Columns / Discourse / October 15, 2014

Radical Compassion

Here at Knox, we are defined by the small size of our diverse community. There are very few secrets at Knox; word travels fast, for nearly everything is public here. Let us recognize the implications of our close proximity in living, in which our personal failures and imperfections can be easily magnified into community conflicts. We must not only hear one another’s narratives, but step within them as much as possible. Negotiation of expectations, boundaries and possibilities is a fundamental element of life at Knox. In understanding our conflicts, let us extend a powerful kind of compassion toward our peers. This is not a compassion that simply accepts all at face value, but a compassion that wrestles to comprehend perspectives radically different than our own as authentic and meaningful.

Conflicts within our community, as painful and heart wrenching as they are, point our focus to where we must grow as a community, and thereby as individuals as well. Conflicts are natural components of growth within a community. This does not mean that all conflicts should be left to ‘naturally’ play out their due course. Quite the opposite, in fact, as all-too-often is the case, negotiation among parties at an earlier stage of a conflict can provide roads to resolution from a conflict that, if left to ‘run its course,’ would expand and swell into even greater pain. The decision to engage in negotiations is often put-off due to the interwoven experience of our thoughts and feelings. By separating these, an individual can gain clarity to speak one’s own discomforts and empathetically listen to others. While surely imperfect, direct expression is necessary before we can begin to comprehend a conflict.

“Everyone is an aggressor but me” is a sentiment I hear often at Knox. Each of us perceives and experiences a situation from our own perspective. This difference of perspective strengthens our ability to diversely understand a conflict, and yet is usually a central source of conflict.

Attempts to ‘right the record,’ though a reasonable desire, ultimately must be channeled toward the larger endeavor of understanding the reasons for why certain parties perceive and experience a conflict so dynamically different. What are the narratives of each person involved in a conflict? By examining and comparing narratives, we can foster an openness to multiplicity, and through that authentic multiplicity see more clearly the sources and stakes in a conflict. Instead of opening ourselves up to the diversities of truth within a conflict, we regularly resort to taking sides.

Taking sides appeals to us, as individuals and small groups, in a variety of ways, yet I urge you to resist the taking of sides. Taking sides appeals to our sense of expression — showing allegiance for a fellow student’s struggle may affirm that individual and provide you with affirmation of your beliefs (that you follow through on your words with your allegiances), but in fact such allegiances further entrench our divides and invest in on-going conflict. Further, when we become involved despite being outside the actual conflict, we experience a lack of agency within the conflict. If I cannot directly alter the conditions of an on-going conflict, at least I can show my perspective by taking sides, right? When, in actuality, individuals outside of a conflict do best by being empathetic listeners to all parties, and, if later invited, as facilitators of reconciliation talks.

As we continue to cultivate a safer space and community at Knox, we often fall prey to the inclination to reduce individuals to a single, or even patterned, problematic behavior. This comes from a lack of active listening in which we fail to fully perceive an individual on their own terms before we engage them on mutual terms. Drawing on sociological contexts, we can recognize how behaviors and ideologies transcend the individuals who enact those harmful actions, and thus our approach to conflict transformation demands us to engage the complexity of an individual’s personality and the larger contexts of their harmful behavior.

Our conflicts are not separate; they do not exist in a bubble. Our struggles among one another draw on our struggles within ourselves, some of which we bring with us when we arrive at Knox, but any of our internal conflicts can become present in our community conflicts. Drawing on the sociological inclination to seek out larger contexts for any subject at hand, I implore you to step back from your immediate conflict and attempt to see what larger narratives a particular conflict is grounded in. By bringing in the context of larger, ongoing conflicts, relationships and histories, we better equip ourselves to understand a conflict holistically. All too often we are drawn to seek out a near-immediate resolution to a particular conflict, when in fact such responses do not change the conditions of the conflict, but kick to the streets our anger, pain, frustrations and fears. These legitimate feelings get redirected into other situations, further spreading our conflicts. We must resist the impulse to excommunicate our pains and frustrations from our lives. A safe base is a reasonable desire for any human, and still I must emphasize that there is meaning in your pain, in your fear. Engaging such (often obfuscated) meanings not only for yourself, but necessarily for all other parties in a conflict, is a necessary step to peace.


Forrest Linsell

Tags:  conflict Knox openness Radical Compassion resolution understanding

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