Defenseless: Relationship Outside the Comfort Zone

The Comfort Zone
Returning to my blog feels good. Fragrant Grace is like sliding my feet into the shoes I’ve worn to holes and slick soles. The mental miles I’ve walked here are sweet. It’s also like my favorite pair of faded, too-casual, but still perfect blue jeans. Always my first choice, I’m a little hesitant to pull them right out of the stack of clean laundry—again. Maybe I’m second-guessing. Maybe I’m more selective.

Writing is my happy place, I suppose. Fragrant Grace is my carved-out space to be who I was created to be. Emily Freeman would call it “the art I make” (A Million Little Ways). I’m coming around to that idea. But, one day I think of writing like a playground. Another day, it feels like a battleground. On fewer occasions, I’m humbled with my face to the ground. Words can be fun or hard-won. Sometimes to they’re just too holy. (Those are God’s, not mine.)

Today I would prefer to play, but I think something important is planned for this space. I can’t peg an emotion for it, and I think there’s good reason: this stirs something in the deeper places in my heart. Maybe you’ll relate. There’s nothing wrong with the comfort zone, but I don’t get to stay there today.

NASA continues to work on technology to increase data rates and speed space communications.

Can We Talk?
Today you’re surfing the largest Blogosphere to date. Statistics back it, but I’m skipping them. Blog hosting sites display a running list of new additions to their ever-increasing options. In any day, thousands of new blogs are registered. Some even have their first posts in a matter of minutes. Tomorrow you’ll be surfing the largest Blogosphere to date.

New writers, bright-eyed and full of ideas, cannonball launch and splash into their river of thoughts, hoping to connect to others. Connections are made, and community begins to take shape. People from other countries and continents breeze by, some revisit, a few connect soul-to-soul. Virtual relationships happen. And I love that, don’t you? I have sweet friendships with beautiful souls I’ve never met. Some I hope to put in the category of “Some day…just not yet.” Our world gets smaller every day.

The Challenge
We share this planet with billions of other humans (7.164 billion, by the United States Census Bureau). That community is a given; we are part of the human race. We are also part of various groups within the larger whole. Groups form around the foundational building blocks in society: families, interests, education, location, cultural norms, spiritual understanding or conviction, sometimes physical traits, often deeply emotional connections. The connections can be strikingly beautiful and effective.

Sadly, the very things that unite us polarize, too. We’ll head to the polling paces in the U.S. soon, and the conversations surrounding the candidates will be anywhere from non-existent to über-intense. This is just one area in which disagreement can be uncomfortable. Our comfort zone can be directly connected to the similarities in thoughts, communication style, or appearances. When those things are challenged, the disconnections can be sad and dysfunctional.

When people or their preferences look unfamiliar, my comfort zone is challenged!

If we select relationships based solely on where they land in some crazy Venn diagram that describes our comfort zone, we’ve got a problem. I can’t be the only one that sees that one coming, can I? Over 7 billion people can’t possibly agree on everything. Ultimately, the deeply held non-negotiables in our lives can get dicey quick! If you want evidence of that, look at the most war-torn or racially-charged places in the world. That’s where specific non-negotiables fuel hatred. Add weapons, and people die.

Disagreement is likely in our world. Unity is a challenge when people don’t look like us or have the same preferences. Kindness has to be an intentional choice at that point.

Vulnerability is Risky
We make choices in relationships. The root of relationship is something we all have to admit or address in some way: vulnerability. Deep, solid connections only result in the safety of authentic expression of the true self. And that’s a loaded statement. It’s ironic or counter-intuitive or something, at least.

Living authentically in the presence of others revealing our true nature feels anything but safe. The natural instinct is to cover and hide, so no one sees our flaws (physical, cognitive, emotional, or character). It can feel threatening to be who we were created to be sometimes. That’s just too bad! We were wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), in spite of what we perceive to be our defects. (This is not an excuse to avoid clear, direct character flaw acknowledgement and adjustment. In fact, we only address these issues when we step out of denial into the honest truth.) Hiding behind a facade means others fall in love with a lie, doesn’t it?

Being our authentic self in front of others is vulnerable.

Imagine people knowing and loving your genuine self, “warts and all.” Your real self may need love, support, or pretty intense intervention—that can only happen when the needs are authentically revealed in front of others with a degree of wisdom. That’s vulnerability! The things we desperately need can only be granted in authentic relationship.

I have to ask myself: What do I really, really want? Am I willing to risk vulnerability in order to have genuine, deep, life-changing relationships? Am I willing to accept that no one, including myself, is perfect and accept others and myself on those terms?

Defenses are Damaging and Divisive 
The most important part of real relationship is dropping the defenses. Oh boy! If that doesn’t make us a little uncomfortable, I don’t know what will. Walking into relationship “as we are” is challenging, but tearing down the defenses adds a whole other dimension.

We defend our positions both aggressively and passively. Have you ever thought about that? I realized over time that I was deeply entrenched in my own understanding of many things in my world. I have my own construct through which I process the way things work and the way people behave. My observation and interpretation of information passes through my understanding. That’s expected and appropriate. When my construct fills with non-negotiable perspectives, there will be problems. I become too well-defended to be in relationship with others. Period. Relationships have to split apart or never start.

