Fight Fair

November 26, 2000
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL


“Life is too short to be little.”
-Benjamin Disraeli

Driving around these days there is no doubt to the viewer’s eyes that one thing is clear. The holidays are upon us - in every way. It is a time of anticipation, excitement and joy. But it is also a time of challenge. Each year that passes presents new opportunities for us to learn something more of ourselves - of how we cope with detail; how we manage the extra work that comes with such celebrations and, more basically, how we live with each other.

This morning, and in the interest of having truly “peaceful” Christmas and Hannukah celebrations, I would like to talk about the human enigma called “getting along”. I refer to it as enigmatic since it is a very difficult process, while at the same time being quite simple. Too often, we assume too much in asking that others understand us and our behavior. We also try sincerely to understand them, too. We are often patient in the face of the needs and deeds of others. So we realize that stable human relationships are often quite arduous.

Ministers spend a good deal of time alone. That’s just the nature of the profession. One’s daily schedule may seem to be an unending list of luncheon meetings, committees, fellowship gatherings and such. But a much time is spent in reading, thinking, writing. It is during those times in which I sometimes find myself on what has been called a “stream of consciousness”. I’m thinking about one topic and suddenly am ruminating in other areas.

The Senior Deacon of a church I served for 12 years in Dedham, Massachusetts once came through the line at the end of the service and praised my sermon. Here are his words: “Want to thank you for that sermon today.” “You are very kind.” “Actually, I didn’t really hear ANY of the sermon. But your opening remarks got me thinking about a problem I’ve been working on for some time. And I solved it! Like to read that sermon some time. Rest of it probably was pretty good, too.”

A colleague of mine told me a story. He was wandering in the garden behind his home and he was feeling sort of uneasy. It was not unlike angst, the word the psychiatrists use to refer to free-floating anxieties. So my friend couldn’t really articulate his concern and it was a little stronger than usual even though life seemed quite well with him and his spouse. And yet...and yet....

Then it came to him. He sensed that though not intentionally, he had really permitted his partner to take control of their relationship as a couple. Not only that, he admitted to me that he generally approved of the way their lives were progressing. But he almost felt that he no longer had any say in making decisions, that he was kind of “out of it”. Words like “controlled” and “weak” and “wimp” came to his mind. He always seemed to be reacting to, rather than planning with his partner in their decision-making.

He told me that when his spouse returned home he said, “You know, I think I’ve come up with something that’s been bothering me in a vague sort of way. You may have heard me mutter about it, but I think I’ve figured it out and I’d like to tell you.” Then he told her.

She looked at him with an incredulous stare and said, “You have to be out of your tree! If anyone is in charge in this relationship, YOU ARE. You make all the major decisions about what we do, don’t you?’ My friend thought for a minute and then said, “Yes, but I cannot remember for the life of me having made a major decision in the past two years!”

I know some of us have experienced this same kind of scenario. Usually, it is not a matter of control. It is a matter of permitting the relationship take control of each partner. That’s where “getting along” needs the oil of dialog, patience and understanding.

It would seem to me that most of us try to behave in ways that will enhance our relationships, whether in families or with friends. But sometimes, our intentions go awry. Eric Ericson once made an interesting distinction regarding this. He said when you really come down to it, there is no such thing as love. Love, he said, is an abstraction. It is a symbol. At its best it means that people act lovingly toward one another. All of us want to be treated in that way. We want to receive consideration. And most of us try to relate to others in considerate ways, too.

The Couple’s Journey is a book written by Susan Campbell. It clarified a lot of what I mean by the dimensions that go into committed relationships. Campbell points out that there are four stages along the way in any long-standing association.

The first of these is romance. Romance doesn’t happen by accident. It is not a chance occurrence that in our culture we traditionally arrive at a time when, having met and grown to love someone, we say, “He (or she) is the very answer to my prayers!”

Years ago, Theodore Reik, another author writing on the same theme said that we are apt to fall in love when we’re basically dissatisfied with ourselves. Now I am not at all sure how true that theory may prove in other lives, but I suspect it can have the sound of reality for some. Let me illustrate what I mean.

You are living through a period of low self-esteem. You don’t truly feel secure about things in general. You are anxious. Then, suddenly, someone comes along who tells you that you are really better than you have been imagining yourself to be. SHAZAM! (As Captain Marvel used to say.) You are in the midst of a new, fresh relationship with someone who also seems to meet some of your needs and unfulfilled dreams. This new person makes your fantasies living realities.

As a result, you begin to feel a lot better about yourself. You get a lift when you see him or her each day. Your days begin a little bit more brightly, expectantly. You walk with a sense of verve. You begin to feel really terrific about yourself.

In the hilariously funny satire about Marin County life in northern California in the seventies, the middle-aged man in the book, Serial becomes infatuated with a young woman less than half his age. In the screen version of the book, this man’s transparency is poignantly depicted. He buys new clothes, clothes he would never have dreamed of wearing months previously and they look ridiculous on him. He trades in his car for a sports convertible. He gets a barber to do the “Grecian formula” bit with his thinning hair. He says he feels wonderful. He’s in love.

