Growing up as a child overdosed on Enid Blyton fiction, my greatest wish was to get kidnapped. In hindsight, heroically rescuing someone who got kidnapped would have been a better option, but hey, kids are weird! I guess what I really wanted was an action-filled challenge to spruce up the holidays, so I would have an exciting story to tell my friends at school. As I grew up, the obsession with getting kidnapped abated, but the craving for adventure never did. The quest for a good story never ended.
The stories we’ve all heard and loved are those of love and revenge, fear and valour, greed and fulfilment. A common thread that ties these together is conflict. A wiki search defines conflict in narratives as ‘the challenge main characters need to solve to achieve their goals’. If not for internal conflict, Tom Sawyer would do as told and paint the fence. Without a clash of ideology between the North and the South of the United States, Scarlett O’Hara would live happily ever after at Tara without knowing Rhett Butler even existed.
Victoria Roth said, “If there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading.” I would nod vehemently in agreement. In fact, I would go a step further and say, “If there’s no conflict, there is no life worth living – or dying for”. Give me a chance to elaborate. How do conflicts affect us at various levels – individual, societal, national and from a macroevolutionary perspective?
Conflict is the life-blood of an individual. A child needs to be conflicted while taking lessons at school. If not, the teacher ought to actively encourage conflict in her class. It signals the child’s ability to grasp, question, debate and digest things, thus realizing the full potential of learning. This child is likely to grow into an adult displaying the same traits, able to live life on their own terms. Let’s get inside an average person’s head. “I doubt if I am taking the right course, it’s so damn boring”, “We have been going out for two years. Should I propose to her? But I am really attracted to this other girl”, “This job is taking a toll on me. I must find a stressbuster”. Without these conflicts within us, would we really have the courage to drop out of college to work on that start-up idea, get out of the unfulfilling relationship or pursue that life-altering hobby? How would we then become great from good, and good from mediocre?
Existential angst is all well and good, but what about those conflicts that afflict the society as a whole? Last year, we saw the worst flood in almost a century in the tiny state of Kerala in India, where I live. Lives and livelihoods were washed away in the fury of heavy rains. But while it was happening, we saw small miracles erupting everywhere. Hundreds of fishermen worked tirelessly beside our armed forces on rescue operations. Homemakers cooked day and night to feed the stomachs and souls of millions lodged in relief camps. After the waters receded, we saw a slew of positive changes in terms of environmental regulations and sustainable development. A narrative on Kerala would have marked out the 2018 floods as the worst conflict in our history, but we emerged stronger than ever in the end. A conflict that grips our society is a test of our collective strength. The world is watching. Let’s put on a fine show by turning it into an opportunity for learning and progress.
The most-evoked connotation of the word ‘conflict’ is in the context of war. Countries usually go to war to gain independence, or to reclaim their land or ideology. Such large-scale conflicts have forged the identities of entire nations and their heroes. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi embraced seminal conflict-resolution techniques – those of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) to free India from colonial rule. If not for India’s fight for freedom, Gandhi may have continued as a lawyer in South Africa and would have never been credited as the ‘father of the nation’ by his fellow countrymen. The way a nation responds to conflict is directly related to the respect it commands from the world at large.
A healthy democracy thrives on conflict. The collective mandate of the citizens decides who gets to rule and who gets to sit in the opposition. But the story doesn’t end there. The existence of continuous conflict keeps the government’s actions and decisions in check. When healthy dissent leads to social reforms, it paves the way for a generation rich in vitality and strength. Just as conflict fuels a true democracy, the reverse is also true. Nations grow and prosper when they nurture and resolve conflict, not when they suppress it. It’s imperative for governments to acknowledge that they are ruling over living, breathing entities and not machines that are programmed to think and act a certain way. If not, there’s always the next election.
Let’s now go back in time and visit the theories of human evolution. Human beings started out by using stone tools and then fashioned these into weapons for hunting and foraging, when faced with competition for food. When stressed with the need to communicate and socialize, we invented language and organized ourselves into communities with unique cultures. The agricultural revolution stemmed from a need to settle down in one place, making it possible to cultivate plants. What millions of years of evolution have shown us is the constant need to transform ourselves, just so that we can survive. This survival instinct prods us on even now, leading to the most ingenious inventions. It’s interesting to imagine what would have happened if our ancestors had failed to overcome the conflicts they were faced with, or worse still, if they had been content with the status quo. Rest assured, I wouldn’t be writing this article!
Should we then actively seek conflict? Absolutely! It’s when we stop identifying conflict that we stop being meaningful.
Each of our lives tell a story. When we constantly challenge who we are, our stories get more exciting. We may discover new plot lines and more interesting character arcs. When we face our battles head on, we become true heroes. Who knows, the climax may be rewritten in a way that we never thought possible!
Conflict isn’t a bad word – seek it, face it and learn from it. Let’s create not just great stories, but legends. Meanwhile, future generations are preparing to tell our story and immortalize it in the annals of history. Let’s make it worth their while.