Sunday, August 28, 2011

Still on the line?

August 28, 2011

Dear friends,

Glen Campbell’s family recently revealed that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In facing the loss of skills and memory with which he is confronted, Campbell with his family’s support has determined to undertake a last public tour. In gentle salute to his courage, a local radio station played some of Campbell’s classic performances from the 60’s and 70’s. Listening while returning from an errand, I caught one of the lines from Wichita Lineman: “. . . and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time. . . .”

Here it is again, I thought to myself—this idea that relationships are defined by wants and needs—mine?—yours?—and measured by some wordless yardstick of personal fulfillment.

If for a moment we revisit the simple paradigm of needs I outlined earlier [security/survival; love/esteem; power/control], the difficulty in this model of relationship immediately raises some complex issues. How can someone else meet—and continue to meet—my need for security? And what if (echoes of Wichita Lineman) I need more security than I want, and what I think I want is you (for all time, no less), even though I recognize that my need is greater than my want in the relationship? Hmm--.

What do we mean anyway when we speak of a “good” relationship?

If we consider a good relationship as one in which the well-being of both participants is respected and nourished, we assume by definition that the needs and wants of participating individuals are carefully regarded. Such a definition gets us a step further in exploring the challenge of individual needs/wants in the context of relationship. However, the assumption that the needs/wants must be governed by the mutual well-being of participants leads, alas, to yet another knotty question. Who decides about how much is enough to meet the well-being criteria?

Is it my responsibility to determine how much love/esteem or power/control you need? Do I decide how much is good for you? Do you decide what is good for you? What if you don’t know? What if you’re mistaken? And—uncomfortable bottom line—am I obligated to respond to your assessment of your needs even when I disagree? And what if I do not want/need to meet your need/want?

What happens to me in the relationship if I recognize that in meeting your needs my needs have become greater than my want to be in the relationship?

In the consumer-oriented model of relationship, no matter how conflicted, want and need remain trump. And in this context the last line of the song is oddly haunting—“And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.”

Still on the line?

Thinking with you of the tension that the want/need dilemma brings to the issue of commitment and covenant.

See you next week.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Do you have to like my shoes?

August 21, 2011

Dear friends,

The concept of relationship as obligation is so widely assumed in our culture that questioning the idea seems at best semantic quibbling, and a worst a piece of pedantic foolishness. Nevertheless, the issue is one of serious importance. Does relationship obligate?

The answer is, of course, yes, no, and it depends.

One of the factors that determines the answer is our understanding of obligation itself. If by obligation we mean that relationship entails mutual responsibilities for all parties in the relationship, then relationship does indeed obligate. But if by obligation we mean that relationship compels a given response as a duty-driven debt, then the answer is for the most part no, with limited exceptions that must be clearly agreed to by all parties involved. In such instances, the duty-driven requirements rest not upon the relationship itself, but upon the boundaries and requirements participants have stipulated in the contract of the relationship.

It is at this point that high levels of conflict and confusion occur, particularly when communication skills are limited.

A conversation I overheard on a bus illustrates my point.

Young man (somewhat anxiously): “How come you’re mad at me?”
Young woman (clearly outraged by the question): “You know—don’t
play games.”
Young man (beginning to sound irritated): “I don’t know and I can’t read your mind. What did I do?”
Young woman (close to tears): “You said my shoes looked ridiculous. If you loved me, you’d never say something like that.”
Young man (clearly exasperated): “I DO love you and the shoes ARE ridiculous. Why shouldn’t I say so? That’s my opinion.”

Why indeed was the young man in hot water relationally because he expressed his opinion of his companion’s shoes? Was it a matter of tactlessness? As an uninvited anonymous eavesdropper, I thought it was much more than that. The pain I thought I heard in the young woman’s response caused me to wonder if without conscious awareness she believed that the relationship between her and the young man obligated him always under all circumstances to respond in ways that bolstered what appeared to be a fragile, easily threatened sense of self-esteem. It appeared that the young woman had assigned the young man the duty to serve her need for reassurance, framing this obligation as a duty compelled by “love.” If at some level this was the case, then the issue was not a difference of opinion about fashion in shoes, but a betrayal by a significant other whom she believed obligated by the relationship to meet her need.

