We should make all spiritual talk / Simple today:
God is trying to sell you something, / But you don’t want to buy.
That is what your suffering is:
Your fantastic haggling, / Your manic screaming over the price!
[Hafiz, Persian Sufi poet, ~1320-1388]
Part 7 in a 7-Part Series on Spirituality, Self-Image and World Religions
As we wrap this series up, I will repeat myself:
- Life is hard. There’s no getting around it, only through it.
- But we’re here to help each other.
- God is here to help as well, either directly or through loving agents in this world.
But sometimes, other people are the problem, aren’t they? Instead of a help. Having other people around does not always make it easier. We don’t give and receive help in the ways that we ought to. We don’t equip and mentor others. We withhold spiritual food like praise and gentle correction, even from our children, who we can’t help but love. We withhold because we are broken. So we love poorly.
Sometimes this “sickly” love occurs because we simply don’t know how to love better. It was never modeled for us, or if it was (as in the case of seeing Jesus as the model), we were never coached in the specifics of how to do it ourselves. We don’t equip each other. Instead, it’s often just a bit of that “sink or swim”, figure-it-out sort of mentality that is practiced in our families, churches and schools. We re-do what was done to us, whether it was effective or ineffective, satisfying or painful. We do not apply spiritual discipline in how we raise our kids or build each other up, with a sense of purpose and a watchfulness for what is really great in others, and truly of God.
At other times we just don’t care enough: we’re too self-involved, distracted, or exhausted to try. We don’t bring God into the nitty-gritty details of that relationship. We are not “mindful” of each other, to use a term common among contemplative Christians and Buddhists.
But then, maybe I should not be saying “we”. Maybe only I have all these ways in which I avoid addressing relationship problems in the first place, excuses for why I keep people and potential solutions at a distance. But I sincerely doubt that I’m in the minority in facing these fundamental problems of healing and re-defining identity, and relationship issues. So then, “we” it is…
We’re often so busy maintaining our own burdens that we don’t show up for each other. Instead of surrendering those burdens to God, or sharing them with others, we limp along on our own. We turn inward. We lick our wounds. We hold resentments. In this cycle of insecurity and paranoia, we close ourselves off from God and other people. We don’t believe ourselves worthy of love. Thus we forget how to love others the way we ourselves want to be loved.
We refuse to trust others to give us some love and validation, our spiritual food on the journey toward wholeness. We develop regrets, whether we courageously acknowledge them or vehemently deny them. We become defensive, shut-down, unable to cope with the ways that we all share a common problem: that we’ve shut the light of God out of our inner ecosystem, and so we are withering, side-by-side, desperately longing for another to help us out and lead us back to the one true God, and to accepting our True Self.
We have other avoidance techniques, also. Especially nowadays, in the age of individualism and psychobabble (as opposed to good psychology, rooted in responsible, honest spirituality and community values). We label relational problems as unreal, or low priority, or temporary, or somebody else’s problem. We throw money at the problems, paying somebody else to take care of our crap… simply because we can afford to (if we’re middle class, that is). We take sleeping pills, or Viagra, or valium… but never deal with the core issues of our worried minds and disconnected souls. Or we ignore a problem, and after awhile it falls apart or falls away. No more problem, right? Meanwhile, that may actually just be one more bridge burned, never to be crossed again.
Or else we become addicts. We hide behind something. It could be anything, any obsession, really. Even religion, which is why Karl Marx once called it the “opiate of the masses” (he was only partly right, of course). We fill ourselves with ideologies, distractions and self-medication, instead of dealing with our struggle to fix something deep inside, or in a broken relationship. But many books, by sharper people than I, have gone into this addiction dynamic at great length.
For instance, John Bradshaw is pretty good on addiction and co-dependency, though some accuse him of being too “New Agey”. I see their point, but I think he’s still got a deep, well-researched, and useful approach to theology and psychology, informed by the 12-Step movement as well as earlier religious and secular sources. There are perfectly good Christian writers on the subject, too. But their names don’t spring to mind at the moment. (Sorry.) So other than the recommendation to be your own advocate and go get what you need, for now I’ll leave this addiction topic alone.
Instead, let’s look at a few avoidance techiques, or more accurately at some superficial fixes that are really a disengagement from the crux of the problem. Or the ways we try to fix the symptoms while ignoring the cause: a basic disconnect from loving mutuality and support.
Especially for men, we often try to fix a relationship problem the same way we work on a business deal, or fix the kitchen freezer. Sometimes we even use the same tools (money, logic, technology, guile, structure, negotiation, delegation, gifts and bribery, or brute force).
Ridiculous as those tools and tactics sometimes seem to the women in our lives, in many cases they are the only ones we have, because our fathers (and generations of men before us) did not bequeath us a wide range of tools in our spiritual or emotional toolkit. What’s sad is that in most cases, those with whom we are in relationship are only looking for one thing from us: acceptance. They want us to drop all those tools (for now, at least), and just offer an open hand and a listening ear. For a person is not a task, or an auto engine, or a problem. They just are who they are. (See… Popeye was right! “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam…”)
Thankfully, more and more men are beginning to understand this dynamic — in our heads, at least. But it’s the doing of it, the bending toward our beloved, that is so doggone hard. This choice of vulnerability, the admission that we do not need to fix and in fact may not be able to fix the problem on our own (or at all), is in many cases a major step toward greater intimacy, less co-dependency, and more overall satisfaction with ourselves and our lives.
Also, I am not saying that only men have this fear of intimacy, this need for control, this invulnerability or this acceptance problem. I’m only noting that our culture tends to set men on one path, and women on another.
On the other hand, when all attempted fixes still don’t yield a permanent solution, or when all else fails –and often despite an abiding love for the other person– we sometimes get divorced (or we leave a church, or we become estranged from a close friend or family member). Because yes, it really is easier than having to help deal with somebody else’s crap … all while we’re still wrestling with or avoiding our own. The grass certainly must be greener over there, right?
But it isn’t. Over there lies just another form of co-dependency, in many cases. So divorce is not always the best answer in the long run. But in some cases it is, because two people just aren’t good for each other. Maybe they made a choice to be together for the wrong reasons, right off the bat. Or one or both of them are stuck, and can’t get unstuck while they continue to cause each other more pain.
So a divorce can often feel like undoing a whole lot of past mistakes, just by separating oneself from the challenge of that other person, with all their faults, and the ways they make one confront and work on his or her own character. But we can’t get a divorce from ourselves. We still have to heal, and to own up to our individual woundedness.
Life is hard, as we’ve said here many times. Two lives, joined together, can be harder still if the two people are out of synch. It doesn’t have to be that way, or to stay that way. But wounded people do tend to lose hope more easily, or at least lose our patience. And no couple is in synch all the time. It’s just human nature to rub each other the wrong way occasionally, or to genuinely hurt each other. Which is where that crucial need for forgiveness comes in again, and the need to bring the power of God into those relationships.
Walking the Way of Love is not an individual Olympic event. It is not a transaction of any kind, at least not in our Western, consumerist sense of “making a deal”. It is a daily, informal, challenging but enriching team effort, which takes work and a lot of trial-and-error. And yet it’s also an experience where against all possible odds, if we are doing it right, EVERYBODY WINS! Only with God could this even be possible. But it is true.
Find your path toward healthy, life-changing love, of your deepest self and of others. Stop your manic screaming. Listen for the still, small voice of God saying “This is the way. Walk in it.”
The path is always closer than you think. And shorter. And beautiful, once you get the hang of it.