Grace and Gratitude

Deb and I have a special procedure the very first moment of our entering out cabin “up north” as we say in Wisconsin: whoever is first in the cabin walks over to the light above a sign that simply reads “gratitude.”

Gratitude

 

We are grateful to have the cabin, grateful to come and to enjoy, grateful for the water, the fireplace, the Chinese checkers that we always play, and grateful for the front porch from which we watch boaters, swimmers, fishermen, and deer, the latter of which cross right in front of our cabin to the little cabin about 100 meters from our shore. These moments of gratitude are not limited to our times at the cabin. Sometimes, we simply sit outside, watch a sunset, talk about our work with people, read, or talk when one of us will say, “I don’t know what it is,” meaning that “I don’t know what it is that could make life better.” The other of us responds, “I can’t think of anything else.” Don’t get me wrong, we are very much people who don’t like things that happen, or don’t happen, and we get disappointed from time to time, and yet this feeling of gratitude seems to be an important hallmark of what we have. Some of what we have has come from other people, like people who taught us our trade. Some of what we have has come from things we worked hard to achieve, like our trade. And some of what we have has come seemingly straight from God, like our trade. But much more than our “trade” do we find the necessity that we feel gratitude.

I looked up the etymology of the word gratitude and found, not surprisingly, that it comes from the Latin word gratus, which means grace, namely (at least in this etymologist’s understanding) “the presence of God manifested in people through their virtues.” I’ll go with this definition.

I have heard the term “gratitude” coming from many sources over the recent years, a fact for which I am quite…grateful. I heard a personal trainer talking about good workout, good food, good living, and gratitude. So, I think that this whole business of appreciating what we have might just be nudging the narcissism out of the picture slowly but surely.

When we receive something, very often we don’t deserve it. Like love. I often tell my people, “You can’t really ask for love; you don’t deserve it; you can’t pay for it; and you certainly can’t demand it. However, you need it.” This is tough for a lot of people because they get lost in the “I don’t deserve it” or “I need it.” I think the whole package of these statements is important to take, not pieces. In fact, the receiving of something like love is often tough because it comes from someone’s act of grace.

Grace

I think it might actually be harder to receive than to give. Yes, we have heard platitudes like, “It is better to give than to receive,” and certainly this is true. But on the receiving side of someone’s grace, someone’s love, someone’s gift, we are often compelled to think that we deserve it, need to pay for it, or even reject it out of some kind of misplaced fear. My biblical understanding of this matter is that grace is “unmerited favor,” not unlike the definition of the Latin word gratus.

Deb and I are very grateful that we have the cabin and all else that we have. We also have the great privilege of giving the cabin to many people in our lives. It gives us great joy to hear from the many people who have used the cabin over the years that it is good for them, and in some circumstances their favorite place to go. We have a pontoon boat that Deb and I use maybe once a year out of an obligation to the boat, but most of the hours on the boat are used by our guests. We are grateful that we can grace friends and their families with the cabin and its six boats (two kayaks, rowboat, paddle boat, pontoon, and an inflatable canoe). It’s just fun to have people enjoy the cabin. We always hear of their appreciation, which is nice to hear, but more important is the fact that they have enjoyed this special place.

As wonderful as grace and gratitude are, there are counterfeits to both. A counterfeit is something that looks like the real thing but is not the real thing.

Counterfeits to gratitude

The primary counterfeit to gratitude is expecting that I deserve something. I don’t really think that we deserve anything, and that everything is in some way a gift by grace from someone of Someone. But more importantly, the expecting that someone should give me what I want speaks of early life deprivation, where I didn’t get the basic ingredients of life, or early life indulgence, where I got more than I needed by my demanding and my parents giving in to my demands. However my expecting came about, it is never helpful.

The other counterfeit to gratitude is saying or feeling “I don’t deserve it.” I would say, “Of course you don’t deserve it. This is grace, guy,” but I wouldn’t really say that; I’d just think it. The “I don’t deserve it” comes also from one of the two sources noted above: getting too little in early life or getting to much.” We all suffer from one or both of these maladies. It is much harder to simply admit that I don’t deserve it and then receive the “it,” whatever that might be, than to resist receiving someone’s grace. Furthermore, when I really receive something that I don’t deserve, especially when I really need it, it humbles me. Humility, by the way, can come from well-established self-esteem. But that’s another story.

