I wonder what my life story would be if it were told only by those who do not particularly like me. Those whom I have somehow hurt, or ignored, or to whom I have been otherwise disagreeable. I’m sure the story would be different than the story I tell, the one I like to think accurately (and magnanimously) reflects my life’s actions and attitudes. What an awful fate, if God were to leave the official account of our lives in the hands of those we have hurt and with whom we have not been reconciled.
At various times in the past I’ve been asked to step into an interpersonal or corporate conflict to help sort it out. It always intrigues me how the story I hear beforehand – often the “party line” or the account of the dominant figure – is so different than what I hear later from those who, for whatever reason, have not yet had their voices heard. History is written – often re-written – by the winners, the ones who, when the dust has settled, hold the positions of authority and power. There are as many tellings of a history as there are people involved, but the versions of the disenfranchised are quickly edited out of the official account. A good historian finds ways to hear the untold stories, the perspective of those who lost power in the conflict.
Just so with our personal histories: we cast aspersions on our antagonist’s account of our actions, and yet we know deep down that their experience too contributes to the sum of our history.
I remember a night in Mexico City, at the age of 10 or so, when my brothers and I were tucked up in bunk-beds at some sort of guesthouse. My father came in, switched on the light, woke us up, and sat down on the edge of one of the beds, looking sad and weak. “Boys,” he said, “I just want to say I’m sorry for the way I treated you this afternoon. It wasn’t right, and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” Honestly, to this day I cannot remember anything at all about the offense for which he felt so badly. But the memory of the act of apology, of the humility and vulnerability on the part of the most important leader in my life to that point, that has been indelibly etched in my memory. The person with power lowered himself to share the experience of the powerless and re-wrote his story from their point of view.
Conflicts in human relationships are a given, even for those of us who bear the name of Christ. The New Testament, full of shocking holy saints with resurrection power and Holy Spirit wisdom, is also full of conflict between those very same individuals and their respective groupies. Conflicts that have a spiritual tint are doubly complicated because everyone involved lays claim to God’s opinion on the matter. One must take care when shooting holes in a motive that has God’s Name attached to it. Give me a conflict at a multinational corporation any day, where all one has to deal with is human power and ego! Knock heads together, fire some people, and off you go; business is business.
I return to my father’s example. Good leadership is that which stoops to the level of the weakest, the least, the lost, to hear their stories. It is a recognition that our stories are intertwined; my story is not complete if it doesn’t include your telling, even if your version is painful for me to hear.