Sunday, February 2, 2014

What's It Like to Be You?

Is understanding a prerequisite to love?

Is it possible to love your neighbor without knowing who that neighbor really is?
Grocery boy, Muskogee, OK, Russell Lee, 1939

A discussion of the teenage brain on Dan Gottlieb’s radio talkshow Voices in the Family last Monday reminded me of how difficult it is to understand one another, even those we’re closest to. Our brains are at different stages of development; our goals, needs, experiences are different, even from those right there beside us.

A dad called in to talk about his fifteen year old son, who had stopped doing homework and refused to be ready in time to catch the school bus every morning. After probing for possible mental illness or family stress, Gottlieb said:     
I would encourage you to engage him in a different way. Take your eye off the goal of him turning around and becoming the young man he was or becoming the young man you wish him to be. Make the goal understanding the young man he is - now. And always approach him with a question: What’s it like to be you? Don’t try to guide him anywhere or change him into anything else. But what’s it like? What’s it like inside your mind? What’s it like inside your heart?
 I encourage all parents, all humans, to approach people with a curious mind, and an open heart, because you don’t know what it feels like to be him, and your job as a parent is to understand, not for the purpose of doing anything about it, but for the purpose of getting to know him in a different way, and then maybe you can collaborate. Then maybe if he feels less alone in the family, then maybe he can open up and share where he suffers and what he struggles with. He’ll feel safer if you do that. We all do, we all feel safer when someone says “Tell me your story.” 
Those words resonated strongly with my reading in Romans 12 the next morning: 
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. 
Sometimes when I read scripture, I have the sense that there’s more going on in the text than our translations suggest, and this passage sent me spinning through interlinear translations, Greek lexicons, early exegesis.

Mother and child, Sequoyah County, OK, 1939. Russell Lee
The love Paul is describing is the love of brother for brother (phileo): lives intertwined, experiences and goals held in common. But also the love of parent for child (translated too weakly as “devoted” or “kindly affectioned”):
The word φιλοστοργος signifies that tender and indescribable affection which a mother bears to her child, and which almost all creatures manifest towards their young; and the word φιλος , or φιλεω , joined to it, signifies a delight in it. Feel the tenderest affection towards each other, and delight to feel it. 
Delight to feel the affection? Or rather - delight in the other? Delight in the differences? 

The passage goes on to define the extent of this kindly affection: attention to needs, celebration of victories, grief at the other’s grief. Not just for those closest, but in radiating circles: those we consider brothers or sisters. Those who we think of as strangers. Those we’d prefer to treat as enemies.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases it this way:
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”\
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
All of this is dependent on knowing who the other is, knowing what the other needs, understanding what the other is feeling, the kind of attention, insight, and delight a devoted parent lavishes on a well-loved child. 

To paraphrase in light of Dan Gottlieb’s instruction:
“Find out what it means to be that other person. Celebrate what he celebrates. Grieve what she grieves. Try to see the world through other eyes. Align your heart with the hearts of others. Set your own agendas aside and put your home, heart, resources, privilege at the disposal of those around you.”

Drought refugee, Polk, MO, Dorothea Lange, 1936
That’s an outrageously extreme translation, but if you look at the whole of Romans 12, I’d argue that’s what Paul is saying: in light of Christ’s extreme sacrifice for us, we should respond with our own living sacrifice. We'll never fully get there, but we can make it a goal to learn to love the same way Jesus did, entering so fully into the lives of others that they see, maybe for the first time, what real love might look like.

I find myself wrestling with the implications of this kind of love. Who can love even a few people at that level? Who can offer that kind of sacrificial attention? 

In practical terms, what would be the cost?

I’ve set aside time to be available for needs and ambitions not my own: helping a young friend fill out FAPSA forms, researching resource questions for older friends less google-savvy than myself, devoting time to helping friends in transition or stress: packing, cleaning, laundry, dishes.

And I help provide lunch once a month after our Sunday service, thinking through the menu, organizing a team to cook, set up, and clean, not because food for groups is on my list of either skills or pleasures (it's not!) but because I know how important that  time of welcome and nourishment is for some of the eighty or so who gather to eat each week.

I’ve tried to let my practices and politics be guided by what I know of the struggles of the poor, the stranger, those struggling to find affordable housing, adequate transportation, jobs that pay enough to live on.

But that simple stretch of verses holds 30 imperatives, direct instructions for active, honest love.  I sort my way through them, wondering: how could I grow in expressions of hospitality? How could I enter more fully into the joys and griefs of others? Where does my own agenda blind me to needs different from my own? When have I allowed feelings of enmity to keep me from offering blessing?

My motive in probing this isn’t guilt, or the burden of “should,” but an awareness that continues to grow: the more I try to know and love, the more certain I am that I myself am known and loved. The more I look for ways to bless, the more clearly I see the ways I myself have been blessed. My experience of love is tied inextricably, and inexplicably, to my expressions of love.

Grandfather and Grandson, Manzanar Refugee Camp,
Dorothea Lange, 1942
Paul’s other major exploration of love, in 1 Corinthinians 13, concludes here: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

May we know, and love, as we are known and loved. 

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a warming exploration in a very cold, gray month, this will be the first in a four part exploration of love.  Please join the conversation: just click on  _ comments below and add your thoughts.  
What practices have helped you grow in your understanding of others? Is understanding a prerequisite to love?