Resolving Conflict in the Desert (Part 4)

Can you imagine shaking someone’s hand as a normal gesture that expresses human connection and commitment, yet in doing so making no eye contact? Shaking hands and avoiding eye contact simply do not go together. To not see the other person in the act of symbolic touch essentially nullifies the sincerity implicit in the handshake. And now imagine that you represent a community of people and have just finalized a formal treaty between your group and another group. How would you feel if the other group’s representative failed to look you in the eye while you both sealed the deal with a handshake? What would happen to your level of trust?

This illustrates the power of people needing to be together in a face-to-face setting in order for a conflict resolution process to reach good closure and genuine peace. In the last post we learned how Abimelech initiated a journey to meet Isaac at Isaac’s new settlement in Beersheba. We also considered how Isaac’s earlier high-road response to the water-wars may have engendered Abimelech’s higher-road response. No more indirect communication; no more fight or flight. The two leaders were now face-to-face for direct dialogue, and out of it came feasting and oath-making. The main point to be made here is that such peacemaking cannot be done remotely nor can time alone resolve the root issues. Even in our modern times where communication technologies allow people to connect by phone, email and screen-space, there is still the human need to be physically present with the other party in order for true trust to be regained, thus allowing for mutual solutions that ensure better futures.


There is a mystery that happens when parties in conflict come together in close proximity. When the negative emotional charges are strong and both sides come near to each other, there can easily be an ‘arcing’ of charged energy, resulting in a sudden shock. As kids we all experienced the phenomena of rubbing our feet on carpet and discharging our excess electricity onto a nearby victim. We knew too that the trick of releasing a spark was to not fully touch, but rather to almost touch the other. The goal of good mediation and facilitation is to allow excess emotional charge to be released in ways that do not harm others, and reach a point where the charge is neutralized through the sharing of stories and needs. Indeed such sharing (that is, verbal sharing) leads to a profound sharing (that is, sharing as joint possession) of past pain and present problems. Out of such double-sharing comes the elimination of old patterns and the introduction of new possibilities.

When Third Way resolution processes happen well, the close space between both sides is itself transformed into a new zone of positive give-and-take. In contrast to degenerative spirals of conflict intensification, this space is now marked by an upward regenerative spiral where the trust and openness of each side promotes more of the same for the other side. This is conflict de-tensification. Again, the feasting in the Isaac-Abimelech story shows how their initial encounter crescendos very well, even after a bit of initial spark when Isaac says, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?” That, at least, is Isaac’s ruminating narrative that sums up all that happened, but apparently the ‘hostility’ he experienced is not a present reality for Abimelech. In a profound way, the face-to-face meeting allows for the discharge of Isaac’s own inner excess of negative emotions. A new equity is established between both sides, and a relationship is restored.

And if that was not enough to give a good ending to the story, we read that on the very day of the oath-making, Isaac’s servants returned from their work and told him that they dug a successful well, exclaiming, “We found water!” Isaac immediately contemplates the proper name for this well and calls it Shibah, which in Hebrew can mean either Oath or Seven. The Hebrew word for spring or well is ‘beer’, and hence we have Beersheba. Genesis often has parallel passages on the same narrative, and in this case the Isaac’s story is an echo of Abraham’s encounter with Abimelech (Gen. 21). They too formed a treaty of peaceful co-existence. In that context Abraham complained about a well that Abimelech’s men had taken over, and to settle the matter, Abraham gave the Philistine king seven ewe lambs as a witness that the well was Abraham’s to use. This too was the well of Beersheba — the well of the Oath and the Seven.

BirshebaReaching an oath, an agreement, a treaty, a settlement, whatever it may be called, is itself a type of completion, a reaching of wholeness and balance, a resting point, a perfect, number-seven ending for a protracted conflict. In some respects, this is a picture of relational forgiveness: old rubs and past wrong-doings no longer determine the dynamics between two parties. One reason that forgiveness is something larger than settlement is because real resolution always involves real relationships. And real relationships involve feelings and require trust and commitment if people are to continue to live well with each other. That is why face-to-face encounters and heart-to-heart dialogue are indispensable to discharge the lingering (and often exaggerated) emotions that limit the quality of life. And that is why the hand-shake is an apt symbol in our culture for the best of what conflict resolution offers to people.

(End of the series)


Contacting Ted Lewis

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