The Impeded Stream: How Conflict and Confusion Are Spiritual Opportunities
We hate conflict. We hate confusion. But perhaps it’s precisely in the moments when we’re feeling most confused or at odds with someone that we’re doing our best intellectual and emotional work. And if we can change the way we see conflict and confusion, especially when we’re upset, then these moments become opportunities for significant spiritual growth.
Wendell Berry, a brilliant writer and activist, once shared these wise words:
This way of thinking is counterintuitive, yet the more you sit with the idea, the more it rings true. We have our own goals and we try our best to work toward these goals. When we achieve them it feels like we’ve done good work, and we have. But much to our disappointment, real growth doesn’t happen when things are going swimmingly.
What Berry is saying is that we tend to grow the most when we’re totally fed up with trying to find the right answer—when we’re convinced that a right answer doesn’t even exist.
At this point, we have two choices: we can give up and try to bury whatever we’re going through somewhere in the back of our minds, or we can allow ourselves to sit with the discomfort and allow ourselves to be changed by it. This second option may sound passive, but this is actually the “real work” that Berry talks about above. It’s real work because it’s really hard to do.
Sitting with discomfort requires openness—it takes acknowledging that you’re “impeded,” that something has you stuck, and then consciously reframing the way you look at being stuck.
When you realize you have no idea how to move forward, you implicitly acknowledge that you’re not completely in control of your life. It’s not a pleasant feeling at first. But in this vulnerability, you allow ourselves to listen in new ways. It’s as if the universe is reminding you that there are other ways to hear.
A few months, ago my wife and I saw author and podcaster Rob Bell speak in Boston for his “Holy Shift Tour,” and during his talk, he discussed how there are certain things that happen to us in our lives that defy classification as good or bad—as beautiful or tragic. We don’t know what to do with these happenings, and we don’t know exactly what they mean. But there’s a holiness to this unknowing, and instead of trying to classify these happenings, we can bless them. We can call them holy.
This is how we make it possible for the Holy Spirit to guide us in new directions. We say to ourselves, “I don’t have an answer for this.” And when we’re at our wit’s end, we say to God, or to the universe, “Please help me.”
In this very act of humbling ourselves, we’re empowered to see things anew. We become more sensitive to others who are facing difficulties, and if we can successfully take our ego out of the equation, then we often find the most spiritually fulfilling solution is to ask ourselves, “How can I move forward with love for myself and love for others?”
The answers may come, but they will only come by living them. By actively loving ourselves, our partners, our kids, our family and friends, the lonely, the sick, and the afraid—and by moving in whatever direction this love takes us in any given moment—we experience what is meant by the word “faith.”
It’s all about this intention to love after we’ve reached the point of being totally unclear about what to do. Our lives begin to feel and therefore become more abundant, and we find the holiness in conflict and confusion because we realize it’s all part of this crazy, maddening, joyful, mystifying journey. We somehow become okay with not knowing, and we even celebrate it. We’re impeded, and we’re singing because we’re impeded.
This is so important to share with our kids, too: it’s not just okay to be confused and to be upset with other people—this is how we grow. We can encourage them to name their feelings, sit with them, and ultimately be okay with their uncertainty about how to proceed. We can remind them to be patient with themselves, and to think about how to move forward with love. This is how we help them make wise choices.
As parents, we are shepherds of all that is good in the world. When we convince ourselves and our children that it’s okay to not know what to do and it’s okay to be in conflict with others, then we all get permission to collectively exhale. And in that collective exhale is the spirit of God.