A few years ago I found myself in a troubling situation. A big ball of conflict rose up in my life that left me reeling and forcing me to reassess many aspects of myself and beliefs. At the core of this was my beliefs about conflict itself.
From when I first understood what conflict and war was, I didn’t like it. As a very sensitive child, I found the violence and anger in my own home difficult to deal with and rejected it, tending to withdraw. I decided early on that I was a pacifist, that I didn’t agree with violence or going to war under any circumstance. However, in the absence of positive example I also spent a lot of the first part of my life feeling that I had no clue how to deal with conflict in an effective way and was terrified of challenging people. I tended to simply shy away and submit or to swing to the other fearful, angry extreme to push away people I felt threatened by.
Over time I learned assertiveness and started to force myself to raise issues in a calm way. I was surprised to find it usually worked! This may not be news to many of you out there, but to me it was a revelation! Of course there would always be people who were difficult to deal with, but I started to realise how assertive I could be when I needed to. It further ingrained my pacifism and desire for a peaceful world, a peaceful life.
Then that year came along and with it came challenges. I found myself under attack in my workplace, in a position where I felt under pressure to do something I believed was wrong. I tried my normal methods of communicating, calmly, reasonably, persisting when knocked back once, twice, three times. I really believed that I could resolve it that way, through talking, using reason and negotiation and compromise. I kept trying. It didn’t work. Core parts of my life were under threat as a consequence to continuing my challenge. The situation was making me ill with stress because I couldn’t resolve it. What to do?
We are marching, through the hills
We are marching, an army of steel
We will not stop until we find the weak
Till we destroy the soft and the meek
We are marching
Well, perhaps I could have become the aggressor and embarked on a course of action to personally disempower the other people involved. This would have turned me into something I didn’t want to be though and would have resulted in an ever escalating battle for power. Any principle involved would have been lost in the desire to ‘win’. That wasn’t an option.
We are hiding in the caves
We are hiding in this secret place
Guarding the flame that burns strong and true
We cannot fight so we will run from you
We are hiding
Perhaps I could have walked away from the job and the situation without challenging. In the past that had often been my response to conflicts that appeared unresolvable through other means. Sometimes that is the right thing to do. Tai Chi taught me that there are times when yielding is the most powerful response. However, there are also times to resist and in this instance yielding would have meant walking away from a situation where it was not simply a difference of opinion. Walking away when I felt that something wrong was happening that could affect others would have left me feeling that I had indirectly colluded. It would not bring me peace.
We are watching from the trees
We are watching the human disease
Where one must win and the other be lost
What hope remains, we all bear the cost
We are watching
Or perhaps I could have simply backed down, withdrawn my concerns. I could have let it all be swept under the carpet, bemoaning how dreadful it was but doing nothing about it. I could have martyred myself to an illusion of peace through silence and submission. I could have remained in the situation doing something that would have eroded my sense of integrity and self-respect. I knew from experience that this would not be a viable long term solution either.
Freedom comes to those who learn how to fly
My great wings they circle in the sky
See yourself as I see you
Look inside and feel for what is true
Am I marching?
Am I hiding?
Am I watching?
I found myself in an odd limbo with a strong sense of what would not work, but struggling to grasp what to do. I needed to find a way to deal with the situation in a way that allowed me to defend myself and my integrity without becoming the thing I was opposing. It was a difficult moment when I realised that I was going to have to fight…not as an aggressor, but I was going to need to be much more active in defending myself, and once I started I was going to have to see it through right to the end.
This realisation did not sit well with me at all. It meant that I had to accept the level of breakdown in these relationships and that the people involved were not willing to listen or resolve the issues. They were prepared to sustain harmful interactions until I sat down and shut up. I had to recognise where my natural empathy and compassion was hindering rather than helping me, becoming tools in the hands of others for psychological and emotional abuse. I had to let go of my desire to be accepted and liked by the people I had been a part of for several years. I also had to confront an enormous amount of fear and distrust in myself that was telling me, slightly hysterically at times, that I couldn’t do it, wasn’t strong enough, wouldn’t be supported.
Perhaps the worst of all there was the continuing niggling doubt as to whether it was okay for me to fight at all. A lot of my spiritual beliefs over the years had encouraged me to look at situations like this and ‘accept’, ‘to go with the flow’, to look at anything that would demand conflict to resolve as one of those things needing ‘the serenity to accept the things I cannot change’. But in this situation this felt a lot like ‘hiding’ or ‘watching’. What happens when what is in front of you is something that you cannot accept, cannot walk away from, and cannot resolve through repeated attempts at reasonable discussion and negotiation? What then?