Counterfeits to grace

There are three counterfeits to grace that I know of but the primary one is giving in. Giving in is not the same thing as giving. I give in when I do something or give something that I really don’t want to do or give because I am afraid of the consequences of not giving. The difference between giving, on the one hand, and giving in, is quite profound. Giving is grace, giving in is not. Giving is loving; giving in is not loving. When we give in to someone (or sometimes to something), we always expect something in return, which is the telltale mark that I have given in. I sometimes tell people, “You can give your money, fine; you can give your left arm, fine; you can give your life, fine; but if you give in, even a penny or a moment of your time, not fine. You are lying. Furthermore, you are looking gracious but you are not. You are actually selfish because you expect something in return.

Another counterfeit to grace is giving a little, usually giving with regret and resistance. In these circumstances you just want to get someone off your back, so you give as little as you can in order to avoid someone’s disapproval. When you give as little as you can give, both you and your recipient lose: you give more than you want, and h/she knows that you don’t want to give in the first place.

The third kind of counterfeit to grace is giving up. “OK, I’ll give you want you want” or “No way I’m going to give you a nickel.” Both of these are essentially harmful. Giving because you feel compelled to give is not good for you, and being angry at the person to whom you are giving is not good for you. And your “giving,” if we even call it that, is not good for the other person.

In sum: give all that you have but don’t give what you don’t have to give. This doesn’t mean that you never do what you don’t want to do or never give to someone who you don’t like. It is often good for us to give to someone who we don’t want to give to, and to do things that we don’t want to do. I just want you need to be honest in your giving.

The Essential Ingredients of a Good Relationship

I suspect you have some ideas of what a good relationship looks like. Certainly, you would identify love as a central ingredient, and perhaps things like honesty, commitment, trustworthiness, or family connections. You might think a good relationship should be composed of good communication, lots of play, or lots of work. I agree that a good and developing relationship needs to have all these things. It takes a lot of love, honesty, and all the rest to have a good relationship, and without these ingredients, no relationship can mature into something great. However valuable these very positive things are in a relationship, they often take a lot of work. It might not take “work” to fall in love, but it takes work to stay in love. Likewise, it is easier to be honest and open in the initial stages of a relationship, but it takes work to keep open and stay honest as the relationship grows. I think that a good relationship has a good mix of work, play, talk, and graciousness all in the context of being loving and honest.

Deb and I often say to couples that “they were married for the wrong reason: they loved each other.” We say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek not really believing that there is something wrong with loving your partner. What we mean by this “wrong reason” is more about the lack of what we believe is the right reason for marrying someone: understanding that person. Frankly, it is easier to love someone than to understand that person. Love comes from the heart and it is gift that we need to receive with gratitude because we can never earn someone’s love. If someone loves me, I didn’t deserve it, I didn’t earn it, I can’t pay for it…but I need it. So, I’m all about loving someone. The problem with loving someone is that “love is blind.” And so it should be. I don’t love someone because; I just love someone. We might justify our loving someone by saying all the things we like about that person, extolling that person’s virtue, intelligence, or kindness, but these are not the ingredients of love; they are the ingredients of liking. Love does not a good marriage make….or any relationship. Love is good? Yes. Valuable? Yes. Essential? Maybe not. I think you can love anyone if you understand that person because I believe that when I really understand someone, I understand his feelings, his nature, his passions, his loves, his losses, his hurts, and maybe his soul. But love is not enough. You need disinterest, disagreement, and dislike. At first glance these three things must seem “negative,” but however difficult they are, they are also essential in any maturing relationship. Let me explain.

Disinterest

Simply stated, two people cannot be interested in the same things. Granted, couples find each other through some common interest. They might meet in a bar with a penchant for having a few beers watching a football game or a glass good red wine after work; they might meet at a co-ed volleyball game, a biking event, a volunteer group, hiking the canyons of Utah, or in church. People that start a relationship on this common ground have a leg up on people who find each other physically attractive or good sexual partners, but may not actually have anything in common. Whether a relationship began with some common interests and/or sexual attraction, people soon discover that they are not interested in the same things. However obvious this fact is, it can be of profound importance in a developing relationship. For instance, Deb and I share a great deal of common interest in psychology, theology, traveling, reading, working on the house, and writing as well as many other elements of life. Each of us, however, has interests that the other doesn’t have, like Deb’s passion for nature and flowers that I don’t share, and my passion for basketball that she doesn’t share. I just don’t care much about flowers although I certainly enjoy seeing them from time to time. I just don’t have the deep appreciation of Mother Nature that she has. After knowing Deb for 42 years and knowing for most of these years that she is a person of the earth, it was always a stretch for me to appreciate her appreciation for nature. In our recent trip to the Netherlands in the height of the spring flower season, I had what seems to be my first glimpse into appreciation of flowers as we perused the Keukenhof gardens and the acres of tulips, hyacinth, and other spring flowers. It might not seem terribly important that Deb liked flowers and I didn’t care much, but this difference between us is actually quite profound because Deb’s sense of the world, the universe, and God is centrally related to nature. Consider how it has been for her to live with me, whom she loves and appreciates dearly, when I didn’t really give a hoot about the likes of tulips. In a similar fashion, Deb has little interest, and certainly no passion in playing basketball. She kindly asks me how my game went after Tuesday and Thursday morning games and Sunday night games, but she doesn’t really care about the game. She cares about me.

