Rules of Engagement

I don’t like war.  I’m opposed to name calling, fighting, civilian gun possession (other than for hunting), and other forms of violence, physical and otherwise.  I was raised by pacifists singing folk songs about peace, and their messages sunk in.

However, I’ve started many a verbal sparring match with those I love the most.  I’ve called names, argued with children and an ex-spouse, and otherwise not acted peacefully.  And I’m ashamed of all that.   I’ve been on the receiving end of all those types of violence as well, but, as I know well, that’s never an excuse.

I think it’s quite human to be angry.  Anger, joy, love, disappointment, sorrow, passion.  All are part of the spectrum of emotions that are part of the package of our humanity.  It’s also quite human to want to be understood.  While some folks go underground when those they love don’t “get” them, I’m one of different ilk.  My desire to be understood can lead to not-so-peaceful engagement of others in the face of all information telling me to stop talking, yelling, pleading, berating, and otherwise stating my case (and putting forth as many ego boundaries as possible).  And it’s always — and I do mean always — fruitless and often destructive.

Now, certainly there are appropriate times, places, and methods of stating one’s case.  As humans, we have rights and needs, and advocating for those rights for oneself and others is good and necessary.  But I’m not talking about those meeting those basic needs.  I’m referring to the tendency I have (and I know I’m not alone here) of becoming so identified with my thoughts that I mistake them for universal truth.  My sense of “me” versus “other”  deepens, and my quest to be understood turns to a drive to be right.  Big difference.

But when I operate out of love, out of my soul, without the mind steering the boat, I drop the ego.  The sense of me and other diminish and, for brief yet precious moments, can vanish.  Being understood occurs in the understanding of others, of seeing the self in the eyes of the other.  Empathy?  Sort of, but more so. Seeing that the other isn’t other, that, but for the slightest change in circumstance or turn of the universe that I could be the other.  When I proceed with that point of view, peaceful engagement is far more likely.

I’ll admit that, for me, this recognition of other as self is easier with strangers.  Without the emotional overlay and attachments, I’m better able to engage on a compassionate level.  It’s harder in some relationships than others.  Take my children.  When I can connect, seeing myself in their distress, fear, or joy, I can engage peacefully, even when I need to correct them or give them what they feel is bad news.  Too often, though, I’m distracted, often wrapped up in what is me and my separateness.  Being human (and, boy, am I that), I know this is normal, but still I strive for more peaceful engagements than those that are violent in spirit.

My biggest challenge is with my once-was-husband.  (I just don’t care for the term “ex-husband.”)  After fifteen years of marriage, several good years followed by several of increasing conflict and sadness, we developed rather unhealthy and certainly not peaceful communication patterns.  Despite a few years of separation and a now-completed divorce, it still takes little for our engagements to escalate into powerful ego conflicts.  One of us meets the other with self versus other, and the other follows in suit.  I feel myself shore up my ego, protecting my sense of self.   He follows suit, and we both spend energy and emotion delineating self from other.  It’s predictable, destructive, and painful.

So it’s time to disengage, or at least change our rules of engagement.  And since I’m the only one I can change (and, yeah, I struggle with that limitation), that means following different rules of engagement.  Rules that allow me to see myself in him, as hard as that seems now.  It’s surely the path to peace, and, as I’ve said, I don’t care for war.

A special thanks goes out to Alexander Riegel, a fine minister of UUCF and a wise man.  This post was inspired by a recent sermon of his, Interbeing.  It’s well worth thirty minutes of your time.


One thought on “Rules of Engagement

  1. Sarah, I agree that having all of these emotions is human and that they can often be destructive if we allow them to control our actions. I find it helps, in “live” interaction, to take three breaths, one for love, one for compassion, one for peace (reciting these thoughts as I breathe). Anyway, what I wanted to really get to was that I think there is a really tricky tightrope walk between peaceful interaction (keeping those emotions in check) and being a pacifist who gets walked on. It’s in finding language and conversation that comes from a place of peace that we resolve conflict rather than letting it “slide.” I had a serious situation with some family members (extended) a few years ago and found that it helped me greatly to deal with the problem rather than walk away, being very conscious of why it was important to me (love), understanding why they were behaving as they were (compassion/empathy), and trying to resolve rather than be right (peace). Before that situation, my tendency was to walk away from a problem for the sake of peace (skipping those first two steps), and that never felt comfortable for me. It felt like “avoidance.” I would love to ultimately take one of the classes that Joel talks about on peaceful interaction. Thanks again for your insight.

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