My eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness as I rigged my rod. I could see well enough to tie my knots. Looking across the fields, the white sides of the barn contrasted against the dark sky and darkness of the trees along the riverbank. I could hear the river falling over the rocks as it pushed against the valley wall near the road. As I tied my laces, I began to visualize how I would approach the stream and where I would set up to cast. My excitement built, and I couldn’t wait to see the water. Fishing is a safe place for me. My mind settles. My emotions are pure, and I feel like a kid.
Watching the debates, the past few weeks, watching the news and the election theatrics, in general, I have seen our country still in conflict. The lack of civility, empathy, and understanding is alarming. Constant interruptions, dirty looks, and sharp insulting words do not create safe spaces. They do not build things – they only tear them down.
I think of conflicts in my own life. Arguments or disagreements with my wife, children, friends, and coworkers are also unsafe spaces for me. William James stated, “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” Keeping my attitude and my mindset healthy is of the great benefits I feel I gain from fly fishing.
The moments of disagreement and conflict in my life are incredibly stressful. When I am in conflict in a personal or emotional matter, particularly with my wife or children, my body becomes slow and stiff and my chest feels like I am struggling to push a heavy weight. I can speak in front of hundreds of people at conferences and lead large meetings, but in emotional stress, I can’t find the words to connect any feelings and thoughts to communicate. I get caught with my mind trying to take over and rationalize things that are often irrational. I lose what I truly believe and how I feel when my mind begins to swirl.
Writer E.B. Johnson said, “Through our conflicts with our partners and spouses, we can open up important new channels of communication and make ourselves (and them) that lead to more complete and realized visions of our futures.” As I fish, I think and feel through each moment. Thinking back to my early morning of fishing, I think of how the sound of water is soothing and provides a calm backdrop even with an occasional passing car. My movements and thoughts while fishing are set in the movement and flow of the water. The water flows as long as groundwater feeds the stream and surges during periods of storms. I am passing through and finding my way, interacting with the fish who are constantly adjusted to the flow.
Catching a fish and returning it to the stream feels symbolic to me of finding the space to offer thoughts, ideas, and feelings to the world, have them accepted (or rejected), struggle to bring them back to me, connect and then release them back to the flow. Sharing in times of conflict takes listening. Like reading the water while fishing helps the angler connect to the fish, listening helps me to see others’ perspectives and motivations. Thinking in terms of purely a behavior misses the motivation driving the behavior. Often when we can see someone’s motivations and have empathy for their needs, it can help us see through a disagreement or a disappointment in behavior. I need to avoid rationalizing and labeling the situation. This helps me connect more deeply.
Steve Goodier, the outdoor writer, stated “We don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.” Finding a safe space in conflict for me is aided by appreciating the differences in the people in my life and seeing how they add to the harmony of my life and how I can create new channels of communication with the people I care about. I think of our political dysfunction and the sensationalized labeling and language applied in the media. I wish more people had safe spaces and found the ways to harmonize. Finding your note and listening to others is like reading the river, throwing in your line, and listening to the flow of the river.