Why Young Men Kill

It’s time we started talking about our young men, about why they become mass shooters, serial bombers, and homegrown terrorists. If any other demographic had demonstrated such a dangerous capacity for violence, we certainly would have probed deeper by now.

98% of mass shooters are men—and most are disaffected young men, whether American, Syrian, French, or Belgian—and they belong to and support a variety of religions and creeds. And yet, we are mostly silent about the demographics surrounding this particularly male phenomenon.

What makes this demographic so volatile?  Some studies suggest increased testosterone or the relative immaturity of young men as compared to young women combined with violence prevalent within entertainment culture and easy access to weapons, may create the potentially lethal combination that explains why young men are more likely to commit mass murder.

Many of the murderers also seem to share a common biography across racial, religious, and geographic boundaries: they were young men who were unable to come to grips with a complex world that did not live up to their own cultural, political, and social expectations. After this, they latch onto some ideology, extremist interpretations of their religion, and/or misogyny to justify their violence.

This awareness of a disconnect between our expectations and reality happens to almost all of us. Life doesn’t work out the way you planned, so you adjust.  Many people, unfortunately, tend to externalize frustration and often quickly turn to reasons “out there” for why things haven’t worked out. So if you can’t find a date, it’s feminism’s fault. If you can’t find a job, it must be the immigrants.

But what leads men, particularly young men, to act out their frustration through violence?

One thing missing from modern American culture is the initiation rite for young men. In almost all cultures, it was understood that boys did not just “become” men; rather, there was an intentional process that they had to undergo and that had to be acknowledged by the elders of the community. Without it, they’d become self-absorbed and violent.

Across cultures, the rites involved some form of separation from family, a humiliation of the ego, a time to grieve, an intentional or sacred wounding, and a time to be silent within nature. It was an intentional, liminal, vulnerable space, where life lessons could be learned through experience. It wasn’t about head knowledge, it was through body knowing.

Our culture initially used war as an initiation process, and when we weren’t at war, we used violent sports such as football or boxing to initiate. While imperfect, these substitutes could be helpful in teaching the young man about community, teamwork, and sacrifice.

According to writer and Catholic priest Fr. Richard Rohr, the intention of any initiation process is to communicate five hard truths:

  1. Life is hard.
  2. You are not that important.
  3. Your life is not about you.
  4. You are not in control.
  5. You are going to die.

The sacred experience of these truths would help the young boy transition into adulthood by desacralizing the self-absorbed ego, reintegrating him back into the community. If not initiated, the young man could become violent and narcissistic. Combine that with access to military grade weapons and extremist rhetoric, and you get a lethal combination.

In Britain an organization called a Band of Brothers has begun a process of initiation rites for formerly imprisoned young men at risk of recidivism. This joins a larger trend of male initiation rites for men throughout the western world.

After turning 25, I decided to attend a version of the male initiation rite. While the retreat was a simulation set within a Catholic Christian space, it helped me connect psychologically, communally, and cosmologically. Suddenly I saw things through a much broader vision than my own ego and the social expectations placed upon me. Suddenly I was unburdened of a lot of cultural baggage. I felt smaller, more humble, and yet also more free to live a good life, to live my life.

I’m aware that there is no one size fits all policy when it comes to any of this. But an anthropological reality remains, that our culture is missing something that many cultures believe is necessary for young men. And our culture is suffering from an epidemic of disaffected young men with access to deadly weapons.

Solutions abound for how to address this issue. Most are politically impossible given the current situation. But perhaps we could agree to some compromises in the meantime. We could raise the age that one could buy a weapon capable of committing a mass shooting. We could create some form of national service for young men and women. We, as people of faith, could draw on our rich history of initiation rites and network of Catholic high schools to reimagine how we form our young men in ways that don’t leave them radicalized by extreme ideologies.

