Pictured in a group counselling session of parents with problem children, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict proposes that many people seeking to deal with conflict increase it. It creates a window into the lives of several couples—Lou and Carol at the center—in order to discuss situations which sound familiar to the reader. Lou is an uncompromising boss whose company flounders because of his inability to nurture different approaches at the office. His wife Carol, ostensibly the servant of their home, is eaten up by righteous indignation at the sacrifices which only she makes. Their younger son, Cory, is an inscrutable dust-cloud of rebellion to both of them. Their house is in shreds; they don’t know why.
What follows is a rubric for understanding two ways of viewing others: “in the box” and “out of the box.” The former means that we see others as objects; the latter, as people like ourselves. This story captures some crucial truths about the nature of conflict. It even echoes Augustine in claiming that the result of an ego-centric worldview is that everyone else becomes a means to one’s own ends. Unfortunately, what it misses about seeing others like we see ourselves is that our view of ourselves is unrealistically favorable. What it misses about how we see others is that, in pure pessimistic realism, this is how we should see ourselves. Humans, truth be told, are born in the box. Without God’s help, we belong there.
One of the counselors in the story, Yusuf al-Falah, tells a key anecdote to set up the session. Yusuf is an Arab who had carried a deep-seated enmity against Jewish people bred by the conflict between them and his people. One day, he saw a Jewish beggar drop his money in the street and felt impelled to help him collect it. He stifled this impulse, remembering past ages of conflict, and continued making his way. Instantly, he found himself in a bind: he could only quiet the sense of guilt which arose by repeating to himself a litany of victimhood, bigotry, and pride. He had walled himself into “the box,” the one-step guarantee that all of your relational problems will get worse.
“The box” is a way of seeing the world where other people are objects. As Yusuf discovered, often we must objectify others into vilifying categories or as threats to our status to justify our own behavior. A perfect example of this is what Luke Dickson discussed in “Identity Politics and the Widening American Divide,” and his previous articles. Bill Nye identifies his opposition as Climate-Change-Deniers, and Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood calls the creators of AHCA anti-women. All this becomes justification for a dehumanizing, liberty-revoking, and silencing approach to those who disagree. In The Anatomy of Peace this cycle begins when we refuse to treat someone as a person and are left with a need to make ourselves look good. We find ourselves controlled by impulses which the book breaks down into four types: better-than, worse-than, I-deserve, or need-to-be-seen-as. I am better than others, and therefore they are less worthy of consideration. I am worse than others, and therefore I must find ways to lower others to my level. I deserve better than I got, so I have a right to disregard the needs of others. Or, lastly, I must protect my image.
Practically, the approach that accompanies seeing the people “in the box” is one of fixing. We focus all our energy on fixing what is wrong; consequently, we have no attention left for “helping things go right” (p. 15). This fixation on the problems, though, is where we make matters worse. Lou worsens his relationship with his son Cory by structuring it around all the things Cory gets wrong—by the end, they are even worse. His son’s rebellion has ballooned into a drug addiction. If we see others as people, however, we understand their desires and motivation. The whole rest of Cory’s person—his needs, his interests, his pleasures—are completely unknown to his father. A knowledge of them might allow Lou to do the things that would “help things go right” between them. This takes energy however. And it takes humility. It takes, according to The Anatomy of Peace, getting outside the box with that person.
In critique, what makes the box (the cage really) so powerful, is that people really sin. When they do, we want justice. The authors ask us to view others like ourselves, but first we must ask why we are so optimistic about ourselves. Pascal said, “It is not true that we are worthy of being loved by others. It is unfair that we should want to be loved…We are therefore born unfair” (Pascal 2008, 157). Pascal does agree that this skewed view of the world is the root of all conflict. But the inequality does not arise from requiring justice for others. It comes from the outrageous audacity to crave mercy for ourselves. All the justice is for them; all the mercy is for me. After all, counselor Yusuf expects the accumulated pain and shed blood of centuries standing between men to dissolve by the mere act of recognizing others as human. We must not confuse the spontaneous kindness we feel toward ourselves with the ability to show such epic forgiveness.
I do not say that recognizing the humanity of others is not a step in the process of reconciliation. Only, it is not the first step. First is recognizing the audacity of our self-kindness. Second is finding that God satisfies our desire for mercy anyway. Then third is recognizing the same non-deserving and yet-receiving humanity in others. This is the tie that unites us. This is what humanity means. Finally, we can deconstruct the better-than, less-than, I-deserve, and need-to-be-seen-as. I am not better because I too need forgiveness. I am not worse because I have been set free. I do not deserve; all has been a gift. Let everyone see my sins clearly; still they have been forgiven.
The Arbinger Institute. 2015. The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. 2nd ed. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Pascal, Blaise. 2008. Pensées and Other Writings. Trans. Honor Levi. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Orig. pub. 1995.]