How many phone calls have you had that begin with the phrase ‘I’m sorry to bother you…but.” The person ringing feels as though to claim the time of another person is to be a ‘bother’ to them. Maybe they feel like a ‘bother.’ I suppose that from a very early age we are schooled not to be ‘a bother’ to other people.
But this idea can be widened a little bit too, into the realm of relationships. Here is a scenario that I know too well. I am vaguely aware of an issue, simply because of a feeling of anxiety. I ‘don’t want to be a bother’ so I don’t do anything about it. After a few days I raise the issue, but with more anxiety and perhaps force than necessary. The force is not for the other person with whom I have an issue but in order to climb over the hurdle of ‘being a bother’. So I say what I want to say, but then feel guilty for actually having said anything at all.
The message is clear ‘You should feel guilty for actually raising an issue where you feel an injustice has been done or there is some thing that you want to discuss.’
Now here is another thing. I often hear talk about ‘acceptance’. In practice this means that when there is an issue between myself and another person, my role is to ‘accept’ the other and for me to make the adjustments. This means that ‘the other’ may not even know what I am thinking or feeling because through my ‘acceptance’ they have just gone on living their lives the way that they think is ‘a fair thing’.
A lot of people think that intimate relationships involve ‘acceptance’ and the ‘allowing of each other to ‘be themselves’. In one sense the saying ‘They wont let me ‘be myself’ is a protest against the fact that issues are even raised. To do this represents a failure of ‘acceptance’.
I begin this way because I came across some more research by John Gottman the other day. He has spent a long time researching what makes for successful marriages and what makes for failures. He says that the couples that tend to succeed are not those who offer each other ‘unconditional love and acceptance’ but they are those who regularly ‘raise issues’ with each other. He also says that successful couples make frequent low level claims on each other’s time. “Hey love, can I show you this?” “Yes, of course”. The regular claiming of another’s attention is a kind of ‘emotional grooming’ that keeps the intimacy intact. All this sparked my interest. I am wondering ‘How does it happen that people do not mind ‘being a bother’ to another?
At this point I draw on my knowledge of psycho-social development. The first year of life is really a year of ‘unconditional acceptance’ Of course a baby can’t be a negotiating human being so soon after birth. But if a baby claims the attention of others through crying and smiling, and if those others come, then their anxiety goes down, and the baby learns that the world is a reliable place, and that in claiming another’s attention, they are not being a ‘bother’.
But for most of us, this perfect world does not exist. We come out of the first year of life already knowing, too early perhaps, that we ought not be ‘a bother’. This is a problem because if a person does not have firm foundation of acceptance of themselves for making claims on others, then the only option is to ‘reject’ the others as one rejects ones own claims for selfhood. This results in people whose whole being is based on ‘either I get what I want or I reject you’, because the other way: ‘I ask for what I want, and you accept me for doing it’ is not the main go. This way of being makes for a very difficult future.
But say that we all get a bit of damage coming out of our first year, and then we are faced with the social reality of being two and three. This is where ‘raising issues’ becomes a part of the daily life of a child. “Please can you go to the toilet in the toilet.’, ‘Please can you eat at these times, and not when you want to.’ On a firm foundation of love, these raising of these issues is not a life destroying thing. Parents do it with children, and then children on a firm foundation learn to do it too.
So the business of being human is not a matter of ‘total acceptance’ or ‘complete rejection.’, but a process of learning to value my impulses, and then learning to negotiate my way around them in a social environment.
I think that this is what John Gottman is saying. Successful couples have been reasonably well treated in both phases of life: both in the development of trust in their own ‘raising of issues’ because they have been accepted, and in the next phase of influencing others, and being influenced by others which is the result of a healthy sense of self.
It is not surprising that the Christian story builds into the image of the Trinity (its primary metaphor) this idea of mutual love and mutual indwelling. In the relationships between the Father, son and spirit there is perfect communion, perfect acceptance and love. But at the same time, there is perfect mutual indwelling. The Greek word for this is ‘perichoresis’, meaning ‘dancing around. We get our word ‘carol’ from this word, since carolling was originally a form of dancing. It is this freedom to dance around one another which introduces into the Trinity a movement that reflects how we successfully accept one another, and mutually influence one another. This is our model.
But the other thing is that the events of Easter and particularly Good Friday are a healing model for all of us who ‘don’t want to be a bother’, and more. As God the Father embraces still the cursed Jesus on the cross, so we come to see that God’s love reaches out to all of the ‘bothers’ at his own expense and offers them the acceptance and holding embrace that can be the foundation of someone who is not then guilty when they ‘raise issues’. This is the love that, as the hymn says ‘can remove all guilty fear and love beget.’ This is what St. Paul means when he says ‘If we are driven by the spirit, then let us walk by the spirit.’
So I am getting older now. I can see how in the past, how I have ‘raised issues’ has not been so good, because it was as a result of needing to ‘get up a head of steam’ in order to overcome ‘being a bother’. That frightened some. I am less worried now by the question of ‘raising issues.’ May God in the Spirit continue this work in me and make me fit for heaven, which will be like this.