On wishing-wells (and the irony of pessimistic idealism)

January 6, 2012 at 6:09 am (People I have known, Things I'm thinking about, What I'm reading) (, , , , , , , , , )

Recently, a wise friend of mine spoke to me openly about her own marriage. She has been married longer than Brett and I. It was SO refreshing to hear her voice her own struggles, to hear her speak about some of the things most of us married folk never even voice out loud cos “how could we even be thinking that!”, and to have some of it comfortingly resonate with what I have felt and struggled with. So thank you to honest, open, say-it-like-it-is, older and wiser, married folk who debunk the myths of marriage without degrading its worth!

One thing she spoke about which really struck me is how sometimes we look at our spouse and are so easily able to spot the flaws and the weaknesses and even wish a little that they were “more this” or “less that”.  She has learned over the years that some of the things she wishes her spouse was “more of” do not exist precisely because of some of the other things she loves and cherishes and values in him.

I like this cartoon about Elly the Elephant because, as much as the last two frames of it kind of kick marriage, I think it drives home a hugely valuable lesson that “looking for a partner”, “trying to decide whether to commit to a partner”, and “learning to love a partner better” people can (and SHOULD) all learn as quickly as possible. Sometimes the very things we love in our partners preclude some other things. That is, exactly because they are one way, they are not necessarily going to be some of those other things we may also want/like.  I love that Brett doesn’t care about what people think about him. But I struggle to do the same. And so sometimes I get embarrassed when he goes to the staff party dressed in purple tights, with purple gypsy pants, a Madiba shirt, a Marvin the Martian tie, and dreadlocks under a standy-up beanie (for example, d; ). And I secretly wish he’d just dressed “normal”. But all those crazy clothes are part of the package of him not caring about what people think, and being fun and spontaneous, and making me laugh every-day-every-day, and always finding the good in people, and hoping, and bringing life into a room, and vibing with strangers and just generally not taking things too seriously (in a good way). And so maybe if he dressed more “normal” he would be a little-less all those things. And I would hate that.

So Elly the Elephant wants someone who is sensitive, but doesn’t want him to be “needy”…and one of the two has to go. She wants him to be dependable….but he might not be if he also ticks the wish-list box as “adventurous”. We want our spouse/partner/boyfriend/girlfriend to be all things to us. See, it’s not a case of “simply learning to be happy with the few avocados we have” or “being happy with the crappy partner we have” (Stephan Pastis).  It’s about realizing that maybe we have some ideals that are just idealistic. That do not recognize that we are flawed and that any partner we end up with will be just as flawed. And that some characteristics which we highly value exist to the exclusion of others that we just slightly value. And that when we turn our attention to griping about the small-value things, we lose sight of the big-value things and devalue our partner. Or we sit alone.

Tim Keller and his wife, Kathy, have written a book which B and I are reading through and “studying” together. Here’s a little something about our expectations in potential (and actual) partners:

“Today we are looking for someone who accepts us as we are and fulfills our desires, and this creates an unrealistic set of expectations that frustrates both the searcher and the searched for…it would be wrong to pin the culture’s change in attitude toward marriage fully on the male quest for physical beauty. Women have been just as affected by our consumer culture. Both men and women today see marriage not as a way of creating character and community but as a way to reach personal life goals. They are all looking for a marriage partner who will “fulfill their emotional, sexual and spiritual desires”. And that creates an extreme idealism that in turn leads to deep pessimism that you will ever find the right person to marry. This is the reason so many put off marriage and look right past great prospective spouses that simply are “not good enough.”… To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is – there is almost no one like that out there to marry!…In other words, some people in our culture want too much out of a marriage partner. They do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation.” (The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller, pp. 33-35)

I guess to paraphrase John Tierney, so often in our dating and marriages we are “determined to get more than we deserve – and to reject anyone remotely like ourselves”. The problem with all of this – the pessimistic idealism in terms of what we are looking for in a partner; and the wishing for something slightly different which just doesn’t fit with what we have – is that it makes it extremely hard to find a partner, to keep a partner, or to be partner.

As for me? I am seeking, trying (and many times failing), day-by-day, to embrace all the facets (even the hard ones and the wishing-well ones) that are integrally tied up with some of the wonderful and marvelous and highly valuable things which are intrinsically who Brett is. I’m learning that “the basket can’t hold all the avocados” and I’m pretty sure I’m not “all the avocados” myself!

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Reflections on the Live Below the Line Challenge, Part 2

May 12, 2011 at 8:16 pm (Things I'm thinking about) (, , , , , )

The continuation….

2. Because we had the privilege of our 120 rand upfront, in many ways the challenge was what Lisa refers to as “an extended budgeting challenge” – sitting working out a healthy balanced meal plan for the week was stressful.  The list I started out with was completely different to the list I ended up with – for starters there was less meat on the second, no fruit, no dairy, more lentils, and less “excitement”.  Lisa wrote a blog on the challenge, and was concerned that  “One of the regular themes in the blogs and tweets of the participants of the challenge is that they’re bored of eating low-cost food.” She goes on, “This is part of what worries me about this challenge. If it were truly challenging people to bolster their sense of compassion and humanity, boredom wouldn’t be a major theme.” I disagree. The purpose of the challenge was to raise awareness, to “get a clue”, to recognize our own abundance – and certainly one of the major themes of that must be that living below the line is no fun! The food is boring, and bland and it is a struggle to make healthy choices.

3. On 120 rand we were forced to buy small quantities of food items such as rice and noodles. This for me was perhaps the greatest thing I learnt as I reflected on the poverty line. Unfortunately, small quantity items almost always come at a higher cost. Buying a small bag of rice is generally more expensive per kg than buying a larger packet. Here’s a quick illustration: Pantene 2 in 1 200 ml has a per/liter cost of 164 rand. The 400ml bottle has a per/liter cost of 99 rand! I dare not work out the sachet per/liter cost! So if you only have the cash to buy a small amount, you end up paying exorbitantly more for the amount you use than rich people do. Rich people get more stuff for less money than poor people do. This is gross injustice!

