By Kevin Wiebe
Most of us don’t think of peacemaking as an endeavour we would call “fun.” It is hard, messy and difficult work. There is, however, a strategic element of peacemaking that includes an intentional focus on shared recreational activities.
I once watched a video interview of the marriage expert Willard Harley. He described how in marriage, when we live through many negative experiences with our spouse with few positive ones, part of our brain will eventually come to identify our spouse as a danger. Our fight-or-flight response can be activated simply by this person walking into the room or the mention of their name, without a new negative experience. While we might expect this in abusive situations, it can also happen over the course of time with more ordinary kinds of conflict and negative experiences. (Please note that this advice is not about dealing with abuse but more ordinary conflict).
At this point, while it might seem like the end of a marriage, Harley went on to explain how we can retrain our brains by spending time together and creating positive experiences with one another. When conflict reaches the point of instinctive fight-or-flight responses, meaningful and vulnerable conversation becomes nearly impossible.
So, as the advice goes, the solution is to have fun together. At first it will feel awkward. It may feel like it isn’t genuine because you are intentionally setting aside the difficult conversation that eventually needs to happen. This, however, is not disingenuous. It is, in fact, generosity in action. By learning to focus on the positive parts of your spouse, you build trust in your relationship, and foster positive affection for one another. The difficult conversations are best had in the context of a relationship where there is some level of mutual trust, and spending time having fun helps to develop that kind of relationship.
This same process is also needed at times in whole communities. Through conflicts or times of trial we can begin to see one another as enemies. Over the course of time our fight-or-flight responses may be activated by the presence of those we disagree with, even those we once thought of as close friends.
I have watched this play out not only in marriages, but in communities in conflict, and have watched as a focus on non-confrontational recreational activities, while awkward at first, eventually built trust between hurting people and led to reconciliation and healing. This process has also happened on the scale of nations in turmoil. Think of the role of soccer (football) in South Africa, and how a shared love of the sport facilitated positive experiences and camaraderie between folks who would have called themselves enemies.
I believe sometimes the most spiritual thing we could do in times of conflict is learn to have fun together again. As we take a step back and intentionally do something with those we are in conflict with, we can retrain our brains and learn to see them once more as people made in the image of God.