Tag Archives: cut off

The impact of siblings: Five things you are probably sharing

There I am with my sibs, dressed to impess at the Grand Canyon.

I might have just learned the legendary tales I heard about my behavior at the Grand Canyon, or I actually formed some of my earliest memories on that trip when I was 3 1/2  years old. It might be the latter because I remember loving that cowboy hat I’m wearing in the picture. My oldest brother bought it for me with his own money! I also remember getting home with it and securing it in my toy box/treasure chest by stuffing it in and sitting on the lid. Maybe I just remember the trauma of my brother’s fury when he found out I’d ruined it. Or maybe  I’m remembering the verse my older brothers added the song they wrote about my shameful exploits (yes, that really happened), which I can still sing. For good and ill, my siblings made a difference.

Siblings finally found their place within the last twenty years as one of the main influences that make us who we are. They are kind of at the end of a list of understandings about human development that kept growing. The list is someting like this. We’re born with certain traits, as any parent can tell you. We’re shaped by our early experiences with our parents and other caregivers, especially mom. Our genes help define us. Our socioeconomic environment shapes us. Our the race and other labels pasted on us force us into molds. And then, the researchers finally started talking about our siblings. They may influence us more than we think! Much of this post aligns with an early proponent of their importance: Jeffrey Kluger in his 2006 book, The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us.  [And an NPR story, of course].

Family systems used to be of primary importance

Before Europe became overly individualistic and spawned the epitome of it’s philosophy: the United States, our membership in a family, our relationships with parents and siblings, was the primary way we were identified.

The two Testaments of the Bible demonstrate the primacy of family by placing one at the center of the story: that of Moses and Jesus.

  • In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister, are among those named as opposing Moses’ leadership. (In Exodus, they are at his right hand, but some say they could also be construed to be members of his clan, not siblings).
  • Jesus’s siblings go with him to the wedding at Cana (John 2). Later they seek an audience with him (Matt. 12, Mk. 3, Luke 8). They ask him to prove his messiahship (John 7). They are among those waiting for Pentecost in Acts 1. His brother James leads the Jersualem church, and with another brother, Jude, writes part of the New Testament Canon. (Some say these were older step-siblings from Joseph’s first marriage. Some claim they were cousins. Some say Mary had one child and was, in the flesh, a perpetual vigin, or why was she left in the care of John?).

The plain reading of the Bible reinforces what most people in history have seen as obvious: families are central to life. That assumption still holds, although it is less relevant than it used to be. Nevertheless, Harry and Megan can scandalize the world by breaking from the royal family. Trump’s and Biden’s children are central to the drama that surrounds them. If your parents are still with us, one of their friends probably got the report on how you are doing this week. I’ve already reported to two of my friends and it is just Thursday, as I write. Everyone, including me, cares about the family.

The researchers validate our siblings still matter

By this time, we might all resent how social scientists keep discovering what everyone already knew. They seem to think nothing is true until they prove it with a peer reviewed research project. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how their data leads them to think our siblings have made much more difference in our lives than they are usually credited.

From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. At our Easter brunch I overheard one older sib instructing the much younger grandchild how to behave for most of the afternoon.

  • They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to.
  • They show us how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them.
  • Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys.
  • They steer us into risky behavior or away from it. They make us brave or fearful.
  • They form a protective buffer against family upheaval and sometimes cause it.
  • They compete for family recognition and come to terms–or blows–over such impossibly charged issues as parental favoritism.
  • Whether they love and accept us or not is huge.
  • Whether they stick with us or not could prove life-saving or deadly.

Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people we’ll ever know who truly qualify as partners for life. “Siblings,” says family sociologist Katherine Conger of UC Davis, “are with us for the whole journey.”

5 enduring impacts of sibling relationships

Not appreciating being dethroned by my one-year-old sister
The fighting is useful

My younger sister and I tied jump ropes around the necks of our teddy bears and engaged in  hysterical aerial combat. But I don’t remember having many fights with her directly, even though we shared a room  for probably too long. We still feel close even though we rarely see each other.

