Family Business Matters 12/08 12:49
When Conflict Takes Hold
Lessons can be learned from a classic novel about choices made during
By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser
I recently finished reading what John Steinbeck considered his most
significant novel, "East of Eden," which traces two families in California's
Salinas Valley through the late-19th and early 20th centuries. As we follow the
two groups through generations of family conflict and drama, success and
failure, a central discussion emerges around one's ability, when faced with
difficult circumstances, to choose good over evil as our response.
The story is placed alongside the biblical story of Cain and Abel, more
specifically the choice that Cain makes to kill his brother after God does not
look favorably upon his sacrifice (Genesis 4: 5-8). By murdering his brother,
Cain chooses the path of evil, and Steinbeck asks throughout the novel: Are we
doomed to repeat Cain's choice of violence, conflict and sin over the option of
mercy, forgiveness and understanding?
Steinbeck focuses on the Hebrew word "timshel," which he translates as "thou
mayest," meaning we may fall prey to sin and violence, or we may not: We have a
choice. As situations unfold throughout the novel, characters are confronted
with opportunities to make the choice between a negative, harmful response or a
positive, redemptive one.
STEINBECK'S LESSON FOR TODAY
The contemporary family business provides an equally fascinating setting in
which to ask whether families are destined to repeat the patterns of conflict
that shaped prior generations. Sibling rivalry, unequal treatment or gifts,
opportunities based on birth order, gender bias, emotional and physical abuse
-- all of these difficulties entwine with shared economic and vocational
interests to set the stage for major drama and conflict. How will family
members respond to such difficult situations?
Consider your own family's narrative. If you think hard about the events
that have caused pain and suffering in your family, when and where are the
critical junctures at which a family member made a choice about his or her
response, and the family and business began to come apart? Can you pinpoint the
decisions in the arc of your family's development that set the stage for more
It seems many times in family conflicts people feel they must respond a
certain way to a perceived injustice, that they really have no choice in their
approach. The situation demands a confrontation; the slight from another
requires an unequivocally forceful response. Do they have a choice in this
response? Or has their fate been sealed, their course of action predetermined,
and all are simply following the steps laid out before them?
Yet, in other family situations, I've seen an unexpected apology set the
stage for a renewed business partnership. I've witnessed how forgiveness has
allowed family members to move forward. I've watched family members choose to
listen -- and really hear -- the concerns of their loved ones, and
relationships begin to heal. In other words, I've watched family members make a
choice in the direction of mercy, forgiveness and understanding.
As is so often said, our future has less to do with the things that happen
to us and more to do with our response to difficulties, conflict and crises.
Remembering that we have a choice -- timshel -- in how we respond to our family
members is a most important lesson for us all.
Write Lance Woodbury at Family Business Matters, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite
415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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