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Words are a big deal. We use them every day so we tend to become desensitized around their power. We all know the significance of four-letter words, but check out this little three-letter diddy that single-handedly changes the meaning of almost any sentence it resides in:
I love you, but…
When I think of the word ‘truth’, I generally think of a not-lie. It’s something someone told me in their attempt to communicate honestly. But that’s really just truth to the best of our knowledge. It’s our construction of the world. What happens when you have an encounter with real Truth?
I was out to coffee with my friend Ted when we got to talking about what we do and how we ended up there. “My current job just sort of fell into my lap,” I tell Ted while munching on the PB&J I brought with (yes, I’m that cheap). Ted (just as cheap, twice as wise) reminds me of the process in which my current job “fell into my lap” and how off my conception of ‘luck’ was:
We always complain in failing relationships that “things just ended up that way” and that “it’s just the way things were”. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a good picture of what corrodes healthy and fulfilling relationship? John Gottman, a relationship and marriage researcher does just this work – his lab analyzes and quantifies interactions between couples and describes what mechanisms are occurring that are toxic to a marriage and what is going on that will save a marriage.
Without further adieu, it’s time to unmask this villain Scooby Doo-style:
Contempt, which is a one-two punch of relationship meltdown, combines a distinct lack of respect with pointing out mistakes and flaws of others. Gottman’s research pegged contempt as the greatest statistical predictor of divorce (and he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids and your statistical analyses).
The provider of contempt is generally irritable and frequently overcome with anger. When something bad happens though, it is the fault of others: “Why can’t anyone do anything right?” Contemptuous people put a lot more time and energy into searching the actions of others than they do themselves. But remember what Jesus says is the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt22:36-40). Searching and changing others before fully searching ourselves is easier, but it’s taking things out of order.
The recipient of contempt receives the messages of “I don’t matter” and “I’m bad” – neither of which can be present in a healthy and fulfilling relationship. They are made to feel guilty, shameful, and broken. This person might shy away and hide or might fight back – either way you’re going to be reacting to the attack made on you rather than acting on your wants and needs.
Contempt is toxic. When do you show contempt? Do people pester you at certain times or in certain places? Do you take the time to make things right with these people or do you push them off of you by pointing out flaws and pushing away?
Click here to see John Gottman describe contempt.
Hate insulates me from learning because I already know what’s “right”.
Hate criticizes others while justifying me.
Hate can’t understand why no one sees it my way, and doesn’t particularly want or need to.
Hate won’t tell me I’m wrong. Keep hating and I’ll always be right (in my mind at least).
Hate filters out what I should hear and overestimates what I want to hear.
Hate doesn’t desire change, at least not on my end.
As offensive as hate usually is, it’s actually meant to defend us. It’s a safe little bubble that protects us from challenging our points of view, changing our minds, or being real. To hate is to defend oneself from the outside.
This reminds me of a research article entitled “Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal” (Adams, Wright, and Lohr, 1996). Two groups of men, differentiated only by their scores on a scale of homophobia (negative affect toward gay men) were shown sexually explicit material with two men, two women, and finally with a man and a woman (in randomized order of course). The findings? Both groups were sexually aroused by watching a man and a woman or just two women, but only the homophobic group was aroused by watching two men. And these are physical measurements on arousal (I won’t go into further detail), as opposed to self-report.
I’m not trying to make any judgments or observations about homophobic or gay men here. The findings of this article are indeed hotly debated to this day. Rather, my motivation is to underscore that some of us try to hide something with hate. Whether it’s fear, anger at others, anger at ourselves, or plain old hurt, it’s something we don’t feel safe bringing out into the light of day.
When I say the word ‘hate’ does anything stir for you? It might not be as big as racism or stereotyping. I do a lot of ‘hating’ on cheesy Christmas song remakes and mall shopping to avoid my own insecurities. What might we be hiding on a deeper level?
So we’ve all heard the nativity story a million times before, right? Guy meets girl. Girl likes guy. Girl is visited by an angel – has a baby in a barn, etc, etc.
“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail favored one! The Lord is with you.”” (Luke 1:26-28)
Mary is delighted by the compliments and happily accepts the task, right? She bakes cookies and tells Joseph the surprise when he gets back from doing the things carpenters do, right? Not so much…
“But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:29)
Mary is skeptical. Who has the audacity to be suspicious of the angel Gabriel? “Are there some strings attached here?” she might as well be thinking. And I would argue that she has every right to be thinking this. Mary had a sense of what was to come: Great sacrifice, confusion, a derailing of all the plans she had made for herself. Mary had every right to be troubled.