We can and should talk about how these ideologies, combined with easy access to weapons, social isolation, and a lack of mental healthcare contribute to this issue. But we should also talk about the young men who commit the crimes: who they are, why they choose violence, and what we can do as a society to form them better.

Michael J. Sanem is the Director of Faith Formation at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri and studied history, philosophy, and theology at Loyola University Chicago and as a Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.


Mercy for the Outcast: The Story God Wants Told

Mere moments on Twitter are enough to alert us that our culture is plagued with demons.  We live in a culture that responds to polarized politics and social values with contempt and hateful accusations that serve only to drive us further from one another, rather than seeking common ground.  Even voices claiming to speak for our good God are raised in accusation and derision.  Amongst so many voices and so much anger, through all the noise, how do we hear a God who whispers?  Why doesn’t God speak more loudly, to be heard above the hate, or better still – to silence it forever?

There is divine precedent for keeping things hidden.  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus repeatedly instructs his followers, those whom he heals, and even the demons he exorcizes to conceal his identity.  Commentators call this motif the “Messianic Secret,” positing many theories about why Jesus wants to stay hidden.  It may be to prevent people from following Jesus for the wrong reasons or to subvert existing Messianic expectations.  In the midst of a Gospel full of Jesus’s commands to keep quiet, there is one man whom Jesus commissions to preach.  It isn’t Peter or another one of the Apostles.  He isn’t even a Jew.  The man Jesus enlists to tell his story is a foreigner known as the Gerasene demoniac.

In Mark 5, we meet Jesus and the disciples just after he has calmed the storm.  Across the sea, they find themselves in the region of the Gerasenes.  There, Jesus speaks with a tormented man, a man filled with demons.  He has no one and is utterly forgotten, living among the tombs. Following their conversation, Jesus casts the demons out of the man into a herd of pigs.  Driven mad by this legion of demons, the pigs throw themselves into the sea.  Seeing the demoniac healed at the cost of 2,000 pigs, the Gerasenes beg Jesus to leave the region.  Whatever healing Jesus might offer them, it is not worth the cost of their livelihood.

Now free, the man intends to follow Jesus back across the sea.  Instead, Jesus asks him to stay, giving him the incredible command: “Go home to your own people and tell them what the Lord, in his mercy, has done for you,” (Mk 5:19).  In a Gospel known for Jesus’ requests to hide his identity, Jesus commissions this man to preach.  Among so many stories of healing, we have to ask ourselves: why is this the story God wants told?

The other stories in this chapter are stories in which faith heals.  The bleeding woman reaches out to touch Jesus and is healed.  “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus tells her (Mark 5:34).  He continues on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter, telling the crowd, “Do not be afraid; just have faith,” (Mark 5:36).  When the little girl rises, Jesus gives strict orders that no one should know.  The healing of the Gerasene demoniac is unlike these stories. The demoniac is not healed by faith, but by God’s mercy.  The Greek is eleison, the same mercy we ask of Jesus in the Mass. The outcast lives as one among the dead, with no one to speak for him or bring him to Jesus.  He is trapped inside of himself, across the sea, the outcast of the foreigners.

This is the story God wants told.  Not the story of the great faith of his followers, but the story of his mercy, of mercy so great that it crosses the sea to rescue us from ourselves.  God’s heart is one moved by the outcast, the one who lives among the dead.  As we pray in the Liturgy of the Hours, “You will not leave my soul among the dead, not let your beloved know decay,” (Psalm 16:10).  God’s heart is with the outcast of the foreigners, and this is what moves Jesus to be with him.

Mark vividly describes the violence this man committed against himself and the ways in which he resisted the attempts of the community to help him.  They, in turn, abandon him for dead.  Even once he is made whole again, his community does not see him as worth the cost; the pigs are worth more than his life restored.  When we count the cost of love, we are the Gerasenes, lamenting the loss of their herd – no doubt a devastating economic blow.  They push Jesus away for fear of what it will cost them.  They cling so tightly to security that they cannot receive Jesus’ healing and mercy.

