If Conflict Did Not Exist, It Would Be Necessary to Invent It

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Contradiction in nature is the root of all motion and of all life.”

—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Be happy, but never satisfied.”

—Bruce Lee

“Actual happiness looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamor of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

—Aldous Huxley

Conflict, it seems to me, is one of the key ingredients of life.  I am not speaking of petty, trivial, soul-killing, and never-ending “conflict” such as financial problems or familial dysfunction; but something I find much more meaningful: the kind of conflict found in stories in which the risks of life-threatening danger are balanced by the thrill of adventure and opportunities for heroism and glory–the stuff of myths and legends. The kind of conflict found in a struggle against misfortune and tragedy–the stuff of poetry. If conflict did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It hardly needs to be pointed out that conflict is one of the pillars of narrative structure, and that a story could not exist without it. That’s probably why many fairy tales traditionally end with something along the lines of “And they lived happily ever after,” because once all problems are resolved there is little left to talk about. No conflict, no story.

It seems to me that we seek conflict all the time. Real adventures with real perils (and prizes) are out of the question for most of us, so we settle for the virtual and the vicarious: novels, movies, plays, soap operas, video games, professional sports. We turn to these to satisfy our natural craving for adventure, thrills, and glory, or simply the juxtaposition between different colors.

Many of us tend not to seek conflict within our own lives not only because it’s inconvenient, but also because we know that, unlike a video game, life is unforgiving. Injuries heal slowly, what is lost is regained with difficulty (if regained at all), and if we get a Game Over, that’s that. No wonder we tend to aim for cushy lives of convenience and comfort.

Nevertheless, the desire for conflict never fades because it is, arguably, in the midst of conflict that we feel most alive. And for some of us, feeling alive is more important than feeling happy.