“Baseless hatred,” say our sages, caused the destruction of the Second Temple and Jewish dispersal. Today, it is palpable in our careening world, including within our own fractured community. In Israel and the U.S., hearts are hardening and existential battles are fought. Creative and cooperative ways to heal rifts and move forward together to address urgent and shared problems are commonly overshadowed by radical disagreement. However, this isn’t the essential problem. Rather, it is our approach to engaging such differences.
In my life-long professional study and practice of conflict and its creative engagement, I am guided by Martin Buber, who wrote: “The origin of conflict between me and my fellowman is that I do not say what I mean, and that I do not do what I say.”
The common approach to conflict, and difference, is to distance and blame the other side. An alternative approach would have us ask: What does this conflict most essentially have to do with me? What does it mean for me? Buber answers: everything. The other side, my “Conflict Thou,” is a mirror to my disappointed hopes, hurts, and failings. Who wants to attend to that? Demonizing and distancing the other side is easier. However, confronting the self through one’s “Conflict Thou” is a path for discovering what is reflexively meaningful. Saying and doing follow.
Hatred ceases when one is true to oneself — meaning, saying, and doing one’s truth — and thus true to others, too.
Jay Rothman’s analysis emphasizes Buber’s idea that conflict arises from the difficulty of saying what we mean and doing what we say. Rothman offers an alternative approach, where we are each responsible for asking, what does this conflict have to do with me? Often, it is difficult to turn inward with enough scrutiny. Without this self-knowledge, we cannot reap the benefits of deep discovery — the kind of discovery that would allow us to say what we mean and then to do what we say.
I could add my voice to the chorus that encourages each of us to live with the kind of integrity that Buber’s sentiment advocates. But I fear I’d rarely practice what I preach. What I can do, though, is remember a tool for lessening conflict. Even when we fall into the (possibly inevitable) trap of not saying what we mean, we can still better avoid conflict by practicing the art of apology. This too is difficult; a good apology can be exposing. But when we are exposed, we cannot hide what we mean, and then we can be held accountable to do what we say.
Often the contradiction Buber notes between our thoughts and actions arises when we ignore the complex nature of our values.
For example, the countless forms of baseless hate imbedded into language can fall out of our mouths if we have not fully realized what it means to love the stranger — on political, social, and interpersonal levels. Hate can be accidentally, yet actively, perpetuated when we have not integrated this love into our words and actions. To fully integrate our values, we must think both independently and communally. By taking time to think on our own about the moral edges of complicated realities, we can begin to prepare ourselves to react to difficult moments with integrity. And when we listen to the stories of our fellow humans, especially those with different backgrounds from us, our eyes are opened to complexities that we could not see on our own.
Especially in a country whose government debases people in every news cycle, we all carry unseen injuries from hurtful moments that litter the landscape of “just a normal day in 2018.” And, hurt people hurt people; the cycle churns on. Rothman notes that “hatred ceases when one is true to oneself” and being true to oneself requires constant and critical self-reflection to help us consider whether our values are manifest in our actions. It is our responsibility to reflect on the moments when we hurt those around us so we may strive to truly say what we mean, do what we say, and always operate from a place of loving-kindness for ourselves and for our fellow humans.
This summer, I struggled to find space for myself as a woman whose voice and role as a teen community leader was challenged by a man. In seeking to be elected president of a regional youth group, I had given a speech encouraging female empowerment to the young women I was aiming to serve. Upon being elected, I found myself facing daily criticism and degrading comments from my male counterpart. This individual left no space for my work or input, and I allowed him to take that space from me.
I am trying to learn from Buber’s line to say what I mean and do what I say. Although I had worked to encourage my female peers and to inspire and motivate them, I did not follow my own advice. I failed to call out my counterpart for his unacceptable actions, and I did not set boundaries for myself when he devalued my time and priorities. This painful encounter led me to realize how important it is that I stand up for myself. In reflecting on which actions I should have taken, I hope to strengthen my skills and confidence in order to advocate for myself and others as I grow into adulthood.