There’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so I think I’ll step aside from Perelandra for this week to share some of my thoughts.
I saw a quote on a friend’s page about not liking small talk, but being willing to jump in and talk about deep/important stuff. And I was thinking about relationships past and present and why it seems to be so difficult to develop those deep relationships where you really can discuss the important stuff. I mean, I saw a book come out not long ago on how to make mom friends, because it seems to be well-nigh impossible. So I guess I’m not the only one finding this difficult. (I wrote this yesterday, then got an email about the same topic this morning. Providence!) Why is that?
I learned early on that there were a lot of things you just didn’t talk about. They made people uncomfortable, and I wanted to get along with people, so I learned to avoid those questions, those conversations. You followed the rules of respectability and you assumed everybody else was as respectable as they looked, and you didn’t talk about what went on in their hearts. It may have been more pronounced in the fundamental Christian atmosphere in which I grew up, but it’s a pretty common strategy for “getting along.” Avoid potentially divisive or personal topics to avoid discomfort. But it’s a really poor way to develop relationships. We talk a lot about the comfort American Christians have become addicted to in terms of materialism – fancy coffees, nice homes and cars. But what about the comfort of surface conversations? Of not allowing people to see us for who we really are, so that they can help us grow in grace, and vice versa?
Some years ago my husband and I were having some problems. And we asked our pastor over for help. We knew he had gone to multiple training sessions for counseling. We opened up. We became vulnerable. And his primary concern was to curtail our leadership involvement. There was no offer of follow-up sessions. No further contact about the matter at all. It was too uncomfortable for him to think that the people he thought he knew so well had all this stuff festering under the surface. We knew the kind of training he had gone through – we had read many of the same books – and we knew that it encouraged multiple sessions, homework, etc. But the vulnerability was too uncomfortable for him. And it was another few years before we got the help we needed, from someone who wasn’t afraid of vulnerability.
And that’s what I think it really boils down to – fear. Fear of being vulnerable ourselves. Fear of being exposed to the vulnerability of others. But “perfect love casts out fear.” If we love others, it should help overcome our fear of the discomfort with the vulnerability required to build real relationships. Real relationship requires vulnerability. Vulnerability, in our supremely individualistic culture, is uncomfortable. And we avoid that discomfort because of a lack of love and of trust.
I tend to be a very open person – that is, I tend to reveal more about myself than most people are comfortable with. And I’ve been thinking about why that is. I think part of it is that I’ve inherited my mother’s tendency to trust people. I tend to trust that if I tell someone enough about my reasons for believing or doing whatever we’re talking about, that they’ll get it and maybe we can get beyond that discomfort of vulnerability to actual relationship based on who I really am, who they really are. I think another part of it is that I’ve moved so much in my life – in my youth, “moving” being more about switching churches and therefore peer groups – that I don’t expect to have time to go through years of getting to know someone on the surface to trust them enough with my vulnerability. But I think it usually backfires on me. My openness scares people off because they think I expect them to be that vulnerable with me, and they don’t know me enough to trust me. And for them, that takes years. Though that fear of vulnerability can persist in relationships that do last years, as well.
And that, weirdly enough, brings me to part of the reason I’m addicted to reading. I think much of the reason is this: in a book, you get to really know the characters really quickly. The characters in books are vulnerable, allowing you into their innermost thoughts and feelings in a matter of minutes. And that sense of relationship is like a drug. It’s what we were created for. God is infinite, and He is relational, and we were made for relationship with Him and with the other people He has created. And when the people around me are distant; when I’m stuck at home for days on end with children who haven’t developed that depth of personality yet, I naturally bury myself in a good book, or on Facebook, searching for that connection that I am missing in my day-to-day life. It really does make me a bit jealous of my friend who lives in Africa, where people might stop by without notice and discuss what’s really going on in their lives.
What’s the solution? I’m not sure. I know that I have grown in my relationship with God dramatically in the past two years, but that that desire for deep relationship with other people isn’t diminished. I am thankful for a friend who has been a military wife for a long time and who therefore has that same jump-right-into-the-real-stuff mentality. I mourn the drying up of formerly close relationships caused by geographical and philosophical moves. I mourn suburban living, where I have to plan days in advance to have any actual in-person interaction with real people, and the three hour time difference between me and my loved ones “back home” that make phone conversations after the kids are in bed impossible. I know we’re told that screens are taking away from relationships. But what if the screens – the movies, books, games – are filling a void cause by the surface nature of our relationships? If we can’t be vulnerable with one another, if we can’t develop those kind of deep and satisfying relationships, then of course we long for something to take their place. Or at least to distract us from the longing. Now, being a very open person and a self-styled queen of extroverts, I recognize that I may crave that interaction with more people, or more often than most people. But I don’t think I’m alone. Am I?
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