A choice between vulnerability and selfishness

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M. SCOTT PECK, author of The Road Less Travelled, once stated that we are all born narcissists and that our goal as we journey through life is to grow out of that narcissism, out of loving and living for ourselves.

I agree with Peck! Each of us can choose to journey through life independently, focused only on ourselves or we can seek to reach out to people and enter into meaningful relationships with them.

However, if we choose the unselfish path, which requires intimacy, then we must recognize that there is a cost involved in pursuing it.

If you want to go deep in your relationship with your spouse then it is going to require that you be vulnerable. Most of us are good at conversations that revolve around simple pleasantries – “Hi, how are you? I’m fine thanks!” Some of us are quite adept at talking about other people! But when it comes to sharing things such as our ideas about a topic of how we feel about things we run a mile!

WHY DO WE RUN?

Because when we share our ideas or our feelings we know that risk is involved. There is the risk that the person we are talking to may scoff at our idea or worse, repudiate, laugh at or reject our feelings. For some people this is too great a risk to run and so they withdraw from relating to a person at an intimate level.

Some of us are just plainly not interested. The idea of sitting and listening to someone frightens us because we sense that something may be required of us – that there will be an expectation that we must also share about ourselves with the other person.

Rather than do that we simply stop interacting with people. A frustrated wife once asked her counselor if she had ever heard of “the great stone face”. “I believe I have” replied the counselor. “Well, I’m married to him” said the wife, “He doesn’t listen and he doesn’t talk!” I don’t know what was driving the husband to be like that but it was pretty clear that he was not interested in an intimate relationship with his wife.

Others are simply just too tired for relationship. They spend all day in a demanding job or they have been home all day catering to the incessant demands of young children and day’s end finds them with an emotional tank so low that they have nothing more to give to their spouse.

All of this brings me back to my original thought: we are all born narcissists. In other words, we are more inclined to look after our own needs than the needs of others. I would suggest that when we choose not to be vulnerable or we are not interested in others then we are being selfish.

If we really desire closeness in our marriages or with others then we are going to have to do some hard work.

We will choose to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to others and to share ourselves with them.

Instead of a callous indifference toward people we will choose to listen and to show an active interest in them and their needs.

And sometimes it will require that at the end of a busy day, despite our own tiredness, we will choose to sit down with our spouse and ask them how they are feeling, what they are struggling with, what was the highlight of their day and give them the gift of both our time and presence.

Ebenezer Scrooge was described by Dickens as being “as solitary as an oyster” – what a desperately lonely character he was until he realized how miserable he had become by shutting people out of his life.

Intimacy is costly because it requires that we stop focusing on ourselves and start engaging with people in life-giving ways.

But then, who wants to live as an oyster?

Satisfying intimacy requires vulnerability and risk

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A COMMON QUESTION that will be asked around thousands of meal tables tonight will be, “How was your day?” If I was a gambling man I can almost guarantee that the answer will be something like, “Fine, how was yours?”

In this age of instant global connection via social media it seems to me that we have never been more distant in our understanding of each other.

We regularly hear stories of people who have thousands of online ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ but in the deepest part of their soul they long for just one person with whom they can connect with at an emotional and personal level.

This hidden loneliness is often found in many marriages where the couple may have lived under the same roof for decades but have never made the soul connection that is so essential to healthy intimacy in marriage.

The intimacy I am referring to is not sexual or physical. I mean an intimacy that frees two people to be open and honest with each and which produces a deep level of trust that lasts for a lifetime.

It is generally held by the communication experts that there are five levels of communication that progressively build upon each other: it begins with cliché conversation and then moves on to reporting the facts about others. From that point you start to move into areas that require a greater level of disclosure about yourself. You begin to share your ideas, then your feelings (an extremely vulnerable place to be) until you arrive at what is described as peak communication – the place where you are totally open and honest with the other person.

I think many people want to be at that place with another person – peak communication – but they simply don’t know how to get there. This was highlighted for me in an article I read recently about a married couple who were struggling with this, and in telling their story shared how they learned to ask each other questions that required answers that went beyond the surface. In other words, they stopped asking each other “how was your day?”!

Kate McCombs blogs that there are six questions that couples can experiment with that can open up conversation between people and avoid the tired old “how was your day?” routine. She suggests the following:

”Did you have any victories that you want to share?”

“Were there any challenges that you want empathy about?”

”Were there any surprisingly fun moments in your day?”

”Did you have any nice connections with your colleagues?”

”What was frustrating about your day?”

”Now that you’re home, is there anything you’d love to brag about?” (Because we can’t always do this with colleagues but it is great when we can with partners.)

As you read this you may be thinking to yourself that the questions above seem a little forced. That’s okay – experiment with them and word them in a way that makes them feel more like you. But don’t dismiss them.

Questions like these show that a level of thought has gone into them and that you are genuinely interested in the other person.

They also require that the other person takes the time to think through their answer rather than slipping into the old cliché of “Everything is fine, how about you?”

Politeness is fine, but marriages need to be built on more than mere politeness in order for intimacy to flourish!

