Sunday, March 25, 2012

No problem?

March 25, 2012

Dear friends,

Some of you who read last week’s blog have raised thoughtful questions about forgiveness and the function of forgiveness in relationships. “Instant forgiveness”, as I phrased it, does not serve the persons or the relationship well. What then makes forgiveness an authentic and healing response?

Relational issues around forgiveness are not easy to sort out. For one reason, the significance we assign forgiveness sometimes reflects an unconscious sense of entitlement. In life or relationships if we believe that we are entitled to pain free experience, we are likely to find ourselves struggling to forgive most people and most things (including the weather) most of the time. Life, as Scott Peck wrote, is difficult. Consequently, if we believe that whoever or whatever causes us any discomfort at any time should be forgiven, then the instructions Jesus gave (forgive seventy times seven) seriously understates the size of our daily forgiveness task.

Most of us understand that such an approach trivializes forgiveness into semantic nonsense. Most of us also understand intuitively that authentic forgiveness processes cannot be generalized into a “one-size-fits-all” response. When and why then, we ask ourselves, should we forgive? And, equally difficult, what are the crucial defining factors that mark authentic healing acts of forgiveness?

In blogs to come, we’ll consider these tough issues in the context of effective relationship skills.

I observed an incident this last week that provides a useful beginning point.

By bad planning and worse management, I found myself in a busy supermarket at one of the busiest times in the day. Tired people were struggling with market baskets and tired hungry children while attempting to navigate around each other and the end of aisle displays that offered the sales of the week.

One frail white-haired woman while seeking to avoid another customer turned her cart sharply and caught the edge of a display of cans of tuna fish. As the cans began cascading down into the aisle, the woman backed up in dismay and bumped into a display of breakfast food boxes that obligingly began to join the tuna fish on the floor. By the time a store employee reached the disaster area, the woman was trembling and her eyes were filled with tears.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me—I am so sorry.”

The young man calmly surveyed the chaos, then turned to her and smiled.

“No problem,” he said cheerfully. “No problem." Then responding to the distress in her face, he added comfortingly, "Life happens. Don’t worry about this. I can clean it up.”

Was the woman’s request for forgiveness appropriate? What was the nature of the gift that young man gave that frail frightened woman? Do you think “No problem” meant “I forgive you?”

Was forgiveness the point here? How does your sense of forgiveness lead you to understand this story?

Thinking with you about both the self-knowledge and social skill necessary to distinguish between “no problem” and injury for which forgiveness is the only way to relational growth.

See you next week.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Miss Annie's "forgiveness"

Blog, March 18, 2012

Dear Friends,

At the close of last week’s blog, Annie was quite cross with me for leaving her to sleep in the garage. Her annoyance, while understandable from her cat’s world-view, seemed unfair from mine. I had, after all, faithfully opened the door for her to come in at the usual time. Because she refused to come at that time, Annie’s indignation over my failure to come back again at midnight appeared unreasonable, particularly in light of my need for sleep, and the uncomfortable relationship my knees have with the stairs.

Annie has little understanding of my need for sleep at night, even less insight into my view of the stairs, and no concept at all of the limitations posed by creaky knees. Given her lack of knowledge of these factors, she viewed her indignation at my failure to meet her need as fully justified.

In thinking about Annie’s reaction to my “neglectful” behavior and my contrasting view of the affair, I suggested that cautious response when others fail to meet our needs is an important relational skill. We rarely (if ever) know their story in full. Love, Paul reminded us, is patient and kind.

Annie provided an additional insight this week by the way in which she chose to resolve the affair.

Annie rejoined the household shortly after noon. She spent the afternoon stretching elaborately and then curling up with her back to me, just beyond my reach. Any effort to pet her was met with disdainful withdrawal to a place under the table, behind the couch, under the piano or behind the recliner. She gave a virtuoso performance of hurt feelings while sending a clear message that it was my responsibility to make amends for her injured sense of importance.

That night when I turned out the lights before going up to bed, I discovered that Annie had chosen to retire on her blanket at the end of the couch. I thought a moment, and then sat down beside her.

Very carefully I reached out and gently touched her head. “You are behaving quite foolishly,” I told her, “but I will wait until you work this out. You are still Chief Therapeutic Cat.”

I sat for a few additional minutes making no effort to pet her, thinking not of Annie but of the number of steps in the stairs. To my surprise, Miss Annie suddenly crawled into my lap, and then, paws on my shoulder gave me a brief purr and a forgiving lick on the nose. After demonstrating her generous forgiveness she promptly returned to her blanket and curled up, back to me, to sleep the sweet sleep of the righteous. She had done the morally superior thing. I had injured her, but out of her generous heart, she had forgiven me. All was well.

Annie’s solution made me smile, but it also made me think.

I was pleased that Annie had forgiven me, but I thought too about the way in which Miss-Annie-type behavior causes problems in human relationships.

At times in important relationships we “forgive” others for their failure to meet our needs, and are then confused and sometimes hurt by the ambivalent response our “forgiveness” evokes.

“I forgive you,” we may say. “Now the problem’s over. We’ll just forget and go on.” At times what we then sense on the part of the other person is a reservation, a wordless resistance to our act of “forgiving” that may puzzle us.

