Conflict is bad.
I am on the bus. The big fat bully, Glenn, has been sitting behind me, slapping the back of my head all the way home. I’ve taken it, though the dam inside me is about to burst.
Up ahead, through the bus windshield, I see my mailbox and suddenly I’m standing up, whipping around with my fist cocked, and landing a haymaker upside of Glenn’s head. I’m just as surprised as he is. Through his shock he jumps up, and we wrestle awhile. I tear his disgustingly nice gold chain from around his neck in the tussle. Ricky, my on-again-off-again friend and nemesis, ironically, is the person who breaks us up.
I don’t remember much about the long walk home down our dirt driveway, except that I was unhurt and Glenn got home with a big knot on his head and a broken chain in his pocket.
I do remember that Glenn and I became best buddies. Around the Fourth of July his daddy would buy him a whole crate full of fireworks. Glenn would bring them by our house and we’d have bottle rocket wars against each other. Conflict of another sort.
He and I even planned to start a turtle farm. We were going to go out into the woods and catch box turtles which we would sell to the local pet stores. It never came about, but it was fun to dream with a former enemy.
Growing up a Mennonite Yankee in Dixieland helped formulate the way I dealt with conflict. I was an outsider, outnumbered, different, quiet, patient to a fault, unwilling to fight, and so for the most part I kept my dukes to myself. That day on the bus I broke out of the mold and strangely, I earned the respect and friendship of my bullying neighbor. I still feel guilty about it. Perhaps this essay is an exercise in my ongoing wrestling with this dichotomy.
In my personal conflict style inventory, I discovered some interesting responses on my part in the midst of conflict. During calm times, when disagreement first arises I am a collaborator, then a forcer and on down to an avoider as my lowest score. There is a significant shift in my response if things are not easily resolved and emotions get stronger (storm times). At this time I am an avoider first. Collaborating falls midway with accommodating bringing up the rear.
What I gather from these responses is that initially in conflict I am good at collaborating and/or actively engaging in the conflict with a variety of responses. Avoidance is my least favorable response. However, if the conflict is not easily resolved, my emotions are engaged, and/or it simmers for awhile, I am an avoider extraordinaire. This response, coupled with my cultural experience of conflict as being bad, has led to me to struggle at times with how to engage conflict in a mutually constructive way.
Perhaps the greatest insight I have learned so far in my readings for this class is that conflict is not bad, no matter how much every fiber in my being resists the idea. I have dealt with conflict in the past because it’s a necessary evil. I may feel bad if I do, but I feel worse if I don’t.
To understand conflict as good, a vibrant part of life and relationships, is indeed a new and exciting concept, though like the bully on the bus I am still wrestling with the idea. Will I engage the fireworks, or stay in my shell like one of those box turtles my former adversary and I dreamed of catching in the woods?
October 2, 2003 – reflections for graduate conflict class