Category Archives: Marriage and Family

Patience: The lost virtue our relationships need

“Patience attains all that it strives for.” At least that is what the saint says. The prayer, “Nada te Turbe” was found in Teresa of Avila’s breviary, written in her own hand. Since the 16th century her private words have consoled countless numbers of people, including me. I even put it to music for the church to sing (before I discovered several other versions).

Gm
Nada te turbe,
Let nothing disturb you;
  D
Nada te espante,
Let nothing dismay you;
Gm             F
Todo se pasa.
All things pass:
F
Dios no se muda.
God never changes.
F
La paciencia
Patience attains
F              Bb
Todo lo alcanza.
All that it strives for.
Eb
Quien a Dios tiene
The one who has God
                D
Nada le falta.
Lacks for nothing:
Gm Dm Cm  D
Sólo Dios basta.
God alone suffices.

Teresa is credited with reviving Catholicism in the 1560’s and 70’s when Protestantism threatened to bring down the church. Her most significant contribution was founding the Reformed Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelite Convent of San Jose, a more radical version of the Carmelites. At the time of her death in 1582 she had started seventeen further houses, in Spain.

Bernini captures Teresa in rapture

Teresa is best known today as one of the great Catholic mystics, which means she recounted her personal experiences with God. She described her raptures in several books. Among the most widely read works is her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1611).

Teresa of Avila may have been the last proponent of the virtue of patience. Around the time she founded the Discalced Carmelites to restore basic, early church Christianity, the Catholic Church was breaking up. Spain was conquering South and Central America. Europeans were colonizing the world. Spain was in constant war to  secure Charles V’s royal claims. Copernicus revealed the earth orbited the sun. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. Henry the VIII murdered his wives and founded the Anglican Church. Cervantes wrote El Cid. John Calvin wrote The Institutes. Shakespeare and John Donne wrote their early works. Nostradamus published his prophecies. It was a wild time. Flush toilets, the spinning wheel, the pocket watch, the graphite pencil were all introduced.

Yet Teresa still disciplined herself to be patient, like her examples from the Early Church, reciting her prayer. She might have been the last leader on the continent to believe “God suffices” as the Europeans rushed into the modern world and the Americans soon invented a country (for the first time) to represent all that was new. I’m not sure most Americans would consider patience to be an important character trait, would you? — even though my mother used to mockingly chide me when I was tired of waiting with, “Patience is a virtue,” unwittingly channeling Piers Plowman from 1360 (Passus II, 383).

Patience, the lost virtue

Patience may be the lost virtue Christians, in particular, need to rediscover. I think many of us might see it as a bit out of date, now that we are accustomed to complaining if Amazon is a day late, or the line at the drive through is taking too long. A person lamented yesterday that their arrival at their appointment was thwarted for ten minutes by the Schuylkill. They were very frustrated. We have things timed down to the minute.

A book I have been reading, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, has reminded me the Bible writers and the earliest Christians considered patience to be a central trait of authentic Christianity. I want to leave you with a bit of their wisdom so you can follow their fruitful lead.

  • Origen of Alexandria (died around 253) quoted Romans 5:3-4 this way, “Tribulation produces patience, indeed patience produces assent to belief, and assent to belief produces hope.”
  • The KJV translates it: “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.”
  • My favorite, the NRSV says, “And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
  • I think the VOICE amplified translation sums it up well. “And that’s not all. We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness.”

You’ll notice that the word for patience is often translated “endurance” or “perseverance.” It is an active idea, not passive. It is not just waiting for your birthday to come without too much complaining. It is a discipline exercised by people who want to develop. It is a strategy for demonstrating glory. Patience takes intention and effort. It is a way of seeing and acting. Patience is not swallowing your resentment when it takes a while for your kids to put on their shoes. It is not just standing in line at the store behind a less-than-able shopper without groaning or looking around for another line with panic.

As you can see from the constellation of translations, patience is an outlook that results in a way of life. Patience is trusting God in the middle of everything, especially when you suffer. For the early church, patience was sticking with Jesus when the world was sticking it to them. They were not like the Stoics who endured by tamping down emotions and developing personal resilience, even seeking imperviousness. It was quite the opposite. Christian patience is opening up to the Spirit of God incarnate in our hearts and behavior. The eternal lens and heartfelt trust of the early church was central to their endurance. Patience is knowing everything works for good to them who love God.

The early church’s premier virtue

Few writings from the first 300 years of the church are about a “topic.” They are mostly stories or compilations of teachings. But Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian and Lactantius all wrote about patience. The early church did not produce writings about evangelism, at least as most modern people think about it: verbal persuasion and radical changes of allegiance. But they did write about patience, which changed them and changed their world. Their way of patience made the first Christians a distinct and attractive alternative to the brutal Roman world.

I was happy to discover Kreider’s book when I was listening to several couples trying to work out the tribulation of their power struggle. Many marriages, not to mention churches and other institutions, went through a lot of trouble during the pandemic. We are all still sorting things out. For many people, the trouble in the world became trouble in their relationships. It is terrible how often general trouble gets translated into blaming the people close to us: “If I have trouble, it must be you.”

The early church helped each other learn patience and didn’t turn on each other; they turned their behavior out into the world. Their way of life was salt and light. St Perpetua (martyred around 203) caused many conversions the day she refused to grovel in the arena, begging for mercy, but stood still and dignified, patiently trusting God for her future. If my lens developed a character like hers, I could at least endure the development of my mate (or myself) and give some time and space for our relationship to grow before I hardened my heart, cut them off, or found something better.

I hope you are getting the idea of how the virtue of patience is foundational to enduring as a Jesus follower and making a difference in our relationships and culture. Here are a few final characteristics that sum up how the Bible writers and early church teach about patience:

  • God is patient. She is walking with you and working for your best right now.
  • Jesus demonstrates God’s patience. Origen calls him “Patience itself.” He highlights how to trust in oneself and in miracle at the same time, in real time.
  • Patient people don’t just manipulate outcomes; they can take risks in trust and not worry what they can’t control is as urgent as it seems.
  • Patience is not hurried; it accepts incompleteness and can wait.
  • Patient behavior inevitably undermines the world’s common sense.
  • Trusting in patience to change lives is the opposite of relying on violence and retaliating. It is innately uncoercive.
  • Patience is hopeful, confident in God. As Teresa noted, God alone suffices.

Most families are good laboratories for learning patience. Churches should be a good place for learning it, too. They are the main places we learn to forebear in love, or don’t. In a marriage we have a daily opportunity to develop a way of living together that hopes more in God’s blessing than in the immediate satisfaction of our desires. As one of my clients said the other day, in marriage we learn to act out love rather than wait for love to make us feel like connecting. Patience opens up our families to God’s presence and relaxes the stranglehold of our disappointment and longing. Patience let’s things grow, and delights in nurturing what God is growing up in our loved one — that wonder, that creation, that future resurrected being.

 

 

 

Learning Empathy: A simple beginning

Don’t you wish we all had more empathy these days? This old speech from 2002 seems even more important now, since it seems the lesson is hard to learn.

People suffer. One of the places they suffer most is in the relationships they need the most. And that is why we need to learn empathy, so we can love one another in all our suffering.

John Gottman is a research psychologist who studied married couples over many years. He documented their lack of relationship-building skills. One way he measured this lack was by hooking them up to devices which measured all their vital signs while they were chatting and fighting. He discovered that those couples who had more than one “discounting” or “demeaning” action for every five validating, appreciating or approving actions created a neutral zone in their relationship which led to distancing. More often than not, people who consistently went over the 1-5 ratio ended up divorced within several years.

His research gave birth to Gottman’s law of one-to-five. You need five positive actions for every negative to keep things healthy. He called the main negative actions which led to trouble the “Four Horsemen of Marriage Apocalypse” (as in the book of Revelation where the horsemen are war, death, disease and famine). In marriage relationships (but probably all relationships) Gottman says the horsemen are criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. Women do more criticizing, men do more stonewalling. But everyone does everything and that’s why we keep making one another suffer.

Empathy is an antidote to apocalypse

Empathy is a trait we can develop, a positive action we can practice. It is a basic building block of a good relating. It is an alternative to suffering and making someone else suffer. If we take strength from Jesus and so find the strength to follow him in humility, we can learn it.

I want to show you a short film clip from The Hurricane that demonstrates the kind of empathy we would all like to exercise. You may have seen Denzel Washington in the true story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. At the height of his career as a boxer, Rubin Carter was falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and ended up sentenced to life in prison.

A young boy, named Lesra, read Carter’s autobiography and ended up visiting him in prison and becoming his friend. Lesra’s adult friends became convinced that Carter was innocent and committed themselves to getting the truth known. After 20 years in jail he was granted a new trial. In this clip we are awaiting the verdict in Rubin’s prison cell, He and Lesra are sharing their thoughts….

