Think of of someone who has learnt to fly a plane but only flies it a hundred feet above the ground on a dry salt lake bed. They are flying (technically) but not really flying. Extrapolating this to human relationships, we are doing the same kind of thing when we allow a self-protective efficiency to be the driving factor in our relationships. In our determination to never waste time and to be safe, we will rarely know the experience of being criticized or laughed at—although it will most certainly be happening behind our back—but we will also miss out on the richer and deeper joys of human relationship. Many supposedly ‘honest’, practical, work-minded souls who raise a family or go into human services work or spiritual work get stuck in this rut.
There comes a point where they are more or less saying to themselves, ‘The paddock’s ploughed, the oats have been sown—the job’s done; the house has been built, the grass is planted, electricity connected—the job’s done! I married a good wife, sent the kids to a good school, kept them healthy—the job’s done! I completed the lecture, they all passed the test—the job’s done. I gave him a tutorial, checked his bible reading and prayers—the job’s done!’ And so it is, if that’s the job.
But our ‘honest’ soul need to understand that to stop growing and learning when you are twenty is a tragedy, for they are on a life-long learning journey and ought to be pursuing as much help and advice as they can as often as they can. They once had plenty of questions about everything, including themselves. They need to re-discover the glory and joy of questions and doubt. Questions like this one: ‘What has it been like having me as your father?’ ‘…as your teacher?’ ‘ … as your husband?’
The fact is that we are all having an ‘effect’ on those close to us and if we find that they are looking cold and empty, we ourselves may well be a major causative factor. Imagine seeing a friend approaching you in a crowd but when they reach you, instead of greeting you, they walk straight past you without saying anything. A meal time, an outing to the movies, a teaching session or a bible study can be just like that. How devastating!
And it’s not that nothing is said during the meal, the movie, the teaching session or the bible study; it’s that we’re standing behind barriers and ‘talking’ non-verbally to each other through them. The effect being that we never really ‘see’ each other’s faces because we are so preoccupied with protecting ourselves from being manipulated, dominated or used. The result being that without even thinking about what we are doing, a non-verbal agenda is set for our conversations and relationships i.e.everyone is busily making sure they are not tricked, out-maneuvered, used or manipulated. No wonder we rushed through that meal-time, or hurried home from that movie or walked away from that teaching session feeling empty. And no wonder we are unable to speak. How can you even begin to criticise one who is doing such ‘great favours’ for you, for your organisation and even for God?
The fact is that you cannot love efficiently. You cannot love someone and be checking your ‘how cool am I looking?’ mirror at the same time. St. Columba’s life proverb—amor non tenet ordinem—sums it up: ‘love knows nothing of order’. And if that still isn’t clear, listen to another Irishman, ‘There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.’1
Obviously there is only one solution: if you want to really live while you are alive on this planet, live dangerously, forget about protecting yourself. The people jeered at Jesus on the cross: ‘He would save others but he cannot save himself!’ And that is just the point, if we would save each other we cannot save ourselves. If we want to truly see our student’s … our son’s … our wife’s ‘face’, or perhaps even the ‘face’ of God, then we must throw down our barriers, leave our weapons behind, and come right out into the open where we can easily be ‘shot dead’ while the other stays behind their own barrier.
As the woman said of the gods in Till We Have Faces2, ‘How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?’ This is probably the reason why an honest rebuke delivered in love or a sincere apology, is often the beginning of a deeper relationship. Lewis has one of his characters in The Great Divorce put it this way, ‘The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: That till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: That theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven3.’