Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Power of "I'm Sorry" (and other ideas for peaceful conflict resolution)

I sat there.

My Dad to the left of me, holding my hand. My husband to the right. He'd been holding my hand but had let it go the more irate he got. The psychiatrist sat across from us.

I was 48 hours into a mandatory 72 hour inpatient hospital stay.

I was 20 years old.

Three days before, I'd given up. I was certain enough that nothing was ever going to get better. That I was never going to feel better. I was tired. I just wanted to be done. So, while my husband was at work, I went into the bathroom and took all of my medication. Even the Saint John's Wort (the warning on the label said you could overdose on it...).

And now, I was in a mental hospital. With my husband and my father arguing about who had hurt me more. Who had done the most damage. Who was most at fault for the fact I sat here, in this place, alive but not okay. But my state of being didn't seem to be the issue at this point. It was more about blame.

I hadn't gotten a word in edgewise. Hadn't tried. Just sat there looking down into my lap. I finally looked up at the psychiatrist, looked her in the eye and thought "Do you get it now?" She flashed me a sardonic grin. And finally asked "What do you think Cindy?"

I said "I think the person responsible for how I feel is me. It's not about what's been done to me, it's about how I feel about it. I'm responsible."

Suddenly my husband and father, who minutes before had been yelling at each other, were allies and taking turns explaining to the psychiatrist that this was indeed my fault.

They still didn't get it. At that point, it didn't matter whose fault it was. It didn't matter what had happened to get me this way. What mattered was that I was this way and the focus needed to be how to help me get better.

The truth was that they'd both hurt me but that didn't make them solely responsible for what I'd done. However, the guilt they felt was so uncomfortable that they were too busy trying to dismiss point fingers at make themselves feel better...they couldn't focus on me and what the real problems were. And how to solve them. They felt like an "I'm sorry" made them solely responsible and condemned them as bad people. And it didn' just meant they were human. Imperfect...and willing to say so.

I don't bring this up to point fingers at my Dad (who I still miss on an almost daily basis) or my ex-husband. In fact, it's been years since I thought about that incident until today. I don't even know the girl sitting there (For real, have I been that quiet since then?). But it brings up several points about conflict, the issues that we are struggling with on a personal, national, even worldwide level.

1) The first step of conflict resolution is not to establish blame. The Democrats and Republicans in our country prove that. More than likely (in most cases), all parties bear some sort of responsibility. There might need to be a time of "Hey, sorry I did so and so" but it does not need to be followed up with "but you did so and so and that makes you worse than me" Before someone misunderstands, let me explain. I know, for a fact, that I am not responsible for what happened to destroy my marriage. I am, however, to blame for some of the problems in our marriage. I'm not asking anyone to take on false guilt or apologize for something that isn't their fault. I'm just saying we can begin to resolve the conflict if all parties are willing to admit they are imperfect.

2) The first step in conflict resolution is to honestly access what the problem actually is. That might be different things to different people, especially at first glance. For instance, my husband thought my Dad's alcoholism was the problem. My Dad thought the fact I'd married a jerk was the problem. And I was too concerned with the effects active charcoal had on the body to really care what the actual problem was. Getting to the root of an issue will take some digging and you cannot be distracted by symptoms or causes (both might or will have to be dealt with later but the priority is to identify the root cause). My Dad was alcoholic for most of my life. When he quit drinking, he became addicted to sweets. (Seriously, he kept cases of Little Debbie cupcakes in his trunk.) When he became overweight because of the snack cakes, he became addicted to coffee. He had two pots in the was always ready, the other brewing. Then it was Diet Dr Pepper. And then, after he hurt his back, it was pain medication. There was never a point in my Dad's life from the time he was 17 years old that he wasn't an addict...because no one ever actually identified the problem, what the root cause of his addiction was.

3) Conflict resolution can be messy, takes compromise...and time. Be willing to say that resolving a problem is more important than getting your way in all things. Be willing to let things go. I know that to remedy situations, restore relationships and for the sake of my own mental health I have had to let some things have most of the over-comers I know. Again, that is not to say lay down and be a victim...but you may never know why something happened or someone said that, you may never get the perfect apology and the remedy for a problem might take some compromise so that you get some things you want and they get some things they want. Be willing to work things out as you go along. Some things you thought might work, might not. Sometimes resolution actually means there needs to be distance between you and someone or something else. And it takes a lot of time. More time than you want it have to put the same principles in practice repeatedly.

4) Forgiveness is worth it. Several years ago I was at a prayer event in Birmingham, AL. The event occurred on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's death and the focus was on reconciliation. There were people of every color and we'd worshiped together, learned together, prayed together. Beautiful is an understatement. At one point we were taking communion together. I was compelled to look at the lady next to me and say "I'm sorry." I told her that I was sorry for the prejudice in my family, the way I'd looked the other way, the jokes they'd told. That I was sorry for the systematic dehumanizing that she had endured for years as a black woman in the South. I was a little nervous as I said it. For all I know she could be from Maine or Saint Thomas...she might never have experienced prejudice in her life (though unlikely). All I knew is, I was supposed to say it. And she looked at me and said "I forgive you" And tears started to fall and before I knew it she was hugging me and sobbing. Somehow, in saying it to me...she was able to begin the process of forgiving those who had actually harmed her. And she had been harmed. Her family had been harmed.  None of the people who'd actually harmed her were there to make amends. And her forgiveness certainly didn't make what they had done okay. But it meant that she was able to let go, to heal, to begin to release the distrust and bitterness against all white people she'd felt for years. It was necessary for her resolution and it's necessary for yours.

It's basic. It's simple. But I also think that if we could apply some of this to our relationships, to our politics, to our attitudes that we could see real change. If we could stop pointing fingers and really understand the problems our nation faces...and not the smoke bombs but the real problems...homelessness, poverty, prejudice, a broken system that no longer represents all the people but the richest and special interest groups who can afford the lobbyist...then we could begin to affect change. If we are willing to let go of the "I'm Right and you're Wrong" and see the positives in each other even as we admit our own humanity and mistakes. Then we could do something about the terminal negativity that is dividing us and creating this vitriolic atmosphere.

And for those of you who are hurting. Who are done. Who think it's time to let go. I do not make promises but I will make this one. It does get better. Your existence matters. You bring good to the planet and people around you. Getting help can be scary, it will be hard, but it will help...and it's definitely the right thing to do.

Trevor Lifeline (24/7) 866-488-7386
NCPL 1-800-273-8255

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