To Know Others, I Must Know Myself   4 comments

I’ve been muddling over a question for several days: why did Dad’s inability to understand himself so significantly affect his own children and his relationship with them.  I finally settled on a typical childhood scenario to sort it out in my mind:  being late for church.  In stark contrast to Dad, Mom was a spontaneous, disorganized soul who was not very good at time management.  Sunday morning she was inevitably running late.  Dad would finally stump out to the Oldsmobile and sit fuming, eventually honking the horn to try to hurry things along.  He hated being late.  It made for an icy car ride which suddenly transmuted into a smiling hand-shake with church folk, because Dad took charge of all our emotional exchanges, and he’d decided it was time to move on.  Yes, he was very organized, even with his emotions, and very take-charge, even with our emotions.

While Dad was in our driveway tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, Mom would be in the bathroom madly trying to finish fixing her hair and putting on her make-up.  Of course, traditional roles exacerbated this situation–Dad only had to get himself ready while Mom had to make breakfast, feed the clan, and make sure all us kids were presentable.  But she still would have accomplished all this punctually if she’d had the same personality and value system as Dad.  And since her promptness depended largely on certain unreliable munchkins, she would have had to heavily impose those time values on her children.  There would have been as much impatience, tension, and condemnation inside the home as in the station wagon outside.  Instead of a kind “where did you last see your shoes?” it would have been, “How many times have I told you…”  And we children, fearing that condemnation, would have worked very hard to conform.

When two people have similar values, perspectives, personalities and emotional responses, conflicts are drastically reduced, but when these vary in important relationships, such as with Dad and Mom, some sort of system must be worked out for negotiating the conflicts.  Those like my dad who have a behaviorist approach to life and relationship see growth as a process of adapting one’s behavior and language to avoid conflict rather than discovering a deeper understanding of oneself and the other. In other words, the underlying perceptions and dynamics remain the same, but one’s actions and words are tweaked to avoid offense–speaking more softly when angry or driving separate cars to church (my dad’s final solution).  Being late is clearly wrong, so either she fixes her behavior so he’s not mad, or he tries to be patient with her as the failing one.

At first glance it would seem that the first approach is somewhat legalistic and the second somewhat gracious… except in both cases the late person is in the wrong.  There is no option available for non-judgmentally trying to discover why this value is so important to one and not to the other–for instance that Mom put more value in accepting her kids than rushing them, that her immense creativity was enabled by not having a highly organized life, and so on.  Instead of differences leading to deeper self and mutual understanding, they lead to the slotting of behaviors (and individuals) into good and bad.

Clearly, if there is a disagreement and Dad was unwilling to reconsider his own position, then he could not in any meaningful way make room for the legitimacy of the other person’s perspective of herself.  If he was right, then she was wrong, and even if he is kind and sympathetic, that judgment sticks.   It is not possible for someone to come to a truly gracious acceptance and understanding of the other person without questioning his own underlying perspective about himself and his views.  In a remarkable way, lack of self-understanding prevents us from understanding others because we cannot shake free from our own blinders and so we distort our own perceptions.

Now, being over-zealous about lateness is a small issue that can be overlooked.  Everyone has their foibles and it is part of grace to overlook them.  The amazing thing I have discovered is that differences, even on small matters, can open the door into a huge cache of personal information that has never been discovered.  Our inner selves are well integrated, so that one concept enforces another in a web that makes up our worldview.  Punctuality is a small corner of the much bigger idea of efficiency, which is in turn a portion of the worldview that puts a premium on accomplishments.  I have struggled my whole life with a sense that my value as a person depends on what I accomplish, that God values me for what I do for him rather for me.  Most of my life I didn’t know this was at the root of my relationship with God–I thought all my zeal was out of my love for him.  Or I could follow punctuality down a different trail, one that leads to the importance of meeting a wide array of standards and how perhaps I am not loveable unless I pass a certain moral bar (while naturally holding others to that bar).  Or I could follow punctuality down a different path that connects it to respect, and what makes me feel respected or disrespected and how I respond to those feelings in my relationships.

Rubbing up against someone who experiences the world differently than I do is a great opportunity for that soul-searching.  But if I default to my unshakeable worldview, I not only fail to understand myself better, but fail to understand the other, having placed us both as characters in a world of my own assumptions.  Being blind to who I am inevitably makes me blind to who others are–their gifts, insights, and beauty.