Lesra’s great empathy busted Carter out of his true prison. It penetrated the defenses with which he had surrounded his suffering. That’s what love does. The author of love, Jesus Christ, is our strength and our guide in how to put this building block into the basis of our relationships. So let’s think about it.

Empathy is communicating accurate understanding and acceptance.

All the words in the definition above are important. We are talking about someone we love. We are talking about someone like us, who has an overturned heart, someone coming to feel like they can be understood. In that process we want to

  • communicate  — which means they received it, not just that we said it,
  • accurate understanding —  something rational, head to head, mind to mind, and
  • acceptance  — something emotional, heart to heart, feeling to feeling.

My loved one offers a self-revelation. I communicate I understand and accept it in love.

The dictionary often uses two words to get at the full meaning of of empathy. It says empathy is the capacity for experiencing, as one’s own, the feelings of another. This is very similar to the definition for sympathy, which is: the act or capacity for entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another. Pathos is the Greek word for “feeling.” Em-pathos would be in-feeling. Sym-pathos would be with-feeling. Perhaps one is more heart to heart – in it with some one, and one is more mind to mind – next to it with someone. The words are different aspects of how I communicate I understand and accept what you are going through.

English translations of the Bible never use the word empathy, but the writers see it as standard operating procedure

In Ephesians 4 (one of our favorite scripture passages around here) Paul sees us as receiving a new life from Christ in which we can “Speak the truth in love.” Paraphrasing him just a bit, he says,

I insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as you used to live, in the futility of your thinking. We were darkened in our understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that was in us due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, we had given ourselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.

Instead, we are called to a new way to express our new selves in Christ. Basic to that new living in love is empathy. James says: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen.” (1:19) And Paul adds, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6).

This listen-in-love life requires a new way of seeing. This often becomes very obvious when we get married to someone or live in community or even get close to people in the church – we see some people have no empathy. When you are talking to them it becomes clear they are mainly thinking and feeling about themselves. They not only don’t understand, they aren’t even listening. You can’t get understood even for the words you are saying, much less the feelings behind them! Many of us are darkened in our understanding and have hard hearts.

This is a main reason I am so delighted Gwen founded Circle Counseling. They don’t have nearly the capacity to help as many people as she would like (maybe one day we won’t have to refer any one to other higher-priced counselors). But for now, I am happy that people are experiencing empathy with our therapists and learning to have some through the process.

One of our friends was telling me about her step-sister who was being verbally abused by her step-father. She’d come downstairs for a drink and the unemployed step-dad would be sitting in the kitchen and say, “Get back up the stairs. I didn’t say you could come out of your room.” Later my friend found out the parents had been calling her sister retarded. The label wounded the girl so much she was shriveling up into a ball of despair and acting even more violent in school.

She had little chance to talk and be heard, too small experience of having her feelings validated. Such a person grows up with a hollow heart where feeling for others should be. They come into relationships or into the church, where people expect love, and they are like a black hole, an impossible situation, and sometimes an object of judgment. But so often they don’t even know they are doing anything wrong. No empathy seems normal to them. They don’t really know what they feel like. They need some time with the counselor and a lot of time with people who speak the truth in love and are quick to listen.

The ultimate example of empathy is Jesus. He doesn’t talk about it, because it isn’t about talking as much it is about giving and receiving.

When the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as the High Priest who can enter the very center of the Temple where normal, unclean people can’t go, he says,

He had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (2:17-18)

God comes into our condition as the person of Jesus and communicates how deeply he understands our condition. This is the ultimate empathy: entering into what it feels like to be us.

The great example of Jesus entering in is when he gets baptized. People have often had a little problem with Jesus wanting to be baptized. If you don’t sin, what is the point of entering into an activity designed to express that you are repenting of sin, going down into the water to be cleansed and coming out to live a new life? In Matthew 3, where the event is recounted, even John the Baptist is having a problem, and he was a prophet.

John told people, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. “ He was talking about Jesus. Then it says, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus was identifying with the new kingdom John was prophesying about — this new right relationship with God, this fire relationship. And he was showing how people get there. God comes and involves himself with your sinful life and the presence of his love makes you a brand new person. When we have empathy, we are doing the same thing kind of loving. It is the basis for good relationships.

Some people , like even John the Baptist, just want Jesus to be all about fire, all about new and pure and good. But that is only half the scene here. The new, good stuff only gets there by love going to the dark, hardened places in us and listening, receiving all that sin, taking it on until it is all out in the open and changing. Isn’t it a wonderful thing that Jesus would become like us, even entering into our sin, then rise above it transformed and leading the way out for us. That is great love. And great empathy.

How can we do empathy? How can we learn it? Listen to God and follow the example of Jesus. You’ve got the strength if you imitate him. But let me be more specific in just one very little way.

Be quick to listen

Remember when James said that a few minutes ago? What if we want to do that? What does he mean?

  • Some people think he means feeling someone’s feelings for them – even in spite of their own. (Lots of wives seem to get into this with stonewalling husbands – they have all the feelings in the marriage).
  • Some people think he means listening for a couple of moments and then launching into a description of how the person can solve their problem. (Lots of husbands like to do this so they can tidy up the relationship and move on to sex).

I think empathy is a little more artful and balanced than than either of those ideas of what listening is for.

Very simple empathy, and everyone needs this, is communicating accurate understanding and acceptance. So let’s say your loved one (that means anyone) says something like this dialogue:

Seeker statement: It really burns me up to have to pay so much in taxes.”

(Pause and consider what you would normally say)

There are three parts to an empathic reply:        

Identify the thought content:                           paying to much tax

Identify the feelings content:                          frustration, anger, aggravation

Paraphrase or summarize the thoughts and feelings into a tentative reply:

“It sounds like having so much money go to taxes really aggravates you.”

Now you try with this statement: “I was shocked by his rude behavior!”

(Pause and consider what you would normally say)

  1. Identify thought content: rudeness, the behavior problems of humankind, this guy the way he is.
  2. Identify feeling content: shocked? offended? embarrassed?
  3. Paraphrase or summarize the thought and feeling together into a tentative statement:

Possible tentative beginnings: It sounds like…I think I hear you saying…You seem to be saying…It sounded like you were just wondering if…So is it that you’re thinking…I hope I’m following. you’re feeling…?…Am I hearing you say…?

One more, a little harder: “I can’t believe you would hurt me like this. I don’t know if I ever want to see you again.”

(Pause and consider what you would normally say)

In the middle difficult relationships, which are the cause of so much pain, but so much hope that our neediness might be met with love, it encourages me to remember Jesus knows my suffering. And like no one else can, he entered into my experience and continues to do that beyond mind to mind, and feeling to feeling. His love is Spirit to spirit, which strengthens me to love, too.

Now try to listen and respond with empathy.

As we ponder the basic building blocks of good relationships this week, let’s celebrate the hope we have in Jesus. Even if we feel extremely damaged and inadequate to love, we are loved, and Jesus understands. I hope you will listen to him communicating understanding and acceptance to you as you bravely enter into love person after person.

Group communication “sad?” Try on some Virginia Satir.

I was in a group meeting with some wonderful people the other day. As I reflected on it this morning, I remembered Virginia Satir. She is often called the “mother of family therapy.” As a doctor of marriage and family therapy, she has done a little mothering of me, too. You can read her Wikipedia page for interesting details. Today I just want to share two things she offered the world that would improve most of the groups we are in: workplace, family  and the beleaguered church.

Virginia Satir (1916-1988)

Tell your own story

One of the things that made me think of Virginia Satir is the fact I was sounding a bit like her in our group. We were  group of Christians from around the country reflecting on a new statement about how to follow Jesus these days. (I’m reserving the name of the group because it is not the point). Like Satir, I was trying to encourage people to tell their own stories with confidence, not worrying what someone else might be thinking all the time they are sharing.

Virginia Satir knew how to share what she had to say. I have always admired her for creating a theory and forming a school of thought to explore her insights, even though, as a woman in the 1960’s to 80’s, as soon as she raised her voice, people called her “tyrannical” and considered her theories “unscientific.” She used her theories in her therapy and taught her disciples anyway, and we are still appreciating what she created.

I don’t think I agree with some significant things in her well-known declaration of self-esteem: “I Am Me,” but I am thrilled with the spirit behind it. My comrades in our group had brilliant things to say, but the present atmosphere in which we live and the captivity of  recent Christianity to modern thought induced them to pose most of what they said in relation to an imagined opponent or a critical expert. I think we should all begin, as Satir encourages us to do, with “I am me and I am okay.” Especially if one is in Christ and can say, “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, no fear; in the Spirit I am who I am.” We don’t need to make an argument all day, even if people who don’t love us are out there somewhere, supposedly ready to take us down.

