If You Were Stuck In Quicksand…

A couple weeks ago, the basic training for my school began.

I had gone through this training a year before, but this year I volunteered to work.  I wanted to help people grow and get good things out of the experience.  Someone had trained me who I respected for being firm but kind in the midst of other wild and messy training styles— I wanted to pass that on to the next group of incoming people, or candidates.  I hadn’t exactly enjoyed my time in this training, but I had grown through it.

On the first day, when I heard candidates yelling responses to officers, I immediately felt a pit open up in my stomach.  Why am I here?   Why am I a part of something that obviously causes so much distress?  This isn’t me.

I had volunteered for this, so I would do the work.  Everyone else could yell and be mean.  I’d yell, but only so far as it kept them moving, kept them learning, and got them closer to the point where I didn’t have to yell.  As things went on, I began to realize a couple things.  One, they were only yelling because they were doing the best they could.  They weren’t used to it, and when you yell without planning to it sounds like a scream.  Two, they were distressed, yes, but with so many people around showing them where to go, that didn’t matter.  Even if they tried to make the wrong turn, we could point them in the right direction.  We’d point loudly, but we’d still point.

Three, they were learning.  They were learning fast.  It was like drinking from a fire hose— too much knowledge and protocol to digest all at once.  They got what they could, tried again if they messed it up, and learned to tune out the yelling around them and yell louder.

Wouldn’t it be better, you might ask, to just sit them down, calmly explain all of this, and let them figure it out step by step before throwing them into this mayhem?  Why so much conflict?

A couple days into training, I realized something as I was reading a book.  Especially those first few days, I had mistaken conflict for evil.

I didn’t realize that for the first few days.  I thought, wow, if we spent more time doing X, we wouldn’t have to yell at them as much.  Perhaps if we explained more quietly, they’d get it.  Peace and quiet could be effective.

It could be, but that’s where it gets tricky.  When someone teaches something softly, it’s up to the student to decide whether they want to learn it or not.  When someone teaches something loudly and insistently, breaking through the student’s ability to interpret and turning everything into a High Priority Item, it gets through.  They’ll realize later, when they have time to think, that they didn’t need to take it that seriously.  But for the time being, they’ve learned it.  They’ve learned it quickly.

I’m not saying we should scream mathematics at kids.  In this setting, however, we needed to teach lessons quickly and get people to respond in a certain way without even thinking about it.  It seemed a little bit brutal at first.  No one likes to go through it.  But in this case, it was necessary.

Do not mistake conflict for evil.

In a debate, you’re in a conflict of opinions.  We debate to see who’s more persuasive, or who has the right answer.  In physical training, you’re constantly struggling.  If you aren’t struggling, you need to step up your training.  As people mature, they go through hard emotional times— these teach them lessons about themselves and their surroundings which inform their futures.  Conflict is everywhere.  You can’t escape that.

Conflict produces growth.

I love being nice to people.  I love guiding people, rather than pushing them.  But if you’re kind all the time, the other person doesn’t grow.  If you shelter them from everything, they don’t learn.  They take for granted what you provide.  If you aren’t there, they’ll drown.

So being a good person is impossible?  If you’re a good person, you remove conflict and people forget to grow.  That’s what I’m saying, right?

No.  I believe in being a good person.  I believe in taking conflict that is confusing and brutal and ineffective and turning it into something that will help.  I believe in affecting a person in such a way that their mindset changes— if you see a problem as confusing and brutal and ineffective, you won’t grow as much as if you see it as useful and constructive.

Do not mistake conflict for evil.

Let’s wrap up with an example.  You’re in a pit of quicksand and you can’t get out.  You’re slowly sinking, but you see me on the edge of the pit.  A rope lies on top of the quicksand, just out of your reach.  This is conflict.

Scenario #1: I let you sink.  I choose not to be a nice guy in this instance.  (I would never choose that.)  Scenario #2: I pull you out.  I have removed the conflict and wasted an opportunity for you to grow.  Scenario #3: I yell at you to get to the rope and pull yourself out.  You do so and you survive.

Scenario #4: I pull you out, clean you up, help you calm down, and show you the rope that could have saved you.  We figure out together how to avoid stepping in quicksand next time.  We discuss how to float in quicksand.  Then I toss you back in.

Kindness can destroy.  Nullify all conflict and growth will disappear.  In a controlled environment such as a school or a camp, conflict produces growth predictably.  In real life, no one else is controlling the environment.  You, using kindness, positive thinking, and endurance, control your environment and that of those around you.  Problems are possibilities.  Do not mistake conflict for evil.

Note: This post also applies to the question, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”  Think about it.  Is this bad thing actually bad?  Or is your mindset a little backwards and you think it’s bad, even though it’s helping you grow?  Is there evil in the world?  Yes.  Is someone arguing with you an evil thing?  No.  Is something being hard an evil thing?  No.  Stop trying to remove all conflict from your life.  Start redirecting it.

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3 Comments

  1. Wow. That’s something I’d never thought of… Thanks for posting it.

    Reply
  2. Great post, Liam! So much of life is what we make of it, and our attitude is so key to that. The other thing about the whole “why do bad things happen?” is that, yes, bad things happen, but there’s always something good, too. Sometimes, as you’ve pointed out, they may even be the same thing.

    Reply
  3. (This is a comment from my mom. WordPress was giving her problems so I’m posting this with my account. ~Katie)

    At a corporate function, my husband and I had the privilege to hear an astronaut speak about preparing for space flight. He said when you hear Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) calmly say “Houston we have a problem.” in the movie Apollo 13 that it is no accident. He says they intentionally practice the emergencies to remove some of the element of panic during an actual emergency. They expect problems to occur and prepare for that. He said it also makes the appropriate response automatic.
    You are right conflict isn’t evil. It is opportunity. Also, as you have seen, gentler isn’t always kinder.
    Like the meme, when I was a kid, I too thought that quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem than it is. As an adult, I’m happy to report zero quicksand experiences.

    Reply

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