Hug 'o War and Tug of Peace

As kids, my brother and I were not particularly close. Our interests always differed, and when we played games, they usually ended in a fight. I was the academic type; my brother was good with his hands and electronics. My mother felt that my brother chose interests that were my weaknesses to avoid competition with his older sister.   

Therefore, I was surprised to find this image of us among my father's photos after he died. A hug. Perhaps my brother was actually trying to strangle me, but I prefer to see a hug. I don't recall the circumstances. Touched, I copied the photo and framed it, along with Shel Silverstein's poem, Hug o' War, and gave it to my brother as a gift. The poem was written after we grew up, and I wonder if we might have acted differently toward each other if we had heard it as kids.

My father's death was a wake-up call, bringing my brother and me together in ways that we never had been before. Recently, we came together once again to help my mother move into an assisted living home on short notice. This involved helping her through surgery to install a pacemaker, then finding an appropriate home, packing and unpacking her belongings, purchasing some new furniture, organizing her room, selling and giving away items for which she had no space, all the while getting her to doctors and to meals, and being sure she knew her way around her new home. Sadly, illness had left her moving very slowly, not only physically but also mentally. She had trouble making decisions and focusing on simple tasks. We were in the awkward position of making many decisions for her in the interest of accomplishing our task in a reasonable time.

My brother and I relate in different ways with my mother, I learned, and our approach to problem solving is different. My brother acts quickly. If there is a task to be done, such as choosing new furniture, he wants to get the job done as fast as possible and move on. My approach was to take time to include my mother in the decision making process, so she could feel in control of the move and would not object to our choices on her behalf. My brother's approach was faster, but potentially disruptive. My approach was slower, but was more likely to lead to consensus. I realized that when we worked together we were able to find a middle position, so that the move was more successful. Neither of us alone would have had the same success. I slowed my brother enough that my mother was able to have some input, and he pushed me to get the job accomplished in a timely manner. In this circumstance, the synergy between our two approaches was adaptive.

There are circumstances where quick decisions are essential - during battle, or a big game hunt, for example, or during a football game. There are circumstances where it is important to let others take their time and have their say - for example, when you want to encourage creativity in a child. Who are the peacemakers of the world? Recently Public Television aired two excellent biographical programs, one on President Jimmy Carter, the other on Benjamin Franklin. I was struck by their similar styles of peacemaking - both relying on a time consuming process of building trust and connections. Franklin lived in a time when he had years to develop these relationships. As President, Carter had four years, and a public that was impatient for results.

Peacemaking requires a paradigm shift. Consider the difference between the traditional game of Tug of War, and its cooperative counterpart, the Tug of Peace. I learned the Tug of Peace in a 4-H leadership workshop on environmental education, in which small teams worked together to overcome physical hurdles such as getting over a high wall, or across an imaginary river with a log too short to bridge the river's width. Inside, as we prepared for our outdoor teamwork, our leader passed out a rope, and started us with a traditional tug of war. "This is a zero sum game", he reminded us, "in which two teams compete, but only one wins".  After a rousing exertion he asked the winners, and then the losers, how they felt.

Then he led us in a Tug of Peace. Same rope, same group of people who moments before had been rivals. The leader tied the ends of the rope together. We sat in a circle holding the rope in both hands. We were instructed to stand up at the signal, using the rope for balance.  How could we carry out this task? It took just moments, but they were moments of intense concentration and focus on the others around us, on the entire group.  Afterward, our leader asked us again how we felt. We agreed, the feeling is totally different from the Tug of War.

The challenge to leaders is to frame the issues so that the rope is tied at the ends, and both sides must lift it together, even when they are pulling in different directions. 

Got a rope?

back to Parables
A Conflict Resolved With Bananas  


Copyright December 7, 2002, Karen Strickler.  All rights reserved.