There is room for a good argument, of course, even gainst “straw” opponents. Working out common goals allows us to come from all sorts of places and end up on a mutual path. It usually takes some time and effort to get to harmony — and presenting my sacred opinion, standing alone with its chin up, is rarely the best place to start. Instead of setting up an argument with how we talk and act, I think we should begin with our own story  and receive another’s and so allow our vulnerability to seed the group (and the world!) with the possibility of real love.

Be aware of your communication style

Satir continues to be well-known today for her five communication styles. By now, you probably know your Myers-Brigs letters, your Enneagram number/wings and all sorts of  other labels that might chafe like a wool sweater sometimes. Satir’s labels came from observing families and seeing the same patterns arise again and again. She generalized the variations so people could consider how to make one another better humans, not just clutter the family system with dysfunction and debilitating pain.

As we went through our group the other day, I periodically got a glimpse of myself putting on one of these communication styles or fending off, in my mind at least, some dysfunctional style from someone else. Our group was super polite and not that intimate yet, so we were not treated to anything extreme. But our process made me wonder how the church keeps going when we are often stuck in the four less-functional styles of communicating and often despair of getting to the best style (Or think we are already best, but no one will tell us we aren’t because they think too poorly of themselves to reveal their experience!).

I aspired to be a “leveler” in the group according to Satir’s model. The leveler is “congruent,” meaning their internal states match what is communicated externally. For Satir, that means they are OK being themselves and are open to others being themselves. They are aware of self, other and context in a way that allows them to mentalize about what is happening instead of just reacting out of fear. In the chart (that blurry thing at the left), the leveler’s stance s open, arms welcoming, legs  relaxed, and their facial expressions and tone match their internal state. We are not all likely to be the “non-anxious presence” we hear about all the time, but trying to stay aware helps a group stay connected, even when times are hard. Satir followers often quote the Roman poet Horace to that end: “When things are steep, remember to stay level-headed.”

Satir had first hand knowledge of how communication styles could hurt. In the “family” of the first family therapists, the blamers accused her of all sorts of things, the placaters fawned over her, the rationalists were disappointed that she did not come up with a theoretical model to meet their expectations, and the distracters considered her irrelevant.

You may have had the same experience during a Zoom call for work this week, or in a small group of the church, or at your family dinner table.  I was having a little taste of all the dysfunctional styles coming at me in my group the other day (and coming from me, too!). In the chart above, you can see that each style is missing congruity with something — and irrelevant misses them all!

The four off-kilter types

Blamers defend by pointing the finger at someone else. They use words like “you should have” or “if you would try harder, then I wouldn’t have to…” or ” I do it right so this couldn’t have been my fault.”  Most Christians are clever enough to do this subtley. They would be more likely to quote the Bible or the latest critic of the church to put you in your place, which leaves them blameless. They set an atmosphere on edge.

Computers (the super-reasonable or rational) often position themselves with their arms crossed and use super reasonable words, like “I tried to tell you”, or “according to so-in-so.” or “when we last had this discussion.” They defend by ignoring feelings and other information, relying on logic to sound all put  together. In the chart above, they are all context, but not personal or relational. They make an atmosphere feel distant or cold.

When I get around a group of Christian leaders, it is often the blamers and computers versus the placators and distracters. That might just be the way of all flesh. But it also might be becasue their family systems operated like this. Married couples are more likely than not to have a “pursuing” partner and a “withrdrawing” partner. The withdrawers often have communication styles like placators and distractors. Truth without love kills. Love without truth lies.

Placators defend by trying to marginalize conflict in order to protect themselves or stabilize relationships. They sound like “please, won’t you just listen” or “now, it wasn’t that bad,” or “I don’t want to fight,” or they just stay quiet, sometimes letting their facial expressions say what they are not willing to put out there. I was on Zoom the other day with my group, which is a good venue to observe how faces tell things people are not yet willing to say.  The make the atmosphere a bit unreal or desperate.

Distracters (the “irrelevant” style) attempt to derail the conversation when they are uncomfortable. Their postures are more like rapid movements, or laughing at inappropriate moments. Words they use sound like “not to change the subject, but” or “did you see that new movie?” Maybe more, they feel so irrelevant or are so irrelevant to what is hapening they can’t keep their attention on it, they are easily distracted. I think people kept shutting off their video during our meeting the other day because it was hard to keep up the energy it takes to connect that way. I took a phone call from the City of Philadelphia myself. Distrcter make the atmosphere feel insubstantial, even foolish or shameful.

Being a leveler is hard. It is a lot easier to stay reactive and most of us prefer that, even when we feel called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Virginia Satir believed if we would all get congruent and live as levelers, world peace would be ushered in. As soon as she said that, she was criticized for being a naive woman who ignored the needs of the “Third World” (as Eurocentric people called it then).  She went around the world telling her story, anyway. As a result, her present influence might be more significant outside the United States now than it was inside then.

The second week of Advent: The joy of being forgiven

New Yorker, 9/28/2009

I think I am good at forgiveness as a conviction — mainly because I just don’t want the bad feelings that come with not forgiving people. One time a church I led had the slogan “life’s too short not to love somebody.” I’m on that wavelength.

There’s another reason, too. I never got over my first training as  Jesus follower. I would not say I was well trained, but I was introduced to Jesus giving his “Sermon on the Mount” and his teaching about forgiveness is pretty clear in Matthew 6.

 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I never got over the conditional nature of those lines. If I am not forgiving, I’m not on the team. It is a forgive-the-world and restore-humanity team; it is a peacemaking, undo-evil-even-if-it-hurts team; it is a love-is-#1 team. If I don’t want to forgive, but I do want to be forgiven, I’m just trying to get Jesus on my team, as if my vengeance rules should rule. But that is exactly what he is upending and he assumes I will be praying and acting with him.

Forgiveness is a fundamental force for good. I think I should forgive debts, relational and material, even if I am a victim. I think that is why, right after we forgive our debtors, we pray “Don’t leave me alone, Lord, lest I fall again into evil.” There is no way I can keep developing and behaving in a way worthy of the Spirit in me unless I stick with Jesus and forgive.

We have reasons not to forgive

If I am honest (and maybe you are, too), I have some good reasons not to stick with Jesus. So I am not surprised but still fascinated by how I keep running into lack of forgiveness in the broken relationships my therapy clients endure.

Sometimes they have been cut off or have to cut someone off without being reconciled and need to forgive at a distance if they can, because the hate or the danger is just too strong. Jesus is not in the mix or maybe just on one side, so the miracle is not going to happen.

Other times, people just agree not to forgive without rancor. Forgiveness is so difficult they make an agreement not to forgive and write their story without it.  We’re discovering more and more that the increasingly avoidant way we relate is hard to overcome. Some people agree on relationships that incorporate avoidant behavior as normal. I think many more people just go it mostly alone without much thought.

This example of unforgiveness is a composite of different people I have known. Lets say a married couple grew up managing their dysfunctional parents. The woman apologizes easily because she needed to to protect herself from the wrath of an abusive mother’s control system. But she admits her apologies have no content. Her husband won’t apologize at all since his mother was consistently drugged by painkillers and his father was absent so there was no place to take his injuries. He despairs that there is anything to forgiveness at all and doesn’t do it.

So in their relationship they have a deal: You don’t need to change if you don’t make me change. You don’t need to say you are sorry if you don’t make me say it — that is, as long as you keep your behavior on a spectrum that is not too damaging. She likes that because she doesn’t need to figure out how to forgive with her heart. He likes that because forgiveness is generally fruitless. But when they talk about it, they realize that forgiveness is really on a higher plane than they are operating, not lower. If they don’t forgive, there is no unconditional love in their relationship, no grace,  just the same managed distance with which they were raised, never a closeness. She says, “Oh yes. Love would be nice.”

A client was mortified when they thought our appointment was an hour later than it was. When we got together, they said they were sorry and I said, “I forgive you. Let it go and lets move on together.” They were a bit stunned. No one had ever said something like that to them before. Maybe they got “It’s OK.” or “No problem/o” or “No worries” but never, “I forgive you.”

Do we not like to say “I forgive you” because it seems too formal, too ceremonial? Is it too authoritiative? Maybe it is too committed, too publicly caring. Maybe it is too, “I have to mean it if I say it, and people need to think I can mean it, and I need think it is OK if I presume I mean something.” Maybe we aren’t sure.

The incarnation is about forgiveness

Maybe we don’t forgive others because we won’t, or think we can’t, forgive ourselves. Maybe I don’t readily forgive myself because I don’t practically receive forgiveness from God. Even if Jesus spoke, “Father forgive him” over me at the cross as I was nailing him up,  maybe I still don’t get it and don’t receive it. I’m  still in charge of making the world run right and ashamed I keep failing.

Want to pause an say, “I receive your forgiveness God?’

You may have found that little sentence humiliating, like you had to admit you were wrong for not receiving forgiveness well enough. Isn’t that why people say, “No need to ask” after I say I am sorry? It is sweet that they meant, “Of course I forgive you. I would never make you ask me.” But I DO need to ask and receive an answer. I don’t get forgiven easily. I need the act so I know it happened, so it is recorded in history, and so I know myself as the forgiven one. Being forgiven speaks me into being. It is a creative  and re-creative act. Don’t let me miss it!

