Friday, November 29, 2013

"You First"

"You first." These two words constitute a gracious deference in the checkout line when you have two items and the person in front has twenty.

"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).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Time, Loyalty, and the Exclusion of Other Options

One of my acquaintances recently remarked that she is partisan to the point where she cannot acknowledge any good done on the part of the current Canadian government. But their recent proposal to force cable companies to unbundle their channels has won them her wholehearted approval on that point.

This move is even drawing cheers from media outlets south of the boarder. Apparently, the right of consumers to customize their cable package is unifying force in our divided times—a common interest we must assert (my favorite channels) against a common enemy who would deny us that interest (the cable company).

Because the thing no one in our society can tolerate is the sense of being constrained. We are a culture that believes in order to be free, the individual ought keep open as many options as possible. We apply the have-it-your-way principle from decisions as small as hamburger toppings up to those as life-altering as careers.

Our commitment to non-commitment also has it's downside. It comes in those aspects of life where loyalty and time are required to develop a satisfying experience. I observe this primarily in the area of relationships, where becoming deeply connected requires a choice to eliminate other options and invest emotionally in another.

Of course, other people have their own needs and desires, and will likely end up failing in some way to meet our expectations for the relationship. So we keep our options open.

This is why our society is understood by outside observers as one in which people are quick to declare a friendship exists and able dispose of the relationship just as fast. This is why, when our spouses hurt us, we feel free to turn away from them in divorce, adultery, or that silent killer of marriages, the parallel lives accommodation wherein couples share a house but not a life.

This is why religion has become spirituality, because religion makes demands of us. Instead, drawing on multiple traditions one may invent a customized god who is compatible with ones goals and desires. Recognizing a God who is independent of me constitutes the ultimate restriction.

There is another highly regarded aspect of life that requires a similar level of dedication to relationships: athletics. One must be loyal to an athletic pursuit, put in the time, and deny other options in order to succeed. Athletics teaches us that the things in life that are most rewarding are often hard and difficult. Just as one must be able to endure a healthy level of physical pain and suffering to have athletic fulfillment, one must also be able to endure a healthy level of emotional pain and suffering to have relational fulfillment.

In a society that encourages us to move through life, using and discarding people as it suits us, it takes a brave soul to stand for loyalty and commitment. Don't think you can do it alone. Make the choice to commit to a God, a spouse, and friends who will support you in ways that develop a relationally fulfilling life.

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (October 25, 2013).