Compassion as Conflict Resolution

Steven Pinker, a psychologist whose research has focused on violence has concluded in his recently published work, The Better Angels of our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined, that we are far less violent today than we were centuries ago.  Centuries of evolution, the emergence of empathic impulses, and increased cohabitation on the planet has led to better understanding and cooperation.  Quite simply, we have learned how to get along.  A survey of the headlines would question that thesis, but Pinker seems to have the data on his side.  Still, the headlines capture hotspots of conflict that seem more horrific and more senseless than one could imagine.  Yet, in the midst of these conflicts, often driven by religious, ethnic, and cultural biases, there has emerged a trend that is worth noting.  The trend is anchored in the idea that when there is a mutual concern about an overarching need, followed by collaborative acts of compassion to address that shared need, conflict is reduced.  The components are simple and I will use famine as an example.

  1. A geographic area shared by Muslims and Christians is experiencing famine.  It is an area that has historically produced conflict among competing religious and tribal interests.  The conflict has been so intense that the Muslim majority has denied the Christian minority access to water and food. There is a climate and culture of suspicion and persecution.
  2. A relief agency aligned with a Christian community sets up a food distribution center that works closely with the Muslim leadership to determine food distribution for those with the greatest need.  Many, if not most of the beneficiaries are Muslim.
  3. Recognizing the generosity of the Christian community and their willingness to share their food largess with Muslims, the Muslim chief of the community declares that the Christians will never again have to beg for water.
  4. The Christian relief agency responds by putting a water pump in the river to set up a sustainable agriculture project to be used by Muslims and Christians.

The net result of these actions is less conflict, greater understanding, and a willingness to share resources to meet the challenge of the famine and respond to the needs of the entire community.  The overarching need for food and water in a famine stricken area supersedes the bias and conflict that has defined the region.

This is compassion as conflict resolution.  A common enemy, in this case, hunger facilitates cooperation and collaboration to address the issue.  Recently, in Haiti, I saw a medical relief organization organize communities around the needs for general health interventions.  Working with Protestants, Catholics, Voodooists, and sectarians, they organized a broad-based community effort to build, staff, and supply a clinic to meet the needs of this rural community. This had been a community rife with conflict and antagonism.  No longer, the act of building the clinic created a climate of collaboration defined by integrity, mutual interest, and concern for their neighbor.  This was a collaborative act that produced a unified response to a common need – health.

The four legged stool of this strategy is as follows:

  1. The need must transcend tribal, religious, political or ethnic definitions.  It must be universal and overarching.
  2. Collaborate on the strategy to meet the need or concern and emphasize a unified approach that gives each group a defined task and responsibility.
  3. Share resources and products with all beneficiaries.
  4. Invite transparency and collaboration around the mutual resolution and mutually celebrate the outcomes. Establish covenants for future collaboration

Again, the net affect or outcome is less conflict and more dialogue. Acts of compassion and collaboration and the need to respond to an overarching community need moves groups beyond conflict and into conflict resolution.  Acts of compassion vs. educational strategies for conflict resolution hold the greatest promise for collaborative development.

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