Massacre of the Onnocent — Leon Cogniet (1824)

The incarnation of God in Jesus this month is, in itself, an an act of forgiveness. Before Jesus is born it is  predictable that Herod will try to kill him. We are so about power, not love, about creating debtors, about do all we can to deliver ourselves from more trauma. That’s the kind of sin being forgiven. Jesus is rightly seen as the new Adam, wrestling sin into exhaustion and defeat, that’s what it takes to forgive someone. He is also seen as the new Noah gathering people into a new ark that will make it through the trials of this stormy journey into the age to come. Forgiveness is right in the middle of the turbulence and Jesus is right there with as as we endure the waves.

People did not like it when Jesus saw his incarnation as, primarily an act of forgiveness. You may feel the same. But just one more story.

In chapter 2, right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, he tells a story about a man paralyzed from birth. His friends believe Jesus can heal him and lower him through the roof of the place he is teaching. The gatekeepers of orthodoxy question his authority and Jesus knows what they are thinking.

Now some of the scribes were sitting there questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves, and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.”

We may be paralyzed and cannot use our bodies. Our hearts may be stone and we can’t love. Our spirits may be undeveloped so we can’t forgive. But the advent of Jesus is God coming to our homeplace to forgive each of us and to spread grace throughout the world through all of us. One of the joys every year during Advent is hearing Jesus say again, “Stand up. You are forgiven. Whatever is easiest for you to hear, I am here to say it. Now stand up. Learn to walk with me.”

Shall we pause to feel the joy of hearing him? “Stand up. You are forgiven.”

Do you think someone will feel joy when they  hear that same forgiveness from you today?

Avoidant attachment style: Why you might be developing one

Is avoidant attachment style more prevalent than it used to be? It seems so. Many people I meet and counsel have an “ avoidant streak” rippling through their character. I wouldn’t expect a lot of those people to be in therapy at all, since  they don’t usually trust in the good will of intimates (like therapists get intimate), and they generally maintain independence, self-reliance and emotional distance. But there they are.

There they are, more and more, describing their struggles to connect and their overwhelming sense of being put upon and unacceptable. They got me thinking that their troubles, though probably rooted in their childhood reaction to their parents, were being exacerbated or even created by the cruel time in which we live. The leaders and leadership structures of the world right now do not invite trust. Everyone, down to the counter server and the communion server, seems to be playing by a ruthless, negative playbook.  Flip to the macro and Putin is threatening nuclear war while climate change rolls over Puerto Rico. You probably feel at least a little insecure, yourself.

What is attachment style?

I was doing some research on what I was experiencing and came upon a scholarly paper by Mario Mikulincer (Israel) and Philip Shaver (California) which summarizes the outworking of attachment styles  and hints at why I might see adults getting caught in their childhood avoidance or developing levels of avoidance they never had (Title:  An attachment perspective on psychopathology).

Paula Pietromonaco, Nancy Collins, Phil Shaver, Mario Mikulincer, Sue Johnson, Roger Kobak at an adult attachment conference in 2002

You may be quite familiar with attachment theory, by now, since John Bowlby started teaching about it in the 1970’s and 80’s. I appreciated the authors’ succinct way to recount how our attachment experiences result in attachment styles – how we see ourselves and habitually behave in the world.

Interactions with attachment figures who are available in times of need, and who are sensitive and responsive to bids for proximity and support, promote a stable sense of attachment security and build positive mental representations of self and others. But when a person’s attachment figures are not reliably available and supportive, proximity seeking fails to relieve distress, felt security is undermined, negative models of self and others are formed, and the likelihood of later emotional problems and maladjustment increases.

When testing this theory in studies of adults, most researchers have focused on the systematic pattern of relational expectations, emotions, and behavior that results from one’s attachment history – what Hazan and Shaver called attachment style. Research clearly indicates that attachment styles can be measured in terms of two independent dimensions, attachment-related anxiety and avoidance. A person’s position on the anxiety dimension indicates the degree to which he or she worries that a partner will not be available and responsive in times of need. A person’s position on the avoidance dimension indicates the extent to which he or she distrusts relationship partners’ good will and strives to maintain behavioral independence, self-reliance, and emotional distance.

I found it enlightening to see myself plotted on a four-quadrant chart created by anxiety and avoidance axes when it came to my attachment style. The way you can see if you are more or less one way or another is to see what you do when you are threatened or distressed.  People who score low on anxiety or avoidance are generally secure and tend to employ constructive and effective emotion-regulation strategies when life gets hard. Those who score high on either the attachment anxiety or the avoidance dimension (or both) suffer from insecurity and tend to rely on “secondary attachment strategies,” either deactivating or hyperactivating according to their childhood attachment system or the one they’ve recently developed to cope with threats.

Click for Anxiety Canada

Avoidance

I am mainly interested in the avoidance axis today, since I suspect when the CIA reports how many more assets are being killed than usual and Donald Trump had top-secret papers in Mar-a-Lago for a year it makes you want to avoid something! People who should be trustworthy aren’t. A great many people are so avoidant they trust no one. This is not new to the planet, but it is seismic right now.

According to Mikulincer and Shaver, people scoring high on avoidant attachment tend to rely on deactivating strategies – not seeking “proximity, denying attachment needs, and avoiding closeness and interdependence in relationships.” These strategies originally developed in relationships with attachment figures who disapproved of or undermined closeness and expressions of need or vulnerability.

Attachment style may be mostly about baby you, but not completely. It is too limited to think it is  something an individual carries inside and needs to deal with personally. One’s style arose in a relational setting, in a system, first off, with parents, and our habits can develop in new contexts. A marriage or workplace could change us. Donald Trump lying and calling people losers could change us.

Bowlby claimed that “meaningful relational interactions during adolescence and adulthood can move a person from one region to another of the two-dimensional conceptual space defined by attachment anxiety and avoidance.” Recent research keeps showing how our attachment style can develop, subtly or dramatically, depending on our current context, recent experiences, and recent relationships. There are studies that focus on highly stressful events, such as exposure to missile attacks, living in a dangerous neighborhood, or giving birth to a physically challenged infant which indicate avoidance is related to our present distress and the poor long-term adjustment that contributed to it. Our environment may deteriorate or we may create a dysfunctional environment which develops more avoidance.

Becoming less avoidant

Insecure attachment sets us up for other issues with both mental and physical health and strains all those relationships we hunger to have. Creating, maintaining, or restoring a sense of attachment security should increase resilience and improve mental health. Mikulincer and Shaver say,

According to attachment theory, interactions with available and supportive attachment figures impart a sense of safety, trigger positive emotions (e.g., relief, satisfaction, gratitude, love), and provide psychological resources for dealing with problems and adversities. Secure individuals remain relatively unperturbed during times of stress, recover faster from episodes of distress, and experience longer periods of positive affectivity, which contributes to their overall emotional well-being and mental health.

Whether an avoidant person moves toward security depends on how they travel three significant pathways.

View of self. The lack of sensitivity and responsiveness in your parents may have destabilized your self-esteem, or made you over-dependent on the approval of others. Insecure people are likely to be overly critical, self-doubting and likely to defend themselves by committing to perfection to counter how unworthy and hopeless they feel. Avoidant people praise themselves before someone doesn’t. Or they might deny weaknesses or needs because no one will care. The zeitgeist contributes to their view. Criticism is rampant right now. Perfection is a national obsession.

Emotional regulation. Hopefully, available attachment figures taught you to share your feelings and learn how to regulate them in relationship to others. Relatively insecure, avoidant people tend to cordon off their emotions from what they think and do. They may look secure and composed but they leave suppressed distress bubbling inside, which may erupt when crisis unleashes it. Then they need the coping skills and relational support system they didn’t imagine they needed.

Problems with relationships. It is no surprise that problems with our first relationships lead to learning a relationship style that has or creates problems. The avoidant person’s “deactivation” strategy for self-preservation creates issues. They generally have problems with nurture since that is a basic instinct formed with mom and dad. They may seem cold, may be unreasonably introverted, or may be overly competitive for what they see as the scarce resources of affection.

The neuroscience of attachment processes describes how the human brain evolved in a highly social environment. Our basic functions rely on social co-regulation of emotions and physiological states. So, like I said before, we should not see each other as separate entities whose interactions need to be interrogated and reconfigured according to theory. We should accept our fascinating interrelatedness as our normal starting point. When we do that, it helps us to see why separation, isolation, rejection, abuse, and neglect are so painful, and why insecurity-provoking relationships often cause or amplify our mental disorders. The pandemic left many avoidant people hesitant to ever leave their homes.  Teletherapy is a good option for them, but it may also deepen their avoidance.

