I just returned from Paddle Oregon, a five-day, 86 mile, fully-supported, paddling paradise on the Willamette River, complete with sunburn and stories, one of which I’ll share here.
Our flotilla of 150 paddlers traveled in pods of 10-12 kayaks and canoes, navigating a river that can get tricky in parts. One of these stretches included a narrow channel, squeezed in by a gravel bar river right and a wicked snag (partially submerged tree) river left. The pod in front of mine was mid-passage when a power boat came surging through the middle of the pod, creating a high wake that threatened to swamp the boats and scaring two dozen paddlers half to death.
We all shouted at the power boat to slow down; some of the paddlers allowed their fear to get the best of them and added insults to their cries. The driver cut his engine and began yelling back at us. The scene started to turn ugly, but then one of our pod leaders paddled over to the boat driver and, quietly and calmly, de-escalated the encounter.
A hush fell over the river. Fear and anger flowed away from us as if carried by the current. After a few moments of quiet, one person remarked about right-of-way rules for non-motorized craft. Two or three others commented about concern for the man’s young son who’d been frightened by the shouting, but most of us paddled in silence.
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Downriver, I asked my pod leader what the boat driver’s issue was. He replied, “He lacked humility.”
Reflecting on the experience, I thought about how quickly one mistake can escalate into a battle; how often it is that people who sound very angry are in fact more frightened than mad and that tending to that fear, instead of pointing to rules or looking to blame someone, can take the heat out of a negative encounter.
A lot of conflict boils down to those two ideas; that anger often masks an underlying fear, and that humility can serve as a more effective approach to manage conflict than trying to be right. Even when we know that we are in the right, humility keeps us from trying to make the other side wrong. Humility allows us to see that the person on the other side might be more frightened than angry and that humility can form the basis for compassion. That’s the primary focus for all world religions and my hope for all of us in these days to come.