A good relationship needs to acknowledge the fact that we are not interested in the same things…nor should we. But if I say that I am bored when I hear Deb talking about flowers or she says she is bored when I talk about a pick and roll, we would unnecessarily hurt one another. It’s nice that I have some recent history with appreciating flowers, but I most certainly will never spend the hours she spends with them, nor am I capable of finding God in a new rose. A rose is, well, just a rose. Someone once said that, I believe.

This business of being passionate about some things but not others has to do with our value system. Deb values flowers, and I value basketball, but the value that each of us has in these matters runs quite deep and is quite passionate. Yet it is hard for couple to grant to one another these differences as well as the disinterest one partner has in the values and passions of the other partner. However difficult it is to admit to disinterest, it is even harder to admit to disappointment.

Disappointment

An unavoidable phenomenon and an essential ingredient in a good relationship is disappointment. Let me explain. Disinterest is difficult to accept in a relationship, but disappointment is much harder to accept. I am disappointed when my partner does something or says something to me that is hurtful and unexpected. We will unavoidably disappoint each other from time to time. I think it happens every day in every relationship. The difficulty is that most of us are not equipped to deal with disappointment. If I come into a relationship primarily because I love that person, it is likely that I have seen a good bit about the person that I like. And I probably have come to understand a lot about this person that I have come to love. It is also likely, however, that I do not understand enough of the person to know that he or she is like me in some ways and different from me in some ways. We might say that “after the honeymoon phase” of a developing relationship there come times of disappointment. I begin to see that my partner and I are different, perhaps substantially different. This can come as a shock to someone who is madly in love with his/her partner because of the “love is blind” thing that often operates at the beginning of a relationship. So, how do I get disappointed?

I get disappointed when my partner doesn’t live up to my expectations. I may not have even known that I had expectations, but when I am disappointed, my partner has not lived up to my expectations. Very often these expectations-come-disappointment are surprising and even shocking because I didn’t previously see my partner in all situations of life. If we come to live together not having ever lived with him/her, I might be surprised and disappointed that he always throws his underwear on the floor when undressing for bed. Or it might be something that is not so offensive, like using a knife and fork in a way that does not fit with your kind of manners. There are many others, of course, some minor, some egregious. And they all lead to disappointment. There are also some disappointments that are those that erupt out of a misunderstanding what a relationship is. In summary, some of our disappointments are minor, some major, some unforeseen, some obvious, and many self-created. Sometimes, however, the feeling I have about my partner goes beyond minor disinterest and minor disappointment: I actually dislike my partner is some way. Wow.

Dislike

You might be able to find ways to be disinterested in what your partner likes, or even disappointment when she doesn’t do what you would like her to do, but it a larger step to admit that you actually dislike something about her, like the ways she speaks or acts. Unfortunately, dislike is also an essential ingredient of a good relationship. I often say it this way: “When you first admit that you don’t like something about your partner, the dislike seems huge, but over time the dislike tends to diminish if never really disappearing.” I might name something that I dislike about Deb, and she certainly dislikes things about me, but I will use some discretion in being specific except to admit that there are things about each other that we simply dislike. Some of these things might be old habits that are not so good, but some of these things are simply unavoidable and even necessary. Consider your children.

Who “likes” waking up for the third time in the middle of the night with a hungry screaming infant? No one that I know. You could say that you “dislike the action but not the person,” but I think these are just nice ways of saying you don’t like the person…at least at the moment. I don’t think there is a real distinction between dislike the infant’s crying from disliking the infant…at the moment. Furthermore, I think there is nothing wrong with that feeling. It passes. Disliking something about your partner, however, is much more difficult, and it can lead to disliking the partner himself. The way to avoid coming to that dreadful point in a relationship is to admit that you don’t like something about him. You might not like the way he eats, sleeps, or talks. You might not like the way he walks or sings. You might not like the fact that he works a lot or doesn’t like to work at all. All of these things are behaviors or mannerisms of someone you might dearly love but not actually like all the time.

