Three Ways of Relating
Timothy Wilken, MD
When we examine the relationship between self and other, we discover that we can choose actions that result in our being worse off, actions that result in our being unchanged, or actions that result in our being better off. We can choose to hurt each other, we can choose to ignore each other, or we can choose to help each other.
It was as a child on the school playgrounds of rural America in the 1950’s that I first learned of these three choices first hand. My twin brother and I were seven years old when our Dad was transferred to a new job and our family moved to the small community of Palco, Kansas. We arrived there after the start of the school year, and soon found ourselves threatened by the established group of boys at our new school. For reasons unclear to me then, conflict seemed almost constant, and real knock down battles occurred all too frequently.
One of my strongest childhood memories is of fear and running. A pack of boys are chasing me and my brother. If they catch us, they will beat us up. I am very tired. We have been running for nearly thirty minutes. My heart is pounding so hard I can hear little else. Perspiration fills my eyes making it difficult to see. A hundred yards ahead my twin brother is running easier. He is taller and a great runner. The pack cannot catch him. But, they are getting closer to me. Recess is almost over now, if we can just hold out until the bell rings, we will escape back into the safety of the classroom. But our escape will be short-lived.
I remember dreading every recess – every lunch hour.
Just like in boxing, at the sound of the bell we would all come out fighting. At every recess, the war would resume.
While my brother could often run all noon hour without getting caught, I was smaller and slower with options more limited. Sooner or later the confrontation came, and with it would come the hurt:
a bloody nose,
a torn shirt,
a pair of broken glasses,
detention after school,
and the risk of a whipping when you got home for fighting at school.
To my seven year old mind, conflict seemed really stupid. Both sides got hurt. I tried to give as good as I got. Hurt and be hurt. I realized in that first year at the new school that there were no real winners in conflict. Even, when you “won” somehow you lost. It didn’t make any sense to me. I resolved to learn how not to fight.
By learning how not to fight, I did not mean giving in. In submission, the threatened party does what the threatener demands so the threatener will not hurt him. A bandit may say “Your money or your life,” the victim gives the bandit his money, and the bandit goes off with it, leaving the victim with his life.(1) This is an ultimatum – lose a little or lose a lot, but you will lose.
As a child, I recognized submission as a clear option. Some of the boys in the pack avoided getting hurt by giving in. But this is not what I had in mind when I sought to learn how not to fight. To me submission was worse than getting a beaten. I had always run my own life and I wanted things to continue that way. At my last school I had many friends. My brother and I began our education in a one room school shared by children ages 5 though 13. There the children were more like family. Conflict was unusual and little part of our daily life. We were friends and it seemed we had always been friends.
This way of being friends seemed to me the best way to relate.
I knew I wanted to turn the enemies in my new school into real friends, like I had enjoyed at my old school. But this could not involve giving in. I began my campaign very simply. I knew I liked friendly people. So, I started by just being friendly to my enemies.
I was friendly not submissive. I still did what I wanted. If that happened to be what others wanted that was fine, and I went along. If I didn’t, I went my own way. But either way I was friendly, and I never tried to impose my way on others. The boys came to realize that while they could beat me up, they could not make me give in. And, since I vigorously resisted being beaten, my attackers could usually count on a few bruises and pains for their trouble.
My strategy of non-submissive friendliness worked to some degree. Conflict was less and my share of battles decreased dramatically. I found myself being more and more left alone.
They ignored me, preferring to focus their efforts elsewhere, but they were not my friends. I had managed to step outside the world of conflict. I was neither predator nor prey. I was in a different place.
The other boys no longer sought to hurt me. They simply ignored me. We had shifted from an adversary relationship to a neutral relationship.
However, I was not where I wanted to be. Clearly, if I wanted these boys to become my friends, something more would be necessary.
I had no idea what that more might be. The search for an alternative would dominate and shape my life far beyond any other concern.
Many years later as a physician and scientist, I would encounter the work of Edward Haskell. His relationship science would help me understand the phenomena, I had first encountered on the rural playgrounds of Kansas.
Relationships can hurt, ignore, or help
Edward Haskell (2) discovered that when any two individuals relate the result of their interaction may be negative, neutral or positive. Returning to the use of common gaming language, when two individuals relate they can lose, draw, or win. In all relationships, individuals experience one of the following qualitative states:
1) They can lose. They are hurt by the experience. They are less after the experience than before.
2) They can draw. They are ignored by the experience. They will be the same after the experience as before.
3) They can win. They are helped by the experience. They are more after the experience than before.
From the point of view of the individual joining in relationship, I can be hurt, I can be ignored, or I can be helped by the relationship.
Relationships that hurt are adversary. Relationships that ignore are neutral. Relationships that help are synergic.
1 Kenneth Boulding, Ecodynamics, Sage, Beverly Hills, 1978
2 Edward Haskell, FULL CIRCLE: The Moral Force of Unified Science, Gordon and Breach, New York, 1972
UnCommon Sense Library
The Present — Crisis: Danger & Opportunity
The Future — A Synergic Future
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