With our older brothers it was another story. To hear us tell it, we lived in a constant state of preparedness for the next attack. They were five and seven years older than me. So you can call me a “lost middle child” or the firstborn of the second family. The year I was born, our family moved to a new home in another city which my dad helped build with his own hands. My sister and I were part of that new beginning and probably responsible, as far as our brothers were concerned, for what they lost. Neither of us were welcome in the world of my older brothers. I spent quite a bit of time locked in a bathroom for fear of them, or locked in a closet because of them, or hiding under a bed. I had to be fast on my feet or my very accurate brother could nail me in the back with a green walnut.

“In general,” says psychologist Daniel Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh, “parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds. Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They’re there every day.” All that proximity breeds an awful lot of intimacy–and an awful lot of friction. Being “stuck” with the involuntary relationships we have with sibs develops certain skills that can prove useful later in life.

Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has found that, on average, sibs between 3 and 7 years old engage in some kind of conflict 3.5 times an hour. Kids in the 2-to-4 age group top out at 6.3–or more than one clash every 10 minutes, according to a Canadian study. “Getting along with a sister or brother,” Kramer says dryly, “can be a frustrating experience.” But think of all the lessons you learned about how to deal with future difficult people! You might want to take a minute and jot down how you learned to deal with conflict in your family, you are probably still acting out the same pattern, perhaps unconsciously.

Favoritism leaves a lasting  impression

I think I was about 50 years old when my sister stated what she thought was obvious, “You were the favorite.” Plus, “Mom and Dad did not cross you. When you were away on a foreign exchange trip, all hell broke loose.”  I was flabbergasted. I thought I was just an oddball. I did not feel special, just overly criticized. But her revelation did explain the car I did not have to pay for (like my older brothers had to), the clothes I had, and my father’s habit of zeroing his binoculars in on me alone at every football game.

At first, kids appear to adapt well to the disparity in their household and often learn to game the system, flipping blatant favoritism back to their shared advantage. They’ll say to one another, “Why don’t you ask Mom if we can go to the mall because she never says no to you. ” I am evidence of that finding.

But at a deeper level, second-tier children may pay a price. “They tend to be sadder and have more self-esteem questions,” Conger says. “They feel like they’re not as worthy, and they’re trying to figure out why.” Some of them feel a deep guilt for causing problems or shame for being such an imposition; they can feel like “No one wants me” when they see how their sibling is wanted.

If this does not seem to register with you, you might try thinking again. In the workplace, employees often instinctively know which person to send into the lion’s den of the corner office with a risky proposal or a bit of bad news. What’s more, it is really no coincidence when you feel that old, adolescent envy after that same colleague emerges with the proposal approved and the boss’s affirmation. I think a lot of people have been cancelled in the past couple of years because they are the favorite and someone needs to be scapegoated to expiate leftover sibling rivalry.

It is also true when you experienced those old feelings you pulled up the knowledge you gained back in the family room — the smartest strategy is not to compete for approval but to strike a partnership with the favorite and spin the situation to benefit yourself as well. Such an idea did not come from nowhere — you learned by relating to your siblings. Maybe you learned it on the playground, in the extended familiy or in the neighborhood. But if you had a sibling, the pattern was probably part of the mimetic experience we all have with them. Would you like to take a few seconds to remember where you landed in the order of things in your family? Naming your place or your role might help you not to mindlessly repeat it in your present circumstances.

 The role modeling works for good or ill

I set myself apart from my family in many ways (or as my sister might say, “I was set apart”). For one thing, like I said, I became a Christian. I also did a lot of reading, unlike the rest, got educated and, unlike my father, I did not smoke.

Smoking is one of those things researchers have studied in relation to role modeling among siblings. Joseph Rodgers, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma, published a study of more than 9,500 young smokers. He found that while older brothers and sisters often introduce younger ones to the habit, the closer they are in age, the more likely the younger one is to resist. Apparently, their proximity in years has already made them too similar. One conspicuous way for a baby brother to set himself apart is to look at the older sibling’s smoking habits and then do the opposite. We might emulate a good trait, even idolize an attractive older sibling. Or we might differentiate from a negative trait or devalue an ill-behaved sibling. Either way, we learn.

You would think that siblings raised by the same parents in relatively stable enironments would be very similar. But my four children have all found their way to be distinct. They are all curious and read, they all make good rational arguments, they are all forthright, and they all share a similar moral compass. They all have a strong streak of faith and feel obliged to do good in the world. But the second did not follow the lead of the first and the last two who are twins can still conjur up their personal universe. The oldest and youngest vie to be the role model. The middle two tend to ignore them.

