Publisher: Herald Press
Publishing Date: August 17, 2021
Since the events of Genesis 3, humanity has been pitted against one another. We see this play out in the story of Cain and Abel, among children on the playground, between churchgoers sitting in pews, and in the midst of cubicles and office desks. Conflict is no foreign feeling or experience to anyone. Even though conflict has been an everyday experience for many since entering the world, the preferred tendency regarding conflict is to avoid it. We do not know how to engage with conflict, whether it be participating in healthy disagreement or finding a way to transform conflict altogether.
In The Space Between Us, Betty Pries hopes to change our tendency of avoiding conflict and instead lead us to a place where we can experience deep joy in the world. Whereas conflict often feels like a curse, Pries wonders if conflict can also be a gift to us; an opportunity to understand ourselves better, discover empathy for others, and build deeper and more meaningful relationships. In moments of conflict, Pries encourages readers not to find the faults in the other person or jump to “fixing” the situation, but rather, calls us to look inward to our own hearts. Ultimately, Pries provides readers with the gift of reframing conflict and our relationship to it.
“We do not know how to engage with conflict, whether it be participating in healthy disagreement or finding a way to transform conflict altogether.”
Pries begins the book by defining “differences” as a neutral term that describes the reality that people do and will see things differently from one another.1 As we are in relationship with one another in the world, differences can express themselves as disagreement, conflict, and entrenchment. Pries names disagreement as healthy; it is the way in which we express and explore differences freely without making them personal. When disagreement turns into conflict, it means that the differences have become personal. And finally, entrenchment is getting to the place where the differences feel “cemented in place.”2 How does this happen? How do our differences so often transform from disagreement to conflict to entrenchment? Pries identifies our selfhood as the main driver of the transition. Selfhood at risk leads to defensiveness, a racing heart, quick speech, making the conflict personal, and seeing the person as the problem. In order to disagree well and transform conflict, Pries says “we must remember that our personhood is not at risk.”3
“…(disagreement) is the way in which we express and explore differences freely without making them personal.“
To explore the idea of personhood and its relationship to conflict, Pries offers a three-layered understanding of selfhood. The first layer is the descriptive self which is composed of our characteristics, strengths, limitations, and life story.4 Pries is clear to state that our descriptive self is neither good nor bad; it just is. The second layer of our personhood is the defended self. The defended self is like a shield around our descriptive self; the layer we develop to hide our vulnerability, shame, and insecurities. Unfortunately, the defended self is the most common self we operate out of in the world and in our relationships. When conflict occurs and our selfhood becomes at risk, it is the defended self that takes over. The final layer is our deeper self. Pries describes this self as “the place of one’s heart…the house of the sacred that lives in each person…the birthplace of all goodness, generosity, and grace.”5 It is the self that names us as beloved and is beating inside our hearts and the hearts of those with whom we are in conflict. When we operate out of this deeper self, we are not defined by our characteristics or vulnerabilities and have no need to act out of our defended self.
As we become more in tune with our true self and with the truth that we are beloved, we can transform our relationship with conflict. First, we can remember that we have much in common with those with whom we are in conflict; we share a oneness as common as the same breath that runs through our body runs through theirs. Further, in order to transform conflict, we must root the center of our identity in the proper location; in our true self. If we root our identity in our defended or descriptive self, the point of our pain and the center of our selfhood is at the same location. If we want to see outward transformation in conflict, we must first salt and transform from the inside. We must remove the layers of our defended self and follow the guidance of Jesus who shows us how to hold our descriptive and true self together.
“If we want to see outward transformation in conflict, we must first salt and transform from the inside.”
Pries concludes the book by exploring practical skills and spiritual disciplines for transforming conflict that flow out of the need to salt from the inside. Some of those skills include practicing unconditional positive regard and forgiveness, praying, meditating, and adopting mantras. Pries believes that there is a path available for working through conflict. The path requires removing our outer layers and becoming one with our inner and truest identity as beloved children of God. When we operate out of this self, we are given the eyes of compassion and clarity to make space for ourselves and the other. When we operate out of this secure and true self, we are able to be curious about another person’s actions and wonder why they acted in the way that they did. Maybe their intention and action were not meant to be personally aimed at me. Maybe they are going through hidden pain and I happened to be the person it came out on. Maybe they are acting out of their defended self like I often do.
The Space Between Us reminds readers that everything we do flows out of who we are. All relationships, every conversation, each decision, and any response is rooted either in our defended self or in our deeper self. Therefore, Pries book only strengthens the argument that the inner work of our souls matters. Practicing prayer, meditation, and having an encounter with God at the core of our deepest and truest selves changes everything. Coming to regard ourselves as beloved transforms the way we engage with conflict. As we practice fidelity and commitment to this love, we reflect the image and likeness of God to those we interact with and are able to see the image of God in every person we encounter.