Winning Each Other Over
One of my all time favourite TV characters is Miss Piggy from the Muppet Show. She believes in her own beauty and talent and wears the trashiest outfits with such confidence that I can easily see her starting fashion trends. Indeed, her character was used to author Miss Piggy's Guide to Life which became a bestseller some thirty years ago. She started to appear in talk shows and on the cover of magazines. What makes her endearing to me is her peevishness. She is not to be trifled with and it would be extremely unadvisable to do with her what Jesus recommends us to do with each other in the Gospel, namely pointing out a fault she might have committed. The slightest observation can cause her to fly into one of her characteristic tantrums and we would then be on the receiving end of her trademark karate chop and "hi-yah!", before she composes herself again leaving the scene in a dignified manner.
Maybe less theatrically, such situations are not uncommon in real life. In a couple or in the work place, for example, the dreaded moment arrives when we know we have to talk with a partner or a colleague about a behaviour, a habit, a gesture which is causing us distress, or annoyance, or is having negative consequences, most of the time unintentionally. It should be very simple, but it rarely is. If the other person is a bit insecure, a tiny observation quickly makes her doubt of her whole behaviour, question the relationship, become depressed – the typical answer is: “Everything is wrong about me”. When the observation is made to perfectionists, they immediately see its validity but cannot allow themselves to acknowledge that they really are in the wrong. And then there are people who simply are extremely susceptible, easily hurt and know how to hurt in return, almost automatically. In these cases, we know that we will have to pay for the observation made in one way or the other, sooner or later.
This is why often we prefer to delay the confrontation even though we are aware that this might be harmful for our relations and transform a potentially benign friction into a source of major crisis or conflict. A remark Pope Francis made in one of his writings some years ago struck me in this regard. Among the most important factors that promote peace in any sort of community, he listed the willingness to face conflicts head on instead of trying to ignore them. And he added that this is a way of practicing Jesus’s beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers!” (Mt 5.9).
The problem is that often we try to deal with conflicts without having sufficiently sorted out our emotions and rather as a way of venting our frustration or anger. Or we neglect to wait for the right time, when the other person is not under pressure and thus can be more receptive. Or we are simply clumsy: there is nothing worse than starting by saying to somebody “We need to talk”. Psychologists and behavioural therapists argue that this is one of the most anxiety-producing expressions.
In the page of the Gospel where Jesus encourages us not to be afraid of taking this step, the emphasis is not on “pointing out the fault” but on “regaining” the other persons by creating all the possible conditions that help them to “listen”, that is to anticipate the other persons’ normal and often legitimate defense-mechanisms or be sensitive to their insecurities, hypersensitivity or even susceptibility. In Jesus’ intention, this should be an act of love and care for the other person, driven by the desire to protect and deepen the relationship.
In Matthew’s Gospel this page is preceded by the image of the wandering sheep and followed by Jesus’ memorable answer to Peter’s attempt to quantify the amount of forgiveness we owe to each other: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18.22). It is a context of selfless care for others that requires us to aim at winning over the other person, whatever it takes. Paul exemplifies this attitude when he declares “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” and lists the way he has adapted himself especially to those who are more difficult to reach: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak” (1Co 19.19,22).
It is interesting to find this attitude echoed in the list of the qualities that superiors of a community should exhibit according to the Rule of St Benedict: they should be capable of adapting themselves to all temperaments, always keep their own weakness before their eyes, never “scrape off the dust to the point of breaking the vessel”, always prefer forgiveness to justice and act with prudence and charity (RB 2).
What Benedict calls “prudence” is the ability to be flexible, imaginative, tactful in the choice of the way, the time, and the context for making an observation in such a way that the other person receives it as a sign of care, affection and genuine desire to help. In our contemporary idiom, we can say that this requires us to rely on our emotional intelligence, that is on our ability to understand the emotions at stake both in ourselves and in the other person and make sure that they are filtered in such a way as to contribute to effective communication, relieve stress, empathize and defuse conflict. These are not difficult skills to acquire. More than once I have been pleasantly surprised in my dealings with agents working in call centers for customers. Despite my intense frustration for having had to make my way through endless pre-recorded options and a long wait in a queue, their kind way of answering and of showing attention is remarkably effective in relieving tension.
In Jesus’ mind however the key factor in dealing with conflicts, tensions, and crisis in our relations with others is not only our willingness to win them over by being imaginative, generous and forgiving, but lies in what he calls the “church”. From the beginning, he talks of a member of the church reaching out to another member of the church, which means that we are consciously part of something greater than ourselves to which we are all accountable and that gives us the framework we need whenever our attempts at reconciliation or mutual correction backfire or we make mistakes. We do not need to represent what Jesus means by the “church” here in institutional or hierarchical terms. There is church as soon as two or three people are reached by Jesus’ message and try to practice it in their lives: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
By gathering together in this way we soon realize that we are not simply following the thought of an ancient inspiring leader but that we have become part of a family where the boundaries between past and present, heaven and earth disappear – hence the insistence on the parallel between heaven and earth in Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. But also any attempt to resolve conflicts, promote unity, build consensus on earth echoes the will of the Father, that is “heaven”: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Mt 18.18-20). This is what we pray for each time that we say the prayer Jesus taught us, the Our Father: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, which means that the only true image of God in the world (“on earth”) is a community of people which longs for the concord that exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (“in heaven”).
In the face of all our conflicts and tensions we might often be tempted to become cynical. Healing divisions however is the work of a life time, to be resumed every day – it is our daily bread. In the end, what makes us church might not always be our actual agreement, but our unremitting desire and our prayer for it, trusting that the Father will come to our help with his own patience, forgiveness and consolation – and our constant effort to win each other over.