Our attachment styles develop. We can change for the better. Great thinkers and practitioners are providing us a lot of help to do that. For instance, I discovered the Attachment Project website a few weeks ago. I probably sent its link to everyone I thought might be leaning toward an avoidant attachment style  (here it is). I would not put TOO much stock in this unattested and anonymous site, but it does some nice work to summarize different attachment styles and explain how people who could be characterized as “avoidant,” for instance, tend to behave and relate – and suffer. Please don’t use it to label yourself, we are in a dynamic process, here, getting worse off and better off all the time. But no matter your style, the site might help you get an inner dialogue going — and mentalizing is fertile soil for God to plant something whole and joyful.

Please people out of love, not defensiveness

Thanks to David McElroy

A man reluctantly agreed to marriage counseling. When he got to the session, resistance was written all over his body language. She predictably got the ball rolling with a string of criticisms which she assumed I would consider well-intentioned facts. I turned to him and wondered out loud what he was feeling. He said, “I’m the one who organized this therapy.” She said, “You wouldn’t have done anything if I hadn’t nagged you, like I usually have to.” He said, “It is impossible to please you.” Their defensive exchange quickly arrived at deeper understanding. But it doesn’t always go that way.

Defensiveness

The Gottmans include defensiveness as the third horseman of their Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse. They define it as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” Many people become defensive when they are being criticized. It might be more effective if they just said “Ouch.” But what they usually do is take an eye for an eye and respond with blame. The husband above did not listen to the legitimate complaint behind his wife’s criticism, he justified himself by shifting the blame to her for not recognizing his efforts.

We have all been defensive. When any close relationship is on the rocks, it is a good time to notice what is important to you and what scares you. You are probably defending it the way you do that. The storms of intimacy have a way of uncovering what we might keep hidden. What is hidden by us or from us is often well-defended.

We hate feeling exposed. We rarely start off talking about what we keep hidden because we prefer it hidden or are no longer conscious of what we hide. One man considered why his mind went blank when certain subjects came up. He pictured a little person in a subterranean control room inside of him on a hair trigger waiting for a command to, “Shut the gates!” whenever he was threatened. We all have a “switch” like that which activates our defenses.

Acting defensively is usually a knee-jerk reaction. We all have defense mechanisms we organized when we’re very young to make sure we survived. These behaviors usually involve our deepest emotions, of which we may or may not be conscious. But the behaviors are very familiar and feel crucial. We have a childish commitment to them.

When you feel unjustly accused or threatened in some way, you usually first try to get your partner to back off. You defend yourself in a reasoned way. Easy-to-see defensiveness is shifting the blame. We say, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” The Gottman’s have a good antidote for de-escalating this first-level power struggle. They teach us to accept our own responsibility. If you have a problem, check with yourself, first.

If you are activated by certain situations over and over, it is likely your partner is hitting that button in your unconscious where you have a deep need to feel cared for and it is not happening. For instance, if I already feel unworthy and you criticize me, I will get defensive. Actually, if you just point a finger at me and start a sentence with “You!” I will probably feel defensiveness rise up.

Have you noted the last time you were defensive yet? Have you noted the effects of your own and others’ defensiveness in your life? If not, now would be a good time.

A favorite Christian mechanism: reaction formation

In power struggles, it is usually the most powerless people who think they have to exercise the most power and bear the most burdens. Strong people feel fine about being strong and doing things strongly, perhaps with little self-awareness or compassion. Powerless, fragile, wounded, or traumatized people often feel alone against strong forces and come up with all sorts of ways to protect themselves. I wish all this defending were invented by adults; it would be easier to see. But most of it gets built before have much ability to think about what we are doing. We are surviving. But even as adults we often react like powerless children when we are most distressed.

The definitions the Gottmans use above for how couples are defensive are quite accurate. But they are also oversimplified. For instance, I think one of the greatest defenses a child learns is to appear to be defenseless, to appear compliant or pleasing. Rather than expressing themselves to ignorant or inattentive parents they discover a pleasing personage (Tournier)/persona (Jung) which engenders some validation of their worth, or at least gets them fed. You may have tried to be pleasing enough to avoid the violence lurking in the household or to be more pleasing than a sibling to get a better share of limited resources. Many children begin to unleash themselves from this form of defense with the terrible twos when they explore the boundaries of what they are being schooled to obey. Others just perfect their false self and even forget how furious they are with how relationships hurt and shame them.

I think many of my Christian clients are working out this subtle form of self-defense. They have been well-schooled that causing conflict with parents or the church system is a big no-no. So they defend their place in the family or the larger system by looking like they are being good while seething inside (or being depressed because they don’t know they are seething) — this is the seed thought of many semi-autobiographical novels, right?

Freud called this mechanism “reaction formation.” You might feel guilt or shame so you act out the opposite of what you feel by looking compliant or self-assured, effectively hiding what you fear to have exposed. The classic example Google will immediately tell you is of the elementary boy who bullies a girl because he can’t deal with the attraction he feels. I can relate. I think I remember blushing when a playground friend accused me of liking the girl I had just beaned with a four-square ball.

Christians are notoriously seen as repressed hypocrites because they never allow their true feelings to despoil their appropriate behavior. When a child learns they are powerless against their abusive or neglectful parents, they may adopt the persona that works for their best interests, hopeless of ever being truly seen. When such a persona marries, they surprise their partner when a person does not show up. I suffer for people who have a mate pointing a finger at them when all they are trying to do is please them. They’re like the poor man who said, “You can’t be pleased.” Being pleasing was the main weapon he had to use in their power struggle and he is disappointed it does not work.

Roman sacrifice: Suovetaurile

Try not to find your defenses in the Bible

For many church people, reaction formation seems like a tenet of faith. If you want to find it, you can read it into many scripture passages. For instance, look at Romans 15:15: 

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” NRSV

I think these sentences are easily interpreted to say, “Jesus did not please himself, but others. So you should please others, not yourself. That’s love. And such love will be rewarded. Don’t please yourself if you want to go to heaven.”

When I was young, some teacher taught me the way to J-O-Y is Jesus, others, yourself, and they meant in that order. I instinctively put the three words in an inclusive circle, but my teacher definitely meant it as a hierarchy. Other teachers left off the Y altogether and encouraged me to annihilate or at least severely discipline myself for Jesus; these days some people call that mentality “cruciform.” Even though Jesus says you lose yourself to find yourself, and Paul says he leaves his false self to receive a true one in Christ, many Christians spend a lifetime denying themselves and presenting the same false compliance they did as a child, often feeling the depressing or anxiety-causing effects of resenting how they are never recognized for all they do and are.

Love out of love

We have seen a lot of angry Christians on the screen in the past few years. I think they drive people out of the church with their reaction formation. They are obviously angry, but they think they are behaving in the loving way Jesus would prefer, and saving people from sin. Not acknowledging I am miserable or being curious about why, while I insist I am just trying to please you, quickly undermines trust in any relationship. When you cause such suffering, don’t blame your mate for persecuting you like Jesus was.

If you read the whole account that leads up to the often-misinterpreted snippet of Romans, above, you’ll see that Paul acknowledges the weakness of people who are frightened by pagan meat. He doesn’t tell them to eat it and pretend they like it. To the strong who are just doing whatever they want, eating whatever they bless and feeling blessed, he says to attend to the dark side of the strength they have – the side which would ignore the poor for the pleasure of their own freedom or power.

If, when you please me, you are mainly trying to get loved, I will feel that. If you care for me because you are defending yourself, I will probably know that, eventually, too. We won’t be tuned in to each other because you won’t really be there, just the persona you think pleases me. (If you are having a similar relationship with God, same results, by the way). You might not be so aware of it, but I will probably pick up on the anger and resentment you really feel, which you try to hide behind your appropriate behavior. What’s more, I will likely feel like I should be helping you in your project to “love” me, because you will be even more angry or depressed if you don’t succeed at it. Your success means I accepted your sacrifice of your true self for me as of supreme value.

I’d rather you loved me out of love not defensiveness.

Eternal: What does the word mean to you?

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
John 10:10

[T]hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.
The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
John 4:14

Does Jesus mean what I think he means?

Jesus came to find us and give us eternal life. So where is it? Is it off in the future and I just need to gut it out until I die? Or is it resident somewhere in all of us and I just need to  become restful enough for it to well up? Insert your own variation of these questions.

Eternal life sounds like a good idea, but most people I know aren’t that sure about it.  I think the “may have” there in John 10:10 sounds conditional to a lot of us, like those metaphorical sheep who hear the Lord’s voice “may,” as in might, have an abundant life. Some self-described “sheep” are still out there looking for that life, and feeling tentative.

And that word to the Samaritan woman in John 4 puts a lot of pressure on her to “drink of the water,” doesn’t it?  — as if she should have already done it and be someone better already. Other desperate people, like her, are thinking, “What if I didn’t take my drink? What if I can’t find the ‘water’ to drink? Is what I’m drinking the water, or not?”

