Why can't we all just get along?By SHEILA
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2003
Neighbor A doesn't like Neighbor B. Neighbor B has become defensive. No one remembers what started the conflict.
Neighbor A tries to enlist support from other neighbors. None want to be drawn into the conflict. New neighbors, people who have no knowledge of the animosity, tend to get pulled in.
Neighbor A gloats at her conquest. Neighbor B crosses off the new people as potential friends. The conflict grinds on, free of rationality but real.
Does this sound familiar? Personal experience confirms that what happens in neighborhoods also takes place between nations. I find it unsettling that the leaders of nations are no better or worse than me, and my neighbors.
As a child I thought my parents wise. Elected leaders were wiser. It made sense that people who represented us would be smarter, more judicious than my parents and their friends, who ruled over nothing more than the neighborhood.
Imagine my surprise and chagrin when I discovered that these "leaders" are worse than the grown-ups I believed in. They happily harbor grudges against each other that go back for generations.
Neighbor A has spread a rumor about Neighbor B. The facts are true but the interpretation is slanted to suit the agenda of Neighbor A. Neighbor B doesn't want to dignify the rumor with an explanation. So the rumor, and its spin, stand.
The newcomer finds herself planted firmly in the camp of neighbor A. It wasn't her intent, but extrication is complex. Now everything Neighbor B does falls under suspicion. If one believes neighbor A, the rift grows. If one gives the benefit of the doubt to Neighbor B, Neighbor A feels betrayed.
Neighbor A is interested in keeping the conflict alive because it gives her importance. Neighbor B would love to clear it up and be done with it. But there will be consequences.
Neighbor A will react badly to being accused of fomenting strife. She will defend herself by saying she was only letting people know about the potential problems presented by Neighbor B.
Why do people behave this way? Why do nations behave this way? We don't really turn the other cheek; we put on armor and hunker down. We don't love our neighbors, we just try to get along, walking on eggs, treading softly. If they really get under our skin, we retaliate. We arm ourselves with "truth" and weapons.
We can't prevent people from not liking each other. We can't make our neighbors behave civilly. We can't seem to help taking sides, even when we don't know what started the mess.
I read the news with despair. Why can't people get along? Each of us has a bias. We think we know what the outcome should be.
We see no correlation between our little skirmishes and the chaos half way around the world. We haven't learned. We still believe that our leaders are smarter, more judicious than we are. We still think that leaders should know better than to behave as we behave.
We are foolish. If we can't figure out how to live peacefully with our neighbors, what hope is there for the world?
Among neighbors these conflicts seem pretty stupid to anyone not directly involved. Age doesn't confer wisdom. If anything, advanced years often produce hardening of attitudes right along with the arteries. Individually we tend to "perfect" our personalities as we get older.
National leaders bring their own peculiar personalities into office with them. They're on the fast track toward sclerotic personality perfection. There seems an important ratio between time in public office and the distillation of unattractive personality traits. Public officials become the cartoons that portray them. Sure wish I could laugh about that. (Sigh!)
- Write to Sheila Stoll c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
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