So yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions of shame and ego, individualism vs. collectivism, love and hate, sensitivity and insensitivity, strength and limits. (You know, small insubstantial issues :)). These issues impact every sphere of life at every level—and they lie at the heart of so much humanity, including questions of spirituality. In this week’s article I tackle a few aspects of these problems by talking about the challenges, dissonances, and paradoxes of emotional labor, task labor, and love. I believe these issues lie at the heart of so much of the issues behind human conflict—and to address them, the rest of this article will discuss some quotes from the recent Evolving Faith conference in light of material from communication theorist John Durham Peters as well as other thinkers and researchers.
NOTE: This is a long article. Thanks for bearing with me!
The Evolving Faith Quotes that Kicked Off This Article
Let me start with something that Osheta Moore said that really stuck with me in a generative and challenging way during one of the Q&As at the recent Evolving Faith conference. The way I heard it to write it down was as follows: “We have this idea that love is about intimacy with someone. That’s not love. That’s peacekeeping.”
Later on in the conference, Audrey Assad’s talk added another wrinkle to this idea as, during a talk about the challenges of shame and damage to her selfhood that came with her experience of spiritual abuse as a woman, she quoted Thomas Merton: “We find ourselves and we find God.”
Just after that, A’Driane Nieves challenged these notions by saying (toward the white people in the room specifically) “Y’all aren’t frail. The only thing frail about you is your ego. So break that down.”
In Which My Brain Explodes in Cognitive Dissonance
I’m going to be honest here. At the conference, my brain’s cognitive dissonance exploded in light of these particular ideas about selfhood and boundaries. And this week I want to give you a little glimpse of my larger thoughts on these issues in light of these quotes, but also some help from stress, trauma, and intimate relationship research as well as some wisdom from a communication theorist/historian I was introduced to in grad school: John Durham Peters.
See, there’s so much intersection between these ideas from these three fabulous speakers from Evolving Faith.
But there’s also an intense and deep down challenging dissonance in me when I hear them.
Reclaiming the Fullness of Paradox
I believe that’s because they offer us an inner challenge to—and paradox regarding—how we usually think of identity as well as how we usually resolve conflicts.
Our brains and bodies often try super hard to resolve that paradox into stark shades—especially when we feel overwhelmed or attacked. And in some circumstances situations really are quite starkly dichotomous. But in many situations, even some extreme ones, the paradox is not so easily resolved.
That paradox helps me think through the much-maligned and abused but important concepts of True Civility (which I’ve discussed before) and love (which I’m finally taking on in the present article).
So Let’s Talk about Love
See, the thing is that the word love gets thrown around a lot, especially in faith circles. And that happens for good reason. It’s an important concept in a wide variety of spiritualities, and therefore ought to be open for dialogue and debate. After all, as I mentioned early on in the articles that appeared here, the whole central command in most religions boils down to some version of the Golden Rule.
Love and Communication
Here’s the thing: we cannot understand love except through verbal and non-verbal communication. And that means we really can only understand it embodied in language and words and silence, flesh and voice boxes and images so on. That means that communication theory and communication history, as well as neurobiological and social scientific research, are quite useful in looking at some of the complexities of dealing with this multi-faceted word.
Does Love Require Intimacy?
It’s funny—I’ve studied a lot about communication and intimacy. And yet it still caught me off-guard when Osheta made that comment about love not requiring intimacy.
There’s good reason for me being caught off-guard: after all, what I know of neurobiological and social scientific research tells me that we are literally wired to need others’ support. It’s completely natural and essential to our healthy survival for us to need intimate attachment to others. We all need this. We do better when we have it from at least some people.
As a result, it’s not quite as easy as Moore says to switch our bodies to believe that love does not equal communication and intimacy.
Wait, Though: Not All Intimacy Is Love
That does not mean, however, that all relationships ought to have all intimacy—that’s not healthy either. And not all intimacy is healthy—which means that, if as Romans 13:10 puts it that “love does no harm to its neighbor,” then not all intimacy necessarily contains love.
Toxicity and The Four Horsemen (of Divorce)
John Gottman points this out in his research about what communication behaviors in marriage led to divorce. He called these four signs the “Four Horseman.” (As a pastor’s kid who thinks Revelation is a super weird book, I really really love his use of this metaphor, as it brings a concept of this strange book down to earth for me.)
These unhealthy “signs of (relational) apocalypse” Gottman describes—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—are things that are difficult to deal with, and people often have rightful disagreements about what each of these things means. As a result, it’s key to pay attention to more the specific definitions of the terms—check out this article at the Gottman Institute site for a fuller picture.