Most psychotherapy clients are searching for answers to such questions whether they consider themselves spiritual or not. There seems to be some thirst-quenching abundance somewhere beyond us all. We feel its possibility.

Jesus is offering an abundant life. He wants us to have it to the full. To the woman at the well he says this life is eternal. In the famous John 3:16 Jesus is quoted promising whoever follows him — whoever believes him and trusts him, eternal life.

Most Christians probably think eternal life is “immortality;” one will live forever — some see that immortality beginning after you die, some see it beginning as soon as you receive it like a cup of water from the Lord’s hand. Others see eternal life as more of a sense of being fully alive in the present — like eternal is the quality of the life, the very life of the Eternal One, the Spirit-life of God welling up within us.

Without thinking much more, what do you say eternal life is? Are you waiting for it? Trying to get it? Hoping for it? Living in it? Is it living in you? Is it making you? What was your first answer?

Becoming and being eternal

You don’t have to have a right answer. But how we see ourselves, see God, and see life makes a huge difference. Someone told me lately that their life was a curse. To be sure, that made a big difference in how they were moving through the week!

The word eternal invites us into the mystery, the unknown or unknowable reality we sense beyond our present capacity to experience or understand. The mysterious word eternal has two sides to it which some see as mutually exclusive, but I see as two sides of the same coin. However your day flips, you may feel on one side or the other.

The “heads” side of the word eternal might feel more familiar. Some people see eternal life as a long stretch of days leading off into forever. If that’s you and you are ambitious, then you are on a long developmental journey one day after the other. If you aren’t ambitious, then you are waiting out the tribulation you are experiencing because Jesus will overcome for you in the end.

I think this linear, physical, practical view makes sense because we are embodied spirits. I think we will always be aware of time, even in the age to come. From our first breath we are developing. Spiritually, we are becoming full or we are emptying out. I wish we could be serene pools of living water without any evaporation, but I’ve never seen that happen. If we aren’t moving into eternity, we are moving toward death.

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You can see this side of eternity in our marriages. Once we find a person to travel with, we often wish we no longer had to become anything. “Why doesn’t my partner already know what I want and give it to me? How could I have married someone who needs to learn something? Why can’t we just be OK? What happened to the honeymoon?” It sounds kind of silly when those things are written out loud. But that mate you have can set off a longing for eternity, for abundant life, that can’t be quenched very easily. The main characters on Bridgerton develop for a few episodes and enter into bliss. We turn to the lover on the couch and say, “Why are you depriving me? Where is this thing we’ve got going?”

On the other side of the word eternal, some people see eternal life as choosing abundance now. It is living in the present, being fully awake and ready to engage, drawing on that inner spring of goodness.  Richard Rohr calls spiritual life the “eternal now.” The creation itself is a gift of life and by grace Jesus restores its fullness to us. You can hear him calling if you have ears to hear.

I think this nonlinear, spiritual, otherworldly view also makes sense because we all feel the pull of our spiritual awareness – even if only for three minutes when we are touched by a beloved piece of music or when are faced with our mortality. From our first breath we have a sense of being with God.  Jesus comes to us and blows the breath of the Spirit on us and invites us to be refilled, to access what can quench our deep thirst.

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This side of eternity also shows up in our marriages. I wonder if “in touch” people like Richard Rohr might be even harder to live with. If every moment has a deeper meaning than appears, it might communicate to your mate that they are a bit disappointing at times. At the worst, such a seeker can seem a bit tortured, either making sure they are happy or sinking so far into their goodness they don’t really need anyone else. Madam Bridgerton was so blissed out on her late husband that she left it to her unprepared eldest to do the real living.  He almost missed out on his own trip to the well. To his good fortune, he was on Netflix.

Suffering

The bad news about psychotherapy is often: there will be some pain accompanying your change for the better. A lot of people can smell the threat of that suffering even in the Bible verses that promise eternal life. For instance one could reply to Jesus in John 10, “The thieves already came in and stole, Jesus! You know that; they took your life!” A person thirsty for forgiveness and community has surely talked back to Jesus in John 4 saying, “If there is so much water available, why do I feel so dry?”

People come to therapy suffering. They often come to spiritual direction, to church meetings and to dinner the same way. We are all in need of eternal life. I think the sufferers are among the most honest people on the planet. They are asking the all the right questions. Because feeling outside of eternity is terrible.

The way into eternal life begins with welcoming the future or turning into the presence of it right now. We need to move toward or with life day after day. I have been doing that for a lot of days mostly more on than off, I think. I started early, so that’s about 22, 995 days towards death and through it into the promise of eternal life. Like most of you, probably, I’ve recently had a couple of doozies of difficult years. Plus, I am getting old and have to get up and keep moving when my bones ache and heart aches. I have to keep choosing life as things change. I have to change. We suffer.

Before I go, I just want to confess for us that even when I have stumbled into wonderful abundance and when I have turned to swim in the death-quenching water all around me, even when I have done it right and when I have felt at peace, those realities have also caused suffering. I became different, I was different, and I disrupted what others considered normal. I came into abundance and had abundance to share, but people didn’t always take it or even understand it. When I wanted to connect and love, my care was ignored and my chances were stolen. I disrupted myself, too. My opinion of myself had to change because a full me usurped the me who had been protecting against emptiness for a long time.

Becoming and being eternal go together. If you can’t keep going there will be no place to be. If you can’t delight in who you are and who you are in Christ right now, at least a little, there is no motivation to keep choosing and becoming your full self.

However the coin lands, the life and death choices being explored in psychotherapy (and many other places, of course) are about eternal life. We long for the happiness of abundant life. The spiritual thirst we feel implies there is water. Even if we suffer to enter the life Jesus offers, the choosing, itself, makes us more human and more enspirited.

Adele on marriage: Four takeaways from Easy On Me

Adele in 2021

I am not a big Spotify user. I first downloaded the app so I could listen to the Tea Club’s latest album (still highly recommended). I made a visit to the site recently and discovered the lists. I love “top 100” lists of most kinds. And there was the most-streamed songs list on Spotify — and there was Adele with Easy On Me, still on the list after six months. She put out the album, 30, just after the deadline for the 2022 Grammys, so she didn’t get any awards last night. But she might still be in the top 50 in 2023.

On YouTube the official video for the song has 261 million views. I know a couple of people who had it on repeat as soon as they heard it. I caught on to it because one of the repeaters was a client who could relate to her lament of breakup and liberation. As a result, I got interested in Adele for the first time. I even found myself watching her as Oprah dug into what was happening during her years of recording silence.

Mental health issues

She’s been depressed. She’s been anxious. She got a divorce. She became a single mom spending half-time with her child; she had to think about whether to buy a 9 million dollar home in Beverly Hills.

I wonder if she has also been interested in her role as the unofficial poster-person for mental health issues. Like I was saying last time, the WHO says depression is the #1 disability in the world. You may be feeling it yourself right now. It has been a hard two years; go easy on yourself, baby. Adele’s album is all about her pain and recovery; she’s a forthright woman.

I have to admit, I suggested to one client that listening to her might not be a road to wellness for them. It was more likely a way to keep the trauma fresh and deepen the narrative of despair which was creating a canyon in their brain from which it might be hard to deviate when they wanted to move on.

Adele’s guidance

But I might be wrong about Adele being a bad influence. Music is such a natural cathartic and integrative experience. If one sang along with Adele rather than just being formed by her, Easy On Me might be useful.

If we look at the words, I think we can find some takeaways that might help us on our own tragic journeys.

Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose
What I chose to do
So go easy on me

Adele probably said what the words of this famous chorus mean during her extensive publicity tour. I did not hear about it. But here is why I think people love them so much. We feel them. Even if you want to get out of a relationship, breaking up feels terrible: “Please don’t make this any harder than it already is, baby,” And if your marriage or other relationship is breaking down and you can’t see your way back, “Please, baby, go easy on me. I can’t stand any more criticism, contempt, defensiveness or withdrawal” (the four main relationship poisons).

Every one of the couples I counsel are experiencing the childhood wounds with which they arrived when they were married. We could all say “I was still a child” in one way or another, and our inner child is still with us! Adele had the common experience of significantly growing up in her 20something marriage, alongside her young child, Angelo (who will be 10 this year). Many young mothers are depressed after giving birth, and feeling constrained by a child can be a shock to their system. “Where are my choices?” and “Did I choose this?”

There ain’t no gold in this river
That I’ve been washin’ my hands in forever
I know there is hope in these waters
But I can’t bring myself to swim
When I am drowning in this silence
Baby, let me in

I’ve met with many individuals and couples over the years who sang this verse. “Where we are at feels intolerable. I can’t see any hope, even though I hope there is some.” They’re  too depressed or otherwise upset to swim. “I’m sinking. We can’t talk. The isolation and loneliness I feel is overwhelming.”