Dropping the defenses is the only way to go! What might that look like?

  • An opposing viewpoint becomes a catalyst for seeking to understand both positions, or many positions.
  • The mind focuses more on listening than planning response, for a time.
  • Patient, sound, reasonable dialogue replaces unkind, mudslinging debate.
  • Passive-aggressive silence gives way to inviting relationship.
  • Arguments look wholly different.

I love that Scripture repeatedly suggests “reasoning together” (Isaiah 1:18), “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), and beliefs rooted outside human preferences, in general.

In passing, I’ll mention I believe a clear place remains for defending or contending for the faith. How that looks may be quite different than I originally thought. I’m growing in this area, growing into something new and more mature, I think. When I manage to keep my walls and defenses down, I have the opportunity to understand, think clearly, reason well, and do life better with others.

Understanding Relieves Tension
The same defending walls that keep people at a distance keep us locked away from others. When distance and defended positions become obvious in relationships, most of us have a natural response. We escalate the emotional temperature with our own defense systems. The better choice is to do the counter-intuitive thing: seek to understand. I have two favorite parts to the seeking to understand process: learning and being heard.

When I take time to actively listen, I’m guaranteed to learn something new about the world and the person I’m listening to. If I genuinely focus on listening to learn, versus listening to respond, I’m more open to slow, careful communication. I can keep the defense mechanisms to a minimum, and my stress levels remain low. Since tension often appears to be emotionally “caught” like a disease, I can potentially influence the feel of the conversation, and ultimately the relationship, to a degree.

I tend to think the speaker in any conversation enjoys being heard because I enjoy it so much. It’s a common experience to be ignored, and that doesn’t feel good. It just doesn’t. Being heard—really being heard—means we are assigned value as a person in relationship to others. Knowing we have incredible value assigned to us by our Creator should be the motivation for assigning value to others, shouldn’t it? And when we don’t receive that same courtesy, we have to practice grace or boundaries, or both. We aren’t in control of others’ choices in relationship, only ours, but we can make decisions that enhance relational connection (or minimize the damage done when necessary). Keeping in mind that our culture may be the most relationally klutzy to inhabit the planet, we should do whatever we can to live in peace (Romans 12:18).

What does it look like to really listen? Try some of these things:

  • Consider your available time; decide if the topic will have enough attention.
  • Turn off your own mental running commentary.
  • Be fully present with the person in front of you.
  • Put others in a priority position temporarily while you seek to understand.
  • Listen closely; be able to reliably speak what you hear.
  • Check for meaning by asking if you can repeat back what you’ve heard occasionally.
  • Wait on judgment just a little longer than you usually do (minutes, hours, days, or…).
  • Be open to the potential for learning and growth.
  • Be open to the possibility that your understanding is incomplete…or incorrect.
  • Be humble!

 Agreeing, Disagreeing, and Agreeing to Disagree
Seeking to understand others and be in transformational relationships does not mean we are wishy-washy or someone’s well-worn door mat. Seeking to understand can inform us, even transform us. That doesn’t mean we change our beliefs to blend in with an ever-changing audience or reject others’ thoughts altogether. The temptation to pacify or dominate, avoid or create conflict, or enable others’ unhealthy behaviors (or perpetuate our own) doesn’t reflect mature relationship at all. Abusive cycles aren’t okay. We have to maintain our own personal integrity; check the overall message, integrity, and motives; and display love and grace. Somewhere in the middle of that, we might agree or disagree, but we always agree to disagree respectfully.

Respect is reflected in our word choices, volume and tone, facial expressions, and body language. Communication has two parts: what is said and what isn’t. What we say matters. What we convey non-verbally or through silence often speaks louder than the words we choose. Nevertheless, we don’t have an excuse to be rude. Ever. We don’t have a reason to treat others in a degrading fashion. Ever. No matter what someone communicates to us, we aim to choose the better way.

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6

 These are thoughts I’m pondering these days in an effort to grow in deep, transformational relationships with others.  I have lots of room for growth, and I recognize that. I wonder if anyone else is turning some of these things over, too…

Share some of your thoughts. I’d love to hear them!

~Jennifer


Photo Credits:
NASA Satellite: NASA image. Article at http://inhabitat.com.

Venn Diagram: a Fragrant Grace “creation” at http://www.picmonkey.com
Embarrassed smiley: http://www.shutterstock.com
Defending walls: Image at http://morguefile.com/creative/jeltovski. Edited at http://www.picmonkey.com.

When He Answers…

Life is—challenging.

Is that even a fair word? It wears a euphemistic suit and tie. I’m subbing a gentler word for the gritty truth. I know it.

T-R-O-U-B-L-E.

Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:34b NIV

Isn’t that the truth? And when I get caught up in the stuff of life contained in a day, I can get overwhelmed.

Teaching resources don’t create themselves, do they? Sure, I can restate the directions again. And again. And again. The catalog I needed 15 minutes ago is here—somewhere—in a pile of books or papers, but which one? The dishwasher we bought one year and seven months ago—doesn’t really need repair now, does it? The car we hoped to buy—was sold how many minutes ago? I said the wrong thing—again? I’ve got a splitting headache.

