Sunday, September 16, 2012

Risk management

September 16, 2012

Dear friends,

Relationship inevitably entails risk, something we all know well from experience. In an ironic sense, however, we often understand very little of the nature or meaning of these relational risks.

Our common notion of relationship assumes a view of the individual as an isolated and independent actor who moves selectively through life choosing those connections with others that provide power, status, comfort, and self-gratification. Such an assumption about people and the nature of relationship appears comfortably self-evident in a consumer society in which the “good life” is defined as acquisition of goods. Risk in this context is viewed as the challenge of “getting a good deal,” so to speak, in a relationship, that is, receiving as much (or more) than we gave.

Despite its cultural congruence, this concept of relationship is seriously flawed. It is true that relationship entails mutual exchange, but contrary to the culture's commodity context, relationships are risky not because of what we "get" or "lose," but because in the process of getting and losing we become more or less of the person we are choosing to be.  The bottom line of the relationship process is defined by transformation (the person we are becoming) rather than acquisition (what we get).

Every relationship, however brief, or however unsatisfying, holds this risk. I recently had an experience that illustrates this point.

I was waiting to be seated in a neighborhood restaurant when I became aware that I had been non-verbally included in a conversation between two younger women who were also waiting to be seated. The two were talking about political issues.

One of the women caught my eye, and then purposely raised her voice.

“I think it’s disgraceful that so much of our taxes go for the care of elderly people who do not contribute anymore,” she said with an intentional glance at my cane and gray hair. “They should be required to take care of themselves like the rest of us.”

My casual unthinking choice to make eye contact had resulted in a momentary connection with this fretful critical woman. I had become (without conscious consent) both audience for her complaint and target of her anger, and had in a totally unanticipated way entered into a very unsatisfying “relationship,” so to speak.

At that moment my options included some interesting choices, but remaining unchanged was not among them.

I heard what she said. I understood that she meant me to hear what she said, and, so far as she gave any surface indication, understood further that she was indifferent at best—and perhaps, at worst, intentional—in the risk of injury to me that her comment might inflict.

You can see the dilemma. I could choose the direction and shape of the inner response that this momentary exchange evoked in me, but I could not choose to remain unchanged. I had heard her, and she knew I had heard her, and she knew I knew that was her intent. By whatever small increment, hearing her message to me had changed however slightly my sense of myself and the woman I am choosing to become. But I--not the woman--could choose the direction of this change. Whatever I acquired in the relationship (a negative assessment in this case), I could choose how I was changed in response.

Relationships inevitably bring risk, including the temptation to deny the inner changes that even the briefest of relationships brings. Awareness is particularly difficult when we are preoccupied with other things. How could I have anticipated this tiny existential tempest to blow up in an unprotected minute in a restauant reception area? A temptingly simple response would have been to say to myself, "Well, I think that woman has a problem," and refuse to acknowledge the small inner twinge of self-consciousness that followed her barbed comment. But denial of impact does not provide reliable risk management.

If when we say “It’s not my problem,” we mean we are not affected by the behavior of others, then we have a problem indeed. We can act to determine and shape the direction of the changes that come with human connection only when at some level of awareness we choose  awareness (even when it is painful) and take the responsibility for choice.

As I believe the woman meant me to be, I was painfully aware for an instant of my cane, my gray hair, and the unarguable fact that I am not as economically productive as I was twenty years ago. The woman could, with reason, infer a lack of productivity in me. But what she could not do, was to determine my worth. God and I do that.

Only in this context can we willingly embrace the risk of relationship. Whether in chance encounter or in long years of interaction, a relationship changes us, and inevitably brings risk of negative assessment. But at such a time, we can act on our own behalf. In the context of our relationship with God, we can determine if negative assessment does in fact represent true evidence of lost worth and lesser value.

Thinking with you this week about challenges and risks that come with relationships. It appears that relationships change us whether we choose that change or not. However, the shape and direction of the change remains ours—for better and/or for worse. Only in the context of our relationship with God can the issue of our worth be faithfully determined. Only God can truly tell us who we are.

See you next week.


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