Today after church, I asked to borrow Father Douglas's sermon to put on the St. Michael's Sermons page. He's one of the older priests, a former pastor who still attracts people to the church to hear him speak. He's not online, though, so if I'm going to post a sermon by him, I have to borrow his printed pages, which are marked up with edits and oral cues in red ink, and scan them in using OCR software.
Anyway, he agreed to loan me the sermon printout, and sent me to the pulpit to get it. So for the first time ever, I ascended the steps to the pulpit at St. Michael's. I was carrying a sickly lily left over from Easter, and my silly pink purse; and I had to turn sideways a little bit to get past the narrow opening at the top of the steps. The church was well on its way to empty by then, but I felt a little guilty, as if I were sneaking into a special place where only a few people are entitled to go. Yet at the same time, I was tempted so say something while I was up there, to proclaim a little unauthorized sermon of my own. I didn't say a word, though, so you guys--lucky you!--get my sermon instead.
Confessions of a "Cheesemaker"
Yesterday, I found myself mediating a dispute between someone I like a lot and another person who is a complete stranger to me. I was glad to attempt this, because I hate to see people in emotional pain, especially when the source of the problem is essentially a miscommunication or misunderstanding. It's all so tragically unnecessary. When I see this happening, and I have an opportunity to try to make peace, I usually go for it.
My favorite line in Monty Python's Life of Brian is "Blessed are the cheesemakers." In the movie, this is how people toward the back of the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount mishear the words, "Blessed are the peacemakers." John Cleese explains to others in the crowd that it should not be taken literally, but can be applied to "all makers of dairy products." I like this bit a lot. For me it's a self-deprecating reference to my own fumbling attempts to be a peacemaker. My contributions may be trivial, foolish, ineffectual or misunderstood, and yet, as with Jesus saying the right words a quarter mile away, it's worth the attempt.
I'm not going to mention here what yesterday's misunderstanding was. That's not the point. The point is that it happens all the time. That's why the snappy sentences of "My Philosophy (Your Mileage May Vary)" on my woefully out of date home page include the following:
Far too many friendships are damaged or ruined by miscommunication. Try to stay on the same page.
In the early 1990s, I accidentally ruined a friendship by saying something online that deeply offended someone I'd known for a couple of years, and liked a lot. She thought I'd called her a liar (a gross distortion of my remark that we should not spread unsubstantiated rumors), and I was too distracted by a different crisis to defuse the problem. In the mid-1990s, a club I was in split in two for a while, because two groups of people misunderstood each other's words and intentions. Then in the late 1990s, my best friend was hurt because we were both working on the same project, and unaware of each other's efforts. This further damaged a relationship already strained by a miscommunication over a dinner invitation.
Those are just three examples. I'm sure you can come up with more from your own life, in which someone's words were given the worst possible interpretation, resulting in anger and hurt feelings.
So what do we do, when someone says something that seems hurtful or unfair? Most of the time we lash out defensively, saying things that others will find equally hurtful or unfair. Both sides see other's position in the worst possible light, which sets off another round of angry remarks. This happens whether the other person is a stranger, a friend, or even the person you love the most. It's a very human thing to do, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone else. In my case, though, I tend to worry about whether I've offended someone somehow, misinterpreting the other person's words and actions as evidence that they're mad at me for saying...well, whatever I just said. (I remember been upset for hours once when an AOL glitch told me that JS had chosen to block me from commenting in his journal. Wasn't so, but I thought maybe I'd commented too much or something!) Other times, I blame the other person, while still feeling guilty myself.
None of this is good for us. So when something like this starts to happen, I suggest the following procedure:
Seven Steps to Resolve Misunderstandings
1. Check the facts. Look for any mitigating factors you may have missed. Do you know the actual sequence of events, what was really said and done and when? Is a different explanation of the evidence possible? Do the research, and ask for clarification.
2. Be charitable. In light of #1, go over what the other person said or did, and find the best possible interpretation of it. Can it be that the person really meant no harm? Was it a simple mistake? Was the person merely ignorant or forgetful, thoughtless or angry, rather than malicious? Could the person be partly reacting to some other problem--health, drugs, relationship problems, etc.? Is there a way of looking at the person's words and actions, and seeing just an ordinary person, trying to get by, and messing up as we all do from time to time?
3. Check for reasonableness. Now, think about your original interpretation of the other person's words and actions. Is it really that much more likely, in light of the facts, than the more generous interpretation you've just worked out? Does it make more logical sense? Is it in character for that person?
4. Critique yourself. Take a look at your own words and actions. Is there a way they could be seen as mean or unfair? Did you overreact, and say something hurtful? Could the other person have found a way to see malice or unjust accusations that weren't really there?
5. Put it all together. Try to see the other person's point of view. If at all possible, assume the best rather than the worst, and be aware of how your own words and actions may have contributed to the problem. Explain your position as gently and dispassionately as possible. Apologize if you know you've been at fault, and try not to demand an apology yourself. The other person may still be convinced that he or she did nothing wrong--and may even be right!
6. Let it go. Once you've done all that, let the conflict be over and done. Don't let the fight escalate with accusations and attacks, even if you've inescapably concluded that the other person really is mean and selfish and unpleasant. You will probably want to disengage from the other person for a while (or forever), which is almost certainly a good idea.
7. Be nice. When you must deal with the other person, be polite. It will all be strained, but it doesn't have to be actively unpleasant. After enough time goes by, you may be able to rebuild what you've lost.
End of sermon. Go in peace!