And yet, this is the community to whom Jesus sends this man.  He wants to leave them behind, but Jesus asks him to stay, as if to say, These people that reject you, they are your community.  It is to them you must speak about the great mercy of God.  This man’s healing is not for him alone, but for his community, the ones who have cast him out.

We are not to regard our faith primarily as a path towards our own edification or liberation.  This liberation is offered in service of a greater call.  We cannot turn our backs on the outcast, nor on those who cast them out.  When we do either, we demonize where there are no demons, only ones like us—ones in need of healing.  Our pain is not only ours to harbor; we must offer it to Jesus who asks us not to sit in it or lash out in anger, but to channel it into love.  We are to tell others what God in his mercy has done for us, to share it even with those who have turned their backs on us and thought us unworthy.

If we hope to imitate Jesus, we need to listen to the story he wants told.  Mercy crosses oceans to rescue the outcast of the foreigners.  Mercy asks the outcast to evangelize the hateful.  There is no one so “other” that we are not called to love them.

God, in his mercy, saves. He rescues. He crosses the sea and braves the storm. This is where God’s heart is—with the foreigners. This is who God chooses as custodian of his message.  This is why we are invited to the margins—because this is where God’s heart is.  And this is who God asks to speak to us, because the face of mercy is the face of those whom we have demonized.  Mercy is for the wounded and for those who wound.  Each of them is in each of us.  Mercy lifts the veil to show us the truth: in God there can be no other.  There is only us.

How do we hear God in the midst of all the anger and noise of our culture?  The only way we can, as St. Teresa of Avila tells us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  God has spoken, and his voice is mercy.  He asks us to speak it, too.

Samantha Stephenson is a wife and mother, lover of books and coffee, and editor of spiritualityoftheordinary.com


When Opposing the President Isn’t Political, But About Survival

President Trump will visit El Paso today.

Following the recent shooting in El Paso, Americans and the media are rightly focused on the overdue reform of gun laws. But while the attack in El Paso was surely enabled by the failure of politicians to enact even a modicum of reform, it is categorically different. For El Pasoans, this killer’s bullets were aimed at a whole community, a way of life, and our values.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Latinos and communities like El Paso have experienced life under an ever-present pall of low-grade fear.

As a border community, El Paso has lived in a unique way at the intersection of the President’s politics of xenophobia and policies which dehumanize migrants at the border. Race baiting, zero tolerance, threats of deportation, and an increasingly militarized border are the stuff of everyday life. After the El Paso shooting, ICE and Border Patrol announced a suspension of enforcement activities around the mall, hospitals, and family reunification centers, a temporary reprieve to fear and the exception that proves the rule.

In this midst of all this, El Paso has shown the country that another way is possible in addressing the so-called crisis at the border: with compassion, generosity, and humanity. Even as the President builds walls and separates families, thousands have migrants have found shelter, relief, warm meals, and open doors in El Paso after the traumatizing experience of immigrant detention. In a vigil the day following the shooting, thousands of El Pasoans came together both to mourn the dead and to celebrate this community’s resilience.

President Trump reflexively trades in racism, nationalism, and sardonic put-downs. Now his poisonous rhetoric and kid gloves approach to white supremacy have inspired a manifesto of murder and terror. President Trump supplied the ideological ammunition to an assassin who violated our community and our values and killed our family members and neighbors.

This past weekend, hate came to the Cielo Vista Mall and El Paso. Latino blood was spilt in sacrifice to the ancient demons of political and racial terrorism. Now before brazenly trampling the scene of the crime, the President must atone for his misdeeds.

Until then, the President is not welcome here.

Dylan Corbett is the founding director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Texas and has worked in global development in Central America and South Asia, as well as on domestic poverty programs with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


4 Suggestions for Restoring Adventure to Your Daily Life

From the first time we step into our kindergarten classroom, inspirational messages abound from our parents, teachers, and mentors: You can be anything you want to be.  You’re going to change the world.  God has great plans for you.

