By Linda Hart Green
My father was a jeweler and a watchmaker. He carried on his family’s business which lasted through three generations. He had excellent fine motor skills and could manipulate the tiny intricate parts of watches made when watches were a treasure to be passed down and before batteries became the norm. When someone’s watch stopped working, he could take off the back and look inside and find the problem. Often there was a linear, mechanical solution and he could fix it.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take the backs off society’s entrenched situations, find the problems and fix them? Voila! Backs are put back on and we tick away with liberty and justice for all. The world in which we live doesn’t work that way. As far back as the 1960s, social scientists were saying our society’s issues are more like clouds than clocks. The problems are multi-layered and multifaceted and dynamic. They have biological, psychological, social and structural components.
The polarization of our country is a first-order cloud-like problem. It’s acute and getting worse.
I got involved in the work of conflict transformation when I worked as a congregational consultant for my denomination in Massachusetts in the 1990s. It is more accurate to say I got plunged into the work up to my neck as I was assigned to help congregations in conflict. I scrambled to find resources and to learn whatever I could to offer help. I learned a lot through trial and error.
I have continued my interest in this area since my retirement. In 2022, I traveled to Northern Ireland and learned about how that country has dealt and is dealing with their legacy from “The Troubles.” Several years ago, I was working with others here in our community to bring a diverse group of folks together to have civil dialogue around a variety of issues. I found out about a group doing just that in Tallahassee called The Village Square, Inc. I am still a member of their online community. Our small group here ended its efforts and then the pandemic hit and well, you get it. Everything has gotten harder and more complicated. I recently attended an online lecture sponsored by The Village Square with Dr. Peter Coleman from Columbia University on his book, “The Way Out.” I am still processing what I learned from that lecture and look forward to reading the book. The website for the book offers a great deal of practical guidance if you click on the link for the ”engage” section of it.
Here is one insight that needs to be highlighted. When we continually respond to people and situations with anger, it becomes addictive. It actually activates pleasure centers in our brains. Dr. Coleman says that our polarization has made us addicted to outrage from either side of the spectrum. That outrage is fed by various media which he called “conflict entrepreneurs.” They are making money off of our divisiveness. Why would they do anything to turn down the temperature?
We have to be the ones to turn down the temperature. We have to be the ones to risk having civil conversations with those with whom we disagree.
We can’t start with trying to discuss politics. We have to take some time to get to know another’s story and what makes them tick. We have to start one by one and two by two. We need to remember that conflict is not inherently bad. It is a natural part of life and it can help us learn and grow.
Dr. Coleman strikes a hopeful note when he references “ripeness theory.” At least, it feels hopeful to me. When things become difficult, there comes a moment when the opportunity to begin to resolve tensions appears. People get fed up with feeling stressed and exhausted by the way things are. They become willing to go out of their comfort zones to make a difference. When I heard this, I was reminded of the quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “The time is always right to do what is right.” (Chicago, 1966)
My father had to go to watchmaker’s school to learn how to fix watches. The time is right to take ourselves to conflict school to learn and to practice ways we can be part of the movement to bring down the temperature and work together toward solutions for our problems.