I spent several months considering this as the situation went on. My partner has an interest in military history, and I found myself watching documentaries about various wars that I would have otherwise probably avoided. Remembrance Day came around and I found myself drawn to watching TV programmes about WWII, footage of RAF pilots going into battle, stories about D Day and Normandy landings.
Watching the footage of WWII was incredibly moving. Far from being able to launch a weapon from hundreds of miles away for a questionable political agenda as so often happens today, this was extensive face to face conflict that was fought to stop the sweeping wave of a very real, perniciously toxic force that was cutting across Europe. If the people and armed forces of the allies had chosen to ‘hide’ or to ‘watch’, the history of this country and others would have been very different.
Resistance to the invading forces of WWII was at least partly driven by the ability to see a bigger picture and the consequences of failing to respond – the ongoing loss of millions of lives through ethnic and cultural cleansing with many nations condemned to live indefinitely under a viciously oppressive regime.
Despite the necessity of resistance, there’s no doubt that WWII was a horrific experience for everyone on the front line. This is born out by the heart-breaking casualty record. It is estimated that over 60 million people, both military and civilian lost their lives as a result. Many more sustained permanent physical, psychological and emotional injures. That is an unimaginable number of people, families, communities, nations broken and stripped of their loved ones. That is an unimaginable amount of grief across the planet. That cost is the greatest possible lesson for the human species about the need for the world to learn to work together and listen to one another with open hearts and minds rather than create the circumstances that lead to war.
Obviously I am not remotely comparing my situation to WWII!! However, I found my reflections on it helpful. if we are ever in doubt as to whether it is okay to stand up to a personal bully…a person, group or institution who actively attacks our rights and personal freedoms, who attacks our ability to live with truth and integrity… then the lessons of conflicts fought to defend the right to life and freedom can teach us something:
- They help us understand what is important to us and how we value ourselves and others.
- They help us to resist injustice by standing uncompromisingly in who we are and the positive truths we hold.
- They teach us that nothing and nobody can prevent us from speaking or acting if we are able and willing to accept the consequences of that.
- They inspire us to dig deep for the courage and strength to assert and maintain our boundaries.
- They teach us that our actions and responses have consequences and that we are responsible for the impact we create on others and the world, both positive and negative
- They ask us to consider the consequence of not responding at all and the passive choice that represents
In entering any situation where we assert ourselves in this way, we must accept the possibility that we may not succeed in defending ourselves in the way we hope for. We risk losing whatever our stake is. But if we simply ‘hide’ or ‘watch’ then we have already surrendered. That passivity is what allows bullying to flourish.
In my situation I stood my ground and followed the avenues and processes open to me, kept on presenting the evidenced truth. This was my way of maintaining my boundary and holding onto my integrity despite the number of threats, personal insults and refusals to acknowledge any evidence that contradicted the fabricated ‘reality’ that were being thrown back.
I spent over 18 months maintaining my position, my boundary. The level of stress involved was immense under sustained heavy fire. However, I followed it through to the end of the process. I was still met with blanket denial. I had not given ground but we had reached an impasse and at that point I sensed my own health needed me more than this situation. So this was the time to walk away as a positive choice for my own wellbeing.
Did I succeed? Well yes and no…
- Yes because I did not allow my integrity to be compromised regardless of the consequences. I did not say or do what was demanded of me when it conflicted so completely with my own inner truth, or to keep the peace for others’ convenience. I didn’t ‘hide’ or ‘watch’, I came out to actively resist the force that was ‘marching’ against me without adopting it’s behaviour. I just kept telling the truth.
- No because ultimately I lost my job, temporarily lost my health and my life was thrown into chaos and breakdown. Also, the situation did not change as far as I know, though the issue was now formally raised on record.
However the soulful, creative life I now lead was the ultimate outcome of this painful process. That ordeal ignited the courage to follow through on what I really wanted to do with my life. Though hard won, I would not go back for a minute. It seems so often that the battles we fight in life are catalysts for internal liberation, the overcoming of the fears that hold us back from the life we feel truly called to live.
Perhaps where bullies are concerned though, we must also accept that we, as individuals, may only ever win a battle, not the war. Most bullies simply move on to new targets. However, our own ground remains sacred, we have not accepted the unacceptable and passively allowed it to take up residence and space in our life and heart. We have protected our inner world from corruption, deceit and abuse. This makes whether we ‘win’ or ‘lose’ irrelevant. We may be overpowered or reach a dead end in mundane terms, but by refusing to participate or validate, refusing to be turned into what we are not, refusing to accept an identity or role that we know to be false or harmful to us, we defend and maintain our ground. We stay in possession of our life and our spirit. At the end of the day, these are the only things we really have. They are worth fighting for.
(Words in quotes from song ‘Freedom Comes’ by Beth Rees – all rights reserved)