A lot has happened since I started but I’ll finish the last post as planned. Part three is about interpersonal relationships. It’s partly related to the last post and partly inspired by my group’s studies on building better relationships. It’s a timely time to take time to write too (ah, alliterations). During the writing process I encountered conflicts where I’d hoped for fellowship and sought to serve. Here I’ve been reminded again that the situation could be quite different, if only on my part, I would be willing to react with more empathy and gentleness.
Last year I discovered that “I’m crazy” is not a feeling. My counsellor proceeded to give the occasional “homework” to help me to feel-think-react, rather thank think-think-react (or is it react-think-think?) and one included identifying the feelings from a film or TV dialogue with the sound off, so that I could pay attention not only to what is said but also to the expressions and body language involved. I thought it was silly. I can read emotions fine thanks. I didn’t do it.
But I’ve done a bit since. For example, last week my sister was telling me how I should change my interstate car registration to a local one. The police might catch you! I said, hmm you’re right, I always thought I’d move again, live down south maybe, but looks like I will be here from now on. Oh. She looked disappointed. I was immediately offended – what, after all I’ve done for you, you wish that I wasn’t here! But I caught myself and asked about her reaction. She said, no offence but you’re strict (definitely more than dad, maybe more than mum). Her feeling translated – I’m all disappointed that I can’t play more iPad with you around. Okay, this isn’t so bad. It’s not necessarily about her not appreciating my company and I can relate to wanting to play games for as long as possible without interference. Yeah, I shouldn’t react to her anyway with our age gap. Nevertheless, consciously taking a step back to identify emotions (correctly) in myself, in her, helps to avoid harsh words. Empathy helps with being slow to anger.
Not so opposites
Continuing from part two – in addition to the person-to-God aspects I’ve thought a lot about the person-to-person aspects of what happened. If relationships could be analysed like a maths question, I had some missing elements in my equation. How did I get here, what were my decisions all about, why did each of us react the way we did. Time uncovers some truths but also fills some gaps with its own (not-so-fanciful) theories. I often took his quietness, his silence, for apathy or uncertainty. Then in person again, there was a moment of oh, how did I not perceive that he felt, hoped, and hurt too. I mean… duh. My friend used to say that good doctors are good actors. Good, but not that good; I saw some, and he told me some. I think we knew each other’s thoughts well enough at the time. But I empathised little. The most regrettable part is reacting with insensitivity and inflexibility. Though with a more light-hearted view I’m rather amused at the various scenarios where I put my worst foot forward, so to speak, without meaning to – further, that I’d be puzzled and offended when he reacted to this. And perhaps in a relationship, the silliest part of not empathising enough is not properly perceiving that the other person liked you much at all!
Anyway, I didn’t realise it was possible to be over- and under-sensitive all at the same time. That is, to be sensitive to how others hurt us, and insensitive to how our words and actions might affect others. Like self doubt and pride, these seemingly opposites are not so opposite after all. Neither look to others, or look beyond my own interest. Neither respond in a way that is kind and tender-hearted, sympathetic, patient and gentle. Instead it’s easy to be critical and self-righteous – you need to know what you’re doing is wrong. What I say might be valid, but I am also pointing out the speck before removing the log in my own eye. Interacting with such a person is like working through a game of Minesweeper (on expert). But when my parents said I’m impossibly hard to get along with of course I disagreed; no, you just don’t like me being exceptionally apt at reading your mind and knowing exactly what negative thing you’re thinking about me.
Sense and sensibility
Not sure if this is a cultural thing but in my circles, the assumption is that feelings are troublesome, secondary at best. In a clinical setting, a patient’s jumble of complaints often becomes clearer when we start to empathise with their fears and worries. How much more do emotions matter in making sense of our good and less-than-ideal interactions with those closer to us!
If feelings messes up people’s thoughts, is being rational the answer? First, if in our sinfulness our hearts cannot be trusted, are we assuming that our logical minds are untouched, incorruptible by sin? Second (discovered this whilst avoiding confrontations) we can wish away negative feelings all we like, try to love without feeling love, but it seeps out. After awhile people just know – a distasteful look here, a careless snide remark there, a slow coldness and gradual distancing of friendships. In these Bible studies we often drifted into the discussion about love being an action, not an emotion. Yes, start loving your neighbour even when you don’t feel love, knowing that this is God’s command and our response to his grace. But is this sufficient? There is no sense of Jesus being a grudging rather than gentle shepherd, tolerating rather than having compassion on the crowds, or laying his life down in reluctance rather than in love and friendship. If our minds need to be renewed to please God, don’t our emotions need to be transformed in Christ-likeness too?
That’s all folks. Writing this series has been long and involved, but useful for tidying up my inside world and crystallising the lessons learnt (so I can re-learn them faster next time). And… I think it’s time to turn my attention to the real world, the present, and the people around me. Till next time!