A brief inventory of human conflict I have witnessed, first or second hand, over the years:
- My father is preparing a ski boat for a sales/business trip down to Baja. He’s giving my mom a hard time about helping him out, barking orders. They have words, and when dad drives off, boat in tow, mom says, “right now, I wouldn’t care if I ever saw that man again.”
- My brother-in-law, seeking refuge from the Riverside Police department in his parents’ home, invites the attention of the SWAT team. Guns are pointed at the heads of the innocent. Arrests are made, but the real drama comes later when someone asks: “how long do we have to cover for this guy?”
- A friend tells me he just had to jump out of the 2nd story of his apartment building, a towel around his waist from the shower, because his cocaine and bourbon addicted brother has threatened him with a knife.
- I am called to the stage at a company Christmas party, in order to receive some sort of gift certificate. A seriously buxom and bawdy secretary hands me the envelope and then whispers to me, “I wish I could stick it down your pants.” I laugh awkwardly. It’s a joke, of course. I tell my wife about it when I get back to my table. Big mistake. Big, big mistake.
- As a freshman at Stanford, I ask a preppy from Hotchkiss how to pronounce a word in French. He says, “you’ll never get it right. You’re one of those uptight, religious types.” He’s not joking. His contempt for me is about two feet thick, and we’ve never even spoken to each other before.
- A big retailer forces my father to partner with another supplier who hates him. The two men scowl at each other, through terse discussion as to the details of the plan. “This may not work for me,” says the other man. “You want to walk out?” Dad yells at him. “There’s the door. WALK OUT.”
- A relative, during a tense and complicated estate/business negotiation, says, “I’m going to be candid here. Jim, I think you’ve had too many children and you’re a cancer on the family.”
- At a yard sale, my mother meets a neighbor whose daughter attended college with my sisters. Within a moment of beginning the conversation, the other woman is yelling at her. “In our house,” she says, “when we borrow things, we RETURN them.” On the way home, in the car, my mother appears wilted, dazed. She’s breathing hard. “She just ripped me,” she says, “up one side and down the other.”
I’m not a lawyer, but I think I’ve come to understand the sort of jaded, fatigued way lawyers begin to look at conflict. Except for the sort of problem that requires armed intervention, (my brother in law is now on death row), most human conflict is characterized by two realities:
- We love it. We invest in it. We like being on the right side of a justice issue, and, of course, we’re always right. The other guy is the demon seed.
- Most conflict could be brought to an end by an act of grace, contrition, or just a simple refusal to engage.
It’s easy to be philosophical, and even amused, when you aren’t at the center of it. Have you ever related some huge personal injury to someone, only to have them sigh, smile, and shuffle on as though you were complaining about a pebble in your sandal?
“Seriously. I can’t breath here.”
“Okay. Whatever. You want a Diet Coke?”
I do think there are times when the fundamental justice of the problem is so immense you have to fight it out. Jews either get a homeland or they don’t. The employee who is stealing from you needs to be watched, and then charged. The guy who just knocked over your backyard fence, so he can extend his garage six feet in your direction needs to hear from your attorney.
But a great deal of human conflict can be solved by just deciding: “I’m not investing in this.”
Several years ago, a restaurant owner I know was incensed by the amount of chocolate one of his waitresses was wasting. She listened to the lecture for a few minutes without saying anything, and then she asked: “How much do you think I wasted today?” The owner said, “at least $10.” The girl opened her purse, pulled out a $20 bill and gave it to him.
It was worth it just to see the look on his face.