Chris Maser

I was taught that conflict between people is simply a mindless condition of life, a necessity of survival. Finally, in my mid-forties, I began to understand that conflict comes about because frightened people perceive the need to defend themselves from the potential loss of what they think and feel they must have to survive:  control of their own lives as they perceive it. Control in this sense is synonymous to each person's "right of survival," however that is defined. And our perceived security is weighed against the number of choices we think are available to us as individuals.

These choices are in turn affected by the supply and demand for natural resources—primarily the world's supply of energy, which all life requires in one form or another. The greater the supply of a particular resource, say clean water, the greater the freedom of choices an individual has with respect to that resource. Conversely, the smaller the supply, the narrower is the range of choices. The variety of available choices thus dictates the amount of control we feel we have, which consequently affects our sense of security about our survival. Thus the germ of all conflict comes from a perceived loss of personal control due to a diminished number of choices, which we interpret as a threat to our survival.

We relieve our fear of being out of control by creating enemies onto whom we can project blame for our fears and thereby justify them. But what or who is the enemy? An enemy is one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent; something harmful or deadly. We are not the enemy, however, because we are convinced that our position, our values are the right ones, and "the enemy" is wrong. This is what we are taught. This is the eternal verity around which conflict rallies.

The problem is that when both or all sides feel this way, there is little understanding that an enemy is anyone or anything that is perceived to threaten our sense of survival. Herein lies the great irony:  conflict in one way or another is the spawn of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misperceptions. Conflict is thus a mistake, a misjudgment of appearances that is avoidable because it is only a choice—one of several possible of responses to a given circumstance.

Once one or the other side perceives a threat to its survival, the single most important precipitating factor in a conflict is misperception, which manifests itself in a leader's self-image, in a leader's view of his or her adversary's character, intentions, capabilities, and power to act. Once misperception is in play, miscommunication joins hands with misjudgment to foster a distorted view of the adversary's character, which helps to precipitate a conflict.

Consider war as the ultimate example. If a leader on the brink of war believes that his or her adversary will attack, the chances of war are fairly high. If both leaders share this perception about each other's intent, war becomes a virtual certainty.

Now, however, at the very moment humankind has the power to destroy the Earth, human beings have also begun to perceive the planet as a whole. Similarly, environmental problems and the equity of resource allocation will be surmounted on a global basis or not at all. In both cases, the irrational logic of the insatiable machine is, nevertheless, dictating a modicum of world order:  the terror of nuclear fire and the prospect of choking in our own waste. Out of this terror springs recognition of the need for flexibility and change, because the nuclear fire must not become the Earth, nor must the Earth become a sewer.

The lesson war has to teach is that conflict of any kind is a cycle of attack and defense based on the misjudgment of appearances. Appearance is an outward aspect of something that comes into view, and judgment is the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing something believed or asserted. Therefore, those whom we define as enemies are those onto whom we affix blame for our perceived sense of insecurity, our perceived threat to our survival.

Our judgments are necessarily incorrect, however, because nothing is as it appears since appearance is external. If we could understand the inner motive of our "enemy," we would find a mirror reflection of our own fears for our survival. And in that reflection we would find that we had made a mistake about our enemy, which means to make an incorrect judgment of character or ability based on inadequate knowledge.

If we are not one other's enemies, then who or what is the enemy? Fear is the enemy. "Fear," you say, but what are we really afraid of? We're afraid of change—the loss of something we value through circumstances beyond our control, circumstances we perceive as a threat to our sense of survival.

Control, often used as a synonym for power, is an interesting phenomenon. We pay dearly for control, but regardless of the price, there are limitations. I cannot, for example, control the wind, but I can trim my sails. The wind is the circumstance beyond my control, but by trimming my sails I can choose how I respond to the wind. And in my response, I am in control of myself, with de facto controls the circumstance.

That we cannot control circumstances is a given, although we continually try, which results in either inner or outer conflict of some magnitude. However, we can control how we react to circumstances, and therein lies both the problem and its resolution.

The inability to control circumstances in any meaningful way translates into fear of change because every circumstance causes change in some way, whether relatively minor or catastrophic. Change in today's fast-paced world is thus perceived as a loss of control that threatens survival. We therefore want to control circumstances whenever we can, so other people—our perceived enemies—will have to risk change, but not us.

When, however, we focus our attention on human enemies we are really focusing incorrectly. The other person is not our enemy; the enemy is our fear. Conflict is an attempt to move away from fear, away from some unwanted circumstance. Conflict is a choice of behavior that we resort to because that is what we have been taught to do in order to cope with circumstances that we perceive as threatening to our survival.

It is necessary to understand that every circumstance we encounter in some way evokes an unanticipated change in our participation with life. In turn, each change we are obliged to make is a compromise in our sense of control, which is frightening to most people in an increasingly complex world. Resolution of conflict as a choice is one way of sharing control with the active support of one's past opponents.

In the final analysis, resolving a conflict, any conflict, is a choice, just as the conflict itself is a choice. Because of the growing population of humans, which is commensurate with the rapid per-capita shrinking in the world's resource base, I think the future success of any society must lie more in the realm of cooperation and coordination as preemptive conflict resolution rather than in the realm of competition, which in itself tends to spawn most of the conflicts. And this, too, is but a choice.

©chris maser 2005. All rights reserved.

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