “I-It” way.

The central premise of Anatomy of Peace is that we live with peaceful hearts when we engage in “I-Thou” relationships and our hearts are at war when we interact with others as if they were an ‘it’, an object.

Familiar enough, but the authors really grabbed my attention and didn’t let it go when they started exploring four fundamental stances or attitudes which are sure-fire clues that I’m working out of an “I-It” perspective. I recognise these stances within myself, within others, within groups such as clubs, states and religions, and indeed between nations.

The first stance is the “I-am-better-than” belief. I am better than you; it’s obvious. I’m tidier, more punctual, more conscientious than you. I’m holier than you – well I’m a nun, for God’s sake! Actually, I am tidy, punctual and conscientious, and I am a nun. We are not talking objective facts here, but when I make the oft-called ‘odious’ comparison, I’m doing more than noticing differences; I’m making judgements about your worth based on those differences. I’m objectifying you, making you an ‘it’, keeping score of your worth in relation to me, and enjoying the by-product of feeling morally superior.

All of us are tempted to stay in this ‘I-am-better-than’ box. My brand of politics or my side of the family is better than yours. Sydney is better than Melbourne. Refugees who arrive by air are better than those who arrive by boat. Christians are better than Muslims. America is better than the rest of the world.

Belief in personal superiority is at the heart of the ‘isms’ that plague our world – racism, sexism, ageism and clericalism, for starters. These range from the cynical “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” type of statement to the deadly evil of ethnic-cleansing.

Closely linked to this first heart-clogging, war-mongering attitude is the “I-deserve” stance. This too is alive and well within me and within society. A recent New York Times bestseller, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement, is a fascinating exploration of the harmful impact of the “I-deserve” mentality on much of Western society. An onslaught of advertising promotes this attitude: “you deserve it”, “it’s all about you”, “because you’re special”, “you’re the one”, and so too, the tee-shirt I saw recently, “I’m the princess of my castle”.

Some sociologists suggest that Generation Y (those born from 1980 to the early 2000s) have a colossal sense of entitlement. They are seen to be more coddled than the generation of their parents. These youngsters want it (whatever the ‘it’ is), they deserve it, and why on earth should they wait for it when they could have it now? And they flaunt it on Facebook.

But it isn’t only Gen Y. This mentality is in all of us. I think I deserve more appreciation, more interest from others, more consideration, a better deal, and on it goes. I deserve to be noticed, “Look at me, look at me”. The cult of self-absorption, the cult of celebrity is rampant. It leads to an arrogance where my opinion becomes the rule. My ideas become the goal. My judgements become the norm. My word becomes the last word, the only word.

I was speaking with a mentor recently, a psychologist, sharing my disappointment about being treated pretty shabbily by an associate to whom I’d given a great deal of support. This mentor said to me, “Patty, a young child needs affirmation, encouragement and appreciation. The only person whom you can ask to give that to you as an adult is yourself. Learn to appreciate and encourage yourself. If you also happen to get appreciation from others,” he said, “well, that’s icing on the cake!” This is hard medicine to swallow.

The third heart-clogging attitude is subtle, but one I see insidiously operating in my life, and this is the “must-be-seen-as” stance. Many people can have an insatiable need to be well thought of, to be thought of as kind, intelligent, a good bloke, a dutiful mother, an honest citizen, a great mate or, in my case, a good nun.

When I’m driven by the “must-be-seen-as” motivation, I deny the true person that I am. Poet, May Sarton, writes:

“Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces.”

Sarton is touching on our deepest vocational question. It is not “What ought I to do with my life?” It is the more primal question, “Who am I?” And the hardest challenge in life is to be myself in a world where everyone is trying to make me somebody else.

Thomas Merton, the Benedictine Trappist monk, perhaps the most influential spiritual guide of the twentieth century, has written extensively about this “must-be-seen-as” stance in terms of the “false self” and the “true self”:

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree… But what about you? What about me? It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself and for you sanctity consists in being yourself.

“For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.

“Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p.31)

I am better than. Guilty!

I deserve. Guilty!

I must be seen as. Guilty!

And so too for the fourth and final warring heart attitude. Somewhat surprisingly this is the “I-am-worse-than” belief.

I’m in this space when I play the ‘victim’, seeing myself not as good as, deficient, always fated to be the loser and seeing others as advantaged, privileged or superior. As victim, I find it hard to rejoice in the gifts and good fortune of others.

Paradoxically, the “I-am-worse-than” attitude, like the three preceding modes, also makes me the centre of the universe. I don’t see others as diversely-gifted people but as objects, ‘its’, against which I compare myself. Judgement and comparison leads to a destructive kind of competitiveness, a competiveness that aims at outdoing others rather than simply doing the best I can. Competing to be better than others because I feel worse than others becomes addictive.

These four stances obscure the truth about others and obscure the truth about myself. They are harsh, judgemental, self-justifying and self-absorbed positions. They act like bad cholesterol clogging my arteries, closing rather than opening my heart to others. We know what it feels like to be in the presence of someone whose heart is closed to us, just as we know how liberating it is when we’re in the presence of someone whose heart is open.

Anatomy of Peace is saying that I don’t have to be at war. I can choose to relate to others, not as objects, but as people who have hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties just like me. We liberate each other when we relate with open hearts. This book is truly Good News.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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