Going round in circles

Posted by Victoria Mason on May 30, 2024

The three habits

Victoria Mason considers the sometimes painstaking pace of peacemaking – and our need of the Holy Spirit to give us stamina for that work.

The other day I found myself in an argument with one of my nearest and dearest. It was late. We were tired. And, to my intense frustration, the conversation appeared to be getting nowhere. We would seem to make progress and find some common ground, then circle back to the same sticking point where we just couldn’t agree – where each of us was convinced that the other was wrong. What’s more, the argument felt rather familiar – as if we’d been having similar disagreements for years.

the hidden power of going in circles

A few days later, I found myself listening to the (brilliant) Corrymeela podcast in which the host, Pádraig Ó Tuama, was interviewing the renowned peacebuilder John Paul Lederach. In their conversation a phrase came up that caught my attention – ‘the hidden power of going in circles’.

John Paul Lederach’s point was that there can be power in the indirect – by sticking around, even when it doesn’t seem to be following a linear trajectory towards the solution we want. As an example, Pádraig shared the fact that – on average – peace treaties go through over 30 iterations before they are finally agreed. The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998 to bring to an end the violent conflict in Northern Ireland, was the fruit of 700 days of negotiations. It takes a lot of ‘going round in circles’ to get to a breakthrough.

Pursuing reconciled relationships can feel a lot like going in circles. We find ourselves making the same mistakes and needing – again and again – to find ways to heal the fracture, and restore trust, with those around us.

On a much larger scale, we live in a hurting, conflicted world where it can often feel like nothing changes for the better. Instead of making progress, our communities, nations and the world can feel stuck in a destructive and disheartening loop. It can be hard to have hope.

‘It is right and good to name vicious circles and to lament’

It is right and good to name these vicious circles, and to lament and cry out to God in our fear, frustration and grief that things are not as they should be.

And sometimes it is good to pause, take a step back and take stock. (For what it’s worth, that argument with my loved one found its resolution when we stopped talking, watched a bit of TV and calmed down enough to be present with one another and acknowledge our grumpiness!)

But what I hear in John Paul Lederach’s assertion of the ‘hidden power of going in circles’ – is a reminder to remain rooted in hope. Just as we must hold tightly onto the conviction that things are not as they should be, we must also hold tightly to the knowledge that God really does make all things new (Revelation 21:5).

That growth and renewal may not happen in the way – or at the speed – that we expect. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of God and how it grows: ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how’ (Mark 4:26-27).

As the theologian Paula Gooder reflects on this passage: ‘Just as seeds grow, so the kingdom does too. It may not appear to grow. It may take a long time to do so, but it does grow.’

In a fast-moving world, the work of peace and justice seems often to go at a different pace altogether– to the extent that we find it hard to perceive it. It is often the slow work of decades or generations, and this can make it a daunting undertaking. Alone, it is very hard to summon up the stamina required to keep going with the slow, painstaking work of peacemaking.

‘Sometimes, even as we go in circles, we are inching forwards towards something better

We all need others to journey with us. And, in this season following the celebration of Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit – I am reminded how much I need God’s Spirit to sustain me. The Spirit who intercedes for us (Romans 8:26) and who enables us to abound in hope (Romans 15:13). When God leads me into hope, I see what I couldn’t see before. I discover that sometimes, even as we go in circles, we are inching forward towards something better. Perhaps in this argument, it takes us a little less time to say sorry than last time. Maybe I am slightly quicker to try and be curious about the other person’s feelings instead of focusing only on my own. In simply sticking at the process of imperfectly untangling each problem as it arises, we are being drawn into deeper and better relationships – even in spite of ourselves.

Victoria Mason is Editorial Lead and Theological Manager for the Difference team.

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