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Echoes of Zarathushtra in the Modern Field of Conflict Resolution[1]

Effective Living

Gathic Illustration

Pearlstein, Arthur



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Conflict happens. Effective and meaningful resolution of conflict, all too often, does not. As we look around our world—from fighting in the Balkans and the Middle East, to labor strikes, to divorce—we can find conflicts that persist despite the painful costs and despite the fact that there may be a variety of possible resolutions that would leave the parties better off. This reality has spawned a relatively new field of study known as “conflict resolution.” Cobbled together from an eclectic variety of disciplines—including law, psychology, economics, and sociology—conflict resolution has developed theories and principles that have constantly expanding application in new areas of human endeavor. As I near the end of an academic fellowship in the field, I am struck by the degree to which these guiding principles have seemed so familiar to me. I have, as it turns out, seen them before: in the Gathas of Zarathushtra.

One of the guiding precepts of conflict resolution is the importance of participation and creativity in our approach. The key is to use conflict, where possible, as a positive force that prevents stagnation, stimulates curiosity and learning, and promotes the search for new solutions at both individual and social levels. Being creative and constructive; taking responsibility; using our good minds to bring about fresh ideas; these are themes that recur frequently in the Gathas.

Conflict resolution is also about better outcomes. Theorists talk about integrative approaches to problem solving: “expanding the pie before dividing it,” or “creating value before claiming it,” or, what has become a cliché, seeking “win-win solutions.” The use of a collaborative approach to reach the right result, in the right way, at the right time, is something Zarathushtra would have applauded. He taught that wise people should unite and pool their wisdom to improve the world: “...those who strive with good name shall be united in the good abode of good mind and righteousness of the Wise One.” (Y 30.10, D. J. Irani translation). At the same time, seeking a resolution that leaves all the parties better off, rather than merely taking from one to give to another, echoes Gathic teaching. “...Happiness linked with dishonor, happiness that harms others is poison for the seeker.” (Y 53.6, D. J. Irani translation 1994).

Another key principle of conflict resolution is the need to listen to, understand, and respect differing positions. As the prophet taught: “One who listens and realizes the truth, becomes a life-healing wise person. He controls his tongue to express the right words when he wills. He, O Wise One, through Your radiant light, proves good to both parties.” (Y. 31.19, A. Jafarey translation).

In the domain of law, the legal community is being urged by many to move away from its exclusive, adversarial focus on the use of courts to resolve conflicts and, instead, to seek more constructive, alternative dispute resolution methods. Negative and reactive thinking produced by adversarial argument stifles imagination and creativity and often constrains settlement of disputes. Our attempts to address every conceivable social issue with a written proscription has led to excessive reliance on law. The Gathas contain only guidelines, not a list of proscriptions. Zarathushtra counseled against reactive, destructive thinking—he warned against anger and bitterness.

As the study of conflict resolution expands, we gain new and greater insights into the degree to which conflict provides opportunity for growth. In recognizing the importance of learning “…how to deliver the wrong into the hands of righteousness.” (Y. 30.8, A. Jafarey translation), Zarathushtra anticipated the modern field of conflict resolution by thousands of years.

[1] Article appeared in the Summer issue of the FEZANA journal.  Courtesy of Arthur Pearlstein, and the guest editor of the Summer issue of the FEZANA journal, Mrs. Dina McIntyre in consenting to this publication is hereby acknowledged.