Over the MLK holiday weekend, as I watched my Twitter feed slowly implode into a confused chaos of rage about yet another incident with a vague but obviously unpleasant narrative, I buckled up for another roller coaster surge of rage, confusion, refinement of rage, apologies, recasting of narratives, and the final digging in of heels into already confirmed worldviews.
As I navigated through waterfalls of tweeted ire, I found myself nodding my head with the professional empathy of my therapist. As I read varying convoluted takes with justifications and finger-pointing following the holiday weekend, I recognized myself in the tortured op-eds.
Our national discourse resembles the dialogues of my worst breakups.
I do not have extensive experience with the politics of the sovereign state, but, at the age of twenty-seven, I do have a healthy amount of experience with the politics of relationships: the platonic, familial, and romantic varieties. So let’s examine the state of our civic union.
Some breakups are triggered because of trauma: domestic violence, infidelity, a grave violation of the emotional or physical health of one of the members—breakups caused by an abuse of power—which reveals the relationship as inherently compromised and needing to be severed. The partners may indeed love each other and continue to see each other as good, but one or both of the parties have betrayed the truth of the relationship to the point that there is no other choice than to draw the curtain on that play.
These traumatic breaks are not the sort of breakups I have experienced. The breakups I am familiar with are the type that both originate and bear fruit in a distorted vision between the lover and beloved. These breakups are caused by a slow breakdown of trust: one party’s action—perhaps fearful, misguided, or thoughtless—is met with pain, judgment, anger, or perhaps a mirroring sense of self-preservation. Miscommunication occurs; plans misfire; misunderstandings compound upon one another. Offenses aggregate until the two persons in the relationship devolve into living in a truly partisan narrative—a she said/he said story where each person is living a radically different version of reality.
At this point, it is nearly impossible to regain a shared narrative. My communication with a partner at this point looks more like shouting at each other across a chasm than inviting each other into a shared reality. Any protest of the narratives we present to one another are simply transformed into further evidence for our own version of the events.
You say that I’m being possessive and needy—well, that’s exactly what an emotionally aloof control freak would say.
You say I’m being an emotionally distant iceberg? Well you’re a neurotic, distrusting nag.
Once each of us has siloed the other into the role we have chosen for him or her—a role that may, indeed, be based on occasional or frequently-manifested qualities and personality traits—then we both can cement this relationship into a soothing narrative of self-delusion: you are categorically, pathologically wrong, and I am right.
We reframe each interaction between us in this selective new light, locating all the problems in our shared life within the other person, for him or her to fix:
You are only with me to assuage your insecurities.
You are a control freak who wants to micromanage my existence.
You are a person interested only in yourself and not truly in me.
Oh, we are now very far removed from the realm of actual, dynamic human relationship.
Instead of the dynamic relationship between two growing, living persons, we have calcified this relationship into an ideology—a rigid system of fantasy that absolves me of any need for conversion and locates within you a totalizing depravity. You must change; your ego, immaturity, and utterly absent self-awareness are the obstacles between us and happiness.
The question to be asked in the midst of both a relationship careening into a train wreck and in a society that is splitting itself in two with outrage is the same: how do we regain each other’s trust?
The distrust arises first and foremost out of fear: the fear that we, ourselves, are not good. The fear that we are not, pace Thomas Merton, shining like the sun. We are afraid that we will be found wanting, and that we, unlike our more successful and blessed compatriots in the human race, are doomed to failure, to disgrace—to being unloved.
So we take this fear and place it on someone else (passing off blame for biting the apple is the oldest trick in the book). You are the problem—I am not less than lovable, you are less-than-loving.
If there is anything harder than accepting, with full-throated faith, that we are good, it is accepting that we are good and still have much improvement left to do. It is much easier to settle for quick categorization and stereotypes that permit no change, conversion, or grace.
It is difficult to permit our fearful brains to cultivate this attitude towards ourselves: that we are shining like the sun and are called to grow brighter still.
Yes, I am a good writer, but I am not yet the best I can be.
Yes, I am kind, but I can still become less judgmental and abrasive.
Yes, I am lovable and I do love—but there is still plenty of fear in my heart which perfect love has not yet cast out.
It is hard enough to believe this of ourselves. It is mighty difficult to bring ourselves to believe this of others who have hurt us. And it is nearly impossible to cultivate this vision of ourselves and others when we are placed in the collision course of a breakup, when battle lines have been drawn, when we pit ourselves against one another and when we are sure that our victory, our claim to lovability, goodness, or righteousness can only be won by vanquishing the other, by proving them unworthy, disgusting, and unrighteous.
If you are not seeing your neighbor or your relationship through the lens of charity, said a wise priest once, then you are not seeing the truth. To see the truth takes trust.
It is easier to dismiss someone than to listen to them, for we may have to heed them. Their words may place a claim on us and call us to change. But if we read our Gospels, then we will discover that is exactly what discipleship is: the voice of a stranger addresses us while we tend our nets and says: you must change your life.
Perhaps a Native American elder, a teenage boy, or an ex-boyfriend are not Christ speaking to us.
Or perhaps they are.
Perhaps the Christ who “is lovely in eyes not his” can be found by listening to our neighbor with kind ears and approaching them with loving eyes.
For once we are in a true relationship, once we have accepted together that we are in a common project together, then we can begin to trust—to trust that this other person, underneath their own ideologies, also wants the good life—a polis of happiness and justice—and love.
I in no way make light of those differing visions of building life together in a just society, even as I know how fragile the task is of building a common life together in a relationship. But the core, essential glue of both is trust: faith that this person loves me and wants my happiness and flourishing. Only then we can listen to them—accept feedback, take seriously their counsel, disagree with them and offer our own clear-sighted critiques. Our communication can be truly constructive instead of a state of war.
We are not at peace with others, wrote Thomas Merton, because we are not at peace with ourselves. Those who are at peace with themselves, Merton continues, are only so because they are at peace with God. Because they know that, ultimately, they are loved in their imperfections, in their goodness-but-not-perfection. To be at peace with myself and with God means that I have begun the hard journey of responsibility: of accepting that I am good and have more goodness yet to become, of accepting that not only do I shine like the sun, but so does my neighbor.
Renée Darline Roden, a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s Master of Theological Studies program, is as an editor and playwright in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Howlround Theatre Commons, America, and Dappled Things.