4 responses to “To Know Others, I Must Know Myself

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  1. We all have this same struggle, ironically, even though our lives are in extreme contrast! I came out of an abusive family background and lived in fear most of my life with an inability to put into words my own struggles! In fact, I still do! The soul (who I am) is the most delicate, complex and tangled web! And we all hide in fear just like Adam and Eve hid from God in fear of being exposed. No matter how GREAT a person becomes in this life (and we ALL WANT TO BE GREAT AND ENVIED!) We cannot escape the inevitable…”how we stand (messure-up) before a Holy God! The only difference is in how we react to our circumstances and that is where SOCIETY/CHURCH comes in hiding their own fears etc! Some follow the RULES, like you and then there’s me! Extreme opposite. I must say that following the rules, in the long run, must be better….at least not allowing one to feel so exposed! Someone once said about your mother that she “did and incredible job of instilling a strong sense of self-confidence in her children. From a worldly, as well as a spiritual point of view, this was the right thing to do because of being God’s image bearers! Only problem is how to balance the two spiritual natures fighting within us? All parents and all Churches fail to acknowlege honestly this battle within. Teaching one to “be good” in it’s self is right and wrong at the same time. All I know is that life is not about ME (although I don’t really live like it is not) but rather about Jesus who surrendered his life by sacrificing it for me. Why? I am not worthy of this kind of love! One day we shall see His face and then all will be FIXED and we will be WHOLE! As I struggle to make sense of it all I wipe a few tears obstructing my view while typing! There aren’t as many tears now that I’m older, in fact, there should be more because they keep one’s heart tender instead of building caluses protecting one from their need for God’s mercy!

    Thanks for EXPOSING yourself! Or dare I say for “coming out of the closet”! This is the way Jesus lived! Exposing the TRUTH! May the Lord Himself grant you peace in the middle of your battle!

    • Thanks for sharing with us, Elsie. No matter how different our journeys, we all have hearts that are remarkably similar in their essence: our deep need for unconditional love, our shame and fear, our longing for redemption and for those who will honestly embrace us as we are. As Brennan Manning said, “God loves us as we are not as we should be because none of us is as we should be.” I’m sorry to hear of your abusive childhood. That is something so deeply difficult to overcome. My wife Kimberly was raised by an abusive mom, and it has marked her for life in so many ways. It has also made her tender and sensitive to those who struggle. Those who have grown up with a deep awareness of their own inner darkness are much more ready for grace than those who think they don’t need it because they have been “good.” Blessed are the poor in spirit.

  2. An interesting and insightful Fathers’ Day meditation, brother. Yes, understanding ourselves is so critical, isn’t it? Our family history and experiences are so deeply woven into who we are. Your dad was a product of his own father and mother’s values and their family experiences. Doing family work is crucial to understanding who we are.

    My dad was a businessman who climbed the corporate ladder and that meant a move every few years as we followed him to the next promotion, never mind that my mom, who was a mild introvert, struggled with making friends and ended up with the bottle as her best friend. That alcoholism wrecked it’s fair share of devastation in our family, my oldest brother took his own life partially due to family dysfunctions and partial due to the cultural quagmire of the late 1960’s, Woodstock and the like. I received not a few deep soul wounds during that season, but God is His mercy drew us to Himself through Christ, and we found forgiveness and relative spiritual health. My mom battled against substance abuse and alcohol her whole life, even for 40 years after calling on the Lord for His forgiveness and coming into a relationship with Him. My dad cared for her and paid for some of his “sins” of pursuing success in the corporate scene while providing materially for his family. It was the era you speak about above when wives cared for the home and the children, and fathers work to provide for the family. Sad that the men didn’t help more back then with the kids and develop healthy relationships with them. I’m thankful that my dad figured it out a bit better after his early retirement at 62. He went to be with the Lord in 2009 at 82, and I miss both him and my mom, but I’m most thankful that I know where they are because of the mercy of Christ and the Father.

    Our value was settled forever at the cross, wasn’t it? We need to understand that deeply in our souls, don’t we? My value was settled forever at the cross. Father, help me to live from that value, rather than seeking to establish my value in some other way, by my own accomplishments or possessions or the opinions of others…

    • Thanks for sharing about your own life, Jack. I never knew all of that about your family. I often speculate how my alcoholic great-grandfather impacted our family without anyone realizing how much. You are so right that it is very necessary to reflect on our family of origin to sort out how we were shaped. I think we spend far too much time trying to attack the symptoms and neglect addressing the disease (and every family, even the best, is full of dysfunction). I spent most of my life trying to shape myself into godliness without understanding the root of my emotional responses and value structure, trying to fix the behavior without realizing my hidden presuppositions, expectations, fears, and insecurities. We often try to apply grace with one big swoosh, but like a generic repentance “father forgive me for all those sins that I can’t name or remember individually”, I have found that I need to apply grace very particularly, to each individual wound. Yes, thank God for his infinite grace shown through his Son.

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