Similarly, at my Jesuit undergraduate institution, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s quote formed the basis of our instruction: Ite inflammate omnia, or Go forth and set the world on fire.  Now, as a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Languages, I have the swirling thoughts of many who are about to enter the “real” world: Is this it?

Fire combusts in a matter of seconds.  To change the world requires the patience of months, years, lifetimes.  The truth is, few of us will achieve work similar to St. Ignatius that dares to incite a new global change.  This reality can drain the fervor of youthful ambition.  In a society that idolizes young success as the ultimate dream, approaching this blank unknown can seem daunting.

How can recent graduates carry the passion of intellect and social change into a world that demands compliance and normalcy?  How can I do what St. Ignatius instructs when my spark may never manifest itself into a flame?

It is the very thing which strives to dim our dreams – coming to terms with reality – that we must use to propel us forward. Graduate school and the eventual job search may be my impending reality, but I can still embark on a spiritual and invigorating journey within this context.  Many go through life with a realistic mindset left wondering if there is something more beyond bills, television, and obligations.  Why can’t reality itself be more?  We must find adventure in the mundane and embrace the marvel of our own realities.  The bleakness of a lifetime of normalcy will no longer intimidate because it is the reality we wish to live – it is unique.

With this mindset, the flames of change become a part of our realities in ways that our kindergarten minds could not comprehend.  Engaging regularly with spirituality, social justice issues, and personal passions become routine but not repetitive.  We cannot use our education for its true purpose without exciting ourselves about the beautiful life God has provided.

Tangible practices must fortify an altered mindset.  Below are my suggestions for restoring adventure to your lived reality:

1) Pray.  Try a new prayer practice.  Imaginative prayer, journaling, walking outside, and listening to music can all be forms of meaningful prayer.

2) Create.  Art, cooking, music, writing, and other creative pursuits remind us of the universe enveloped within each of us.

3) Engage.  Having intentional conversations with others allows us to experience the unique personhood of ourselves and others.

4) Learn.  Keeping up with current events, visiting a new place, and reading about your passions will serve to expand our vision.

Grace Spiewak has a B.A. in Classical Languages from Creighton University and plans to pursue an M.S. in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


Unchecked Boxes and Encountering God and Holiness in Lent

I was never really a big Lent guy.  Advent was more my season.  Who wouldn’t prefer a decorated Christmas tree to a stringy palm branch, or singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as the snow falls outside the church to signing “Dust and Ashes” on a cold and wet March Wednesday, or a crèche with angels, stars, and barnyard animals to the Stations of the Cross with Roman soldiers, thorny crowns, and lots of weeping people?  Waiting for Santa Claus or waiting for a giant bunny?  Yeah, Lent was just never really all that appealing to me.

And then there was this whole practice of giving something up.  No chocolate.  No TV.  No beer! (Not sure what I was thinking that year).  Meanwhile during Advent it’s all that and more—Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, and Christmas presents.

Who could possibly prefer Lent?

I do now.  But it took the worst time of my life to get there.

On March 3, 2015, my alarm went off twenty minutes before it normally would.  I poured a cup of tea, grabbed my Lent 2015 Prayer Book, and opened up to the daily readings.  Lent was now in its second week and the rituals were in full swing.  Twenty minutes of extra prayer in the morning, one or two daily masses during the week, and an extra stop at St. Anthony’s for confession.  Of course, no pepperoni on my Friday night pizza, and there was the fasting when required.  It was all set up for me to get to Easter, look back, and say, “Well another Lent in the books. I checked all the boxes, so time to indulge in chocolate, TV, and beer.”  But is that what Lent is all about—checking the boxes?  Trying to live this pristine life of following all the rules for the sake of following all the rules?

That afternoon my Dad called and told me it would be best if I came home.  Mom was in the emergency room.  For the next three days, I did not leave the hospital.  What we thought was an innocent fainting spell was actually terminal brain cancer.  Six months later, my Mom was gone.