All the while his spouse looks on, knowingly, patiently, angrily, helplessly. Of course, the inevitable happens. The young woman goes her way. The man returns to the original relationship, chastened, subdued, a little ashamed. You bite your knuckles in ambivalence at your frustrated feelings of anger in seeing his spouse take him back.

Romance is one of the great narcotics that nature provides for human beings. It is a stimulant that makes us feel great. Two people come together, share their dreams, make plans, experience the joy of a leisurely, love-packed idyll. However.....

In a committed relationship, when it is in the first stage of romance that Campbell talks about, it begins to take longer and longer to keep those fantasies alive. The relationship continues and some of our projections about ourselves begin to land on the other person. He or she doesn’t seem so unbelievably true. It is more difficult to fill our world with JUST this other person...”Just us...together”.

What happens when this occurs? According to Campbell, a sense of betrayal is apt to come about with one or another partner. Disappointment sets in. One or the other may become more silent at times, taking the “stiff upper lip” approach to problems.

So, now, following the first blush of romance, we come to a second stage Susan Campbell calls “The Power Struggle”.

“If you want me a certain way, then I want you to be a certain way, too. What is more, I’m going to seek to make you that way. I’m going to do it by using threats, lies, manipulation. Why? Because my dream is too important to let go. In the end, you must fill that dream for me.” (In the meantime, the other partner is apt to be having some of the same feelings.)

So married life, or any committed association sometimes can become an attempt by one or both partners to use power to get what is needed. Anyone who has been in any sort of human relationship of this sort knows that power struggles are inevitable. The only way they can be avoided is to accept a superficial relationship.

Deep ties between people require that power be shared. Commitment means constantly trying to adjust for such sharing to achieve balance. Resolution will come, too, because if it doesn’t, we know that one partner will finally give up.

She’s not going to do it the way I want her to. He’s not going to be the way I really need and want him to be. That’s the way it is so I (we) may as well quit fighting about it. Be quiet. Or leave.”

It has been my experience to encounter peaceful households where that peacefulness is really an illusion. Both people have found a way to balance the power. Neither lives out the other’s fantasies, because both know the other will change no further. What’s the point in fighting? One or the other is apt to take a big dose of self-pity and say, “Well, I could have done better!”

No more fighting. It’s enjoyable to have a little peace around the house. Then it begins to get boring. And we go to the next stage. Imitation takes over. We scale down our dreams. This Campbell calls “Staying or straying”. In this stage, one tries to do what is necessary to fulfill life. We get all involved. We form outside friendships. We take on community activities. We get immersed in work. We take up hobbies.

It is not unknown for one or both partners to find a lover and go back to stage number one with “romance” the inviting factor. In other words, we launch ourselves on a veritable roller coaster ride of emotions with new persons, new individuals, new ways of living. All this in an attempt to end the boredom, to feel good again.

This, then, is a time when it is quite easy to become totally involved in one’s work life so that one has good reasons to stay away from home. There may be occasional flare-ups in this scenario, but things are mostly peaceful. But it’s not very intimate. It’s not very satisfactory. It is fairly superficial, sort of like living a lie.

Yet, through all this, one is putting incredible energy and work into TRYING to have a full life. That’s what love is often about. It manifests itself in aliveness. The lover feels more vital; people around that person are energized by his or her presence.

Garson Kanin, writer/husband of actress Ruth Gordon, and a great movie director in his own right, wrote in his book Bogart and Bacall that Humphrey Bogart was married for many years to actress Mayo Methot. All they DID was fight. And I mean really FIGHT - slinging dishwear, pots and pans, anything at hand including fists. Stitches were sometimes required.

Both these poor souls were Roman Catholics so they remained in the power struggle stage until Bogart dropped back to the “Romance” stage and began an affair with a beautiful 18-year old actress named Lauren Bacall who first starred with him in To Have And Have Not. Remember Bacall’s famous line? “If you want me...just whistle...”.

So some folks never move beyond the fighting stage. You could almost say it is their “entertainment” - the only way they can relate. Each protects his or her position but they never get to the fundamental reality of their failing relationship.

Susan Campbell says that it IS possible for those who are brave - and she is the only author I have found who writes on marriage who ever DID get to the fundamental reality of human ties. She states unequivocally that the crucial ingredient is courage. All the other manuals I have encountered seem to repeat another litany:

“Be willing to compromise. Be there for each other. Know the valleys of your partner’s or your friend’s life journey. Know the mountaintops you have shared together.”

Most of you have heard ‘em all, too. But what most marriage or relationship manuals DON’T tell you is how do accomplish those lofty sentiments. Campbell does. She says the same thing I was saying about creativity a couple of Sunday’s ago. RISK! Risk emotionally. Dare to be vulnerable. Even more to the point, dare to be HONEST. Dare to say what you like and what you don’t like. Dare to ask for what you want and by so doing, risk the possibility of rejection.

