Letters to my sons
A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men,
and anyone else that's interested.
We live in a world filled with conflict. Whether we’re talking about global conflict between countries, national conflict between two parties, local conflict between two rival groups, or personal conflict between two spouses, our world is full of conflict that happens at every scale at every second. Much of that conflict, unfortunately, is handled poorly and causes divide.
We grow up being taught that there are two sides to every conflict, that conflict must be adversarial, and that there are winners and losers. We glorify that concept and even create such lasting impressions in movies, literature, and eventually in our minds.
Glorious scenes like the one from The Rock where Major Baxter (played by David Morse) points a gun at the head of General Hummel (played by Ed Harris) and says, “like he said General, you’re either with us or against us”. Even the Good Book highlights this in Romans 8:31 where Paul writes “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
As a result, this “us vs them” mentality is rampant everywhere from our schoolyards to our political systems. While this may be a useful psychological technique to generate polarization for furthering one’s end, I would argue that this is an unhealthy way to live. Instead, I’d challenge you to reframe your thinking and instead internalize the belief that
There is no “them”. Only “us”.
Since the days of Cain and Abel, our world has been divided. And since Cain and Abel our world has had much bloodshed, hatred, and poorly handled conflict at every scale.
Conflict isn’t bad
Now, I should start by stating clearly that conflict isn’t bad. Rather, I believe that conflict is very healthy and when handled productively is a huge benefit to humankind. But that’s a big condition, for us to handle conflict productively. There is no way to handle it productively if we believe that there are sides, if we believe that there are winners and losers. Instead, we should adopt the mindset that there is no “them”. The person sitting on the other side of the table isn’t our enemy. We shouldn’t be looking to win in our arguments with our spouses.
As a result, many of us try to avoid conflict. Because we’ve had negative experiences with conflict and don’t have great tools to resolve conflict productively, we try to avoid it. Our safety mechanism is to avoid and deflect. Even for those whose default is not to deflect, avoiding conflict tends to be a favored approach.
But there ought to be nuances there.
There should be a difference on what we’re having conflict about. There should be a difference when we can have conflict in a healthy fashion. There should be a difference when the thing we’re conflicted over is the pursuit of excellence. This type of conflict is good for us, and assuming we’re able to work through it well in a healthy, trusting, and communicative environment, we should not only not avoid conflict but should actively welcome it (and perhaps pursue it!) in this context.
We need to learn to see conflict as a healthy part of our growth, our development, and our learning. Because we know conflict is a regular part of interaction with others, we need to create an environment where vulnerability and honesty are prevalent, and we’re on the same side of the table. This is the first and foremost requirement, for without honesty and vulnerability there is no connection and real conversation. And disconnection brings about adversarial tendencies and perspectives.
Next, we need to be thoughtful about our conversation and our debates. We need to be willing to adjust, to accommodate, and to understand one another. This requires a degree of empathy, but it also requires patience. Patience to hear the other person’s point of view, as well as patience to thoughtfully consider whether or not the opposing view in front of you actually is something you can resonate with.
Lastly, we need agreed upon ways to decide if we can’t agree. This is critical for the long term health of the relationship. This agreed upon manner must be fair and equitable so that no one walks away with feelings of building resentment over time.
Being open minded
So how do we move to a place where we’re able to healthy sit next to one another at the table instead of at opposite sides?
By being open minded.
Open minded people want their ideas debated and challenged so that they can be refined. Open minded people realize that they don’t know everything, and in fact know very little and have a lot to learn. Open minded people view their lives as a journey with others; one where we’re all in this together to search for and discover the richest life possible.
Open minded people tend to:
- Seek feedback regularly and honestly
- Be vulnerable and humble in their approach and perspectives
- Ask a lot of clarifying questions with the goal of furthering their understanding
- Enjoy disagreements as an opportunity for learning
- Sit next to someone and look for ways to expand their thoughts
Closed minded people don’t want their ideas challenged because they take them as idictments. Closed minded people tend to:
- Get frustrated when they can’t get the other person to agree with them
- Are more likely to make statements than ask questions
- Focus on being understood rather than understanding others
- Ask leading questions designed to trap others to see their point of view
- Sit across from someone and look for ways to shut down their opinions
Lastly, value unity. There is so much division and derision in this world without our adding to it. In my life, I’ve had my share of unifying moments and dividing ones both as the victim of those moments and the instigator. Sadly, in my youth I’ve too often been the instigator of dividing moments, most (if not all) of which are very regrettable. Many of those dividing events were driven from principle, from hurt, from self-preservation. It took a lot of pain and work to learn that whatever satisfaction I got from those actions was always short lived and ultimately not conducive to me learning to become the man that I desired to be.
Instead, I’ve been learning to see the value of togetherness, of building unity, and of being a peacemaker. Despite it being hard, unintuitive, and often very frustrating, I’ve learned that unity and connection is far better than being right, than being justified in my righteous indignation.
Turns out a life of togetherness is much happier, much richer, and much more fulfilling than a life that is proven right often but regularly lonely. Turns out acceptance, understanding, and compassion is far more rewarding than one of validation, vindication, and judgment.
And so my boys, I urge you to learn at whatever age you can that there ought to be no “them”. No matter who you imagine sitting on the other side of the table, no matter who you think is standing in the way of your goals, no matter who you believe has it out for you, I can assure you that you will have much better conflict resolution and lead a much happier life if you think of those people as “us”.