If you have/had older siblings what did you emulate? How did they influence? What did they instill in you? Celebrate it or finally let it go! If you have/had younger siblings, what did you do to them? How did their competition motivate you? Enjoy your role, or maybe apologize for it!

Having an other-gendered sibling makes a difference.

I spent an inordinate amount of time making designer clothes for baby dolls out of old socks on rainy days. My sister was available to me and I was often the only playmate available to her. Plus, we enjoyed a rather imaginative play-world. Such time spent made me a more approachable high schooler. My home was pretty dominated my testosterone, so being on my sister’s side gave me a different look at the other half of humanity.

Brothers and sisters can be fierce de-identifiers. In a study of adolescent boys and girls in central Pennsylvania in families with male and female siblings, the boys unsurprisingly scored higher in such traits as independence and competitiveness while girls did better in empathic characteristics like sensitivity and helpfulness. What was less expected is that when kids grow up with an opposite-sex sibling, such exposure doesn’t temper gender-linked traits but accentuates them. Both boys and girls hew closer still to gender stereotype and even seek friends who conform to those norms. “It’s known as niche picking,” says Kimberly Updegraff, a professor of family and human development at Arizona State University and the person who conducted the study. “By having a sibling who is one way, you strive to be different.”

As kids get older, the distance from the other gender tends to close. At that point, children with opposite-sex siblings have a relational advantage. William Ickes, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, published a study in which he paired up male and female students who had both grown up with an opposite-sex sibling — and set them up for a chat. Then he questioned them about how the conversation went. In general, boys with older sisters or girls with older brothers were less fumbling at getting things going and kept the exchange flowing much more naturally. “The guys who had older sisters had more involving interactions and were liked significantly more by their new female acquaintances,” says Ickes. “Women with older brothers were more likely to strike up a conversation with the male stranger and to smile at him more than he smiled at her.”

How did your sister or brother impact how you see yourself and your gender? Do you see any evidence of how they prepared you for future relationships? Do you need to process or let go of any abuses you endured?

Singing for the folks at their 50th
The ties bind

I think my siblings feel an affinity, a tie that somewhat binds. I suspect if I needed something, they would want to help me. But as a foursome, we are not too bound. The older two have a rift going that has kept them from even speaking for many years. My sister is most in touch and I try to keep up. But none of them are likely to call me or visit. So I think we feel the bind but it does not have a lot of force. It is possible, when a family system has a habit of cutting people off, everyone learns that trait. My mother’s three sisters had one whose husband cut her off. On my father’s side there is a brother who cut himself off. My sibs may feel like going it alone is normal.

More typical than in my family, the powerful connection siblings form becomes even more important as the inevitable illnesses or and losses of late life lead us to lean on the people we’ve known the longest. It is typical for siblings who have drifted apart in their middle years to drift back together as they age. “The relationship is especially strong between sisters,” who are more likely to be predeceased by their spouses than brothers are, says Judy Dunn, a developmental psychologist at London’s Kings College. “When asked what contributes to the importance of the relationship now, they say it’s the shared early childhood experiences, which cast a long shadow for all of us.”

While sibling relationships, of all relationships, may have an “inevitability” to them, it is still true that all relationships take willing partners. Love is not just a concept, it is a lived experience. So even the closest ties can fray and the loosest ones can be re-tied. (Watch The Miracle Club on Netflix right now). Inactive or not, our life experiences with siblings have shaped us and the ongoing feelings of conection and loss, the lessons learned, the wounds yet to heal and the unique joys and triumphs experienced continue to have a force for good and ill. In an age which deludes people into thinking they can or must go it alone, it is important to note the impact of the siblings who travel with us in our deepest memories and feeling patterns. For a minute, maybe you should mourn the loss of the siblings you have lost, acknowledge the value of those you have, maybe let go of the pains, and contact your sibling(s) if it is safe to do so. Their existence mattered and matters. You matter to them, too, one way or another.

Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel?

A few leaders of my church were afraid this post tries say something to them without naming them.  Not so. The entry is directed at me as much as anyone; I lead things, too. My point is that all of us are tempted to be cruel in the post-Covid age of Trump and act the four ways I list. I need to watch it, and if you think you need to watch it, you are probably right. 

