All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all… Ecclesiastes 9:1-2
A typical western way to handle a problem is to face it head-on. Identify where the issue is and tackle it. Find out who is at fault and confront them. Discover the failing part and replace it. Seek out the weakest link and get rid of it. We are instructed to have courage in facing problems, and courage is born of and manifests in action. The proactive Golden Rule of the day is to do unto others before they do unto you – or so it sometimes seems.
Certainly, there are times when it is best to confront an issue directly and immediately – when a young child is running toward a busy intersection, for example. There are other times – arguably, the majority of the time – when a problem is not nearly as urgent as our emotions make us believe. Sometimes, a direct confrontation does more harm than good. Confrontation usually results in defensiveness, and when one or more people become defensive, effective problem solving becomes harder. For males, in particular, face-to-face confrontations are especially threatening. One technique to help minimize the threat is to initiate the discussion while driving in a car, for example, when both persons are facing forward and not at each other.
In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer discusses utilizing third things as a way to arrive at difficult truths. He writes, “If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached ‘on the slant.’ Soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly.” While Palmer is writing primarily about drawing out truth internally, the principle is equally true in interpersonal interaction. Sometimes we are better off to seek our peace with another on the slant, or indirectly.
Utilizing third things in potentially emotionally charged situations is a strategic way to utilize a neutral thing or environment to help arrive at a mutually beneficial solution. Most of us learn best when we discover truth on our own, as opposed to being told. By using third things, you and I may both find our own truths, although my truth may manifest differently than yours, even when it reveals itself from the same source. None of us has the right to name another person’s truth; but none of us who loves another will deprive them of finding their truth in ways most effective for them.
The use of power and authority is common in confrontation, but these are not necessarily the most effective tools to influence another, particularly when the desire is for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. Gentler and less threatening ways to handle difficult issues are often found in third things – deflecting attention or blame away from individuals and creating an environment where creative solutions can arise. If, as the writer of Ecclesiastes hints, everything we confront is vanity, then how we handle our confrontations is of equal or greater importance than the actual solutions we generate.
Come home to church this Sunday. You may find God in the third things of worship.