And intimacy requires cost. It will cost you to ask and answer questions like these because you are prepared to risk being vulnerable with another human being. But it is a risk worth taking!

You will always be a father and grandfather

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“Gramps! Gramps! Can we do super hero and dragging please?” Over the past two months this has been a constant question that I have heard from the lips of my grandchildren during their stay with us.

What, exactly, is “super hero and dragging” I hear you ask? It involves me picking up each of my grandchildren (there are four in this particular family!), holding them in the plank position while I simulate flying them around the house Superman style on their way to bed. The dragging bit was where they held onto my ankles and I would drag them across our slippery wooden floors.

This has been my regular, night time routine for each one of them while their family has stayed with us as they prepare to move east for a few years.

Why am I telling you this?

Because while they have been living with us I have been reminded that you never stop being a father, never.

Having six extra people living in our house for two months, four of them under the age of seven, has been challenging but it has also been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in a long time.

It would have been tempting to have “checked out” when they all descended on my family back in early June and just wait out the next two months until they left for the East Coast. But I chose to engage with them and make this as enjoyable a time for all of us as possible.

And so I discovered many things.

I discovered that my one-year-old grandson has an adorable smile that lights up when you do one of those stupid things that grandfathers are renowned for.

I learned that my three-year-old grandson expresses his gratitude and love by throwing his arms around you and giving you a big hug.

I found out that my five-year-old granddaughter cannot stop giggling as you “super hero” her around the house.

And I also learned that my eldest granddaughter, though excited about moving to the other side of the country was also understandably sad to be leaving her extended family and friends behind.

I would have missed all this and more if I had simply chosen to withdraw into myself and ride things out until they left – I’m glad I chose to engage with them.

Let me speak to you as one Dad (and Grandfather) to another. I know that you are busy and that at the end of the day you need some space when you arrive home. Coming home to a house full of excited (sometimes whinging!) kids is no picnic. I have been in fairly demanding roles for most of my working life so I understand what this feels like.

But the reality is that we only have the briefest of moments with our children. It’s a cliché but it’s also true – they really do grow up quickly!

Don’t abdicate the role that you have as a Dad or a Grandfather to someone else. Only you can be that person in their lives. So get involved with your kids and resolve to do something stupid with them as well, like “super hero” them to bed!

Is it worth it? The sad look in my granddaughter’s eyes as she told me the day she left that “we couldn’t do the ‘super hero and dragging’ tonight” tells me it is.

You’re a Dad. You have been blessed with beautiful kids. Don’t waste a minute of it!

What is falling in love?

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I’ve been asking myself this question lately: “When do you fall in love with a person?” In fact, what does it mean to “fall in love”? I think most people believe that it is something that cannot be controlled, that you fall into love itself, much like you fall into a pool of water and are engulfed by it.

One author described a couple as having “a feeling or a feeling had them…they didn’t quite know…” He was being humorous but I think he had a point.

So here is what I think. To fall in love is much the same as what happens to a soldier or knight who falls in battle. He goes in prepared for the fight but it soon overwhelms him. The odds against him are greater than he can withstand and he falls, a casualty of the battle.

I think this is what happens when we fall in love. We don’t fall into a feeling so much – as wonderful as the feeling is – but we are conquered by our love for the other person, overwhelmed by it and it’s also because we realise that we have found someone that we want to spend the rest of our life with and who is worthy of all the love that we can give them.

Now I can’t prove this definition of falling in love because I haven’t checked it out but I think I’m pretty close to the mark!

So I return to my first question. When do you fall in love with a person?

Ah, that is the question!

Couples begin to date because they like each other and as the relationship grows they find that they like each other even more. Many of them get to the point of loving each other enough to marry and to commit to spending the rest of their lives together.

I discovered at a point in my relationship with Karen that there was a lot of narcissism in my love and although I did not fully understand it completely at the time, God was patiently teaching me what real love was like. That it was not about me but about the other person and I am ashamed to admit that this has been a lesson I have been slow to learn in my life – to love my wife first and then others without conditions, expectations or manipulation.

And falling in love also involves honesty. I well remember the night that Karen and I took the step of being brave enough to share who we really were with each other. Our feelings were a jumble but it was the best thing we ever did in our relationship. During that time we told each other that we loved one another and we did this because we were both confronted with a choice. Now that we knew more about each other we could walk away or we could accept each other.

This wasn’t necessarily an easy choice for either of us to make, but all these years later we know we made the right one. Neither of us wanted to be another “also ran” in a line people whom we had already been rejected by. No matter how confused our feelings might have been at the time we wanted each other to know that we could count on each other and that we would be there for each other.

That night we fell in love. And that process continues today, because falling in love is not a one off event but a life-long process.

I am still falling in love with Karen and I think that is how it will be for the rest of my life. I don’t think you ever just fall in love once. I think you fall in love with the same person, over and over again.

That is what I think it means to “fall in love”!

