My mother, who was born on the fourth of July, told me when I was little that everyone in the country celebrated her birthday. I decided she must be very famous and much loved. While age brought understanding of her joke, the image of my mother as someone who deserved love and fame never diminished for me. Harriet Bell MacDonald Lenski, whom I lost when I was in my twenties, would have been 84 this week and I will always miss her.
Because of my line of work, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the lessons I learned from my mother about conflict and its resolution. Some of them have been powerfully helpful—and a few have been powerfully unfortunate.
A strong woman of Scottish descent, with an assertive streak a mile long, she was also deeply kind and compassionate. She taught me that I should engage conflict willingly and as kindly as possible, and that I should stand strong, especially when advocating for those who were less able to advocate for themselves. The way I understood these messages has been a mixed blessing: I am assertive in my own conflicts but have had to work hard to fully learn that not all conflicts need engaging at full strength!
My mother was raised in a family and in a generation that prevented her from spreading her wings as she wished. She attended Katharine Gibbs instead of a four-year college, though her grades and ability would have gained her entrance anywhere she sought if she were college-bound today. She regretted those closed doors her entire life and, I think, wished she’d pressed the issue when she was 18. From my earliest memories, she taught me that the sky is the limit and that, as a woman, I am equal to any man and to any challenge. This independence, while freeing in so many ways, has also been my Achilles heel during conflict—I’m always tempted to over-assert just how capable and independent I am, sometimes to my own detriment.
She taught me compassion, to look for the equal human in front of me, especially when I’m tempted to judge others harshly. Somehow, I spent much of my younger years judging others harshly anyway. I have often reflected on how long it took me to find and truly employ my mother’s lesson in compassion. The work of becoming a mediator forced me to look this one straight in the eye, because the mediator’s work is one of compassion and non-judgment. Mom would be proud.
She was quick on her feet in a fight and verbally nimble. Some have suggested that her fiery Scottish heritage and upbringing was the cause. She worked in the New York State Legislature for much of my life and loved a good debate. I remember going to work with her on school snow days, and she’d encourage me to go to the visitor’s gallery and watch the floor debates. This was another gift—to be able to see both sides in an argument and to value verbal jousting as a way to thoroughly chew over a problem. And sometimes such verbal jousting has been ill-chosen on my part, when quiet listening would have served me and others better.
In a phone conversation the week before she died unexpectedly, she gently reminded me that truly strong people know when not to use their strength. I still work on striking that balance and I wish she were around to guide me, though I feel her legacy with me daily and am generally thankful for that.
So I leave you with this: What did your mother (or father) teach you about conflict? What of those lessons should you continue to carry and what should you let go? And what are you teaching your own children?
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.