The magic of loving opposition

17/02/2011 § 2 Comments

Several years ago my wife and I moved into a small terraced house in London. It had a garden around 50 foot long and 30 feet wide, divided into three areas: one part concrete patio, one part patchy lawn and one part mud. Let’s just say it had plenty of potential.

Dasha and I are both took an interest in the garden. I immediately started planning, as is my way, buying inspirational gardening books and sketching out designs. Meanwhile Dasha, infuriatingly, started planting things! So we argued. And because we love each other, in time we began to listen to the other’s point of view, and eventually to work together on the garden. The result was a garden which, I’m convinced, was far better than either of us could have achieved on our own.

I find people undervalue opposition. They find it difficult, resent and try to avoid it. And in doing so, I believe, they miss the opportunity it offers for learning, for growth, for adventure. I can understand this. I used to avoid confrontation, living out the internal picture of myself as a “ nice” person who doesn’t argue or fight. Not surprisingly, in my many years working in large corporations, I was walked over more than once.

My wife, coming from a different background and being German, helped me get over this. She loves a good fight, relishing the chance to say what she thinks and engage with passion. It helps her come alive, to reach into an authentic part of herself.

Of course there is a dark side to opposition. It can be a destructive force, causing chaos and disorder. It is fear of this that leads people to try to avoid confrontation. And in doing so they miss out on its power and magic.

Two of the organisations I admire the most are excellent at capturing the benefits of healthy, loving opposition. One is a French charity, taking children with cancer on sailing trips. The other runs Europe’s only tented conference centre, in a field every summer in Worcestershire. What they have in common is that they work very effectively as communities. A core of volunteers come together year after year to do extraordinary work.

I have noticed that on the surface at least, all is not harmonious in these teams. Not at all. There are frequently disagreements coming up, the occasional heated argument and every now and then, a full-blown row. But these are always resolved and settled satisfactorily for the benefit of the group. Because they all have a shared purpose and, ultimately, they love each other, despite their differences.

Loving opposition, I would say, is a fundamental truth of the universe. Life is made up of polarities, opposing forces that are closely connected at a deep level. Male and female, day and night, up and down, good and bad, these forces join together in an eternal dance.

Every now and then one seems to gain the upper hand, but it is exactly at the time when one is in the ascendancy that the other is ready to stage a comeback. In our seasons, for example, the winter and summer solstices mark the time when either dark or light seems to be in the ascendancy – yet these are the times when the opposite force start to gain ground. A metaphor for our age perhaps? After all, things seem pretty dark for our civilisation if you consider the converging ecological, energy, social, economic and spiritual crises we face. Yet all around us there are signs of new life emerging, for those with eyes to see.

As a lawyer I find it interesting how the principle of opposition has been enshrined in our legal system, where two sides line up against each other in court, plaintiff against defendant or the Crown against an alleged criminal. To bind the opponents together, the law states that the lawyers acting for each side have a higher duty to the court than to their clients who pay them. They are required to serve the cause of truth and justice, rather than the selfish interest of just one party. I don’t pretend it always works out that way but it is surprising how often the system works.

What about politics? Our forebears, in their wisdom, created an official opposition in Parliament, to honour the principle that there is another side to every story and to speak from the space of loving opposition.

However when in opposition, politicians seem to act as if the only point of being in politics is to be in power. Indeed Ed Milliband, leader of the opposition, in his first Labour party conference speech said, “There is nothing good about opposition”. How wrong can you be?

To my mind, being in opposition is just as important as being in power. For example, the Tory party let us down badly when they failed to oppose the Iraq war. They didn’t do their job. Our current politicians fail us badly when they blindly follow some populist cause or constantly question the other party’s motives rather than engaging in loving opposition and focusing on the issues.

It doesn’t have to be this way. During the Second World War for example there was a unity government in the UK, effectively a coalition of all parties working together to confront the national crisis that faced us. I am confident that there were still arguments and disagreements at the highest level amongst the politicians, and I would like to think that these were all viewed as being in the context of a common purpose, and dealt with in a productive way.

Someday soon, I suspect and believe, it will become clearer to many the nature and scale of the national and global crisis we face and this will lead to a greater sense of common purpose amongst our politicians. Will this mean an end to opposition? I hope not. A more loving, spirited, fierce, respectful and constructive opposition? Yes please.

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