The Neutral Zone of Reconciliation

In thinking about what I want to write about in my blog I thought I would go back through some of my earlier writings and select a few to get this going. You will find an array of topics. This reflection on reconciliation is about broken relationships and the process I went through to come to a place of my own reconciliation and peace.

‘I don’t know if you have ever seen the movie “War Horse” directed by Steven Spielberg. It is a powerful movie. The story is about a beautiful thoroughbred horse that was used during the war of WWI. It follows his journey through battle, capture and the ravenous experiences he is exposed to during his time on and near the battlefield. He was a magnificent horse who carried the elite commanders into battle. He is hardly recognizable by the end of the movie. He endures the abuse of pulling heavy artillery guns and wagons of munitions to the front lines for the enemy. Only by grace does he become reunited to his original owner who cares for him on his farm at the end of the war.

There is one intensely moving scene where the war-horse is running from battle upon a ridge that separates the two enemy sides by barbed wire fencing. Running from loud explosions of gunfire and bombs going off the war-horse runs frantically looking for a way of escape. In his frenzy his legs get caught in a barbed wire fence. As he continues to run he picks up more and more of the fencing completely entangling himself. He falls from the barbs coiling around his legs and neck . Terrified he struggles to get to his feet and with each attempt the barbs cut deep into his flesh.

The soldiers from each opposing side watches as the war-horse struggles to regain his freedom. Each side is aware that if someone doesn’t help him he will die. It seems an impossible dilemma but suddenly one man from one side stands. He climbs out of his trench and walks to where the horse is entangled. He is unable to free the horse by pulling the barbed wire off.  He looks up to see a soldier from the opposing side, his enemy, coming to his aid with a set of wire clippers. They have created a neutral zone to work together. Side by side they work to free this animal from the wire that holds him in bondage. In that brief moment they share a glimpse of what could be…for a brief moment they are friends.

I share this story because it became a powerful word picture for me in working through a fractured relationship with someone I consider very dear to me.

When we become wounded in relationships it can make you feel as if you are in the midst of a battle. Words can become weapons and hurt us deeply. We become vulnerable to our surroundings and nothing feels safe. Often times we retreat tending to our wounds and other times we stand our ground pulling out our own weapons of words, wielding them without any thought of where they might land or the damage they can do. When the dust settles we find ourselves on opposite sides feeling like we are facing our enemy. The chasm can sometimes seem so wide between us and we don’t know how to get back to the person we cared so deeply for.

While struggling to work through this fractured relationship I often turned to a very wise counselor/coach who also happened to be a dear friend. She listened patiently and without judgment to my story of pain and offered very little advice. What she did offer was a listening ear, lots of grace and some deeply penetrating questions. Here is the interaction between us that brought an amazing shift for me in how I saw my relationship to my friend and the answer to what the next step should be.

“I didn’t feel like I had been really heard. I had all the hurtful words dumped on me. When I tried to tell my friend how I felt I was shut down. She wasn’t interested in how I felt. There was little communication between us. What requests I made and boundaries I tried to set for a “safe” conversation, I felt they were ignored. She sent a card and email expressing her deep sorrow for her behavior and words. She knew she had wronged me and profusely apologized and asked forgiveness. I responded with a yes. Yet I did not feel any better. I still didn’t feel safe nor did I feel that I had been given the chance to be heard. So what was wrong with me?”

“I feel manipulated. I feel closed in, claustrophobic. I feel manipulated and it makes me angry. I know that anger can be a good emotion for working things out that are wrong. That it can serve to protect me. But this anger doesn’t feel good. I don’t want to feel angry when I think of this friend.”

My friend asked, “So if you didn’t feel anger what would you feel?”

I considered her question then answered, “I would feel safe. The space would be open and there would be freedom. I would be free from anger”

“What would safe feel like?”

“Safe would feel like there was space. It would be neutral ground. Anger feels like a war zone, but where a neutral zone is created enemies from both sides can enter in. There is no danger of attack or being fired upon. It is a place of vulnerability with significant risks. It’s like the scene from the movie “War Horse.”

“What do you do in the neutral zone?”

I thought of that scene I mentioned at the beginning. I thought of both sides hiding in the trenches from one another’s bullets. They were hidden from one another’s view, yet in plain sight was the war-horse all tangled in the barbed wire. With each movement the horse made to free itself the barbs cut deeper and deeper into its flesh. The war-horse that had been useful to both sides now lay in a heap of wounds, languishing from neglect and misunderstanding. From the trenches hidden below the line, both sides were safe within their own boundaries.

We don’t often consider the consequences of careless words or the world they create. So in the backdrop of a world ravaged by war we wonder if there is anything left worth saving. The soldier could have stayed down in the trench, safely hidden from his enemy. Eventually he could walk away. The horse would be just another casualty of war. I was a soldier on one side, my friend the solider on the other. I saw the War Horse as the tender relationship between my friend and me and it was now tangled in the wire of hurt and misunderstanding. Each barb represented the careless words spoken with their cutting and biting edges. Unattended these barbs had the potential to destroy what had been a beautiful and deeply meaningful relationship.

But from the trenches a soldier steps out and moves toward the animal. There was no guarantee that he would not be shot at. He knew what was at stake with that first step. There always comes that moment when we are faced with a decision concerning a relationship that has been deeply wounded. How far do we want to go to resolve this conflict? What are the risks involved. What if it risk doesn’t work out. When that soldier took his first step out of the trenches his buddies whispered, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” They saw the impossibility of his task. He saw the potential and was willing to take the risk.

This was the pivotal place of change for me. Stepping out from the trench where my safety was paramount and into the space of possibility. The possibility of healing and restoration is now present where it didn’t seem so before. Also, standing by the horse the soldier realized he couldn’t free the horse by himself. Looking up he saw his enemy standing there holding the very tool he needed to free the horse from the tangled wire. Both men stepped out from their trenches. They created a neutral space from which they could work together. It was a space that would demand vulnerability. As they cut the wire with its barbs from the horse it required great care to ensure that the horse would not sustain further injury. In handling the wire the same care would need to be taken so that the wire didn’t fly up and hurt either person.

My friend who listened with great care once told me forgiveness is for me, for the present, it takes only one. Reconciliation takes two, it is in the present, it is a coming together. Trust is for the future, it is earned. It takes time.

I see the neutral zone as the place where the work of reconciliation takes place. I didn’t really see it clearly when she first mentioned it early on. I understood the concept but it comes with so much more clarity as seen within the boundaries of the neutral zone. We often come to the place of reconciliation with our own ideas of what we want or think it should look like. If we don’t create that space of neutrality we often stifle or completely smother the life out of its potential.

I want to be reconciled to my friend. She is not my enemy like in the movie. I have never thought of her in that way. But the experience feels like a real battle. I have climbed out of my trench and stepped onto the battlefield. She has stepped out too and together we have created this neutral zone. She didn’t show up the way I wanted but she showed up. That is all I need to see. Together, with God’s grace present we will start cutting away the tangled wire, aware of the proximity of the space we each hold.

I would love to say what the final outcome of this will be. In all honesty, I do not know. I do know God has the power to heal and restore. I believe in that, I trust in that and only He knows what that will look like for me and my friend. But for me now I have freedom from the bondage that brokenness brings. I rejoice in that. And for now I will hold this neutral space with honor and care. It is a gift.

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