There ain’t no room for things to change
When we are both so deeply stuck in our ways
You can’t deny how hard I have tried
I changed who I was to put you both first
But now I give up

Adele spent years trying to figure out what to do. Her song is not about a snap judgment! She finally gave up. Sometimes you have to give up. I sometimes think people hold on too long, and sometimes if feel they gave up right when they were dealing with reality for the first time. But when enough is enough will never be my call to make. If you are walking with Jesus, the Lord could turn your greatest loss into your greatest growth. It happens all the time. That miracle could happen in a renewed marriage or a divorce. Either way, there will be pain.

The family at Disneyland

Four takeaways for people who don’t want to give up

Adele gives beautiful voice to our pain and that’s why Easy on Me keeps being streamed. But what if you don’t want to give up? What if you don’t want your partner to give up? Adele alludes to some roads not taken in her song.

1) Go easy on your partner. If you feel bad, they probably do too. Learn how to be taken care of by God and cooperate with his care. Depression is a fight. If you go easy on your partner and yourself, it might make you easier to live with and might give you some space to see some good in your partner — and yourself. You might be able to do something good for the relationship, not just feel bad about what it is right now.

2) It’s a river. If you aren’t finding gold the way you are panning or not finding it where you think it should be, move down the river. Adele can sense hope in the water because things changed. She  changed. Relationships can change and grow when one person has the courage, like Adele, to grow up. No one needs to drown in a relationship. But it is likely the relationship will drown unless both partners are going for gold. There is often a way.

3) Keep talking. It sounds like Adele feels like she did a lot of talking, but her husband withdrew — “Baby, let me in.” When he did that, she got more aggressive and he built more of a stone wall to protect himself and the relationship. This may have made her feel abandoned and made him feel rejected. It is hard to talk about feelings as deep as abandonment and rejection, but marriages are built on the love we make when we keep talking.

4) If you are defensive, your shame button may have been pushed. When she says, “You can’t deny how hard I have tried,” I am sure I believe her. But life is not failure proof if you just try hard enough. Behind that defensive statement there might be some shame about not being good enough, capable enough, lovable enough, or not trying hard enough and failing — any of which is intolerable to feel. It is easy to imagine her partner saying, “I can surely deny how you tried hard enough. What is your standard? Are you blaming me for what you have done?” Now he’s defending against feeling shameful.

I hope Adele and her husband got the best marital therapy money can buy, since she’s worth $190 million. Having a third party listening with compassion and noting the unique patterns of your relationship can help. Most of the time a therapist helps partners “go easy” on someone who has hurt them whether they make it through to the next steps of the marriage or go their separate ways. Many times the therapist helps them build something new, now that they are over thirty, or starting from wherever the river has taken them.

Our disposition towards the world makes all the difference

Much of psychotherapy is listening to stories about relationships. When married couples are with me, they are having their relationship as we speak! The quality of these relationships often hinges on the dispositions of each person, specifically toward the people they are talking about, but, more important, to the world.

You may have never used the word “disposition” in a sentence. I think the word should be more popular than it is. Since it is an inherently relational word, it has fallen out of fashion in an age in which people are mainly interested in their identity, their self-hood, their personal power. Just this week, Michelle Goldberg wrote a op-ed about the movement in feminism away from meaningless sex towards a restoration of relationality. Relationships might make a comeback! I hope so. If they do, disposition might get into one of your sentences!

You may have heard the word “disposition” used to mean the inherent qualities of mind and character that give someone their unique way of being in the world: “Your sunny disposition has a way of rubbing off on those around you” — temperament, nature, makeup, the grain of them that might cause them to go against the grain. In a less individual sense, someone’s or something’s “disposition” is the way someone or something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other people or other things: the disposition of infantry on the battlefield, the disposition of trees in an orchard, the disposition of the parts of this blog — arranging, ordering, positioning, relating.

When a couple moves into therapy, each has a personal disposition which their mate will learn to understand better and, hopefully, to respect and even love. Their relationship will also have a disposition of its own — its own character and a sense of how it relates to the world, how it arranges itself and how it has been arranged by various forces and its own history.

Since this word and all its synonyms are built into the English language, one would expect us to understand it. But during the last 50 years or so, the relationality of words has not been not assumed — we no longer assume words relate to something more than themselves. This blog post is for exploring that oddity in the hope that things are changing, just like Michelle Goldberg is exploring how sex is trying to regain human connection and love.

La‘amea Lunn and helpers on Oahu, Hawai‘i

A deeper knowing

A lot of what makes people “indisposed” when it comes to relating is the “left brain” dominance which accompanies the present domination of machines and technical skills. You may have friends, like I do, who have dropped off the grid and bought a farm so they can restore their relationship with the earth and feel all the parts of themselves in a natural setting (new farmers above). Most people have done the opposite and spend most of their time indisposed, in the sense they are unavailable for relating to others, the world, something or someone Other than themselves. This is so true that China recently passed a law to restrict video game use by minors. Chinese kids have been dwarfing themselves by attaching to a machine.

My favorite book of the year, so far, is The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In that book Iain McGilchrist exhaustively shows the difference between the left and right brain and how the left is meant to serve the right, contrary to much of western philosophy since Descartes. He says:

If one had to encapsulate the principle differences in the experience mediated by the two hemispheres, their two modes of being, one could put it like this. The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care. The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really “break out” to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own re-presentations only. Where the thing itself is “present” to the right hemisphere, it is only “re-presented” by the left hemisphere, now become an idea of a thing. Where the right hemisphere is conscious of the Other, whatever it may be, the left hemisphere’s consciousness is of itself.

I meet up with people who are dwarfed by their left brain disposition. Their relationships are especially difficult. In the case of men, their sexual relationship with their partner may be difficult to maintain, since they have been having sex with themselves via internet-delivered porn for much of their lives. When it comes to intimacy, they are often indisposed.

The deadly disposition of control

In an out-of-control society, in a state of perpetual warfare, on an outpost in the warming atmosphere, it is easy to see how one could conform to the illusion of control the left-brain-dominated, corporate world promises. For instance, below is a Lexus commercial from this past summer by a student in Oklahoma which tells a young man that it (the car) needs a fellow dreamer to experience the “power of the spirit of now” together. This is a popular idea; a Cadillac ad from this year depicts the growing “light” within a woman climbing the corporate ladder as resonant in her Cadillac.

The philosophy the video neatly expresses in thirty seconds promises that the “spirit” can be reduced to a relationship with a car. I hope the student was being ironic, but I suspect he was angling for an advertising job one day.

Longing for what a car ad promises is healthy humanity. But actually attaching to representations of meaning within the limits of scientific, consumer capitalism reduces one’s will to managing the elements of a merely material world. McGilchrist explains the philosophical necessity of thinking beyond the boundaries of that kind of representation of reality:

Philosophy being a hyperconscious cognitive process, it may be hard to get away from the left hemisphere’s perspective that will is about control, and must lie in the conscious left hemisphere. But if our disposition towards the world, our relationship with it, alters, will has a different meaning. The disposition of the right hemisphere, the nature of its attention to the world, is one of care, rather than control. Its will relates to a desire or longing towards something, something that lies beyond itself, towards the Other.

The relentless teaching about “the spirit of now” is all about power and control. Even the search for the beloved community often descends, these days, into a fight about power and one’s share of spoils of capitalism.

When people with a “left hemisphere” disposition enter into the self-exploration of psychotherapy (or spirituality) they often feel confronted with a terrifying choice to make. Will I leave my “zone of control,” aided by all sorts of machines and society’s present philosophies? Or will I moved with my right-brain empowered longing for what is beyond the left brain’s frame? Will I leave my porn world for a real relationship? Will I desert the constant, anxious monitoring for what I dread and my anesthesia against that anxiety in order to move with the desire I have neutered in honor of my fear of betraying what dominates me? If I change my disposition, I will have to care and become respons-ible.

I believe in you

When I was in high school I played the lead in one of the more unpopular musicals my director could have chosen for us: How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying. [Harry Potter tried it]. I did not understand the tongue it had in its cheek. But I got sort of famous on campus for singing the signature song: “I Believe in You.” It is a left-brain hymn to looking sincere and believing you are good at looking sincere.

How to Succeed was lampooning what happens when advertising execs become the advertising (nowadays when we are all our personal brand). Robert Morse is singing a right-brain idea in a left-brain environment. He is climbing the ladder by performing the representation of a man who can succeed in a left-brain world devoted to selling right-brain dreams. He is literally singing to his representation in the mirror! I did not get it. But after a life of believing, I do now. As a result, I found this quote from McGilchrist compelling.