The three days at the hospital all merged into one continuous, out-of-body experience—like those dreams where you are half-aware that you are dreaming, except I couldn’t trick my brain to change the sequence of events.  By day three, I was exhausted and grabbed some shut-eye on a bench in the ICU lobby.  I was still wearing the same clothes I put on for work that March 3rd morning when I opened the Lent 2015 Prayer Book.  I hadn’t read it in three days, I hadn’t gone to mass, and I had been eating the same assortment of pre-made deli meat sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria, even on Friday. I hadn’t even prayed.  So much for Lent.  All the boxes were left unchecked.

What came next was a feeling of utter desperation.  Not only was it Lent, but my family was in crisis.  Shouldn’t I be in prayer overload?  I felt completely overwhelmed spiritually.  I felt this need to go on a rosary binge to save my mom.  Here she was facing death and it was up to me to pray seventy times times seven.  I kept replaying Matthew in my head, “Ask and it will be given to you.”  I was faced with this monumental task—to pray my mom back to health.  How?  Ten Our Fathers every hour?  100 Hail Marys a day?  Shouldn’t I leave the hospital immediately and go sit in a church and light a million candles?

My thoughts were interrupted when my sister came out to the lobby.  It was my turn to go sit with Mom.

Fr. Michael Himes, a theology professor at Boston College, emphasizes the importance of remembering that we are made “like God,” but we are not God.  It is not up to us to decide life and death.  And that is not only ok, but dignified in God’s eyes.  God so loved the idea of being human that God became one.  In Himes’ opinion, there is no more radical ratification of the dignity of being human than the concept of the Incarnation. Himes calls our attention to the fact that “the Christian tradition does not say human beings are of such immense dignity that God really loves them.  It does not say that human beings are of such dignity that God has a magnificent destiny in store for them . . . No the Christian tradition says something far more radical: human beings are of such dignity that God has chosen to be one.”

Himes encourages us to keep going.  So what, God became human?  What does that mean?  It means that it is in the human life of Jesus, a human life marked by the pain and suffering of a crucifixion, where we learn who God really is.  He explains, “The Christian tradition claims that absolute agape (which is the least wrong way to think about the Mystery that we name God) is fully, perfectly expressed in human terms in the life, death, and destiny of one particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.”  Himes finishes the equation with this—if God is agape, and God became human in Jesus, then the life and death of Jesus teaches us who God is and how to experience God’s presence.

And that is what Lent is all about—experiencing God in newer and deeper ways than we have before.  How do we do it?  By being authentically human, even when that means confronting brokenness.

Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, challenges us to re-envision how we encounter God:  “We tend to think the sacred has to look a certain way . . . cathedral spires, incense, jewel-encrusted chalices, angelic choirs.  When imagining the sacred, we think of church sanctuary rather than living room; chalice instead of cup; ordained male priest instead of, well, ourselves.  But lo—which is to say, look—right before your eyes, the holy is happening. . .”

I slumped into the metal chair next to my Mom’s hospital bed.  She was fast asleep, recovering from brain surgery, with a dozen tubes and wires connected to machines.  The room was peacefully quiet, filled only with the white noise of the ventilator humming in the background.  She looked so frail.

There was only one thing to do—I gently placed my hand over hers and squeezed softly.  It was that simple.  God did not want me sitting vigil somewhere in a church, fasting from meat, with a sack cloth of ashesGod wanted me HERE.  Right in that hospital chair.  Doing nothing more than holding my mother’s hand.  Because lo—right before my eyes the holy was happening.

It was not up to me to save her.  It was up to me to embrace her pain and suffering, embrace the limitations of humanness, and to say “I’m not here to cure, I’m here to hold it with you.”  It is in these moments when we find God and encounter the holy.  Because, as Boyle reminds us, “in Bethlehem, the words are printed in stone on the ground: ‘And the word became flesh . . . HERE.’”

