When I was doing a lot of what we called ‘group work’ there were two things that we learned that I remember. One was that it was ‘ok’ to ‘raise issues’. The second was that, in raising issues, it goes better when one uses “I” statements. I should say “In situation A when you do B I feel C”. At one time after that, but with the lessons learned, I thought that I was doing the ‘right thing’ by raising an ‘issue’ with my then partner. She responded with tears. I was surprised. Then I asked about the tears. She said “I don’t think I should be ‘getting into trouble’ with you.”
Now I was not in any way wanting to ‘get her into trouble’. What I was doing was: ‘In love, opening up an issue for discussion.’ Now there is another way that this conversation could have gone. She could have simply said “So can you explain your ‘issue’?” The thing is that an issue that was ‘about me’ ended up being a conversation ‘about her’ because something about the ‘raising of an issue’ not only connected with the ‘issue’ but connected with her interpretation of the situation as her ‘getting into trouble.’
I can think of some other situations where this applies. When teenage children act in an egotistical fashion, the parents, who have made sacrifices to raise the children, see the egotism as ungratefulness and say ‘After all I’ve done for you!’ The ‘issue’ is forgotten, and the exchange becomes one about how much one has done for the other. It is no longer ‘about’ the teenager, but ‘about’ the parent.
I am reflecting on these stories because I think I do something similar. In the Church, there are always people getting upset over one thing or another. Some of the time, the priest is blamed. ‘You have upset me!’
They complain. Notice that the form of the sentence is about the priest. ‘You’ have done something. So I am responsible. This feeds into my own ‘problem child’ self who is always afraid of ‘getting into trouble.’ The ‘issue’ goes away, and I say to myself ‘Here we go, I am in trouble again.’
On the other hand, if I think that the person’s accusation is unreasonable I might make the ‘issue’ about me by saying “How can you say that after all I’ve done for you?!!” Another way of saying it is ‘Well you are upset. But that is something you did to yourself. ‘ I am reminded of the saying that they used to quote when we were doing the above-mentioned ‘group work’. It came from Frits Perls, the founder of Gestalt Psychology.
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other,
If not, it can’t be helped.
I am also reminded of the story of the Rabbi’s curate who came to him and accused him of hypocrisy. He said to his boss “You hypocrite! A husband comes to you complaining about his wife, and you say ‘Life must be pretty tough for you right now.’ Then comes the wife, complaining about her husband and you say ‘Life must be pretty tough for you right now.’ Where does your integrity come in??!! The rabbi looked at the curate and after a pause said…. ‘Life must be pretty tough for you right now.’
The problem I find with both of these stories is this. It is true, I would like some more separation in my own life, and react less to situations as though ‘I am in trouble’ or as though I am the ‘hard done by parent’.
But there is also the possibility of being ‘convicted of sin’. That is, being told a hard truth about myself that is hard to hear at the time, but which is the cause for me to ‘take a good hard look’ at myself. This provides the opportunity for growth or for a deepening of relationships where there is also the potential for the breakdown of a relationship.
In a community of people like the Church everyone has to be involved in this kind of self examination and acceptance of difficult truths if we are going to stay together, or grow together. It’s no use just the priest always being the one who has ‘upset’ someone else. The very role of the priest is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable or self righteous or stubborn.’ This authority is not often given to the priest (most often the situation is seen as one of ‘just another person who has upset me.’) Nonetheless, if a congregation is going to be ‘Body of Christ’ this kind of a role is necessary for its growth or this kind of self examination is necessary.
But if this is going to happen either inside me, or within the congregation, then both the ‘I am in trouble’ and the ‘after all I’ve done for you’ reactions have to be put aside, or not play a big part.
All this is a preamble to reporting the fact that the conversation with the person who was scandalised by my announcing that I was going home to eat rabbit stew did not go so well. I think I failed on all three fronts. The person who was scandalised said ‘You did not even say ‘I’m sorry that you were scandalised.’ This is true. I have many people scandalised by things that have involved me, but none of them have been so different form my own sense of ‘normal’ than to be scandalised by my eating of rabbit stew.
My first reaction was to reject the scandal. But I could have said ‘Yes, I am sorry that this rift has occurred.’
Second, I felt (again) as if I were in trouble. I could have used the Rabbi’s phrase ‘So life is tough for you now.’ But I didn’t. The issue became not about their feelings, but about my trying to ‘get out of trouble.’ Third, I used a version of the line ‘after all we’ve done for you.’ Again, the issue was turned into something that was about me, not them. On both counts, no good. Fourth, I am thinking about my responses and the rabbits. There are some groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who oppose all kinds of animal testing and factory farming. I don’t think I am with them, but I have thought about factory farming of eggs and the intensive production of piglets. I buy ‘free range eggs’. But I do buy chicken and pork. This contretemps has put the issue of what I do with animals on my ethical radar screen once more. So I am looking both at the ‘issue’ and at ‘my reaction to the issue’.
I do not think that there can be a rapprochement between us at the level of opinion. But there can be my saying ‘Yes, you are right, I could have said, and can still say ‘I am distressed that you are scandalised.’ I can say that despite a fracture over this issue, mutual respect and love can overcome differences. But that may take time and further reflection. Can we still be friends is a person thinks that by eating rabbit I am betraying Christ? That may take some more time. For my own self, I think it is healthy for things to be less ‘about me’ and more healthy to be able to look at the ‘issue’ and let that looking change me.