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A Hard Lesson in Taking Sides
With conflict resolution, think outside the box
“Me and Davis* are breaking up!” The front door slammed, rattling the adjacent closet and garage doors, as our 10-year-old son raced through the living room, throwing his baseball glove down to the floor and charging up the stairs to his bedroom.
When we walked into his bedroom to find Ethen curled beneath his covers, crying, we knew we would have to say something. Ordinarily my husband and I allow the best friends to work through their issues on their own. In most cases, we just listen. Probe with questions; encourage them to see other points of view. This time was different though. Ethen was visibly distressed, more than he had ever been. He explained to us that Tom*, the new “cool kid” from Brooklyn that had moved to town that spring, had informed him that Davis was having his birthday at some undisclosed location because he did not want Ethen to attend. I would like to note that Ethen, unlike Davis, is not what you would consider athletically inclined. He prefers books to bats and video games to football games, but the two had been inseparable since kindergarten. They had juggled their individuality and friendship beautifully up until that point, but we could sense Ethen feeling threatened by Tom. A quality athlete even at his age, Tom befriended Davis almost immediately. They lived two houses apart and were placed on the same little league team that summer. In response, Ethen was making more of an effort to participate in sports-related activities; we figured in an attempt to not get pushed completely out of the picture. When Ethen acted relatively unfazed by the news about Davis’ party, Tom continued to goad him until he got a desired response. He told Ethen some truly hurtful things that Davis supposedly said about him behind his back. Ethen was crushed and we were crushed. My inner Pollyanna wanted to rush in and smooth everything over, tell him Tom was a jerk and make him some ice cream, but I refrained.
I remember when I was Ethen’s age a similar instance happened to me. My mother immediately jumped in to referee; explaining to me that there was no way my best friend would say those hurtful things. She reminded me of all the wonderful times she and I had had together, inadvertently elevating her to this level of ultimate friend-dom. Mom was right, with a quality girl like her, it must have been all in my head. The only problem was, Mom was wrong. She did say those hurtful things about me, and she continued to. Even when she knew I was within earshot. The truth is, my friend felt our friendship’s shelf life had expired, and so the best way she thought to “break up” with me was to recruit a mule to deliver a morsel of hurtful news so that I would get angry with her and go my separate way. When that did not happen, she just got plain nasty, and it cut me to my very core.
Fast-forward five years to high school. Same story, different day. Only this time I did back off. I ignored my best friend completely, avoided her at every cost: rode a different bus, walking an extra mile just to get home, ignored her phone calls, I was even late to class just to avoid her in the hall. I thought I dodged a bullet with that one, thought I knew better the second time around, but that was not the case. Years after we graduated college we found each other on Facebook, exchanging numbers. We chatted into the wee hours of the morning, laughing off our miscommunication and catching up. Ironically enough, we had both ended up in the Northwest; her in Alaska, me in Washington, a far way from our Midwestern roots. I hung up the phone with a sense of closure and an overwhelming sense of sadness, a mournfulness for something that could have been. She would have been my oldest friend by ten years, and that too cut me to my very core.
So as I sit there beside Ethen, rubbing his back as he mourns his friendship, I know I cannot mend that wound for him. I will not tell Ethen one way or another what he should do, or what the right answer is. I fear that recounting my own experiences will only displace my own nostalgia and further confuse him. So I tell him a different kind of story:
Take a country, not unlike our own, and for some of us, in our time. The Great Depression hit the United States. The world as it is known is at an all-time low. One country in particular is so raw from their recent loss of a war that their people, unemployed and without homes, are reduced to eating grass. No soup kitchen to be had. No homeless shelter to seek warmth. Nothing. National pride is gone. There is no hope.
Until one man, one single man, commits to change. He promises to restore political peace, build a better and stronger military, restore the economy, create jobs, and give his people reason to have pride in their country again. This man won the love and respect of the citizens of his country for his ability not just to make promises, but also to actually deliver.
Deliver he did. Before the end of his life this man had took an entire demoralized nation and united it. He gave the people of his country, once distraught and utterly without hope, purpose. His engineers invented and built freeways under his watchful eye (our own interstate highways being the result of his genius). He almost single-handedly restored the economy. He mended the bruised and tattered pride of the people of his nation and would go on to host the Olympics in his country. He was even named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.
This popular leader was laid to rest with his wife a mere 15 years later.
Every word of this story is true. But what if I told you that country was Germany? That time was 1930-1945? That leader was Adolf Hitler? Now, I am not advocating any sort of sympathy or understanding for this horrible, despicable person. And yes, the moral implications of his choices toward the end of his life are endless. Hitler was an atrocious monster.
My point in retelling this story the way I did is to help you understand that any story can be made one-sided. Any story can foster a desired response. The ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ of the story are solely up to the storyteller. More than likely up until the moment you heard his name, your little heart broke for this man’s ‘untimely’ death. You may have even wondered, “Why isn’t this guy running our nation?” That’s because I conveniently left out the part where this man was single-handedly responsible for the execution of roughly 11 million innocent souls. It is funny how my little advantageous exclusion could have had you rooting for one of the most notorious mass murderers in history.
So I beg of you, the next time you attempt to wield judgment, think carefully about the opinion you are choosing to adopt and potentially share. Educate yourself about your perspective. Refuse to be a slave to someone else’s ignorant one-sided standpoint. NO ONE ever paints him or herself in a negative light. If you are so moved to change your opinion, then I challenge you to be so moved to educate yourself. And try never to unfairly judge the actions or perceived inaction of others.
My goal in telling Ethen this story was obviously not to foster some kind of sympathy for Hitler, but rather to help him to see the weight of one’s words measured against the weight of their actions. Now I did not know if Davis had said those things or not, but neither was it my place to decide. I wanted to take a situation that had affected Ethen so deeply and use it as an opportunity to teach him an invaluable lesson, without meddling or robbing him of the chance to resolve conflict. In the end Ethen confronted Davis, honestly and respectfully. Davis admitted he wanted to have a sports-themed birthday party and did not know if Ethen would enjoy himself. He did not, however, say any of those hurtful things. Ethen and Davis are not the friends they once were, and neither of them are friends with Tom, but that is okay. It did not take Ethen long before he discovered a fellow classmate enjoys all the same books and video games that he does, and even better, they share the same disdain for football.
*Name has been changed