In His final moments, Jesus embraced not only His own pain and suffering and limitations as a human, but embraced the pain and suffering of those around Him.  In one of His final lessons, Jesus reminded His disciples—and us—what was most important: finding God on the margins of human limitation by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and accompanying the sick.  Not only did Jesus preach it, but He lived it.  During His final meal, amongst the chaos and uncertainty, He knelt before His disciples and washed their feet.  The next day, in the midst of His own suffering, He offered His comfort to the prisoner crucified next to Him.

Lent is winding down. Holy Week is here.  Let us remember that to understand who God is, to find God, to encounter the holy, is to follow the life and death of Jesus—who took on humanity.  All of it.  Even its pain and suffering.  Let us focus on encountering God this Holy Week.

How?  Try finding God and holiness outside the church, don’t worry about that turkey sandwich you made for lunch on a Friday, and hold the hand of someone who needs you.  Maybe it’s taking a walk with your spouse after a tough day at work.  Maybe it’s buying a coffee for the man who sits outside your office wrapped in a blanket.  Maybe it’s stopping by your grandparents’ house just to say hi.  Maybe it’s picking up the phone and calling that friend who really needs that phone call.

Lent is not about trying to be perfect.  It’s not about checking the boxes.  It’s about being authentically human.  Don’t run away from the brokenness, the pain, and the imperfections, because in those moments we encounter God.  As the women along the climb to Calvary learned, when we wipe the face of those in need, those suffering, those in pain, we see the face of God.

And that is why I love Lent.  It’s the perfect time to be human…together.

Patrick Nevins, J.D. (a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School) works for the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts and resides in Natick, MA with his wife Jennie. 

 


10 Initial Observations on Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Exhortation on Young People, Christus Vivit

  1. Read the document instead of news reports about the document. Talk to Bishops and laity who were a part of the process instead of those paid to talk about it.
  2. Remember that the age range of “youth” refers to those 16-29 but is applicable to all young people making key life decisions (late teens, 20s and 30s)…think grad school not middle school.
  3. Pope Francis lives up to his title as Holy Father by calling young people to a radical holiness he models and speaking as a loving Father.
  4. I cannot recall a more kerygmatic or Christocentric Papal document that shows (not just tells) the Church how to proclaim Christ in the 21st Century. Especially moving is chapter four, where Francis lays out 3 truths: 1) God loves you 2) Christ saves you 3) Christ is alive!
  5. As a letter to young people, Pope Francis does not make concrete recommendations to the Church but regularly points back to the Final Document of #Synod2018. Read that next if you haven’t.
  6. The pre-synodal document, Final #Synod2018 Document, and #CHRISTUSVIVIT form a tryptic of theological reflection on young people, representative of the three phases of the synodal process.
  7. Instead of telling leaders and elders in our Church what to do, he models it for them: inviting young people together, listening to them, and speaking to them of Jesus Christ with tenderness and expectation.
  8. The implementation of Christus Vivit is not a new book or printed resource but a change in culture that prioritizes young people. This should make waves. Christian Smith’s early work (Soul Searching) shows that young people leaving the Church correlates with a lack of investment.
  9. Pope Francis raises up the dignity of youth and young adulthood and reminds Church leaders of all ages that this is a spark that must be kindled through mentorship and intergenerational friendship. Mentorship and intergenerational friendship isn’t ordinary and needs to be.
  10. Pope Francis gives young people the green light to run forward as missionary disciples and asks elders in the Church to trust them:

Dear young people, my joyful hope is to see you keep running the race before you, outstripping all those who are slow or fearful. The Church needs your momentum, intuitions, your faith. We need them! And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us” (299)

Jonathan Lewis was selected by Pope Francis as a participant in the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. He lives in DC and serves as the Assistant Secretary of Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.


We Can’t Let Outrage and Distrust Dominate Our National Discourse

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 CommonsAmerica, and Dappled Things.