These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

This month presents a difficult challenge for our country.

Political tensions are surging, the pandemic is hobbling our ability to connect, conflict is on the rise, and fear is the driver for much of the animosity. How can we, as Christians, successfully maneuver through this turbulent time while remaining in fellowship with those with whom we disagree?

Navigating encounters with high moral conflict while maintaining one’s convictions requires advance preparation. First, we must reframe the expectations. Rather than winning an argument or placating an adversary, consider the pursuit of civil discourse that moves both parties to listen, learn, and share compassionately. For clarification, in this context “compassion” does not mean forgiveness, but rather the understanding that both parties are suffering and imploring God to motivate us to relieve that suffering.

This requires identifying the tools needed to stay centered physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. We must practice using these tools, building the neural pathways that allow us to elevate our resiliency during times of high stress and increase the opportunities for fruitful conversation. Think of this as a form of self-care akin to that familiar airline safety message, “Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.”

Consider the tools at your disposal to help you stay centered:

  • Physical Centering – Exercise and diet fortify our long-term physical health, but we must also identify techniques for regulating immediate physiological reactions to stress. Biofeedback and visualizations can help us to be more centered in the moment. Without these skills, our endocrine system can hijack our operating system – we move to Fight! Flight! or Freeze! – leaving us unable to engage productively.
  • Emotional Centering – When conflicts are personal, the work is immeasurably more difficult. Be aware of issues of great passion to you, especially those that cause intense frustration or anger. Ask what outcomes you want and if they are reasonable. Ask the same of the other party if they are showing strong emotion. Drill down together on the shared outcomes, rather than the issues that you are each defending. If you feel disoriented, shocked, or highly stressed, disengage – be it briefly by turning your attention to something else, or longer term by explaining that while you value the opportunity to discuss the issue, you cannot offer your full attention at this time.
  • Cognitive Centering – The willing and generous spirit of Saint Clarians is truly to be celebrated! When we are called to help others, we shift our focus outward, gain perspective, reduce cognitive complaints, create opportunities to form positive relationships, and increase our cognitive resiliency. Our elders were right when they admonished the discontented child to go out and “do good because it’s good for you.”
  • Spiritual Centering – As Saint Clarians, our very mission statement calls us to “Act for Justice.” In high conflict scenarios, that can translate into righteousness – which can then devolve quickly into scorn. By accepting that judgement resides in God alone, we are relieved of a tremendous burden – yet that message can be hard to internalize when stress hormones flood our bodies. Staying grounded in Faith – not as a moral high ground, but rather in our relationship with God – will get us through. Reinforce the strategies that work for you and consider new ones. For example, when a person touches a cross on a necklace as they speak, they are using a very effective grounding technique that has likely become rote, and thus durable under stress. By linking a physical object, an image, a word, or a song to our broader spiritual goals, we can access our Faith more readily in a wide variety of circumstances.

Why bother to attempt civil discourse at all? This is a reasonable question in this day and age. Living in a constant state of conflict harms us on an individual and a societal level. When we are avoidant, any temporary relief is followed by an increasing trepidation that binds us more tightly to our fears. When we are confrontational, the fleeting yet satisfactory release of tension is followed by regret for losing control and doing harm. On a societal level, when we tolerate the incivility of others, it opens the door for the abuse, degradation, disparagement, and demonization of others – and of ourselves.

Before you wade in, assess your existing strategies, recent interactions, and failures – there, we can find opportunities for introspection and improvement. For example, for me personally, conversations on zoom leave me unmoored, disoriented, and agitated. So I must ask: what it my body telling me? What are the sources of agitation – is it the content of the discussion or the mechanics of zoom? What tools must I acquire to more effectively participate on this platform?

Define your boundaries and be aware of conversations that are becoming unproductive. This is not a passive exercise; if someone is increasingly aggressive and you do not feel safe, you must have a strategy for disengaging immediately.

As Christians, we strive to live in communion with our brothers and sisters, with our neighbors, and with God. In these times of high conflict, we are called to restore and maintain the fabric that binds us together. This is not easy when we are feeling defensive, but take heart – the “smallest” of exchanges can have a profound impact, even when the best we can do is to “agree to disagree” and continue to seek common ground.

In Peace and appreciation,
Jennifer Wolf

Photo: Ducdao/Dreamstime