Maybe your parents want one thing, and your spouse wants another. Perhaps you are sick and feel torn between conventional medicine and natural medicine. Even more compounded could be that you personally are fine without pain-killers because you don’t want to use drugs, but your child is in excruciating pain. Sometimes it could be wanting to purchase two things you really really really want, and only having enough money for one of them. You could be torn between trying to maintain a peaceful relationship with an ex-spouse while wondering if that is really what’s best for your child. It can even be that you’re torn between what you want for somebody else and what you want for yourself.
Whatever the conflict is, when you get to the heart of “between a rock and a hard place” what becomes clear is that your values and integrity are being challenged. Each difficult situation challenges us to make a choice: Will we live in alignment with what is most important to us, or will we sell ourselves short? Even if it’s just a little bit?
In one of my favorite plays, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. What if you were faced with the decision between letting your family starve or breaking the law and violating somebody elses’ boundaries? Jean Valjean chose the latter. Hopefully, your “rock and a hard place” decisions aren’t as dire as Jean Valjean’s were.
One of the gifts of allowing yourself to remain in uncertainty, in the unknown, is that your values will naturally become clearer. As you explore different options, you can feel within which of those options feels better or worse. Sure stealing the loaf of bread may resolve the conflict quickly. But what if there’s another solution. A solution that you would discover if only you allowed your discomfort to reveal more information to you?
Les Miserables is a play, so we can’t really suggest what possibilities Jean Valjean could have chosen instead. However, we can acknowledge that if he had the presence of mind to pause before stealing, he might have found a new possibility that both fed his family and didn’t break the law. We can’t know for certain. But we can see that the choice he made landed him in prison, made him an outlaw, and burdened his soul for a lifetime. A lifetime is a long time to live with the inner conflict that comes from making hasty decisions that compromise your values.
Many of your deepest wishes remain unconscious. You may not always know exactly what you want or need most in a given moment. That’s one reason why conflict challenges people so much: because it is a pull between what you subconsciously don’t know you want and what you consciously think you want. Being present and pausing allows you some space so that your subconscious wants can rise to the surface. Then you can look at them and consciously choose a path that is more congruent with your values. Over time, as your priorities and values become clearer, you gain the ability to prioritize more effectively. You become enabled to act in alignment with what you truly want. And you can do it much faster than ever before.
Take me for example:
In 2010, I was faced with what some would call a difficult situation. I had been divorced for a while and had started building a new life in Portland OR where I lived. I was growing my roots. I was teaching online marketing at a local University. I was making new friends and going to workshops with my spiritual school.
Then my former wife became pregnant with another man’s child. Then they broke up and she needed more support than she had. With my encouragement, she, my son, and I, all moved to Texas where her parents lived. I totally uprooted the life I was building to go someplace I didn’t really want to be. Why did I do it?
Because over the years, when faced with great conflicts, I progressively became clear on my most important priorities. They are:
(1) My personal development
(2) The personal development of others
Within that 2nd priority, includes your development and my son’s development. I knew deep down I could do my inner work anywhere. Because my son’s mother really needed to be in Texas at that time, that meant if my son were to be fully supported by his parents, I needed to be there too. For me, it was a very easy decision to make. I wanted to be with my son and support him. It was in alignment with my values and integrity. It is important to understand that this potentially difficult decision was made easy by all the previously difficult decisions I made before that. Situations where I had to ask hard questions and search for real answers.
Next time you are facing a real conflict, one question you can ask yourself is simply this:
“What is more important to me?”
An extreme example of this is a hypothetical situation. Terrorists have kidnapped you and your family. They tell you: “Either kill one of your family members, or we’ll kill two of them.” Talk about a rock and a hard place! How do you decide what to do or not to? This is where your integrity and values come into question. You might start asking questions like:
“Who in my family is likely to do the most / least good in the world?”
“Are two peoples’ lives more important than one?”
“Will I be able to live with myself by not choosing, knowing that my lack of choice killed one or more people who I could have saved?”
“Can I live with the guilt of knowing I personally murdered one of the people closest to me in this world?”
Within the answers to those questions are your values. Maybe you refuse to harm another being, and you choosing to “not kill” is more important than saving an extra life. Maybe you close your eyes, randomly choose a family member, pull the trigger… knowing that the rest of them will be saved. Perhaps you decide who is likely to have the least positive impact in the world and shoot that person.
I don’t have an answer to that question. I hope nobody ever has to be in that extreme situation. Still, that example shows very clearly how when we’re between a rock and a hard place, what’s really happening is our values are being challenged. And when you get clear on your values over time, those difficult situations are resolved with increasing ease and speed. The only way to get clear is this:
(1) Pause and be present
(2) Resist the temptation to rush to the quickest possible solution.
(3) Ask difficult questions that clarify your values
If you give your inner world enough space, the right answer will come to you. Maybe not as quickly as you’d like, but it’s there waiting to be discovered.