Last year, I read a book that changed my life – by changing my perspective. It’s called “The Anatomy of Peace,” and it’s by the Arbinger Institute, a nonprofit organization that teaches conflict resolution. I found the teachings in the book so simple and yet so profound that I went to the Institute’s website, found out that their two-month course was starting the following week and immediately signed up.
That says a lot. I have been been a psychotherapist for more than 30 years and have studied many different psycho-spiritual approaches to cultivating healthy relationships and peace of mind. This is one of the best I have ever encountered. And, it seems particularly apropos for our Jewish community at this point in time.
The premise of the book, and all the work from the Arbinger Institute, is very simple: conflict arises when we stigmatize and de-humanize those with whom we disagree; and in every moment, we have a choice whether to have a heart that is at war or at peace. It all depends on the lens through which we are seeing other people. They either count like we do or they don’t. It is our “way of being” or our regard for others that determines whether a relationship will be conflictual or whether negotiations are possible. When our heart is at war toward another, we don’t see their objections as relevant, obscuring the possibility of reconciliation.
The paradigm in “The Anatomy of Peace” is based on Martin Buber’s concept of “I-Thou and I-It.” In every moment we have the choice to see another person as an “I” – a person like ourselves whose feelings and needs matter like ours do, or an “It” – an obstacle to getting what we want, a vehicle to getting what we want, or simply inconsequential.
“The Anatomy of Peace” helps us recognize how we create the conflicts we are trying to rectify when we get caught in “I-It.” It is written as a parable; a composite of true stories that takes place in a program for troubled teens. The parents are required to attend their own program, learning how they can effect change in their children: by recognizing that their view of their child (I-It) and his/her problematic behavior has served to perpetuate the struggle and ensured that the behavior would continue.
How do we know when we’re seeing the other person as an object? “The Anatomy of Peace” suggests that there are four common dynamics, or “boxes,” we get into when we are in an I-It dynamic. I may:
See myself as better than the other person
See myself as worse than the other person
Believe I deserve something from the other person
Believe this person must see me in a certain way.
When we get caught in one of these boxes, we collude in creating the conflicts we were trying to resolve.
This paradigm led me to think about the division in our community over our love of Israel. Many of us not only believe what we believe; we are certain that we are right and the other views are wrong and dangerous. We often cannot have a civil discourse about what is happening in Israel, but instead attack or smear the other person, organization or viewpoint. When we get stuck in our “better than” box, the other is wrong, misinformed and his position is dangerous. Communication is no longer possible. We talk “at” each other instead of “with” each other. This is happening in our government and it is happening right here in our Jewish community.
“The Anatomy of Peace” teaches that if we want to have influence with another, it is crucial to have a heart that is at peace – focusing on our “way of being” and seeing the other person as an “I” like ourselves. When we feel seen and “felt” by another, as the parents in the Parents’ Circle do (the organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost immediate family members at the hands of the other’s group), we can let down our defenses and really listen, understand and be changed. This “way of being” can improve the relationships in our families, our workplaces and within and between nations.
In the most recent edition of The Jewish Voice, Rabbi Jim Rosenberg eloquently writes in response to the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas: “In the long run, a continuing escalation of hostilities means that everybody will be losers” (and that) “ironically, the sanest voices in the recent outburst of violence have come from the bereaved families of the murdered teenagers.”
The family of an Israeli teen and the family of the slain Palestinian teen spoke by phone and comforted each other. They “saw” each other – “I-Thou.” Like the families in the Parents Circle, they were able to relinquish the legacy of “an eye for an eye” because they could see their common pain and humanity.
I wonder how many of us are willing to do the same – to catch ourselves when we get into our habitual patterns of making others wrong or unimportant. I wrote that “The Anatomy of Peace” has helped change my life, but I won’t pretend that this is easy for me or that I’m always successful, But I find it helpful to have the intention and a template. The irony is that, when I relinquish the anger and blame that has been protecting my heart from experiencing the depth of my sorrow, I not only see the other’s humanity, I more deeply experience my own.
I am reminded of a quote from Rabbi Hillel:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
BARBARA L. HOLTZMAN, MSW, LICSW, is a psychotherapist and lifestyle coach in Providence and Wakefield, Rhode Island. She is the author of “Conscious Eating, Conscious Living; A Practical Guide to Making Peace with Food & Your Body.”