What do we do with feeling dislike, disappointment, and dislike?

We feel these feelings. We admit to them. We see these as honest feelings. And most importantly, we understand that when I am disinterested, disappointed, or disliking, I feel sad. Why do I feel sad? I feel sad because I have lost something, which is what sadness is always about. You have lost interest when someone is talking about something you really don’t care about. You have lost the hope that your partner forgot your anniversary or came late to dinner. You lost the feeling that you love “everything about” your partner when you discover that she isn’t perfectly like you, and as a result, you just don’t like something about her.

It is very hard to let the feelings of disinterest, disappointment, and dislike be there along with the accompanying sadness that always accompanies these feelings. We Americans are not particularly good at simply being disappointed or sad, and we are certainly not good at being wrong, even if the definition of “wrong” is in our own eyes. So, the first and central ingredient of being disappointed is to own up to it, to call it “disappointment,” and to allow the sadness come along with it. Deb and I have written (The Positive Power of Sadness) about how sadness ends. To have sadness end, one must feel it, feel it, and finally finish it. This “feeling it” is difficult, and no one wants to feel sad, much less disappointed, but it is the only way to finish feeling sad. And it is the only way to finish the disappointment, as well as the easier feeling of disinterest and the harder feeling of dislike, that often cause sadness. Too often, people try to fix something in the relationship before they have admitted to feelings of dislike, disappointment, and dislike.

After recognizing and admitting to feeling dislike, disappointment, and dislike, and hopefully finished the sadness that resulted from these feeling, you need to think clearly. Importantly, you cannot think clearly if you are still sad, much less angry or afraid. If you try to think when you have these emotions, you thinking will not be clear-headed because it will be infused with some kind of residual emotion, usually anger at the top and sadness underneath. However, this “finishing” of sadness is very difficult. By the way, finishing sadness doesn’t mean that disinterest, disappointment, and dislike go magically away; they don’t. These feelings never “go away;” they diminish. Small disappointments diminish over time, and even huge dislikes can diminish over time, but they never go away. If you’re one who uses your knife and fork in what we might call a “European style” with knife in right hand and fork in the left hand, but your partner never moves from the American way of knife and fork, you will never be pleased with his handling of utensils; you just won’t be very disappointed very much, and you won’t be sad anymore because you will have come to accept your differences.

What about change?

You might think something like, “Well, what about someone maturing, growing up, or simply changing” what he or she does? Shouldn’t we all mature? Yes, we need to mature, grow up, and get better. Some of our maturing can come at the hands of our partner’s feelings of disappointment or dislike, but ultimately, any kind of maturing or change has to come from the individual because the individual finds it valuable to change in some way. You can never change your partner and you should never try. You can carefully express your feelings of disappointment or dislike kindly, and then see if your feelings change or, over time, you partner’s behavior changes.

I know of a man who gave up a vibrant part of his recreational life to please his wife who simply said that he shouldn’t be involved in those activities anymore. She said that if he really loved her, he would give up his sports. He did. He never recovered from the loss. She got what she wanted but lost what she needed: the person she married. Now he was doing what she wanted, not what he wanted. There are other examples of expectations that come along with a newly established relationship. I am reminded of one of my favorite cartoons, Kathy. After a couple of shots with Kathy being disappointed in Irving, her boyfriend, she said, “You’re not the person I was pretending you to be.” Many people do a lot of pretending. There was a book written some time ago entitled, “I Love You the Way You are; Now Change.”

My encouragement for you is to know how your feel as I have written so many times in the Feelings Blogs. Knowing the feelings of disinterest, disappointment, and dislike starts you on the road to loving better, and even liking better.

 

 

Feelings X: Let Me Tell You About My Feelings

Remember Far Side cartoons created by Gary Larsen? They were often with animals having some sense of human feelings, often a deeper sense than many humans actually have. Or, Larsen would have a group of people allegedly thinking or doing something that was an exaggeration of some human tendency. I miss Far Side. The cartoons made me laugh at myself and humanity without derision. I remember one in particular that has to do with legs.