I love this list because it shows that some forms of both attachment (e.g., familiarity breeds contempt) and detachment (e.g., stonewalling, or shutting down all communication and refusing to come back) can harm intimate relationships, when done in the wrong way.
Knowing the Signs of the Toxic Doesn’t Make It Easy to Avoid Them
The challenge, many times, though, is that all of these things are also standard signs of natural stress responses. It can take a lot to pull ourselves out of those visceral responses and into something different. It’s not easy.
Also, Not All Relationships, Shockingly Enough, Are Marriage
While I believe Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” are super useful to point out toxic behaviors generally, it’s also important to note that not all relationships need to be marriage. (If you think that through, it’s easy to point out the lie to this particular way of thinking.)
And since we don’t believe as a society—even the most ardent “family values” folk among us—that loving behavior need be constrained to only the most seemingly intimate relational contexts, then surely love can, and must, exist in the world without the closest intimacy.
Creating Healthy Boundaries Does Not Equal Stonewalling
I also want to say that if you are in a situation, whether or not it’s in a marriage context, that’s not healthy because it exhibits the “Four Horsemen” and the other person isn’t responding well to your overtures to repair the relationship, it’s definitely not stonewalling to remove yourself from the relationship.
That can often be the best, most loving response for both people in a given situation.
And this is what people talk about when they talk about creating healthy boundaries. Which is what Moore emphasizes in the above statements. People—especially those that literally harm your health, whether they mean to or not, don’t owe you an intimate relationship in order to approach you with love.
But that doesn’t stop someone who has been traumatized by genuine stonewalling in the past to experience it that way, unfortunately.
The Challenges of Avoiding Falling into (Toxic) Criticism
And that’s the tricky thing—from the outside, and sometimes, because none of us has perfect judgment, even from the inside—it’s impossible to say whether someone asking you to change is tearing down “a frail ego,” as A’Driane Nieves would have it, or tearing down the image of God in someone, as Audrey Assad’s Merton quote implies.
That’s why I believe it’s so hard to tell the difference between helpful disagreement and criticism in the toxic Gottman sense—or, as Brene Brown puts it in her book Daring Greatly, the difference between productive guilt messages and unhelpful shame messages.
What We Should Do
As I said, in extreme situations–and in close relationships–it’s often possible to distinguish active intentional hate and willful unintentional patterns of behavior that are extremely unloving from those that may be unintentionally hurtful but from people that are genuinely trying their best and willing to be influenced.
I think the first two categories of behavior need strong responses. But the latter category gets trickier. And in all cases, we need to be carefully examining our motives and calling others to do the same as much as possible.
The thing is that we also need to understand that some are already overly good at examining their motives and empathizing with others. Some, especially those who are recovering from a lot of shame conditions, may need more support in their motives being good than others. (And our ability to support them may itself may naturally and reasonably have limits, no matter how much we love them.)
Embracing the Paradox of Boundedness
Something John Durham Peters says at the very end of Speaking into the Air helps me understand how our expectations for love tie into the challenges of our human boundedness.
Here’s the specific quote from Peters (p. 271): “The profoundest ethical teachings command love for all people indifferently, and yet time allows genuine intimacy and care for only a few of the planet’s inhabitants…The paradox of love is its concrete boundedness and the universality of its demands. Because we can share our mortal time and touch only with some and not all, presence becomes the closest thing there is to a guarantee of a bridge across the chasm. In this we directly face the holiness and wretchedness of our finitude.”
The Holiness and Wretchedness of Our Finitude
This statement of the problem—about the balance between concrete boundedness combined with the expectations to love everyone—gets to the dissonance and grief I encountered when I heard the 2nd and 3rd quotes captured above from talks at the Evolving Faith conference, from Thomas Merton via Audrey Assad and A’Driane Nieves, side by side.
Coping with the Emotional Labor of that Paradox
Here’s the thing: often we feel the burden of the world’s pain. (And especially for those of us who are highly sensitive, highly intuitive-feeling people on the Myers-Briggs, we often feel the weight of the need to attach not just to other people, but to all of the world’s pain. That’s a real deal.)
And even those who don’t share that subject position often feel fear of others’ displaced emotion, and seek to play hot potato with it. Some are so wounded from pain—theirs and/or others—that they can’t feel pain at all.
That last situation can be quite scary to those around the person, by the way—both for that person’s wellbeing and for those around that person. Because they don’t stop having stress reactions. But rarely can they see when they hurt themselves or others.
