Friday, November 29, 2013
"You first." Now two words are flung back and forth in ill-advised politeness as two individuals insist the other must go ahead.
"You first." On a dark night high in the Canadian Rockies, those two words betrayed the true colors of my tent mate as he responded to my observation that going outside would be the only way to prove whether it was a bear or our fellow campers who had collapsed the structure on our faces as we slept.
In our relationships the line between polite and annoying; between self-sacrifice and self-interest; between what's good for me and what's good for us; can be as ambiguous as the meaning of, "You first." It's hard to know how much we can rely on the good intentions of others when those we trust most are capable of letting us down. And if we're honest with ourselves, it's also hard to know how far our own good intentions can carry us when we consistently put our needs, desires, and expectations ahead others. We demand trust even as a question mark hangs over our own trustworthiness, causing us to question the trustworthiness of others.
In the discipline of game theory there is a classic game called Prisoner's Dilemma. In the simplest variation, two criminal accomplices are taken in by the police for questioning and interrogated in separate rooms. Each criminal has two options remain silent or confess the crime. If both criminals remain silent, they both go free. If one confesses and the other remains silent, the one who confesses goes free and the one who remains silent goes to jail. And if they rat each other out, they both go to jail.
Prisoner's Dilemma illustrates the darkest aspects of the way trust functions our relationships. We need to trust each other in order to accomplish the goals of the relationship. Yet actions based on trust expose us to exploitation by the untrustworthy.
The same dynamic plays out in the stereotypical marriage conflict where the man wants to have sex and the woman wants to talk. Ideally, they would make time for both activities, because both partners would benefit. However, the man worries, What if all we do is talk and never get around to the sex? Of course, the woman has the opposite fear, He'll use me for sex, and we'll never talk. Each has the option to say, You first, and nag their spouse to meet their needs or, You first, and offer to meet their spouse's needs before their own are met.
The difference between the first response and the second is hope. Hope allows us to move beyond the pain of disappointment and open ourselves for the sake of improvement. Where hope is absent, the best circumstances cannot save a relationship; but where hope is strong, the worst challenges can be overcome.
Hope is a spiritual resource. It is not based on risk/reward assessments or objective consideration of one's interests. It is grounded in a conviction that God is watching over us and developed by spiritual practices that nurture a sense of his provision in our lives. If God's ultimate intent is to restore what was lost, I believe we can take that as permission to live our lives with an openness to his restoration in our relationships today.
This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (November 29, 2013).