Some questions beg for an answer, even though the answer is not easy or even welcome. But I have been asking the title to this piece all week: Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel? Here is some of what I hear.

Donald Trump is one big reason everyone is more cruel. Trump may be forever pre-Covid – since he may think the virus is fake news, his recovery from it notwithstanding. But he has greatly influenced what is taking root in the world and may bloom. You run into his disciples all the time. They are cruel.

For instance, Trump’s response to the death of Colin Powell last week was very cruel. I was going to say “breathtakingly” cruel, but he, of all of today’s wicked actors, has done so much to normalize cruelty we all feel a new license to take someone out, to maliciously undermine someone, to build walls against enemies, and to make exclusionary laws. It is all normal. His wickedness no longer takes our breath away. You probably saw Trump’s response, since he is the king of “all publicity is good publicity” and he horned his way into the national honors afforded Powell. I don’t want to repeat it, but you can see it here. It was cruel.

Infamous border patrol picture

Trump is not alone. The country is filled with policies and practices that require people to be cruel. For instance, in a couple of weeks I will be at the southern border with MCC folks. I know I will meet people full of love there. But that love will be more evident because it contrasts with the visible and relentless cruelty of the government.

I am asking the question because of Donald Trump and the border. As a country we are attacked from within and hemmed in from without by a siege of cruelty that is affecting how we think and treat each other. Just witness the incredible popularity of Squid Game.

But more, I am asking the question that needs to be asked because I am seeing the cruel impact of new, post-Covid regimes, inside the church and out, which impact people I know and love: my clients, fellow church members and friends around the world.

Somehow the upheaval of Covid has loosened a new need among a new generation to reform (hopefully, but at least deconstruct) any culture or organization that does not meet a new set of standards. Their passion is often cruel in its application. In so many organizations I hear about, relationships are frayed, leaders are strangely authoritarian, and dialogue is unusually vicious. Here are four stories remembered during a sleepless night that illustrate some of the characteristics of the new cruelty.

Cut off, don’t reconcile

A pastor I know was trying to talk a church member into listening to the struggle of someone reeling from new, “progressive” language about race. She told her pastor, “The hell with’em. Let’m go.” Somehow the new regime has lost Howard Thurman’s way to love, like I said last week, and has decided to perfect the hate. It seems that even Christians, with their “ministry of reconciliation” have perfected the cut off.

Be secret, not transparent

I was in a small group and a pastor told us about the “parking lot meeting” his board had about him last week. In his polity, he is on the board. Outside the church, it is common for accusations to go to HR or to campus committees. The accusations may or may not be true, but sometimes before guilt is established, the accused is hounded out. The spirit of due process is going out of fashion. It is not unusual for someone to get an email notifying them in some oblique way about what happened to them behind closed doors.

Stay safe, not antifragile

In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind,  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe how the new regimes of the new generation have expanded the idea of safety in ways that undermine community and cripple their own development.  They insist that we will be happier, healthier and stronger if we

  • Seek out challenges rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”
  • Free ourselves from cognitive distortion rather than always trusting our initial feelings
  • Take a generous view of others and look for nuance rather than assuming the worst about people with a simplistic us-versus-them morality.

An over-emphasis on safety makes us fragile and so in need of more safety. A realistic approach to resilience makes us antifragile, more adaptable, more immune to things that might truly harm us. A hallmark of the “be safe” mentality that took on steam in the 2010’s is a preoccupation with words that make people feel uncomfortable. The new regime protects abstract people from abstract issues, but doesn’t have enough relationship to achieve immunity from the everyday wounds of love. People end up needing to protect themselves from love.

Enact law, not grace

One of my pastor friends in the Jesus Collective ended up on the other side of a pandemic-long, zoom-based fine-tooth-combing of his church’s by-laws. That choice, in itself, is a bit breath-taking. During the hardest thing most of us have ever experienced, the leaders decided to take a hard, virus-ridden look at themselves! They re-oriented the church so much he was, effectively, eliminated and could only see a door out as the way ahead.