4. We had a fridge. Thus we were able to keep the food we bought in ‘bulk’, meat, left-overs and bread fresh. How many people living below the poverty line have a fridge, let alone electricity. This further curbs their ability to eat economically – to buy in bulk, cook and store food, and, in the unlikely event of leftovers, to not waste that food.

5. We only did the challenge for a week. We went into it healthy. Remembering that the 12 rand average covers food, drink, health care, accomodation, electricity, education, transportation etc for those on or below the poverty line, the knock on effect from an unbalanced diet (yes, vegetarianism may be healthier on balance but nearly all vegetarians I know supplement their diet with vitamins or with expensive protein alternatives such as nuts and seeds and low gi food) means the poor are less healthy and have far less (can anybody say nothing?) to get well on.

6. Brett and I ate well. We had reasonable quantities. We ate lots of vegetables and we even had some rice and lentils left over. But there was something lacking from the  diet. During the week we were doing mental work (i.e. transcription) but an hour or two after meals I would get incredibly drowsy and low in energy. Yes, with these minor side effects, the meal sizes sustained us through this work. But I cannot imagine doing hard physical labour on the meals we were eating! I really doubt it would have sustained us through a working day. Food for thought when you look at construction workers, or road cleaners, or gardeners and judge them for being so “lazy”. Think about how many bad character traits may merely be hunger disguised.

Many of you asked how it went. These are just a few thoughts. I may write more in the next few days. I do highly recommend that you take the challenge in your own time and hopefully catch a glimpse of the realities of the other side. I sincerely hope you don’t come out of that time and think you have done your bit. I also hope you don’t come out of it feeling guilty about all you have. But maybe a little conviction ain’t always a bad thing. And if you are a Christ-follower person then go and read this post because it talks about the true motivation for social justice and charity, and if that grabs you then definitely get Tim Keller’s “Generous Justice”.

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on the motivating force for justice

February 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm (Things I'm thinking about, What I'm reading) (, , , , , )

Tim Keller writes, “The Bible…provides not merely the bare ethical obligation for doing justice, but a revolutionary new inner power and dynamism to do so” (Generous Justice, p. 82).

I am struck by this. The dynamism Tim speaks of is echoed throughout scripture:

“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:19-20)

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died…From now on we regard noone from a worldy point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:14-16)

“You are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19)

Our compassion for the poor, our desire to see justice done, our drive to reconcile the world to Him, our feeding of the hungry, clothing of the poor, comforting of the sick, welcoming of the foreigner, and visiting of those in prison is a profound response to all that we have received from God. Even when they are dirty and broken, deserving of their state, seemingly to “blame”, unloveable, undeserving and ungrateful – because that is exactly how we were when God LAVISHED his love on us. Our response then is a right and fitting response to the grace we have received. Our lack of response is indicative of a lack of understanding of the grace we have received. A full understanding of God’s grace COMPELS us to respond in kind to those around us. Not doing so demonstrates that we have not fully grasped God’s grace towards us. This is what James speaks of: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)

“The logic is clear. If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.” (Generous Justice, p. 94)

Tim goes on to write:

“”We tend to try to develop a social conscience in Christians the same way the world does-through guilt. We tell them that they have so much and don’t they see that they need to share with those who have so little. This doesn’t work, because we have built-in defense mechanisms against such appeals. Almost noone really feels all that wealthy. Even the well-off don’t feel rich compared to the others with whom they live and work” (p. 107).

So often we give to assuage guilt about our excess. Even more often we are burdened into giving out of guilt; we are manipulated into giving and extending justice. How rarely does this flow from a true understanding of what we ourselves have received. How often is our giving, our acts of justice, COMPELLED but Christ’s love rather than by guilt and condemnation?

“When justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and to the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up” (p. 107).

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On bearing one another’s burdens

February 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm (Things I'm thinking about, What I'm reading) (, , , , , , , )

So I have been reading Generous Justice (Tim Keller)  and really just been challenged by this one section on the Good Samaritan. I will copy it out here:

“Another objection [to the duty of sharing money and goods with the poor] comes from people who say they “have nothing to spare” and that they barely have enough for their own needs. But one of the main lessons of the Good Samaritan parable is that real love entails risk and sacrifice. Edwards responds that when you say, “I can’t help anyone” you usually mean “I can’t help anyone without burdening myself, cutting in to how I live my life.” But Edwards argues, that’s exactly what Bibilical love requires. He writes:

We in many cases may, by the rules of the gospel, be obliged to give to others, when we cannot do it without suffering ourselves . . .If our neighbor’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not likely to be releived, we should be willing to suffer with them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves. Or else how is that rule of bearing one another’s burdens fulfilled? If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens, but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burdens at all?”(Tim Keller, Generous Justice, p. 70)

I feel quite convicted by this. Two other scriptures spring to mind:  “Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality…” (2 Cor 8:13-14).

I know many many times I have said to beggars at street corners, Big Issue sellers, car guards, and street children, “I’m sorry but I don’t have anything.” or “I don’t have anything today.” Those are lies. Because I do have; but the truth is in those times I cannot give without taking a hit myself – without burdening myself and cutting in to how I live.

The really hard-hitting thing is that when there have been brothers and sisters, fellow Christians, even friends, who I KNOW are in a tough spot or are really struggling, I have used the exact same rationalisation. I have not helped because doing so would burden me and cut into my tight finances. I have given when I have had excess, but really, how often have I given when doing so would have meant me sharing their burdens?

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