We understand conflict as a bad thing, but conflict is an opportunity to find our center.
The Olympics is a study in the relationship of a human being to the world. From a purely physical standpoint the central challenge is to get the relationship right between the athlete’s center of gravity and the center of gravity of the earth. Every time a skater spun her body, every time a skier flew through the air, the degree of perfection was a function of the relationship between these two centers of gravity.
When more than one human being was involved, a social dimension complicated the challenge. With two skaters dancing together on the ice there were two centers each striving not just for balance with the earth, but also for harmony with each other. With music playing two other dimensions were added—each move of the body must be in right relationship with each note of the music, and the souls of the athletes needed to be in sync with the spirit of the music. In each case the degree of success was a direct function of the degree to which each person’s center was in right relationship with everything else. One person’s fall could sometimes cause disequilibrium for another.
Wayne Gretsky (by some accounts the greatest hockey player of all time) was not especially large, strong or fast for a hockey player, and yet, he is the leading point-scorer in National Hockey League history. In four of his 20 seasons he scored over 200 points with more assists than anyone else had points.
Once when an interviewer asked “The Great Gretsky” what was the secret of his success he said, “I have this weird ability to know at all times where the puck is going, where all the other players are, and where I am in relation to them.”
That is exactly what you saw if you watched him play. His awareness of his center and its relationship to everything else is sufficient to explain how he was able to support his friends, dodge his opponents, and make more assists than anyone else scored goals.
This relationship between our center and all the other variables around us is a metaphor for the challenges of life. It’s the same as learning to ride a bike only more complicated. In life’s challenges the key to success is getting all the parts of ourselves coordinated with our center and with the center of the earth. Our bodies do it without thinking, but the challenges of life can get more complicated, and often require some mindfulness.
Finding our center can be harder in an emotional challenge, for instance. Just as each moment on the ice is unique and requires each skater, yet again, to find a new orientation among thousands of variables, so each new emotional experience requires us to put all the pieces of ourselves together again in a new way. All that mental complexity: our many feelings, habits and disciplines, our imperfect ways of viewing the world, our sloppy understandings, our relationships—bringing it all into harmony requires changing ourselves—at least a little.
Interpersonal conflict is the acid test. A partnership between two people is hard enough, but teamwork adds complexity exponentially with each new participant. Five time-tested mantras can help us keep our balance:
1) Trust your integrity and redefine your center.
2) Pre-forgive the other person.
3) Listen with an openness to change.
4) Speak a common language.
5) Find a common interest and explore multiple outcomes.
Watching the Olympics, my wife and I both marveled at how common it was for an athlete to make a mistake and how illusive perfection was: “How many times in her life has she done a triple toe loop? How often did she practice it? How could she fall?”
“I know. Those two have been skating together for years. How did they miss that one? And at the Olympics!”
Yup, and this morning I burned the bacon. Whether you are writing an essay or cooking a meal, applying for a job or on the brink of losing one, life is a perpetual series of problems to be solved, one right after another. Thinking of life as inevitable conflict can help us find the joy in rediscovering and redefining who we really are in ways that are more inclusive of all our many parts. With practice maybe we can get it right about as often as an Olympic athlete.