There is a new focus on law, and especially laws that protect identity. It is true that such protections are a must in our “slave economy,” as two of my Black clients called it last week. But it is not unusual for everything to be seen through a lens of identity and the power struggle to get a just piece of the American pie. If someone promotes the generosity of God, the rain and sun lavished on the good and bad, they might get called out as giving in to oppression. Jesus could end up looking like some sort of supremacist because he chooses to die for others while others have no choice but to die, and atonement sometimes becomes an endless repentance for collaborating with oppressive systems. One of my newest favorites, Karith Foster, suggests a better way to undo white supremacy with C.A.R.E.ing not coerceing.

Fra Angelico – Paradise

I blame Covid for much of the cruelty happening, right now. In 2023, when we have all had a year of face time, those of us who have begun again might come up with something as breathtakingly beautiful as Donald Trump is breathtakingly cruel. It is a common thought that the Bubonic Plague in Europe caused so many social, economic and religious changes it led to the emergence of the Renaissance, an amazing era for art, architecture, literature and invention. I’m holding out for that kind of movement and hoping the present regimes are precursors to it.

We are not there yet. And you may be suffering under a new regime flexing its muscles and imposing its ill-considered philosophy or theology. I wish I knew what to tell you to do. My own solution leans toward creatively suffering . I am curious about what is coming. I am going to give my gifts to build it. I want to be the presence of love in it. I am going to trust Jesus to be with us through what could be the worst and best of times.

We’ll make it through on the third way

The two most read posts on my blog last week seem to go together as Trump continues to protest his defeat.

trump falwell

You and I could blame all the troubles we face on Trump, and many do, but I think he is just the wicked weed flourishing in the garden of post-Christian philosophies that have been ascendant for a long time. The unholy alliance between Trump and the Evangelicals, fronted in the media by Jerry Falwell Jr., may have sealed the deal on the demise of influence Christians have long had in the public square of the U.S. [Read Jonny Rashid]. We’ll see. But what my generation has contributed to the next is resulting in some very unchristian skills that may wreck their spiritual growth. People are polishing two self-destructive skills, if my blog stats make any difference: 1) power struggle, 2) relationship cut-off. The two often go together and they are rarely, if ever, associated with the way of Jesus.

A student exemplifies what is happening

A student in one of my classes posted something so indicative about the next generation’s feelings about the church, these days, I want to paraphrase it for you. I don’t know their personal situation, and their identity is confidential, anyway. I only reference them at all because of the pathos and eloquence of their entry, which I paraphrase:

2020 has been full of pandemic issues, maybe it caused my feelings. Maybe it was the political climate and how it related so much to religious alignments/movements. When the class provided place for me to reflect I realized just how much I have changed this year and just how much I differed from many of my fellow classmates and evangelicals.

My journey was gray and chillingly clear, empty. I saw a lack of God where I would’ve expected to see consolation. I saw inauthenticity in so many believers — so many attempts to assuage fear, guilt, anxiety, political failures; by using spiritual phrases and religious words.

I wish I could say I believe the spirit has “guided me or met me” this year, but it feels a lot more accurate to say that I found guidance outside of evangelical institutions and circles way more than in them. I found the spirit in the BLM movement. I found the spirit in political candidates who are striving for change to bring justice to the citizens of this country. I found the spirit in the freedom that deconstruction has brought me — freedom from the conservative/fundamentalist ideals that kept a veil between myself and the reality of life on Earth.

I’m not sure what the spirit is anymore, but I didn’t find it/him/her/them in spiritual and religious practices or studies this year. I found the spirit in stepping out of those places and joining the rest of the world in what they are going through. I found the spirit of Jesus in being extremely honest with myself about what I think, believe, desire, and who I am in general.

I’ve seen and met with many people in the last four years who could write a similar report.

It’s not as if every twentysomething in every era doesn’t have a lot to face; I did. And it’s not as if everyone, in all parts of the globe are not exploring new places inside and out — humanity is a creative, searching bunch; the Chinese planted their flag on the moon last week! But even though life always presents a lot to face, this time in the life of the church in our fracturing nation seems uniquely difficult to most of us.

I admire the student’s courage and openness in the middle of their turmoil. I also lament how they got caught in the power struggle and how they cut-off relationships.

We can live and act according to a “third way”

Our pastors are always talking about these aspects of society and the church:

  • power and division,
  • demands for agreement and dismissals of love.