Believing is not to be reduced to thinking that such-and-such might be the case. It is not a weaker form of thinking, laced with doubt. Sometimes we speak like this: “I believe that the train leaves at 6:13,” where “I believe that” simply means that “I think (but am not certain) that.” Since the left hemisphere is concerned with what is certain, with knowledge of the facts, its version of belief is that it is just absence of certainty. If the facts were certain, according to its view, I should be able to say “I know that” instead. This view of belief comes from the left hemisphere’s disposition towards the world: interest in what is useful, therefore fixed and certain (the train timetable is no good if one can’t rely on it). So belief is just a feeble form of knowing, as far as it is concerned.

But belief in terms of the right hemisphere is different, because its disposition towards the world is different. The right hemisphere does not “know” anything, in the sense of certain knowledge. For it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of “responsibility.” * Thus if I say “I believe in you,” it does not mean I think such-and-such things are the case about you, but can’t be certain I am right. It means I stand in a certain sort of relation of care towards you, that entails me in certain kinds of ways of behaving (acting and being) towards you, and entails on you the responsibility of certain ways of acting and being as well. It is an acting “as if” certain things were true about you that in the nature of things cannot be certain. It has the characteristic right-hemisphere qualities of being a betweenness: a reverberative, “resonant,” “respons-ible” relationship, in which each party is altered by the other and by which relationship between the two, whereas the relationship of the believer to the believed in the left-hemisphere sense is inert, unidirectional, and centers on control rather than care.

Marriage is the queen of all adult relationships, where we create more care in the world, daily – at least the opportunity presents itself. In marriage we are called upon to see “the other” and relate ourselves to it in the person of our mate. Friendships and church covenants do much of the same kind of work, of course — that is, they do the work if we are disposed to it, if we turn into it, if we hold on to the love.

Right now relationships are under a barrage of criticism all day and night, left-brain radicals think justice is exactitude in speech and action, and the generation raised with a cell phone in the aftermath of 9/11 is sure they are saddled with the personal power to succeed in their business. I bring it up to give another opportunity to choose see the Other and to turn a new eye on the world which might develop a more holistic disposition toward it. As the world disintegrates under the weight of its left-brain foolishness, surely it is time to listen to the voices within and without, even built into our brains, that lead us deeper.

* Belief, like faith and truth, etymologically implies a relation of loyalty, and has the same root as love (and as the German words Glauben and Liebe).

Criticism is undermining relationships like never before

Some of my clients are especially adept at honestly describing their motivation. In couples therapy, one marriage partner said it was important to be the kind of mate who could pop an inflated ego. So their mate has to endure coming home with a story about some victory or blessing only to have their partner sift out some fault or problem to criticize. I could relate. I grew up with parents who were sure they should “take me down a peg or two” when I needed it and told me so. They thought criticism was an important way to develop me.

This “peg” thing appears in literature starting in the 1500’s, but no one quite knows where it came from. It might be about someone hoisting their own flag above another on a ship. Its appearance coincides with the rise of individual freedom and responsibility in Europe and the new scientific examination of everything that is now the basis for most thinking. By now, “taking people down” or even “taking them out” is seen as a virtue, as if expertly examining someone is a favor to bestow.  Everyone is a critic, like grumpy old Muppets in the theater box taking down Miss Piggy a peg, or Jerry Seinfeld teaching us to take down everyone.

So it is not unusual to have a couple committed to criticism as if it were a right or an obligation! One partner may not always be as vocal as the other. But their resentment and withdrawal as they “try not to be critical” still gets the point across.

Criticism infects love like a virus. Through their enormous research, the Gottman’s identified the “four horsemen” of marriage apocalypse. Criticism is the first one on their list. On their blog they say,

Because criticism is the first horseman, fighting off your urge to criticize can hold the other horsemen (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) at bay. And behind every complaint lays a wish, a longing. To work towards constructive solutions and mutual fulfillment, you must both make an effort to let go of grudges and bitterness. You must give your partner the opportunity to try to “fix it” or to make a repair attempt. Instead of attacking with “you” statements and immediately putting your partner on the defensive, you must allow them to do something that may make a positive difference.

Many of my clients are not deeply Christian, but it would help them fight off the urge to criticize if they were. Marriage is a wonderful laboratory for personal development if you see it that way — as opposed to a constant affront to justice and proper thinking. When Paul talks about marriage he sees it as the same kind of relationship Christ has with the church – a relationship of unwarranted submission to the self-giving glory of love.

Pastors are run out by criticism

I am happy this did not happen to me when I was a pastor (maybe I was not listening), but, like in the churches Paul planted, people in the church judge each other mercilessly these days, often in the name of righteousness. The poor pastors, and other leaders, are like lightning rods for the storms of criticism that sweep over communities in the United States like an aspect of some kind of spiritual climate change.

Tom Ranier who has been writing about church leadership for decades, now, says in his blog

Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly. One pastor recently shared with me the number of criticisms he receives are five times greater than the pre-pandemic era. Church members are worried. Church members are weary. And the most convenient target for their angst is their pastor.

Just like you might want to stop taking down your mate instead of building them up, you might want to love your leader and the members of your church like Christ loves you.

My clients who are professionals working in the church or Christian nonprofits often complain about feeling like fish in a barrel getting injured by someone taking an easy shot. Their critics should be out changing the world, but they abuse the easy intimacy of the church to vent their angst on people who love them. There is an ongoing debate about whether criticism motivates people in the workplace better than praise. But I think most therapists see how criticism mostly causes entrenched defensiveness and silences people. It is best used for coercion, not liberation. Church leaders don’t want to quit, but if someone shoots at them every day, they probably will.

Crítica, engraving by Julio Ruelas, ca. 1907

It is often a projection of the inner critic

Several times I have heard of a client’s dream in which there was a plot going on to murder someone. One good man said the message they got from such a dream was that they really needed to “step up their game” and stop being so critical. They were killing people with words! I thought that was a good takeaway. But I also thought they could see their dream as an interior process by which their unconscious thoughts were getting sorted. It was possible that they were considering killing unaccepted elements of themselves!

In fact, an inner critic is  hard at work in most of us all day (and night) telling us our flag is hoisted too high or too low, or maybe both. The feelings caused by that voice are so intolerable we often “project” them on some situation or person. We can’t stand it, so we put it on someone else. We can’t stand the blame we feel so we blame someone else. We don’t want to need forgiveness, so we produce a logical justice issue we think we can work out without it.

We’re often in a tragic cycle. We criticize ourselves for having an overactive inner critic! We end up in charge of dispatching this malady, or hiding the fact that we only appear to have done so. One of my clients said, “I feel like I am cheating if I stop criticizing myself.” Jesus did not say from the cross “You’ve got to step up your game.” I am surprised I have to make an argument that the cross represents self-giving love, that forgiveness is a gift which cannot be deserved, that resurrection is the final statement that the powers are not in control and neither are you.

The internet is an echo chamber of criticism

Why has this period of relentless criticism come upon us? It is connected to COVID-19, of course, but the pandemic just accelerated trends already in place. We would have likely gotten to this point in the next three to five years regardless.

Maybe when we started ordering all that take out food and as we read even more Yelp reviews it became that much more evident to us that we, personally, might be liable to  negative reviews ourselves if we made ourselves known. It is what people do. Maybe our inner critics were at work harder than ever. We were more likely to anonymously get ourselves out there and project some blame on Facebook. Some of us got canceled and most of us talked so much about people getting canceled the Republicans made “cancel culture” a campaign issue.

I ran across The Geeks Under Grace talking about the spread of internet criticism. They are Christian gamers and into everything about computers and the internet. On their blog they were trying to get meme warriors to stop raking over every presentation of Christianity in media for evidence of inaccuracy they should criticize. I appreciated their obscure (for some of us) reference to Dwight Schrute:

I do understand the temptation to offer criticism to everything you see. It can come from a virtuous heart in wanting to ensure the God we love is accurately portrayed. In our minds we sound intelligent for (what we perceive is) correctly understanding theology, but when we do this with insignificant details, we come across looking like Dwight Schrute from The Office. We all love to watch Dwight for his quirkiness and how he interacts with problems created by his coworkers, but I hardly think many of us want to be perceived as Dwight.

For those who don’t watch The Office, the Christian Dwight would be the one who comments on everything pertaining to Christianity with rhetoric that they’ve heard from others. Any misuse of anything must be corrected at that exact moment. “False! There are basically two schools of thought.”

An 8th grader friend recently took themselves off Facebook altogether because they just could not stand all the criticism. Some people have stopped watching the commentary on MSNBC and Fox for similar reasons. The internet makes everyone an expert and no one an authority. The criticism floating around in it is not grounded in relationship or community and feeds on words like cancer. I think that is another aspect of the left-brain bondage that has overtaken us.

What to do?

This piece is not another call to “step up your game.”  It is mostly a call to stop killing yourself. If you follow Jesus and you think God is looking at you critically, I think you might need to look at the cross more closely. You are the beloved of God, not innately an object of contempt. Not cooperating with your inner critic would be a good first step to releasing everyone from your criticism and gaining some resistance to the waves of criticism the society delivers daily.