Saturday, February 25, 2012

#9 The words are not the message

I don't know about you but I regularly interact with people who don't articulate their feelings well. Sometimes they are unable to do so. They may not be in touch with their inner selves enough to know what lies behind their surface emotions. Other times they choose to hide their real feelings from me. Sometimes it's a combination. Hiding their inner feelings from me is an unavoidable part of hiding from themselves.

I recently triggered the defenses of a friend. In his “constructive criticism” response, he put a negative label on my viewpoint and told me I was blind to the truth about him and his actions. It was a struggle for me to look beyond the negative label I didn't want to wear and the word arrows being shot my way to recognize that the message my friend was giving me was that my words to him had hit a sensitive spot. I wanted to bring in proof of my visual acuity and persuade him to take back the negative label. I wanted to respond to his words rather than to the wounded spirit that prompted them. The urge to vindicate myself was strong.

When such scenes play themselves out, the words spoken tend toward extreme positions: “You never ...” “You always ...” They hold me personally responsible for bringing unpleasantness into the world. My own defenses spring to life and I make rebuttal statements. After all, the words contains untruths and I like to get the facts straight. But when I focus on the words I am missing the point. These negative words are generally not about me. They are a trap, a distraction. There is a message behind them that I'll miss if I'm not careful.

A couple of examples:

The words:
You are always late. [Not true. I am usually very prompt, seldom early, and do slip into late more than I like, but I am NOT "always late".]

The message:
The time I spent waiting for you has upset me.
Or maybe, I have had a bad day and your tardiness isn't helping.
Or maybe, I was hoping you would be early because I'm on a tight schedule today.

The words:
You didn't do a thing to help me. [Maybe not, but it's not as though I was sitting around doing nothing. Do you want to hear my excuses for not helping?]

The message:
I am tired.
Or maybe, I am struggling with this project.
Or maybe, this project has left me feeling isolated and alone.
Or maybe, I feel like our friendship is fading.

When words start raining down on me and my “truth detector” urges me to set the person behind them straight concerning their erroneous statements, I really need this reminder to look beyond the exaggeration, the non sequitors, and the accusations to the nature of the pain that brought out the word arrows. Otherwise, I'm just examining incoming arrows for balance and weight without figuring out who is shooting at me and why. If I can get beyond the words, I can ask the right questions to figure out what's really going on.

Even though it's almost at the end of my list of ten things to remember, this is in the running for the most needed reminder of the bunch. The words are not the message.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

#8 What Goes Around Comes Around -- or: God Is Not Mocked

The connection between the two title choices of this eight item on my list of ten things to remember may not be obvious. The first version traces back to using a revolving door as a memory 'hook' for it. The door goes around and around. Moving one door panel inevitably moves the entire door. If I don't move with it, it will sneak up behind me and smack me in the back. I'll be the victim of my own actions.

The "God is not mocked" phrase comes from Galatians 6:7. In the NIV it reads: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." Again, a chosen action (sowing a particular seed) inevitably leads to a predictable consequence. Pushing a door panel makes the entire door go around. Planting corn seed never gives you peas. If you plant corn, corn is what you can expect to grow.

This eighth thing to remember is related to the seventh and enables the seventh. When I pass on the love and mercy of God to those who don't deserve it, I give up my right and responsibility to set them straight. This could lead to a terrible injustice without the reaping-what-you-sow principle. This principle tells me that justice is built into the world and is completely independent of my efforts. I don't have to reflect someone's negative behavior to show them how it feels to be treated the way they are treating others. The whole universe is set up to handle that reflectivity. I can be confident that those who treat me with contempt will be on the receiving end of contempt at some point (if they haven't already experienced it). Those who are selfish will encounter selfish behavior in others. Those who demonstrate hatred will encounter hatred directed their way. The principle of reflectivity is so deeply ingrained in the universe that I am completely expendable as a mirror and can focus all my energy on reflecting the love and mercy of God rather than giving people a taste of their own medicine.

This principle of justice is revealed all through the Bible and abundantly demonstrated around us when we look through eyes of faith. I can look around and see that those who criticize me are often the subject of criticism. Those who fail to listen find few listeners. Those who dig pits to trap others often fall into those pits.

The psalms often talk of the wicked living well for a time, but note that their end is always destruction. It may look like everything is coming up roses for those who trample over me, but I can be confident that the thorns are there and will inevitably snag them.

The more faith I have in this principle the easier it is to resist the urge to push back against people whom I perceive to be mistreating me. Every seed they sow will inevitably produce a harvest. Those who are sowing seeds of unpleasantness may already be living in a world full of unpleasantness directed their way. Regardless of whether that's the cause or effect of their own unpleasantness, I can afford to be compassionate toward them, knowing there is no lack of negative consequences already coming their way in connection with their negative actions and attitudes.

As I apply this principle to those who have brought my world crashing down, I also remember that I too will reap what I sow and start looking around my seed bin for seeds of kindness and compassion. That's the type of crop I would like to harvest when what I set in motion comes back around to me. It's often easier said than done, but it helps to keep this on my list of things to remember.