Engaging in the Messy and Challenging Struggles
All of these reactions are so completely normal in light of these huge commands, especially when we as humans naturally experience them as commands to offer intimacy to everyone, or calls to demand intimacy from everyone.
In many parts of our cultures and co-cultures in the US, it’s not considered cool to make that all emotional, though, and so we create calls for people to please enact tasks for the good of everyone. We ask others to help us with endeavors we’ve started. We look for support for tasks.
And—here’s a bit of where many if not most of the conflicts come in—we tend to interpret others’ limitations surrounding both intimacy and limited resources to meet our needs as a lack of love.
To Crib T.S. Eliot, “For Us, There Is Only The Trying”
See, as with the first paradox between intimacy and separation in love and communication alike, these dissonances about how to love everyone vs. facing our own limitations can hit us in either productive or unproductive ways. And as trauma researchers show, there’s no way to control how this challenge hits either ourselves or another person fully.
That is Brene Brown’s brilliant insight in her work on shame, and trauma researchers’ brilliant insights into the problems of stress and trauma. None of us has full control over how we apply those dissonances to our own physiologies and brains.
It’s simply not easy for any of us to react well because of that.
Embracing the Paradoxes of Love and Limits
And the thing is, all of it can be true at once.
We need to call out the worst offenders and remove them from positions in which they can hurt others.
We all need common ground with others, and to connect with others. We can’t exist on our own.
It’s so important that we have mercy on others, and on ourselves, that we have those needs. And that we also all have a need to set limits to how much we engage, and how much we give, and how much we receive.
It’s also true that we need each other so much to do what we can for the common good.
And it’s also true that we all have limits on our own efficacy and abilities. Those limits are born in our physiology, and in our minds, and in our wounds, and in our strengths.
We need to do what we can. And we can only do what we can. We work so hard to try to influence others and ourselves, and that’s good and rightful struggle. Sometimes it’s a struggle with limitation. And sometimes it’s a struggle with strength.
Connecting Over Both Efforts and Shared Boundedness
In all of this, we wrestle with big questions such as these. In wrestling with these things we ought to feel profoundly human and connected to others. Because while we come down differently on what is negatively considered “frail ego” and what is rightful discovery of our birthright strengths, what is rightfully offered and what is rightfully held back, for good or for ill, we are all sharing the same intensely human struggles even though we feel and think about them differently.
These shared struggles are what make us real humans of flesh and blood. Sharing in these struggles, in the best way, creates a common ground to meet on, even though we may be, and stay, strangers. Whether we can feel effective in meeting that universal command or not.
Addressing Post-Election Fatigue
Just to speak to a recent situation many of us have shared, this past week’s midterm election tension in the US has been weighty for all in part because of these struggles and our desires to get as many people as possible to love universally as possibly.
By that, many of us mean different things. For me, it’s come down to specific set of issues: don’t displace your fears about not having your desired variety of human intimacy, and your own needs being met, onto large groups of vulnerable humans more than you need to.
It’s not an easy ask. It requires group effort to get to that spot in difficult times. (And that’s a vulnerable position, relying on others!)
And—guess what—in the lead up to this election, we weren’t perfect at achieving it, collectively.
None of This is Easy
I was expecting that—the lines are really entrenched, and we’ve all been pretty stressed these days. And there are a lot of people who are so insistent on the limits of their love, on their demand for intimacy from others on one hand or their refuge in detachment on the other, that they refuse to love outside their group at all.
It’s the easiest thing, when defending your group, to fail in showing love to others. And if you’re used to that, it’s easy to take people’s well-meaning healthy boundaries, natural limitations, or needs for growth alike as stonewalling or some other symptom of a lack of love for wounded groups.
Regardless of what happened in this US Election (or any election), no matter what happens in all of our connections and disconnections and whatever happens between all of our intrapersonal and relational and group and national conflicts, no matter much reciprocity or solidarity or mutuality we are able to offer others or they us, and how many wounds we have to contend with from both healthy and unhealthy parts of the struggle, let us grieve that fact.
Let Us Support One Another As We Move Forward
Let us all have space to grieve the unhealthy ways in which we all resolve these needs at times.
And let us specifically grieve the ways in which people choose to actively hurt others and ourselves, especially through national rhetoric and policies. May we all realize when we intentionally participate in such hurts, and when we do, may we turn toward healthier actions for the common good.
Let those who can hear, let them hear. And may we all have the grace to make the best decisions we can in the midst of all this conflict about who we ought to be to and with each other.
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality!