The Membership of the Living: the common anxieties

Before I set aside my phone for the night yesterday, a friend and I were texting. We're two friends who try to be faithful in the life God has given to each of us, in the season in which we find ourselves, to the church to which we've been covenanted, to the people we love and who love us. Anyone looking in from the outside would probably say the same about each of us. They might see a few places we could be righted or nudged forward in, more restrained about and more disciplined in, but I think, overall, most folks would view us as two well-adjusted, acquainted with sorrow, faith-filled women trying to live within the goodness of the gospel day to day. 

Yet most of our conversations are not full of accolades about ourselves or pats on the other's back or lists of how well we're each doing. Mostly they're full of confession of brokenness, fears, anxieties, discomforts. They're usually brimming with the asking of precise questions and then really listening to the answers, rarely giving counsel to one another (although she is by profession one and I am not without plenty to give), but mostly just listening. 

Last night I vaguely confessed some anxiety and she asked me to name my top three and, dear readers, I'm going to share them with you here without regret.

My first is that I will never be a good enough wife (although my husband has never and would never say that to me); my second is that my body will always betray me, no matter how healthily I eat, how faithfully I exercise, and how tenderly I treat it; and my third is that I have peaked in life, ministry, faithfulness, writing, and it's all downhill from here. These are the anxieties that arrest my soul. And then my friend shared hers. They weren't the same as mine, but they were nearly the same; the first having to do with love and marriage, and the want of it, the second having to do with the frailty of the body, and the third having to do with living in light of eternity. 

It occurred to me that most of us, if we're honest, probably struggle with these three main anxieties: the anxiety of being loved, the anxiety of being alive, and the anxiety of being faithful. Fill in the blank of your anxieties and my guess is they will fall somewhere in there somehow. We humans are more alike than we like to pretend in our individualistic world. 

I have been thinking a lot about listening recently. How good and right it is to listen well and how awfully bad we are at it. Most of us are thinking of the next thing to say before the other has said anything at all. Many of us only ask questions to ascertain information for ourselves or to turn a conversation in the direction we want it to go. Some treat conversation as an opportunity to interrupt or monologue or catch the other in a moment of poor logic, frailty, fear, or false theology. 

Recently my husband and I were listening to a friend talk about a hard thing that happened in her life and I wanted to interject counsel or a good idea or to give quick comfort, and my husband only said, "I'm sorry this happened. It must have been hard." And then he was quiet, listening longer, letting our friend speak freely, without caveat, without question, without interruption. I thought to myself, I want to be more like this. Rarely do we stop to consider how alike most of us all are, deeply wanting to be loved (or even liked), deeply desiring the full experience of being alive, and deeply wanting to be found faithful. And how most of us just want the comfort of another person acknowledging the pain of life on this orb, and then simply saying, "I'm sorry. I think I get it a little, but not all the way, but I want to sit here with you in it." 

I just finished rereading Wendell Berry's essay Health is Membership from The Art of the Commonplace again yesterday. It's one of my favorites and it ends with this short illustration from when Berry's brother was in the hospital undergoing a triple-bypass operation. The whole essay is wonderful and should be read by anyone who is alive, but I wanted to share the last few paragraphs with you today: 

The most moving, to me, happened in the waiting room during John's surgery. From time to time a nurse from the operating room would come in to tell Carol what was happening. Carol, from politeness or bravery or both, always stood to receive the news, which always left us somewhat encouraged and somewhat doubtful. Carol's difficulty was that she had to suffer the ordeal not only as a wife but as one who had been a trained nurse. She knew, from her own education and experience, in how limited a sense open-heart surgery could be said to be normal or - routine.

Finally, toward the end of our wait, two nurses came in. The operation, they said, had been a success. They explained again what had been done. And then they said that after the completion of the bypasses, the surgeon had found it necessary to insert a "balloon pump" into the aorta to assist the heart. This possibility had never been mentioned, nobody was prepared for it, and Carol was sorely disappointed and upset. The two young women attempted to reassure her, mainly by repeating things they had already said. And then there was a long moment when they just looked at her. It was such a look as parents sometimes give to a sick or suffering child, when they themselves have begun to need the comfort they are trying to give.

And then one of the nurses said, "Do you need a hug?"
"Yes," Carol said.
And the nurse gave her a hug.
Which brings us to a starting place.

Listening can be a hug. Asking questions can be too. Confession can be. And mirroring confessions can be too. Conversation is an art. It is a commonplace one, but no less worth the attentiveness of a master artist and maybe worth it more than all the canvases of the world hanging in all the museums of the world. 

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Marriage is as One Long Conversation

The old philosopher said, "Marriage is as one long conversation. When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time you're together will be devoted to conversation.” The old philosopher was right, but as with all bits of rightness, it ought to be understood in its place. 

I have always known marriage was not an easy conversation. I am of Scotch-Irish descent; men in my family love their beer and asserting opinions, and as for the women, there's a demure outside but on the inside it's all fire and spit. Most conversations were spent seeing who could talk the loudest the longest without throwing the first punch—even if the punch was merely metaphorical.

When I began to grow outside the incubator of family alone, I saw the long conversation of marriage through a different lens. These marriages were built on the scaffolding of details: who is supposed to be where and when and how, who needs to be picked up, what's for dinner, what should we do about this child or that one. There was an ordinariness to the conversations of marriage, unaccompanied by emotive, defensive jabs at the other. It seemed simplistic. I know now it's because I was not in the middle of those marriages as I was in the middle of the marriages in my family, and when we are in the middle of something all our own, we see all its inconsistencies and broken-places.

As I stepped into adulthood and was able to see my skewed perspective of childhood and adolescence both, I began to see marriage was a long conversation, but the tone of voice could change it from a pleasant one to a violent one. Armed with this newfound knowledge of tone, intention, nuance, and even love, I began to assume all the long conversations of marriage could be blissful. A constant sharing of ideas and delights and hurts and confusions, a true partnership. Whenever I thought of being married it was the long conversation I looked forward to most. 

Marriage has been that for me and Nate. The cusp of our friendship was on deep conversation, leading to dates full of long, easy talks, quiet pauses, intentional listening, and slow responses. This was the long conversation of marriage I wanted, I could see that clearly from our first date. 

The long conversations become subject to the tyranny of the urgent, though, as most things can. A few weeks ago there were twelve decisions that needed to be made and seven of them required quick conversations but the other five required depth, time, focus, and charity. We were short on all of that, though, and so if the conversations were going to be had, they were going to be had on the surface, quickly, while we multi-tasked, and were short with one another. As with most conversations built on bedrocks like that, we needed to repent later to one another. 

The urgent doesn't let up, though, does it? There is always someone who needs an answer or thinks they need an answer, or wants one. There is always something that must be signed up for or paid or responded to or agreed upon. There is always something left unfinished, unsaid, unsealed. I have learned to say to others, "I want to talk to Nate about that first," but the when of talking sometimes comes slowly or is mingled among the other conversations, never finished.

Nate and I practice (and by practice, I mean we are very unproficient at this and must practice) the discipline of saying "No," to ourselves, our minds, our friends, and the tyranny of the urgent. If, in saying no, we find ourselves disappointed or others disappointed by our lack of a quick answer—this is the discipline of the practice. This is the sacrifice, the hurt, the pain. This is where we admit to ourselves and to others that we are not God, as much as we sometimes think we would like to be. 

I think about Jesus in John 16. He says to his disciples and friends, "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you." I think about how often we fill conversation simply because we do not want to feel the lack of the incarnate Christ and we do not want to wait for the Holy Spirit to do what only he can do. We are uncomfortable with the long silences, afraid the Spirit will not do what He does: move. 

Yesterday morning, in the early hours of our day of rest, Nate mentioned some conversations we've left unfinished this week, answers others expect. And then he said this: I want to pray about these things, ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom, humility, and a direction, even more than we simply talk about them. And then, for the rest of the day, we didn't talk about things we could not solve on that day. We left space for the Spirit to enter in, give peace or withhold it. 

Marriage is one long conversation, but it is not, primarily, a conversation between two, but three. If we find the conversation to be focused on just two, it may go the brawling way of my family, or it may go the stoic way of my checklisting friends. But, I think, if we move ourselves away from one another for a moment, stop talking and begin listening, not primarily to one another but to the Holy Spirit, we may find that conversation more robust, full, and gentle than we could have imagined before. We may leave more things unfinished, more things unsaid, more events unattended, and more lists unchecked, but I do not think we will leave less full. 

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If you're married today, what might it look like to still the conversation—even about the rudimentary things or the things that seem pressing and necessary—and begin to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in this longest conversation of your life? 

If you're not married today, what might it look like to trust the Spirit is still at work in all the seeming silences of your life? In the lonely places where you long for conversation, how can you exercise listening to the Helper, learning from him, and obeying him as he perhaps prepares you for the long conversation of earthly marriage and definitely prepares you for the long conversation of eternity?