Some days are jam-packed with trouble, aren’t they? Sometimes it’s minor, and sometimes it’s the devastating kind. And, choices will be made. The list of knee-jerk reactions is emotional. I can quickly default to frustration, discontent, envy, anger, or something on the negative side of the spectrum. (I’m actually hesitant to list anger as a negative simply because there is necessary and right expression of anger. Not only should we expect anger to surface when evil is on the loose, but the strength of that emotion may be “just the right size” for the situation.) All kinds of disappointment will happen in life. We will be moved by it.

There’s another path stretching out from the exact same points in time. In my experience, a pause, a breath, is required before I respond. (Notice I wrote respond, rather than react.) When I take a moment to breathe, I’m able to take my eyes off of the “thing” and look to the ultimate reality: I’m in pretty deep, but there is One who will help.

In the day of my trouble I will call to you, for you will answer me. Psalm 86:7 HSC

David wrote this psalm, and I think this line is my favorite. I want this perspective! It’s bursting with three things: heaviness, action, and expectation.

The Weight of the World

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Lewis points out the obvious: trouble is. Charmed lives are tainted with it. Average lives are riddled with it. Jesus said we would have it (John 16:33b). When we live a day without it, we might forget to be thankful. Live a few hours or days with it, and we beg for mercy!

Trouble can be defined in too many ways. I know this: my trouble and yours may look nothing alike. It’s tailored to our exact shoe size, as far as I can tell. We share common themes, but my unmet expectations or pain threshold is unique to me. Yours is directly related to who you are and how you’re wired.  A broken dishwasher and a friend’s chronic pain are disproportionate, if I’m honest, and it would be wrong to equate them. Both are legitimate troubles. Neither is trivial to God, and we shouldn’t dismiss either one. The reality is: my inconvenience is hard, and my friend’s pain is also hard (to a much greater degree). The situations call for different kinds of responses, and I humbly and wholeheartedly acknowledge those differences!

Life will be hard at certain points, and it will be weightier than we can bear in some way.

“For Every Action…”

In Psalm 86, David acts. He responds to the trouble in a specific way: he decides he will “call out” to God. In my mind, that’s a quick, solid, determined choice to size up the problem and ask for help. I notice that he experiences something troubling, and he has a clear response in mind.

Our enemy has another agenda in mind.

The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel. ~ C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

It’s dangerous to respond in an emotional, reflexive way to a situation. There is precious little chance for clear thinking. I think the enemy of our souls counts on that stimulus-response connection to be short and undisciplined. Lewis points out an obvious character flaw: the “feeling without acting” cycle will continue, and it will yield weak, lethargic action or no action at all. The strong defense against this result has to be a good offense.

I know the pitfall is waiting; I can choose a better path. The best way to handle my responses to the difficulties in life is to know they are difficult in the first place. So, I’ve begun to plan several good responsive options for when the pressure intensifies. My first, most critical, action is to call out to the One who can make a difference in whatever challenge I face. (Notice I didn’t say squelch the emotions? I know better. A friend told me that attempting to squelch emotion only magnifies it. While that was news to me, it was completely consistent with my experience.) I have the intention of pausing the emotions, but if that’s not possible, they’ll fuel the conversation with God.

The important thing is to get my eyes off of the trouble and onto my God! Every other response after that can be worked out in some kind of plan or in humble spontaneity. The main thing is to come to the One who can really make a difference in the events or how I perceive them.

I Know One Thing for Sure…

…for you will answer me.

This is the hinge on which the action hangs. The word “for” right there begs me to insert a little question: what for? Why does David cry out to God? He cries out to God because he knows he will receive an answer. It’s a given.

The truth is, no one knows exactly what the answer will be. God knows far more than we can even try to comprehend. He factors the minute details of the want or need, the answer, and the direct results of each. He is supremely wise and knows what we want and what we genuinely need. And he can navigate both with perfection. “Yes” feels like a wonderful response to us. “No” may be a bit hard to take. “Not yet” leaves a shadow of expectant hope.  All of his answers are perfectly wise and flow with the deepest love for each of us. He promises he will answer, and he does.

Always.

I have had prayers answered —most strangely so sometimes—but I think our Heavenly Father’s loving-kindness has been even more evident in what He has refused me. ― Lewis Carroll

These are just some of the thoughts rolling around my head after spending a couple of days trying to solve some problems for our family. Rather than flopping down at the end of the day in exhaustion, I’m learning to be content and wait for a prompting from God. I will ask, but I want my Abba’s presence more than some pile of presents, if you know what I mean.

Thanks for reading along…

~Jennifer


Questions to Think About

How have you found trouble to be both a reality and a profound tool in your life?

How have you responded to the trouble? Have you seen growth in that area over time? Think of a victory in this area and celebrate it.

What kind of sensitive, encouraging advice would you give to a friend facing trouble?

Do you keep a close friend or two so you can share the difficult days or seasons? What does it feel like when someone enters into your difficulties with you? What does it feel like when you are willing to go into someone else’s tough stuff?