Guarding our hearts from self-sabotage in relationships requires us to inspect consciously and consistently the expectations we place on others.

I think the course of that relationship might have been changed had the young woman laughed and said, “Well, they may be ridiculous to you, but I like them and I’m going to have a lot of fun wearing them.”

Thinking with you about the crucial difference an assigned obligation can make in a relationship, and seeking, as Paul reminded the Christians at Galatia, to carry my own load. [Gal. 6:5.]

See you next week.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Is your need my obligation?

August 14, 2011

Dear Friends,

While sorting old material on my desk (rare event), I came across the note I had written myself several weeks ago about the Bob Merrill’s lyrics in the song “People.” As you know, it required more than Streisand’s great voice to convince me that the need for ‘people’ (i.e., relationships) makes us “lucky." I think this need makes us human and, consequently, makes the discipline of forming mutually productive relationships with others a life-long task.

Part of this task is, of course, identifying what it is that we need, and learning to know how much is enough.

Neither task is easy. Unaware, we are often confused by ideas the culture teaches that at best are extraordinarily silly, and at their worst propose a sure formula for relational disaster.

In “People” Streisand sings a hatful of such ideas with power and passion and artistry. In 2011, archival dust from the culture of the 60’s has begun to settle over Streisand’s work. What is astonishing, however, is the way in which some of these bad ideas are alive and circulating still.

For example, Styne and Merrill’s lyrics deftly define the role we may expect the “other” to play in relationships. Lovers, they insist, are the luckiest people in the world because they have found that very special person who evokes a “feeling deep in your soul [that] says you were half, now you’re whole. . . .”

Really? We’re sure about that?

Now a decade into the 21st century we may assume that we have outgrown that “better half” or “other half” idea, but I’m not so sure.

It is true that the idea is rarely phrased in this form anymore. Nevertheless, there is evidence that we continue to believe that our needs form an obligation for others with whom we enter into relationship to “fill the hole.” We believe further that their failure to do so signals the failure of the relationship, and certainly the right, perhaps even the necessity, for us to leave the relationship.

Last week in my office a young thirty-something reported an impending divorce initiated because the partner “no longer meets my needs.” Last week at a luncheon, a fifty-something individual described a family choice to alter church affiliation because the church they were attending “no longer meets our needs.”

And in a sobering parallel, in a session focused on spiritual growth and maturity, a client said angrily, “How can God expect me to want a relationship with Him when He doesn’t meet my needs?”

Is the measure of a life-nurturing relationship the degree to which it decreases my sense of need? Is becoming “not needing” the purpose for which we form relationships?

Thinking with you of still another paradox: is my willingness and capacity to live with unmet needs one of the skills required for the intimacy in which my deepest needs are met?

See you next week.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Do I ever need to go without?

August 7, 2011

Dear friends,

Most of us outgrow the idea that might makes right. As adults, even when our self-control is tattered and ragged, we sense that having the power to take a given action does not mean that doing so is wise, or, for that matter, that the action if taken will serve our own best interest.

We are slower to question our primitive belief that our needs are self-justifying. Sometimes well into adulthood, we presume that our needs presuppose the license to satisfy those needs by whatever means is available (particularly if it requires minimal effort). While we may not say so directly, we organize important aspects of our lives around the unspoken principle that the primary purpose of life can be reduced to getting what we need.

In effect, we behave as though our basic needs are the substance of the imago dei [the image of God in us], and that therefore, all activities dedicated to meeting our needs are therefore legitimized (i.e., we are simply doing what God designed us to do).

Unfortunately for our uncontrolled creatureliness, it doesn’t work out that simply. We learn, sometimes through bitter experience, that denial of needs leads to a desert of disconnection with both ourselves and others and to slow death by starvation. But we learn as well, often through equally bitter experience, that uncontrolled, unprincipled self-satisfaction leads to a bloated spiritual obesity that clogs the very heart and arteries of the soul.

What does it mean to protect myself against myself?

Perhaps a plan that leads both to safety and to wholeness begins with two difficult questions.

How do I identify what I need?

How do I measure how much is enough?

Thinking with you about the paradox of fullness and deprivation in the context of becoming whole.

See you next week.