It takes courage to love. Those without it will never really understand the depths and power of what it means to live - lovingly.

It is at this point that a relationship comes to the most important decision that can be made. “Will the two people make a commitment to each other?” Commitments, I remind you, can be very frightening things. Most of us try to do so tentatively. We make “sort of” a commitment. But we leave escape hatches in case things don’t work out very well.

But a real commitment is a frightening thing because it cuts down one’s options. On the surface, we could run. But when two people make a covenant with each other, they are in a sort of scary place. What they are really saying to each other, deep down, is:

“I am betting my life (My LIFE!) and my future on the depth that we will be able to finally achieve in sharing intimacy and overcoming loneliness. It will make me more alive; it will open me to joy; it will take me beyond the surface places of pleasure - and move me into the depths of joy and some touches of ecstasy!”

It is possible, too, for us to go back to that first stage of “Romance”, touching some of those same indescribable feelings again. It’s funny how it works that way. In the final stage of a relationship, all parts of the other stages are there, but they aren’t that dominant. There will still be fights, of course. Every stage has its assets and its liabilities. In fact, one of the greatest assets of the first stage of romance is that people share their dreams and in so doing, they can see where those dreams overlap. And if they work together to make their shared dreaming come true, then the sky’s the limit.

The power struggle is a stage where we work to toughen ourselves enough NOT to allow ourselves to be dominated - and to discover that even though we may secretly wish to be fascists, we are just not going to get away with it.

Each stage is important in living to get along. Staying and straying can become a time of sharing an enlarged vision of the world together. Each partner does other things outside the relationship but they are being accomplished in a constructive way so as to share such experiences and enrich the relationship for both.

And so, good friends, as we enter the holiday season, we need to remember that in getting along with loved ones and with friends, it is only with commitment that one achieves intimacy or integrity. When both commit to that; when both possess courage; both eventually find the skills to go deeper and deeper in successful ways of speaking.

If all the great religious leaders of the world had known this, they probably would have told us over and over again through the centuries - that without love, we are nothing. Some did. Like Paul. Most didn’t. Without love, one is nothing - sounding brass; clanging cymbal. We remain afraid. We settle for illusions and short-run pleasures.

Now, having shared this psychological brief concerning the work of Susan Campbell, I’d like to take just a few moments and do the sermon.

One of the things that has really distressed me over the four decades of my ministry has been the intelligence of the average Unitarian Universalist congregation. Most of these are exceptionally bright; educationally privileged; psychologically informed.

For a number of people in the congregations I’ve served, though, it has been very difficult for them to make commitments. They may have been so afraid of looking foolish; afraid of being wrong; afraid that somebody might think they are superstitious or uninformed. Most of the people in our UU churches ARE psychologically knowledgeable. But you know something else? Many of them are spiritually “misers”.

Knowing everything there is that the therapists tell us, we find ourselves poverty stricken in understanding the spiritual side of living. We often use the terms interchangeably as though there were no real difference between the psychological and the spiritual. Reluctantly, I have come to accept this observation. The result?

Well, the result is kind of a refusal to open doors to the deeper side of spiritual intimacy that is possible in shared relationships. Let me up-date Paul’s language from his Letter to the Corinthians in the 13th chapter with what he very well may have meant:

“When I was a child, I thought God was my personal magician. God was going to be everything I wanted. I had a romance with God and God was going to make it just so wonderful for me. (And then I didn’t get the pony and the romance of my childish life went out the window and I moved directly into a power struggle with God.) God, I’ll do this for you if you do this for me. I’m not going to do that unless you do this first. That didn’t work any better than the romance stage. It just didn’t hold together and those things didn’t happen because I did certain things. So I went into staying and straying. I said, `OK, God. You’re going to play hardball. You’re not going to listen to me. There’s no way that I can either bribe you or seduce you or force you, so turn it off. Who needs you? You don’t do any good for me. I’m going to find other, more humanistic things that are going to be more helpful, and I’m not going to bother with you any more.”

The question was not whether God loved me. The question was whether I was courageous enough to LOVE LIFE. The mystery of wonder, the things of awe and beauty; the things of hardness; a force that didn’t play favorites like the neutrality of a vast, impenetrable universe - that was LIFE.

God’s not a person. God’s creativity; light; knowledge; joy; love; wonder; humility; guilt; pain; loss; mute and stunning awe. Can we love that? Can we serve these opposites? Are we brave enough?

We can have all the skills, all the knowledge; be so sophisticated we impress ourselves; but not truly understanding the depths of Life or God in some depth, why we’re not even living. No purpose. Always fighting a rear guard action against death instead of moving toward more aliveness, more life.

It’s not just a couple’s journey that Campbell is talking about. Each time she refers again to the human relationship, she is talking about a spiritual journey. I’m still working on it. I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I do think I know something of what the right questions should be. “Life is too short . . . to be little.”

Amen.