Unselfish love must be our aim

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Author Dale Kuehne writes,

“The challenge (of) the twenty-first century is not to use the same old arguments to try to persuade the West of the truth of the traditional teaching on sexual ethics (but neither should we) blindly or reflexively… accommodate the sexual revolution.”

I wrote a few months back that we had moved from “tWorld” (traditional world) to “iWorld” – a world that is dominated by “what is the best way that I can guarantee my personal happiness and also live without the confines of social restraint?”

This has particular bearing on the area of human relationships, especially marriage, given a statistic I read recently: in the United States, depending on which data you read, between 40%-65% of married women are having affairs.

And a website that arranges dates for single people with more traditional beliefs asked its members between the ages of 18 to 59 “Would they sleep with their partner/date before marriage?” A staggering 65% of respondents said yes!

There is no doubt that we have well and truly moved from tWorld to iWorld!

Many people are afraid to admit that they believe in things like chastity before marriage and other long established traditional values associated with sex, relationships and marriage for fear of being called intolerant or outdated. Some perceive that holding to traditional values runs the risk of coming off as being dismissive and uncaring of others and their opinions.

It is important to remember then that caring for people does not mean that one has to accept everything that they say and believe.

There is a beautiful example of this when a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus for judgement. In the minds of some of her accusers she was deserving of death, as the law of the day dictated. But Jesus shows her mercy by pointing out to the crowd a fact they had conveniently forgotten – they too were guilty of sin and deserving of death. What is often missed however is that when Jesus sends the forgiven woman on her way He does so with the charge to “sin no more”.

Did Jesus display genuine love and care for the woman and her plight? Undoubtedly! But neither did He accept everything that she did.

Finally, when holding to absolute moral ideals it is a good thing to remember that love must always be the aim. It is one thing to decry “how bad things are getting” but quite another to try and walk in the shoes of someone who feels broken.

I believe that keeping yourself sexually pure before and during marriage is the best way to live, but what of the young girl who gives herself sexually to a boy on the promise that he does love her, only to discover that he was lying or the victim of sexual abuse, who does not really understand why they are so promiscuous?

Do we stop to think about people like that before we opening our mouths?

If we love then we will.

So yes, one can uphold absolute moral ideals without being uncaring or dismissive. But if we are to carry the day on the debate over sexual ethics we will only do so by choosing to love, remembering that there are many who have been deeply wounded but also understanding that loving them does not mean accepting everything they say or do.

How can we love difficult people?

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A BLAZING FIRE was roaring through the forest and the animals gathered at the shore of the lake in order to swim to safety. Unable to swim, a scorpion attempted to convince a tortoise why he should give him a ride on his back. Unconvinced, the tortoise replied, “You are my natural enemy, how can I trust that you will not sting me while we are in the water?” “That would be foolish!” replied the scorpion, “For then we would both die – trust me, I won’t sting you!” So the tortoise allowed the scorpion to climb on board, but half way across he savagely stung his rescuer at the base of his neck. As both animals sank to certain death the tortoise cried out in despair, “Why did you do that?” to which the scorpion replied, “Because it’s in my nature to sting!”

Like the scorpion, there is something in us as people that when confronted with someone we do not naturally like, rather than befriending them we reject and hurt them.

Is it possible to love difficult people? And if so, how do we do that?

The place to start is by acknowledging the inherent worth and dignity of all people. The Jewish philosopher and author, Martin Buber, proposed the idea of the “I – Thou” as the basis for relationships. He simply meant that when we regard another person as a “thou” instead of an “it” we see them as another human being created in the image of God and this profoundly changes how we relate to them. We no longer view them simply as an object or unworthy of our attention but as a fellow traveler through life and in need of love and friendship – just as we are.

“Love springs from awareness” wrote one author, “…the first ingredient of love is to really see the other.”

Looking at people through God’s eyes – created in His image – enables us to treat them with respect and dignity.

It also helps to ask the question “Why?” I am sure many of you have been in social settings with a group of people where anything from sport to politics or the latest book or movie is being discussed. In my experience there is usually one person present who does not quite fit in. They can be extremely introverted or they make a comment which causes such awkwardness in the group that they are politely ignored for the rest of the evening!

For many years it was my habit to make a judgement on people like that and it was not a positive one! But in recent years when I have been in similar situations I have increasingly found myself asking the question “Why?”

“Why is this person like that?”

“Why do they think that way?”

“What experiences in life have they had that causes them to speak or act like that?”

By asking these questions it allows me to stop and think for a few moments about the other person, who they might be and what they might have been through. This does not mean that I will find all the answers to my questions but it slows me down long enough from making a harsh assessment of the person and writing them off.

Something else that helps me to love difficult people is to also admit that there have been times (many!) when I have been the difficult one, the member of the group who did not quite fit in! As I look back over the course of my life I can remember times when I have said or done things that embarrassed or alienated people but I can also see how many of them showed me grace. Their care for me moved beyond mere tolerance to that of genuine friendship and love.

To remind myself that I need others to show me grace helps me to then extend grace to others as well.

It is a difficult thing to love difficult people but when we do we grow as people and so do many who are the recipients of our love.