Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reflection: Loving Other People

About a month ago I wrote my first longer blog post, "Everyone is a Teacher". (I recommend reading the comments on this post, by the way. Maybe someday I'll get around to responding to them.) Anyway, I'm calling these longer posts reflections and here's another one.


I've been learning about listening recently, mostly from a marriage group run by John and Lori Odhner of Caring for Marriage. A now well-worn truism of listening in marriage is that women just want to be listened to not have their problem fixed. I find this annoyingly true. Almost every time that my wife tells me about something negative, my first reaction is to start thinking about how to fix it—how to be the knight that rides up to save her with my brilliant solution sword. But, pretty much every time she would rather that I just listen to what she's experiencing and even sometimes just repeat back the words that she's saying. "I'm feeling frustrated that...." "You're feeling frustrated that...." "Yes!" So it's clear that, if I want to be loving, that's what I should do but there's a part of me that would still much rather mentally run off to find my horse and put on my armor than concentrate on really understanding what my princess is dealing with.

Another brilliant way that I often want to respond is by talking about how I'm feeling. "I'm feeling frustrated because...." "I'm also feeling frustrated but I'm frustrated because...." But, again, if I want to really be loving to my wife, I shouldn't get into that.

I know that this is basic stuff but forgive me while I share my realizations about what I think is going on underneath both of these. I think that the fundamental thing that matters to my wife (and to anyone I'm supposedly listening to) is whether I'm focusing on myself or the other person. The shift to focusing on me is pretty obvious when I say "I'm also feeling frustrated...." but it's also what's going on in the fixing scenario. When I start thinking about how to solve my wife's problems I've shifted from focusing on the much less comfortable thing of listening to and trying to relate to someone outside of me to the much more comfortable realm of focusing on how I can save the day.

It's amazing (and depressing) how much we do this when we're interacting with other people. We're much more comfortable hearing someone express something we already think than allowing someone to be different from us. Have you ever had an argument about what flavor of ice cream is the best or whether pie or cake is better? Partly it's just a sort of funny chance to see who's better at arguing about something that doesn't actually matter but I think there's also a part of us that's uncomfortable with other people having different preferences than us—even about things that don't matter at all. No wonder we have big problems with people having different beliefs about religion and politics.

Divine Love and Wisdom 47
is a popular passage for wedding ceremonies. The often quoted part says, "To feel the joy of another as joy in oneself, that is loving." There's also a flip-side to this principle, though. Here's most of the passage:
The essence of love is not to love self, but to love others and through love to be conjoined with them. It is also the essence of love to be loved by others, for thus is conjunction achieved. The essential ingredient in all love consists in conjunction; indeed in it consists its life, which we call pleasure, gratification, delight, sweetness, bliss, happiness and felicity.

Love consists in willing what one has to be another's, and in feeling the other's delight as delight within oneself. That is what it is to love. In contrast, to feel one's own delight in another, and not the other's delight within oneself, is not to love; for this is loving self, whereas the first is loving the neighbor.

These two types of love are diametrically opposite each other in nature.
Extrapolating on this a bit, loving other people means trying to feel what they feel; just trying to get people to just feel what we feel and not being willing to do the reverse is just loving ourselves.

How can we use this to learn to love other people more? I'm thinking that we should focus on loving other people—look for how people are different from us, focus on understanding how they think differently than we do instead of how they think the same way that we do.

When I interviewed a bunch of couples earlier this year about what being married is like, a number of the ones that had been married for a longer period of time commented on how they've seen more and more how incredibly different men and women are. It can be painful for a husband and wife to find ways that they aren't the same when they thought they were, but ultimately understanding how they're different can bring them closer together.

I'm currently in Sweden and am more aware than normal that the people around me are different from me—the sights and sounds are a constant reminder. If I really wanted to understand the people around me I should have spent months learning their language as a starting place—memorizing vocabulary, studying grammar, listening to recordings, practicing pronunciation. As it is I'm relying on phrase book and Scandinavians' ability to speak English. How often do we never get past a phrase book understanding of other people? If it takes hundreds of hours to learn to understand another language, how long must it take to really understand their thoughts and feelings? How much do we miss if we never get beyond the few phrases or basic concepts we have to understand all that a person has to express?

Boy, this is starting to sound rather bleak and depressing. I don't mean it to be. I'm just realizing how much I can miss if I don't get beyond just translating everything other people say into the way I understand things. We can make progress. Through really listening to my wife and allowing her to be someone different than me who sees things differently and processes things differently, I feel like I've made progress in really understanding other people and women in particular.

I think the first step is just acknowledging that other people are different and that I don't want them to be. When I'm dealing with kids, particularly ones 6ish and younger I can get frustrated by their inability to think about things rationally. But, people who are good with kids understand that kids don't think rationally and so they listen to them according to how they see the world. Comedian Brian Regan talks about how adults don't understand why kids get upset when they lose a balloon. He says that they should imagine what it would be like if their wallet floated away into the sky. (Let me know if you find a clip of this online.)

One last thought: we can run into the same sorts of difficulties when we're listening to the Lord as we do when we're listening to other people. Some people like to say that man created God in his own image. Everyone probably does think of God in his or her own image to some degree—especially at first. But, I think we can make progress in understanding God for who He really is, the more we acknowledge that He is Someone different from us, who thinks about things in a different way than we do.
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," says the Lord. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)
In summary: an important piece of listening to and loving the Lord and loving other people is looking for and loving the otherness of the Lord and other people.

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