“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
In Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author describes a device he calls “the old South Indian Monkey Trap.” It consists of a hollowed-out coconut with some rice inside, chained to a stake. The coconut has a hole in the top just large enough for a monkey to insert its hand but not big enough to remove a fistful of rice. While villagers watched from a distance, Pirsig writes, a hungry monkey would reach in and become trapped, unable or unwilling to give up its handful in exchange for its freedom. The villagers could then walk right up and take the monkey away.
Before you say anything untoward about the dumb monkey, ask yourself whether you are doing more or less the same thing when it comes to conflict in your life. Perhaps you would love to have a warmer marriage but are held back by unresolved anger. Or maybe you want to reconcile with an estranged friend but refuse to let go of an old dispute. If so, you are stuck in an emotional monkey trap.
You’re not alone; we all face this situation from time to time, and not just in the obvious cases where we cling to bad feelings by flatly refusing to forgive. Sometimes we sabotage the freedom we crave even when we say we’ve forgiven others, whether because we still harbor resentment deep down or because we’re holding on to offenses to use later against the people who have wronged us. To achieve greater happiness and freedom, we all need to abandon these sorts of partial forgiveness. Doing so could even heal some of the deep divisions in our culture.
One of the best ways to understand human conflict is through research on committed romantic couples, because they are unrelated humans who have generally promised to remain united even in the face of trouble. Data on how couples who are able to stay together deal differently with conflict than those who come apart tell us about all kinds of human conflict, not just those in romantic partnerships.
In 2018, in the Western Journal of Communication, scholars identified four successful strategies that married and dating couples use to heal a relationship after a transgression or conflict has occurred: discussion, explicit forgiveness, nonverbal forgiveness (such as showing affection after a fight), and minimization (which involves classifying the transgression as unimportant and simply choosing to disregard it). In a 2005 study, researchers found that all four of these strategies can be effective, and the one chosen typically depends on the severity of the grievance. For example, discussion is most often used for the worst offenses, such as infidelity; minimization and nonverbal forgiveness are most often used for the least-problematic issues, such as showing up late for dinner. Explicit forgiveness is probably best for conflicts somewhere in the middle.
The thing about talking through a problem or telling someone “I forgive you” is that it takes a lot of effort and bruises your pride, and might mean giving up something you want. So sometimes, people try shortcuts that seem like good ways to resolve a dispute but don’t work in the end.
Researchers have written about conditional forgiveness, in which vindication is deferred and stipulations are made (“I will forgive you when you do X and Y”), and pseudo-forgiveness, which happens when partners decide to suppress or ignore an issue without actually forgiving (not to be confused with minimization, which is very different). Conditional forgiveness can provide what researchers call “emotional protection”—that is, a feeling of safety—to the damaged partner, but can also keep a wound open. Pseudo-forgiveness can prolong an unhappy relationship because no actual forgiveness takes place, which, the research shows, bodes ill for a relationship’s survival.
Conditional and pseudo-forgiveness can look attractive to an aggrieved party for a number of reasons. Conditional forgiveness offers the victim power over the transgressor, a way to get a desired behavior by holding out the carrot of true forgiveness. Pseudo-forgiveness solves nothing, and can create a grudge that is exploited in moments of irritation. Partial forgiveness is a monkey trap—a handful of emotional rice chosen over freedom from anger and bitterness.
These lessons are instructive for non-romantic conflict too. Among friends and co-workers, conditional forgiveness and pseudo-forgiveness are probably even more destructive, given the generally lower level of emotional commitment than in a couple.
Partial forgiveness also exists in communities in conflict. Perhaps one group promises that society will never see peace without conditions that it alone sets, or at key moments, such as election time, brings up past wrongs that were never truly settled. These strategies can deliver political power to those who proffer them but are unlikely to heal any wounds. In contrast, I have seen people heal major political rifts through discussion—not by aiming to agree but by trying to understand someone else and be heard. And when it comes to entire societies healing from political polarization, don’t rule out minimization. “America never solves its problems,” a colleague who studies American political history once told me. “We simply leave them behind.”
In order to avoid the emotional monkey trap, you’ll need to deliberately choose not to fall into it. Releasing the rice takes patience and self-control. To that end, I suggest keeping three principles in mind as you strive for true forgiveness—and thus, freedom.
First, remember that resolving a conflict is not charity—it primarily benefits you. The monkey-trap metaphor makes this clear, and so does the wisdom of the ages. The fifth-century Buddhist sage Buddhaghosa writes that by indulging anger and refusing to forgive, “you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember … and so first burns himself.” Abundant modern research backs up this idea, showing that forgiveness benefits the forgiver mentally and physically.
Second, widen your conflict-resolution repertoire, especially when what you have tried before isn’t working. Perhaps you are a natural minimizer, quick to forgive others when you can easily dismiss their wrongs against you. The person with whom you have a conflict might believe the severity of the situation is too great to be resolved this way. If you’re the one who’s been wronged, escalate to explicit forgiveness. If the problem is mutual, try discussion, and talk it out.
And third, don’t dismiss minimization too quickly. In many cases, abandoning a conflict rather than trying to solve it is the perfect solution. In my work on political reconciliation, I found this to be the case for many people with major ideological disagreements. The conflicts simply paled in importance when placed explicitly alongside family or friendship ties. Ask yourself whether your political argument is really important enough to, say, lose contact with a loved one, and act accordingly.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance chronicles a 17-day trip from Minnesota to California on an old motorcycle. The book is full of rich metaphors like the monkey trap. But in truth, the whole story is a metaphor for life.
In our brief journey through time, we might encounter every kind of problem. Some are mechanical issues, which require some knowledge of motorcycle maintenance to keep going. Many are unimportant. Others are unsolvable, but you still don’t want to let them ruin the trip for you and your passengers. In those cases, the solution is simple: Just drive away, and leave them behind.