Sometimes they are tempted into power struggles themselves and some of our members and even pastors have cut us off. It is a generally painful time to be alive. I spoke to the pastors about one aspect of the person’s story to highlight how it is sort of a parable calling us to follow the “third way” Christianity that is emerging all over the word. Here is the gist of what I said.

The student is on an increasingly typical ex-evangelical path, aren’t they? I think there will be many more of these refugees and, while they are unlikely to pile into churches, they will have a narrative that will continue to undermine churches and the way of Jesus, itself. Cutting off is a common trait these days, so ex-anything probably applies here, including ex-Third-Way and ex-Circle-of-Hope.

Everyone in the U.S. tends to have an American-privileged way of seeing the world. The student looks at the church through the lens of that privilege, I think. They can’t imagine Christianity according to the “third way” of the early church before it was co-opted by the Roman Empire (or before it adopted a place of power as preferable to its earlier Jesus-reliant condition).

Many authors have written about the revival of this third way of love — not owning the empire yet fully influencing it with a unique message and with the signs and actions to back that message up. The student is offended by the corrupt church so they cut it off. They find their community in emergent institutions free of the past narrative and supplying a new one. This ever-changing of the guard, the ascendancy of the new power structure, is the predictable way of the world we can trace throughout history.  What the student missed was an honest third way that is not the either/or of the ever-warring world.

The third way was, and is, Jesus centered, community based, discipleship oriented, generously connected but not subject to the ways of the world, in awe of the goodness in people and the planet but not idolizing them or it — all the things our pastors regularly teach. The third way just does not claim the privilege of fighting for power, because, for one reason, it does not have it. For another reason, it is generally despised as a rival to most institutions. And, for the main reason, it has eschewed power as a means it deserves to have under the Lordship of Jesus.  (People write books about this, so I won’t keep going).

I think the student is probably on a good path. They are learning, just like all our twentysomething friends are learning in similar ways. We are all learning what to do in a divided world in which people cut off their loved ones if they fall on the wrong side of politics, in which we wake up to a power struggle every day. I think perfecting, describing and discipling for our successful “third way” approach in our relatively hostile spiritual environment as Circle of Hope is a great service to people jumping ship as well as to those discovering they are drowning.

Cut off and screwed over — learning reconciliation and communication

I’m kind of enjoying the geekiness (no offence) of Pentatonix these days. So let’s start out with them. They do a cover of Gotye’s big song of 2012: Somebody That I Used to Know:

Apart from telling a good story, Gotye and Kimbra summarize in song what so many people experience every day: being cut off and screwed over. Those are common ways NOT to relate. But a lot of people have experienced so much abuse and have had so little opportunity to recover, that they don’t know how to relate another way. They’d like to love, but they are always getting cut off and screwed over. Let’s talk about that.

In the song, Gotye’s character sings about how she “cut him off.” That’s a common experience in relationships that is worth noting. We could talk about how someone refused sex or did some emasculating thing (another time, maybe). But I want to talk about how people try to disappear their intimates to manage their fears. [More here]

When Kimbra’s character comes into the song, she’s talking about something just as relevant: how she feels screwed over. She is so glad she got free of his unprocessed manipulation! And she doesn’t mind telling him so. Maybe you’ve been there.

The song demonstrates two relationship traits common to people when they are not safe in Jesus and are not aware of the frailties they need to have healed. These two common traits are sinful ways we kill love.

Getting cut off happens. 

It feels terrible. Gotye paints a vivid picture of it.

  • Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
  • But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
  • Have your friends collect your records and then change your number

That last line hints that he may have caused the cut-off himself, since who sends their friends to get their stuff or who changes their number unless there is some kind of weirdness going on? Were there constant texts? I heard about that a few times lately. Friends did have to send their buddies to retrieve their stuff because the ex might go off.

This movie actually exists

I have a friend who has perfected the cut-off. She says it – you do me wrong I cut you off, you’re dead to me. Most of us would not say that; we’d just do it [even legally with restraining orders]. When we are threatened, we disappear people. We make them nothing. So a lot of us feel cut off. You might feel like a relationship is bleeding right now and you are emotionally wounded.

I am not going to do a big Bible study to respond to all this. I think it is enough to say that our preoccupation with Matthew 18 around our church is important because people have been cut-off and have cut people off. Cutting someone off is the common sinful way to deal with “problem” people and with our own troubled feelings. We cut the feelings and the people off. In an abusive and abused, violent society the laws are all about protecting victims (who are numerous). So the society even teaches us to cut-off.

