A few days after I sliced my finger chopping vegetables, I noticed some tenderness in my ring finger. Since the original injury needed constant cleaning and bandaging, I didn’t pay much attention to the other finger. However as the one finger healed, the other reddened and became more painful. Upon close examination, I noticed a tiny spot that looked suspiciously like a splinter. I urged my husband, John, to prod the supposed splinter free with a sterilized needle. After much wincing and bravery on my part, John deemed that there was no splinter and dispensed his usual advice, “keep it clean, use Neosporin, and bandage it.” Despite his confident bedside manner, I doubted his diagnosis. Yet I dutifully followed his advice for several days. Unfortunately, the finger continued to redden, and became slightly swollen as well as painful. As I often do, I leapt to the dire conclusion that I now had a wicked staph infection that would ultimately require hospitalization and probable amputation. So alone in my kitchen, I decided to take matters into my own hands literally. Still convinced I had a splinter; I pushed and prodded the tender tip until miraculously the offending splinter rose up on its’ own. Its emergence felt as if I was watching a time-lapse video. Happily, John walked in the door just in time to grab the tweezers and pull the tiny intruder the rest of the way out. Not only did I feel vindicated by having my original diagnosis confirmed, I was amazed that such a small thing could cause such worry and pain.
As I soaked by finger in peroxide and watched the bubbles froth where the splinter had resided, I marveled at how our bodies fight such intruders. Unbeknownst to me there was quite a battle going in my finger. All that redness and pain alerted me to the work my white blood cells had started days beforehand. I was filled with wonder and a renewed appreciation for the work our bodies do to maintain the status quo… our health.
I was reminded of this inner duel when I read Courtney Martin’s essay, “The Lie Polite Culture Tells Us About Conflict.” Martin wrote of the hurts and disagreements we sometimes have with friends, colleagues, and family members. Often we gloss over these feelings with polite dismissal and an unwillingness to have tough conversations. Perhaps we turn away from conflict fearing disagreement, because we believe that “human relationships are more fragile than they actually are, that humans themselves are more breakable than is, in fact, true.” As I read this, I couldn’t help but think that these hurts and unresolved conflicts fester within us just as that tiny splinter did in my finger. Our spirits become infected, and we long to return to health but fear the means of getting there.
I know I have avoided such conversations with close friends and family members…especially during this past election season. I dance around the “hot” topics and stick to the safe ones…family, work, and the weather. I wonder if I avoid our points of disagreement because I fear the relationship will not survive. However upon further examination, I believe my fear lays closer to home. I fear not being able to thoughtfully and calmly express my opinions. I worry that my emotions will override reason…leaving me in a puddle of tears or worse vitriol. It is a loss of control that I dread more than any perceived conflict.
As I drove home late one night, I listened to a program on my local public radio station, Indivisible. Indivisible is a call-in radio show and podcast. It offers a platform for people to share their thoughts on the first 100 days of the Trump administration. The topics have included healthcare, immigration, Russia, trade, and the role of media. Clearly, the goal of the program is to get callers talking and listening to those who might have a different point of view. Indivisible is also partnering with Story Corp by offering a venue for listeners to start their own difficult conversations with people they know. That evening, the show replayed a Story Corp interview that was originally aired before the election. It was a touching conversation between a daughter and her father who had very different political views. It reminded me of the challenges I have talking with my own father. Hearing it again, I recalled Courtney Martin’s encouraging words, “The relationships I admire the most are not steady or nice; they are genuine, imperfect, held together by unconditional love and emotional courage and a belief in the possibility of endless renewal.” Her words are a timely reminder to be brave, grab the tweezers, and pull out our offending splinters. It surely won’t be neat, tidy, or polite, but if we speak to each other with respect and the goal of understanding, our nation and we ourselves might begin to heal just as my finger did.