Yesterday was an exercise in recognizing conflict and making choices for me. One friend in the program reached out to me about a conflict with their sponsor. I had to tell them, “Your sponsor is right.” Another friend I felt I had to tell, “That wasn’t nice,” on a separate issue. Neither specific incident is worth talking about the details of. But both stood out to me as remarkable for the way I behaved.
Usually, when someone talks to me about a conflict, or when I find myself in conflict with someone, I will take their side, or search for a way to ease the situation. I feel this more urgently when the other person is a woman. Men I’m more likely to be willing to spar with, but if I sense that the conflict is becoming serious, I’ll search for a pleasant exit. The difference in gender is directly related to my upbringing, and I’ve taken the time to work it through. I don’t need to rehash it here now, but fundamentally it’s related to trying (and usually failing) to soothe my mother’s rages.
And so usually, especially when in conflict with a woman, I’ll search for a way to soothe the situation rather than directly address the issues. It’s not always productive. And it can feel dishonest. I’m looking for peace rather than truth. There’s a kind of basic friction between the AA principle of “rigorous honesty” and the maxim shared by so many (especially older men) in the program, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” What happens when adhering to one’s one sense of truth and honesty conflict with happiness and serenity?
I don’t know the answer to that yet. I know that I can’t change anyone else. I know that I can’t influence anyone who doesn’t want to be influenced. And that it’s not even my place to try unless they ask me to.
In the case of a friend in the program, I know that when they reach out to me, they’re expecting honesty about the program. And so even if I think I’m going to be telling them something they don’t want to hear, I should be willing to speak openly. After all, I needed to hear unpleasant truths to recover. In the other case, well, that was really my own fault. I didn’t need to enter the conversation in the first place. It wasn’t my business, and I should have kept my mouth shut. Which, for me, is just generally good advice. I should never have been in the position to be in a conflict in the first place.
I usually have to slam my head against walls for a decade or so before I actually learn anything. Learning when to shut up and let things pass by so I don’t get into unpleasant conflicts has been difficult. I’m starting to recognize the right path before I stumble off down the wrong one. And thankfully, I have wise people in my life today to help me (though I could certainly do a better job of paying attention to them).
Learning when to risk conflict to say something that needs saying is even harder. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a grasp of that one. But my sense is that it’s far rarer than it feels. And when it is appropriate, privacy is probably the right way to do it. Public conflict is especially unpleasant for me, as much as it used to be a hallmark of my boyhood’s need to be right. I dragged myself into so many battles.
An angry newcomer asked me about when to try to help others after the men’s meeting last week. I told him, “not yet.” He asked me about getting into situations where he finds himself in conflict, and I gave him the advice I’ve written here before, and need to do a better job myself of keeping to. When in a situation that portents conflict, ask myself, “Does it need to be said, by me, right now?” If I can’t answer “yes” three times, I ought to stay quiet.