That’s the problem Gotye’s character has in this song. What he did not do is presume that he was in a relationship in which all the parties are sinners, including himself, and that reconciliation was going to be a constant necessity. He actually says in the song that they discovered that they did not make sense, as if that’s how relationships work – like they are supposed to magically make sense, or the interaction is supposed to be so effortless that they never don’t make sense.  That’s very unlikely.

Christians relate with reconciliation in mind. They know they need to be listening for God to make sense of things. They know that their loved one needs to be loved, not to make sense according to some tiny idea we have of what makes sense. I know so many people, including myself, who have spent entire evenings arguing about how their interpretation of what happened an hour ago makes more sense than their mate’s interpretation! Reconciliation is more important than everything making sense.

Getting screwed over also happens.

It is a terrible feeling and Kimbra paints a vivid picture of it.

  • You “had me believing it was always something that I’d done.”
  • You did not talk, so I was “Reading into every word you say.”
  • When we broke up “You said that you could let it go”

That last line has a lot packed into it (which is one of the things that makes this a good song, isn’t it?). Between the lines she is saying, “Now we are broken up and you are still obsessed and angry. That points out how you had been simmering with anger the whole time we were together. I was trying to make that work for you. So I basically screwed myself in your honor. And that makes me angry!”

screw in chipotleSorry to keep using the word “screwed.” But this song is basically about sex. They don’t really get to intimacy. Being used for sex is part of the woman’s pain, I think. “Having sex” in our language right now is not necessarily a term of endearment. “Fuck” is one of the meanest things people say. We “get screwed over” a lot. Sex is often a violation and we are mad about it. A lot of people talk about sex as if they need their rights protected, like they are so shallow that intimacy can be regulated by state law or something – or maybe they feel so hurt they think there ought to be a law.

Kimbra could have helped herself if she had just had one small rule of communication: “Don’t read between the lines.” Clear communication includes the recognition that the other person hasn’t actually said something until they have said it. If you think their body language means something, ask them if it means what you think it means. Don’t react as if you know what they have not articulated. Conversely, communication happens when a person has responded to what you say in such a way that they confirm they heard what you said. Just providing a lot of information and expecting people to find it is not enough. We’re tempted to treat each other like we are websites – “I already laid out all the info, search it.  I don’t need to talk to you because I posted it on my timeline. It’s on my blog.”

There is actually a little incident in John 14 where Jesus has to negotiate this process of communication with one of his intimates. Philip says, “Just show me the father. “ And Jesus is a little exasperated. He says, “Haven’t you heard the words of the father in me? Haven’t you seen the miracles?” I suppose Jesus could have cut Philip off at that point. Or he could have remembered Philip’s cluelessness as an example of all the ways his disciples had screwed him over. Instead, Jesus humbly communicates it again, as clearly as he can. Philip is not required to “read between the lines:” “It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” The Lord humbly, clearly communicates.

Christians know that truth and love are hard to communicate because they know how hard it is for them to receive the truth and love of God, who is the source of truth and love! So we are patient with our intimates, and with everyone else. We know we are hard to understand; we know the other person is hard to understand — they don’t even understand themselves! Why get all hacked off when they behave as confused and as detached as they are! Help them! Listen to them! Speak clearly and in love!

There is hope

kimbra unpaintedMy favorite part of the video is at the end, when Kimbra stands apart and loses the paint of this unloving relationship. She kind of returns to the state of being naked and unashamed like Adam and Eve were before sin messed them up and they got separated from God and each other. She gets out of the damaging matrix. Now that they aren’t locked in some sinful way to relate, maybe something better can happen. Hopefully, they both learn to practice reconciliation, not just self-defense. Hopefully, they learn to communicate, not just react in some pre-verbal way.

I don’t think Gotye intended for me to get any hope at all out of his sad song. But I am way Christian. I really wanted that woman’s unpainted self to get out of that messy video, so I took it that way.  Why not? Jesus is doing the best God can do to call us out of the condemned and condemning ways we relate and into real love. If we let him be present and don’t suck up some bogus narrative, if we don’t cut him off, if we let him communicate, we have a good chance of being restored to love ourselves and even having great intimacy — and great sex.