The Inuit don’t have the word “quarrel” in their vocabulary. They live in a particularly harsh climate, so no one wants to risk getting pneumonia (or dying) just to prove that they are right.
It isn’t that disagreement does not exist within the Inuit community. However, when compared to the things that really matter, it becomes small and unimportant. Even if it were a significant disagreement, it would still become unimportant under certain conditions such as extreme climate events, or wartime.
I recently read a story, the meaning of which boils down to the words of an admiral to two officers who were arguing: “I don’t know why you’re arguing, but I know the enemy is lurking.” I think this picture represents our fundamental human condition quite well.
Still, before any quarrel or possible disagreement, friendship itself is a profound agreement on a few essential aspects and a coincidence of tastes without which it could find neither the purpose nor the power to exist. Before any possible misunderstanding, there is deep understanding, and a whole network of “implications” and “self-explanations”, like a halo that includes not only what the two say, but what they don’t say, what they want to say and the meaning of the spoken and of the unspoken.
This is also the reason why—although friendship is a vast subject—this article is not about disagreement between fundamentally different people who call themselves friends only by disingenuously extending the meaning of the term ‘friend‘ (especially in the online environment, where sometimes even the term ‘acquaintance’ would be too generous). For now, we will only consider disagreement manifested as a form of love: as love for the other, because you care enough to undertake the discomfort of speaking, and as self-love, because you have the courage to express your opinion when you know it’s well-intended.
A lack of consensus makes sense too
There are many studies that have taken a serious approach to the subject, and the conclusions are very helpful: friendship, as validation and mutual emotional support, stands or collapses depending on how we resolve conflicts when they occur. For dialogue to really take place between two people, it must also address those issues on which there is no consensus; how we resolve a lack of consensus and the tone we use in the discussion will decide whether, in the end, we will have a better and more trusting relationship, or a damaged relationship (or even an extinct relationship).
We could even say that, until it is resolved, the conflict itself is neither good nor bad, but is simple raw material, from which we can draw out either good or evil. Expressing and resolving negative emotions can be healthy in the context of the trust and emotional support that friendships offer (openly and honestly, without words or plates thrown). But let’s not forget that, no matter how necessary a conflict might sometimes be, everyone suffers when it happens.
Patience as a passive form of courage
Before talking about how to manage a conflict when it occurs, it is good to remember that conflict is not the first option we have. Of course, we aren’t talking about resorting to indifference, but about taking an honest and unobtrusive look at the real reasons we feel we have to start a fight. What I mean is that we often disagree because we put our own opinion, or our own taste, above that of another. We forget, especially in the relationships with our loved ones, that no matter how much we have in common and no matter how justified we feel, we are still two different people: each has their own opinions, their own life, and their own destiny to which no one else, no matter how close, is entitled.
Love means committing without imposing yourself, allowing the other person to be and think differently than you, even to the point of making mistakes, not without advising or rebuking them, but also without forcing them. And, of course, without forgetting that we have a duty to correct ourselves before judging others, no matter how close we are. That is why I think, before any dispute, it is good to ponder a little (the most uncomfortable position, as Frédéric Dard called it) and to ask ourselves what if, although we may not like it, the other has the right to be or to behave differently than we would prefer?
A matter of taste
What if the reason for a misunderstanding is just a matter of taste? What if it’s just an imaginary problem? Since they don’t involve angels as protagonists, human relationships are always hit by big or small, real or imaginary conflicts, difficult situations and rhetorical questions, or even categorical decisions. What do we do? Do we move forward even if the meaning of “forward” is different, or do we take a step back? Studies show that, at least in the case of marriage, stepping back is the option chosen in almost half of the cases (for various reasons, some real and heart-breaking, others gracefully swaying between “it doesn’t feel good” and “it’s better elsewhere”). I have taken marriage as an example—as a specific form of friendship—but the conclusion can be extended to friendships in general: not all of them survive all challenges. Not many manage to overcome the great trials and even fewer withstand the daily dullness.
It’s not easy to forgive the other person, whether for the big slip-ups, or for their small, annoying habits, which they endlessly repeat. And it does not seem tolerable for us to forgive, even when we should. Perhaps it is only when confronted with the shortcomings (typical of any relationship between imperfect people) that the only sure, superhuman foundation of the connection between them becomes clearer: unconditional divine love and unconditional divine forgiveness.
The subject of forgiveness is easier to approach in theory than in practice, just as it is easier to urge forgiveness and reconciliation when the wounded heart is not the one which beats in your chest. It is a matter on which we can only lean with the utmost caution, without hasty conclusions and without easy generalizations: it’s not our job to understand or judge the reasons why every wounded person on earth does or does not forgive. The thing is that, in most situations, forgiveness is the best way. However, I don’t want us to forget how difficult it can be.
The fact that forgiveness is so difficult also leads me to think of the confusion (analysed in more detail by C.S. Lewis) that we usually get into about it: to forgive does not mean to make an excuse. In fact, in a sense, the terms are almost antonyms. Forgiveness says, “Yes, you did this, but I forgive you and I don’t care, and between us everything will be exactly as it was before”, and to make an excuse means, “I see it was unintentional and you didn’t mean that, so it’s not your fault”. If something was really not someone’s fault, then there is nothing to forgive; to make an excuse for someone does not imply Christian love, only politeness. Of course, in most cases it is a combination of the two: there are usually some excuses, some “mitigating circumstances”, but also some real guilt. But we are so focused on making excuses when we are wrong and so eager to hear them when the other is wrong that we forget the most important part: forgiveness does not mean hearing the excuses and, if they are good enough, forgiving. It’s more about the choice that is left after there’s no excuse left to invoke.
How to give up the nostalgia of a better past
Not even Jesus told us to forgive the mistakes of others only if they are not terrible or only if there are reasonable excuses. He simply told us to forgive. When the truth remains naked, when we focus on the mistake and see it in all its filth and inexcusable baseness, only then can we speak of forgiveness and, if we have the power to offer it, of complete reconciliation with the person who erred. We receive such forgiveness from God, and we must offer such forgiveness to others. Likewise, we must forgive ourselves so that we can then forgive others.
I will end with this simple thought, which was expressed in the Gospels in the most beautiful way: you must start from yourself to reach another, you must first love and forgive yourself in order to love and then forgive another “as yourself”. The devil (diabolos in Greek, meaning “the one who separates”) urges us in one of two directions: either to find excuses and to justify our mistakes too quickly, without understanding the other’s need for forgiveness and compassion that we usually face by ourselves; or forget to love ourselves as we love our best friend, a friend to whom we would never say, “You are good for nothing!” if they happen to be wrong. Evil—in us and in the other—must be understood and forgiven. And perhaps this alone is the miracle of love: to be able to look, without disappointment, at ourselves and others, and to love ourselves exactly as we are, and then have the courage to become better.