By Ricardo Márquez
In times of social and political polarization, there’s a tendency for people to respond in one of two ways: those who aggressively judge and discredit the people they don’t agree with, or those who react passively, to avoid conflict, and simply walk away. Managing differences between groups, organizations and even family members is not easy, but it’s not impossible.
I was fortunate to have as a teacher Virginia Satir, the influential author and psychotherapist. She once taught me a simple phrase that changed the way I see, live and react to conflict: “The problem is not the problem, rather it’s how we react to it.”
She followed that phrase, with another one she often repeated: “We get together on the basis of our similarities; we grow on the basis of our differences.”
Ever since then, I began to pay more attention to the way I react to problems and to the meaning I gave each situation. Satir invites us to consider the role we play in conflict. No one is capable of angering or humiliating me if I don’t allow it, she would tell us. This control lies within me, not with someone else.
One test of this approach occurred when I visited my son in Venezuela, who was a political prisoner under the dictatorship there. Before entering the prison, I had to undergo an inspection to see what I was bringing in. I had to take off all of my clothes and assume various positions to ensure that I was not smuggling drugs in.
The guards reacted with sarcasm and satisfaction in carrying out this process. After having endured this experience with shame, rage and a sense of powerlessness, one day I decided to live it with the conviction of my human dignity, of being sacred, of being a “son of God.” I called to mind this saying from Jesus: “So when they hand you over, don’t worry beforehand what you will say, but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it isn’t you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11). I prepared myself internally and prayed for serenity.
The process was the same as the other times. But this time I did not live it with humiliation, rather as an opportunity to express my dignity, “stripped” of privilege and titles. This time I did not look down in shame, rather I gazed at the guard with respect. He must have felt something different that made him look away from me, hurry up his inspection, even telling me, “Excuse me, you can get dressed now …”
What significance do we give to words or actions that bother us? What power do we give them to upset us, or even provoke our aggression? When these emotions invite us to look inward — to ask what it is that we need, what is hurting inside – they have helped us to grow and heal.
If we don’t go beyond knee-jerk reactions, then we are caught in a cycle of rage and rejection. If we make the conscious decision to explore what’s under these emotions, we will find the hidden treasure of what we really want and come in contact with God’s grace: respect and love for ourselves. And it’s from that place that we can equally recognize the dignity of the “other,” even someone who is offensive, and be able to build a bridge to possible understanding and peace.
Ricardo Márquez , Ph.D., is associate director of the diocesan Office for Family Life & Spirituality. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.