It’s so easy to get caught up in our wants and in our plans that when God has another idea it seems like an injustice. We cry out that things aren’t going according to plan. “I needed that job!” or “He was the only one for me” or “I can’t do without that.” These aren’t just routine changes in our lives – they’re troubles!
And we have this funny little way of convincing ourselves that we shouldn’t have any troubles in our lives. Jesus has a wonderful response to that: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Put it another way: My Father’s will is anything but easy, but it is always good and I am a living example of it!
Mary wasn’t thrilled with Gabriel’s words, but she allowed herself to be the “handmaid of the Lord” and He did miraculous wonders as a result. She trusted God with her troubles and He made them into miracles. What big changes are we still upset about? Is holding onto all of that upset keeping us from taking hold of opportunities we may not even imagine? There’s no such thing as growth without change.
‘Tis the season to… Argue with the in-laws? Express your gratitude to loved ones? Panic about gift-giving? Feel lonely? Perhaps even be jolly? Almost all of us have a special bunch of feelings that come out around the holidays – sometimes good and sometimes bad.
For me the holidays have always been difficult. Like everyone I get stressed out, but it goes a bit deeper in that I feel pulled in a dozen different directions – none of which I have any control over. This feeling of a lack of control (due to family commitments, work obligations, and my own self-imposed commitments) often engender feelings of resentment and anger.
Please don’t be deceived into thinking that my ease in naming the problem translates into ease of creating a solution. In the moment when it’s happening, it’s more difficult to name the truth. I blame my Grinch-like attitude on other, more easily-named perpetrators. “American consumerism has corrupted the holiday!” and “If I hear Frosty the Snowman one more time I’m going to scream!” Although these complaints are founded in some truth and they do bother me, they’re not what’s directly responsible for my mood. They’re scapegoats.
We at CLE put on an event last week called the Holiday Presence to focus on being present and engaged this holiday season. Rich Blue spoke about the difference between content and process. In conversation content refers to the facts – the what. Process on the other hand refers to what’s going on underneath the surface – it’s the why and the how. I complain about the weather and Woodfield Mall during holiday conversations because it feels much safer than discussing my various insecurities. Although it makes me feel safer in the moment, it also has a way of leaving me hungry. I’ve had a conversation with a human being that I could have had with my sister’s yorkie-poo just the same. I wasn’t real or authentic. I was hiding.
I’m working more and more on coming out of hiding. I’ll keep trying to take risks and seek the real reward – deep, satisfying, and fulfilling relationships with those around me. What could be better?
And speaking of American consumerism ruining the holiday, check out my favorite Christmas-themed documentary! Ho Ho Ho!
What do you expect when you enter into a counseling relationship? Most come in with a very specific problem or issue that they would like removed from their lives. Clients tell me, “I just want to stop crying,” “I’ve got to change,” or “I can’t stop thinking about it.” Some come right out and say “I just want to be normal!”
When “normal” is the goal, we have a funny way of achieving less than we intended to. We manage our problems rather than resolving them. But the truth is that problems that crop up in life can be solved, if we just aim for the right goals.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist made famous by surviving the concentration camps of the Holocaust and writing about his experiences and beliefs about the human race, compares this to flying a plane in a crosswind. If you aim directly for your target you will surely miss. If you aim ahead of your target, in fact beyond your target, you will get where you’re trying to go. If you have a few minutes, I urge you to watch this video of Frankl lecturing on this point – it is very moving.
Think of what you might want to change in your life and imagine all the crosswinds that might blow you off course: the status quo, fear of failure, desire for stability, unknown reactions of others, confusion, lack of motivation, etc. The list goes on and on. It’s not a fault of your own, it’s just the way things are. Change is hard. Period.
Frankl quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in saying “If we take a man as he is, we make him worse; but if we take him as he should be, we help him become what he can be.” This makes more than a little sense to a Christian counselor. We look to scripture and Jesus’ teachings to guide who we should be. Not just morally and in terms of right and wrong, but relationally and as a guide to lead a meaningful life with fulfilling relationships. As a result we are finally able to become what we can be. C.S. Lewis puts it another way: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”