02/27/2015 01:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Conflict Isn't 'Crazy'


From the beginning of time, humankind has been faced with conflict. The story of Adam and Eve embodies one of the oldest struggles: between good and evil, or an alternate interpretation between innocence and knowledge.

Fortunately some choices don't create conflict. The child who chooses between red and blue overalls knows that his favorite color is red. (No one has yet derailed his sense of agency or will.)

Experiencing conflict, although confusing, can actually be a sign of mental health. Conversely, the fear of exploring options can be hampering. Mr. A., for example, was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father, who hit him for reasons he couldn't understand. As a result, Mr. A. was fearful of making the "wrong" choice that would result in punishment. Therefore, he tried to squelch conflicts. This theme played out in his life, preventing him from speaking up for himself, and creating anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms. Recognizing the source of his fear helped him resolve the issue.

Conflicts don't always just arise from personal experience: culture as a whole can create them. As Samuel Huntington asserted in his 1992 Clash of Civilizations, the primary source of global conflict now lies in cultural and religious identities, which can have very personal ramifications.

Ms. D., for instance, experiences the results of this conflict. Raised from birth in the U.S. by parents from a Balkan country who expect her to agree to an arranged marriage, she is torn between choosing smooth relationships with her family or American customs. A conflict of this nature can take years to resolve.

Our psyches can delude us when we equate certainty with stability. The classic poem, "Richard Cory" by the poet Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) graphically portrays a person who appears to have his life together but suffers unbearable turmoil.

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich -- yes, richer than a king --
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread.
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Conclusion: Conflict is inherent in the human condition and is more likely to cause problems when we fail to acknowledge, rather than face, it.