The “leg cartoon” as Deb and I refer to it has led to our rather frequent expression of “legging” and “leg people.” The cartoon is one picture of several folks in a bar setting. Everyone in the bar has evidently been in some kind of accident and has had some kind of amputation. Hence, all these people have some kind of peg replacing their lost appendage. There are several people with peg legs, of course, which is what we normally think with some kind of amputation. There are also people with peg arms, peg hands, peg feet, peg ears, and the like. There is also someone with a peg head. This is a barroom scene, so people are evidently talking about the accidents or illnesses that caused them to lose part of their bodies. Seems reasonable.

There is only one caption at the bottom of the cartoon, evidently a statement being spoken by one guy at the bar to another guy at the bar. The inference made from the caption is that the guy with the peg head has just explained how his head had come to be amputated and replaced with a peg head. The guy speaking has a peg leg; the guy listening in the one person in the bar who has a peg head. The caption reads, “That’s nothing. Let me tell you about my leg!” Get it? The guy with the missing leg thinks that his loss of his leg is more significant than the guy who has lost his head!

Do you know “leg people,” i.e. people who always want to tell you about their “legs,” i.e. what is going on with them, what they think, what they feel, or what they did? I know many such people, some very particularly. Perhaps more importantly, I notice that I have “legs” that often seem more important than the peg legs or even the “peg heads” that the other person is talking about. In such circumstances, I want to tell my story. I want to have air time. I want someone to hear my feelings. But in that moment I have run over my friend’s leg story, arm story, or head story. It is a challenge to listen while I have my own legs while hearing my friend’s legs.

Listening

Deb and I have been working furiously on our most recent book project, tentatively entitled Let Me Tell You How I Feel. If you have read some of our blogs over the past year you will notice that we have written quite a bit about “feelings.” I suggest you review these, particularly the one on hearing feelings. In brief review “feelings” would be a central ingredient of a person, closely aligned, or perhaps a representation of one’s “inner self.” We think (abstractly) of a human being as composed of concentric circles: God or godlike at the core; then “core self” (some people talk about inner self, spirit, or soul); then the next concentric circle is the gifts and abilities we have, some natural, some learned, some enhanced; this third circle is followed by an expression of these gifts, often in words but with an orientation that is physical, emotional, productive, or cognitive. Our focus in the book is to help people express themselves (this would be the third concentric circle) and take the consequences of this expression.

First of all, note that all these terms are abstract and representational. Furthermore, none of these terms is definable. We note that all the really basic elements of the universe, like time, distance, and mass, are undefinable. Velocity is defined: distance over time, and weight is defined: mass times gravity, but time, distance, and mass are not defined. Likewise, many elements of the human experience are not defined, like love, mind, and even life. We put “feelings” in this category of undefined elements of life. We understand time, life, love, and feelings by observation and effect. What is the effect of time, love, etc.? How do we experience such things? This is how we come to understand feelings: observation and experience. Then we do the hard job of communicating this undefined important matter.

The communication of “feelings” is fraught with danger, not the least of which is the danger of thinking that I can communicate feelings precisely. I cannot. But that does not mean I shouldn’t make an honest attempt to communicate my feelings. I just have to keep in mind that I am not an ET of the 1980’s movie who could just “beam” his feelings to someone else. We are not ETs. We have to use words. Or perhaps other means of communicating like play, work, art, music, or dance. But most of us use words, which is implicitly challenging.

Challenging as it is to express and ultimately communicate feelings, it is much harder to hear them. Hearing someone express feelings causes a host of challenges for the listener, not the least of which is his/her own feelings. (By the way, we make an important distinction between feelings and emotion understanding that emotion is but a subset of feelings, but this is not the time to discuss that important matter.) The important factor in our present discussion is to note that when someone expresses feelings, the person listening will have feelings. If the listener is working to understand the speaker, he must know his own feelings, value these feelings, and keep his feelings to himself. Otherwise, he will be talking about his legs. Nothing wrong with legs, but they intrude on the listening process. This containing one’s feelings while listening is no easy project because everyone has legs.

What I have come to do is simply listen to the “legs” of the person talking to me, and do my best to understand my friend’s story. The more difficult task is when I am speaking about my story and my story is interrupted with the other person’s legs. Painful as it is for me to stop telling my story, I am often required to do so. I like to think that this is an act of grace on my part, but I sometimes render this grace with less than true graciousness, and maybe a bit of resentment. I have come to believe, however, that the person with the legs needs to tell me about her legs, and let it be. Thank goodness I’m a therapist.

Further Reading

Previous blogs on feelings

Forthcoming book on Feelings, probably available in a few months in manuscript form