An excerpt from The Space Between Us by Dr. Betty Pries
Recently, I was listening to a radio interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Given the realities of the Holocaust and centuries of antisemitism, the interviewer asked Rabbi Sacks whether he had ever had a crisis of faith. Sacks replied, “Oh yes, I’ve had a crisis of faith every single day of my life. But this is not a crisis of faith in God. My crisis of faith is in humanity.”11 There have, of course, been moments of human greatness across cultures and throughout history. Just as often, however, there have been seasons of great human failure such as the Holocaust and other genocides, as well as smaller human failures such as our actions based on judgment or poorly chosen words. Our interpersonal strife and the interior condition that supports it are a microcosm of larger systemic harms within our communities and the broader geopolitical world.
With this backdrop, we might wish that conflicts would not occur at all, and that all differences remained at the level of healthy disagreement and never escalated to conflict or entrenchment. However, the best learning often emerges in the context of struggle and failure. While I do not wish for conflict, I wonder: What if conflict is also a gift to us, an opportunity to understand ourselves better, to discover empathy for others, to build deeper and more meaningful relationships? Could it be that conflict is an essential counterstroke of life, necessary for us to mature at a psychological, social, and spiritual level? While our goal is to learn how to have better disagreements, it is during times of conflict that we learn most quickly and most deeply. As the author Marcel Proust reminds us: “Illness is the most heeded of doctors. To goodness and wisdom we make only promises; pain we obey.”12 For our purposes, we can translate this quote to say that the pain of conflict is also our doctor. It awakens us to wisdom and goodness—principles to which we make promises during times of peace but that we only learn with depth in times of conflict and pain.
If conflict can be our teacher, can it also be a gateway to joy?
Could it be that when we avoid differences for fear of conflict, we also numb ourselves from life’s experiences more generally, thereby also losing the capacity for deep joy?13 I propose that the answer to these questions is yes. There is something about conflict—or at the very least the exploration of differences— that is connected to our capacity for deep joy. Disagreeing well and attending to conflict both depend on leaning in and risking that we might get it wrong. It involves vulnerability— acknowledging both our needs and our complicity in harm. Learning to engage self and other with curiosity, to attend to our backstories and regard the other with grace even as we seek accountability for harm done . . . All of this can be messy, but, oh the freedom—even joy—that comes from leaning in. To acknowledge that we messed up or that we have been harmed invites us to hold ourselves with self-compassion.14 It invites us to recognize that all of us fall down sometimes and that there is grace in learning how to get up again. In smaller conflicts, all of this seems possible. But is this possible in a landscape where some conflicts are so painful that even the act of breathing becomes difficult? The answer, it seems, may be discovered in finding new (or very old) ways to think about what it means to be a person and what the implications of this understanding are for our relationships with one another and with ourselves. This discovery is what …this book is about.