Our Relationship to Conflict: Lessons from The Pacific

conflict, boundaries, empathy, understanding, anger, aggression

I recently watched The Pacific. For those who are unaware of HBO’s 10-part series, it is an excellent and realistic depiction of the Pacific theater of World War II. The series follows the lives of three Marines who are subjected to some of the worst experiences anyone could ever have. Watching the men struggle with combat and their own nature really got me thinking about the different ways people respond to conflict. One of the Marines, Robert Leckie, faces two very different psychological conflicts simultaneously: rejection by a woman he loves and sustained engagement with the Japanese enemy during the battle of New Britain.

Leckie reacts to the two kinds of conflict quite differently. When he experiences the emotional conflict of romantic frustration, he lashes out at a superior officer and finds himself locked up for the night. Similarly, when treated unfairly by another superior officer, he responds with hostility (via insults and stealth) and suffers the consequences of manual labor. However, when confronted by the conflict, boundaries, aggression, angerphysical conflict of battle, Leckie gives another kind of response. Instead of becoming aggressive, he is diagnosed with nocturnal enuresis (involuntary nighttime urination) and physically withdraws. He doesn’t respond to his fellow soldiers nor does he move from his cot until transferred to a hospital. Once in the hospital, Leckie continues his withdrawal until he overcomes his crisis of faith and decides that what he truly wants is to be with his buddies. Only then can he return to war.

As I was watching Leckie’s story unfold, it occurred to me that he was a perfect example of two of the most common reactions to conflict. Like Leckie, I’ve certainly had moments when, in my frustration over an unfair situation, I tried to make someone else “pay” for my pain usually by yelling. I’ve watched other people become belligerent, yell, drive aggressively, get into fights, vandalize property, or even use legal action. This kind of reaction to conflict is why I haven’t been surprised (disappointed is another story) when people make death threats or write disparaging comments in what masquerades as public discourse. While I don’t condone such actions, I understand that they are an attempt to deal with the conflict of emotional chaos.

As Leckie’s story demonstrates, the opposite reaction to conflict is just as damaging. When he found himself in a situation in which he felt completely powerless to change anything, he turned his anger inward. Once he believed that nothing he did mattered, he emotionally withdrew and physically shut down. In war, this kind of behavior is called battle fatigue. The rest of us call it depression. I was once in a work situation in which it felt like there was unrelenting barrage of negativity directed straight at me and nothing I did would change that. As a result, I became somewhat depressed. I see this happen a lot to other people as well, especially when they feel like there is no place they can turn for even the tiniest bit of affection or positive interaction. I’m willing to bet that all of us, at least to some extent, have experienced this feeling.

One of the best things I’ve learned during my training in counseling psychology is that there are healthier reactions to conflict. One such reaction is to gain understanding and empathy for the other person or situation. The Pacific gave a great example of this when Leckie finds a picture of a Japanese soldier’s family. The discovery seemed to enhance his understanding and empathy for an enemy who previously seemed incredibly alien. This understanding allowed Leckie later to avoid some of the excessive cruelty displayed by his fellow soldiers because he was not as angry. Although it is difficult, trying to gain empathy when I feel frustrated or rejected is something I try to do on a regular basis. When I can believe that the person who cut me off in traffic is rushing to pick up their kids or if I can see my rude coworker as someone who is extremely lonely, it helps lessen my angry reaction.

However, as helpful as understanding and empathy can be, in situations in which we have little control – like in battle – it just isn’t enough. In these circumstances, the best reaction to conflict is to draw boundaries. Simply put, boundaries are the emotional and physical space that we place between ourselves and others; they determine how we act toward others and how we allow them to treat us. People who have overly rigid boundaries do not allow anyone in and they don’t show much emotion toward others. This was where Leckie was before he went into the hospital. He didn’t allow anyone to comfort him nor did he help others. On the opposite end are people with boundaries that are too weak. These are the folks who always do what they believe others expect of them and rarely get their needs met.

Although it may sound easy, developing healthy boundaries is tough! They require flexibility and a balance between getting our needs met and tending to the desires of others. Healthy boundaries also require the knowledge and subsequent acceptance of the idea that the only thing in life we can truly control is ourselves: our feelings, our thoughts and our behavior.

As such, even in circumstances where we don’t have much influence over what is happening, we have some measure of control. This is what Leckie finally concludes. While in the mental hospital, he discovers that he can choose to return to his friends and be who he was or he can stay in the hospital and lose who he is. In deciding to return to himself, Leckie realizes that he could get killed but that having a little bit of control was worth the risk.

Although my decisions are not usually about life or death matters, I too try to decide who I will be and resist allowing others to dictate my choices.

For example, even though a lot of people do not seem to appreciate courtesy (there are a lot of lost thank yous out there!), I still try to be polite because that is how I want to be. In the end, boundaries are never easy – many times they require hard decisions about what kind of treatment we will accept from others and from ourselves – but just as Leckie found, they allow us to determine our own fate and that is worth the effort.

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