We were enjoying our annual winter break in the warmth of Tenerife. On Wednesday, we decided to relax by the pool later in the day, rather than straight after breakfast, which had been our habit. We surveyed the options for the best place to lie. With the sun lower in the sky and further round to the west, this required a different calculation than normal.
We spotted a run of eight sun beds next to the pool, nicely illuminated in the late afternoon sun, two pairs of which were free. A man pulled one of them out to face the sun, parallel to the pool. So we dropped our towels on the remaining pair, adjacent to an older couple who were lying back soaking in the warmth. They looked like they had been there all day – and were fully charged up with sunshine.
My wife is fair skinned and doesn’t want to burn. So as usual, I erected the parasol in-between our two beds. This immediately caused great consternation with the woman lying next to us. The problem with parasols late in the day is that, rather than protect the beds below, they take care of the beds next door but one. It was rather like some game of Queens where you pass on your best or – in this case worst – cards to the person on your left.
Our friend next door clearly didn’t like the deal. We had quite inadvertently eclipsed her into a dark evil shadow, cutting off her lifeline of sunshine. It was as if she had been lying in the next hospital bed and we had ripped off her oxygen mask.
She rattled off a whole spiel of angry German – her native tongue – far too quickly for us to understand (to be honest, any speed have been). But we easily got the gist. So I lowered the parasol right down its pole, so as to shrink its shadow and draw its footprint closer to home.
Her golden expanse of golden flesh returned into the sunlight – like sausages under the grill. She was back on life support.
“Is that okay now?” I offered. “No not okay” she growled unhappily, helpfully in our native tongue. She pointed. Sure enough a remaining slither of parasol shadow was encroaching on the lower part of her right thigh, preventing an inch of her skin from receiving its essential elixir of harmful ultra-violet rays. She could not have snarled more if we had scored a sharp knife into her skin.
If I lowered the parasol an inch more, my wife would be wearing it like a giant Mexican hat, or with the required two inches shadow withdrawal, she would disappear underneath it entirely- buried forever like some pharaoh wife in her own pyramid. If I took it down completely, she would burn.
Our German friend had a solution to our dilemma. Leaving a small amount of her body in shadow was not an option, and edging her sunbed and a few inches to the right would have been an unreasonable surrender of territory.
With a mix of broken English and the unmistakable international gesture for “go away” she insisted that we move ourselves along a bed – so that we straddled two pairs. There were several potential responses to this. We could have stubbornly asserted our rights to our territory. I could have countered her pettiness and irrationality with “what difference does a small shadow make?”
I could have taken the moral high ground – explaining how it was more important for my wife not to burn, than for a small part of her not to tan. Or that millions of people in the world would welcome some shade from the heat of the day and would be staggered by her small-mindedness. Any of these responses would almost certainly have escalated the conflict.
So we didn’t do any of those. In a spirit of international compromise we moved ourselves, our belongings and our rather heavy-weighted parasol along one bed to our right, and rearranged the furniture.
After all, to be fair, she was there first, we were invading her light and we had cast an unwelcome shadow over her previously uninterrupted enjoyment. But then she had been rather rude and – most disappointing of all – expressed no words of gratitude or even acknowledgement for our reaction. And I do have enough German to understand the word Danke.
A tiny example of an international conflict over a very small shadow, and nothing worth fighting about. After 30 more minutes, she and her partner left. I hope the 30 minutes of even tanning on her right leg was worth the dispute.
Later that evening we walked up the coast, along a beautifully tiled boardwalk to a small, deep U-shaped cove. We sat and watched the sea lashing violently against the volcanic rocks. Wave after wave rolled in, breaking against the shore with a great roar, launching spray dramatically into the air. What power and relentless battering – like an angry child thumping its fists against the floor – making lots of noise, but making no impression on the object being battered.
Wave after wave, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. We only stayed for 10 minutes, but this particular battle will never end. Eventually, we guessed, maybe in a few years, the ledge under which the waves were finally breaking would crack and crumble and fall into the sea, and a few feet would be won. But for what purpose, what real gain?
There is so much pointless conflict in the world. Nations fighting nations, people against people, race against race. Neighbours falling out with neighbours, conflicts in families, in the workplace and between strangers by the side of a pool. As we watched the sea beating the rocks, we just wanted it to calm for a moment; take a breath and think again. Say to the land “shall we just stop?” and then maybe negotiate a ceasefire or an armistice.
The problem with conflict is that it often about something relatively unimportant – like a parasol shadow – but then escalates and assumes an importance all of its own. The conflict becomes the reason for the conflict and the monster feeds itself. Each player raises the stakes, neither wanting to back down. Before we know it we are sending in the bombers, dispatching the ships, putting boots on the ground and lives at risk. Where would our conflict have ended? Parasol fights at dusk – sun beds floating in the pool?
Everywhere we see the crazy consequences – lives destroyed because of small arguments over territory, possessions, rights or resources.
Making the peace is too often castigating as backing down, displaying weakness, giving encouragement to the aggressor. Well in my limited experience, punching somebody back is more – not less – likely to result in another punch and before we know it we have a fully fledged brawl.
We need, and need to be, peacekeepers and peacemakers. Peace is not found between organisations or countries or factions – they are shield which people hide behind. Peace is made by individuals – by conversation, understanding and negotiation in a spirit of calm conciliation. Peacemakers with the courage to concede or exchange ground, as well as to stand firm, in order to reach a consensus.
It has been fantastic to see the Netherlands giving up a section of land to Belgium because it is easier for Belgium to manage. For Norway to be considering a small gift of land to Finland, so that they can have a higher highest peak. For India
and Bangladesh to exchange parcels of land. Lines can be drawn and shadows rearranged for everyone’s mutual convenience. A welcome change to news stories about blood being shed over border disputes.
If we sincerely want peace and reconciliation, we need to pause, see the other point of view and give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, we just need to put our own ego back in its box and to, frankly, get over ourselves.
As John Lennon said, once again this Christmas, 35 years after his own violent death – War is over – if we want it.
In 2016, let’s try even harder to Give Peace a Chance.