We forget that a “forgiveness” transaction which stems only from one person’s story rarely provides a resolution to relational conflict.

We may, like Miss Annie, be able to sleep more comfortably when we have “forgiven” the failure of others to meet our needs. The relationship is strengthened, however, only when we are first willing to do the hard work of understanding the story of the behavior from which the need for forgiveness has emerged.

Thinking with you that instant forgiveness is no substitute for the slow delicate discipline of learning to know and cherish another’s heart.

See you next week.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Miss Annie sleeps in the garage

March 11, 2012

Dear Friends,

In the art of relationship, self-knowledge plays an essential role, as we have been thinking.

However, this week I had an interesting insight about the limits of self-knowledge. Miss Annie (aka Miss Anna T. Freud, C.T.C. [Chief Therapeutic Cat]) was my teacher. The teaching moment for me—and perhaps for Miss Annie as well—emerged from the unintentional interruption of a settled routine. This is what happened.

Miss Annie has developed a great fondness for a perch in the garage window. In the day time she sleeps there in the sunshine and celebrates the refuge from the vacuum cleaner monster.

Miss Annie often goes to the garage in late afternoon as well. From her window perch, she likes to watch the day darkening into twilight and then observe through her remarkable eyes the night life in our yard that I can only guess is there.

Despite the satisfactions of her garage perch, Miss Annie chooses to sleep in the house at night, utilizing from time to time two different sofas and a chair. Garage sleeping is not for her entitled self.

In the time Miss Annie has lived with me, she has demonstrated considerable self-knowledge. Miss Annie has learned that the garage perch provides for a number of her needs. She knows that once there she experiences comfort, safety and the opportunity to observe interesting happenings, a reliable cure for boredom.

Miss Annie knows, too, that she can make the garage experience happen. From the house side, when she sits down in front of the door to the garage, tips her head back and gazes with soulful longing at the door knob, I see her and open the door into the garage. From the garage side, she also knows that when she wishes to come in, she can scratch on the garage side of the door and I will hear and open the door so that she can reenter the house.

At this point in the story, you can see that Miss Annie’s knowledge of herself and the value of her garage experience has served her well. She knows when she wishes to be in the garage and when she wishes to be in the house, and how to get her needs met in this way.

And to this point, Miss Annie’s knowledge of our relationship has also served her well. She regards me as a reliable gatekeeper who, on her signal, opens and closes the door, and is pleased to do so.

But change comes. We had a house guest with resulting activities in the house that Annie found quite interesting. As a result Annie delayed her evening trip to the garage until quite late. Consequently, when I opened the door at our usual bed time, Miss Annie made it quite clear that she was not yet ready to come in. Hearing my voice, she stretched elaborately, turned her back to me, and rearranged herself on her perch. Her message was quite clear: go away.

“That’s fine,” I told her, “You can stay out, but I’m going on to bed. I’ll come down and let you in the first time I wake up.” (I am a somewhat restless sleeper.)

I did in fact wake up some time around midnight. I lay in the darkness thinking how glad I was to see my friend. I thought too how tired I was. I turned over, and promptly went back to sleep.

I remembered Annie in the garage only when in the morning I came down to put the coffee on.

When I opened the door to the garage, Miss Annie came sailing in, her erect tail and every hair on her body expressing total indignation. Ignoring everyone, she headed straight for her food bowl. Having eaten a brief breakfast, she rejected all offers of attention and affection, stalked upstairs and hid under the bed where she sulked for the remainder of the morning.

It is important to know that Miss Annie has a litter box and water bowl in the garage. Her perch is upholstered by a soft, wooly old rug. Being compelled to sleep in the garage did not exactly expose Miss Annie to a life-altering trauma of great suffering. We may smile at the obvious and think that not even The Chief Therapeutic Cat can organize life so that every need or want is fully met.

Nevertheless, Annie’s sense of righteous indignation merits some serious thought.

I suspect that Annie’s initial line of thought ran something like this: I need to stay longer in the garage tonight. I need for my garage-door opener-person to work as usual, but at a later time. There is no reason my needs can not be met as usual.

Then when the garage door-opener-person failed, I suspect Annie’s thought ran something like this: my garage-door-opener-person KNOWS about my need. My garage-door-opener-person CAN meet this need. My garage-door-opener-person DID NOT meet my need. She did NOT do what I KNOW she can do. I am angry and I should be angry.

Annie knew a good bit about herself and about me. But Annie’s knowledge had a limitation that led to a serious misunderstanding. No matter how clearly Miss Annie understood her own needs, her knowledge of herself was not matched by an equal knowledge of me and those factors that influence my behavior.

“Of course,” you may be thinking. “After all she’s only a cat.”

You’re correct, of course, and that fact certainly shapes the bottom line of Miss Annie's story. Miss Annie knew her need, but she did not—indeed, could not—know my story even though she had experienced my capacity to meet her need.

But I am not Miss Annie--

My relationships are most likely to flourish if at those painful times when others fail to meet my needs I remember that consciousness of my need does not automatically give me understanding of the factors that influence others response to me.

Thinking with you that, as the Apostle Paul wrote, love does not insist on having its own way—even (if I may add) in regard to its own needs.

See you next week.