Friday, June 3, 2011

"The Butter Battle Book:" What Dr. Suess Has to Say about Conflict

Source: Wikipedia

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have a reader's crush on the incomparable Dr. Suess. My Suess collection started in high school and has grown throughout my life. I even have the obscure books about his history and artwork. Over time, I have realized that what pulls me back to Dr. Suess, even more than his fantastical creatures and tongue-tripping rhymes, is the vast amount of psychological wisdom packed into those children's books.

Published in 1984, "The Butter Battle Book" was Dr. Suess's response to the idea of "mutually assured destruction" inherent in the nuclear arms race. The book explores two cultures, the Nooks and the Zooks, and begins with the narrator (a Nook) being taken with his grandfather to the Wall, and being told:
"It's high time you knew
of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.
In every Zook house and in every Zook town
every Zook eats his bread
with the butter side down

The narrator's grandfather then shares the history of the Nooks and the Zooks, from a time when the Wall was quite small. He explores the first act of hostility, and the way that act prompted a more aggressive response. He walks us through the fancier uniforms, bigger bands, more destructive weapons, and more "my way or the highway" thinking. As the book continues, Dr. Suess highlights how we get rigidly attached to our own ideas of right and wrong. He demonstrates how quickly tension and anger can escalate.

The book ends with both the Nooks and the Zooks having developed a "Big-Boy Boomeroo"--a weapon capable of incredible destruction. As the Nook and the Zook face off on the Wall, the grandson looks on:
" 'Grandpa!' I shouted. 'Be careful! Oh gee!
Who's going to drop it?
Will you . . . ? Or will he . . . ?'
'Be patient,' said Grandpa. 'We'll see.
We will see . . .' "

I know that Dr. Suess wrote this book as a parable about the dangers of nuclear arms races, but as I read it, I am struck by how "The Butter Battle Book" carries messages for us to consider in all areas of conflict. Hang in there with me, I can understand if you are wondering how I can compare nuclear war to fights over the dishes. Here's how. At the heart of this story is the idea that each of us deeply believes that the way we choose to do things--whether those things are eating buttered bread, putting laundry in the hamper, showing love, disciplining children, or communicating--the way we choose to do things is the right way.

Let's follow that idea out a bit. If the way that you choose to do something is the right way (butter-side up), then doing it differently (butter-side down) is wrong. If you are a butter-side up person in relationship with someone who chooses butter-side down, then one of you is wrong. Take a moment and pause as you read this. Can you come up with at least one area in your life where you have a passionate conviction that your choices are "right?" Most of us can, if we're being honest. Here's the next step. Can you think of a time when your conviction about being right led to a conflict (argument, fight, silent treatment--whatever language you use to describe that experience)? Let's take it one step more. If you can think of an experience where you were in conflict, can you remember the conflict escalating because neither person was able to step away from her/his own perspective?

I think that the principle Dr. Suess is illustrating is that when we become locked in to a single perspective, we are not only risking conflict, but we are risking conflict that escalates into painful territory. And with a history of escalated conflicts, we can find ourselves holding emotional "Big-Boy Boomeroos" over one another's heads.

So, here's my challenge to you this week. Take a few moments and reflect on whether or not you have accumulated some "butter-side" conflict triggers. If so, what are your best strategies for defusing them? I'll be working on some defusing strategies of my own for a future post. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing your ideas.