Whenever my dad I found ourselves ligerning over a cup of coffee, and no one else was around, he used to cast his mind back to the rockiest parts of our relationship together. What he would typically reel in from the pond of our shared memory pool were those times when an adolescent son, and his middle-aged father were bringing out the worst in one another. One of those memories involved our late night rendezvouses when we would run the trotlines together.
A trotline is an often illegal form of fishing that involves a long strand-somewhat similar to Christmas lights-but instead of bulbs, there are sharp hooks dangling about six inches off of the mother line. These strands would hold anywhere from fifteen to thirty hooks. To bait them, and later harvest their catch, involved one person rowing (always a child), and another person baiting or removing fish (usually a dad) from the flat, back end of the boat.
On some nights our outings would result in shared laughter and celebration as we dumped our haul of catfish into the live box. On those nights I would walk back next to dad in my wet Converse high tops accompanied by the comforting smell of a Marlborough hanging from his lip.
On many other nights, however, dad would accompany me to our fishing hole after coming home having spent far too much time at his favorite watering hole. On those nights, his inner Captain Bly would surface, and he would become very particular about how his son maneuvered the rowboat. Failure to precisely execute his orders would result in name-calling, and insult laced tirades.
If left uninterrupted, there was a predictable pattern to how dad would tell his version of this story. Inevitably, he would share about the night that a neighbor overheard one of his late night riffs, and expressed concern over how he was treating his boys. This was the moment in the conversation when my dad unconsciously did a pretty good imitation of the father in Johnny Cash’s song, “A Boy Named Sue.” It went something like this, “Son, this world is tough, and if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be rough, and I knew I wouldn’t always be there to help you along…” The long and the short of it was that dad discerned he had to “balance off” my mother’s soft treatment of my brothers and me. By his reckoning, re-naming me with unrepeatable epithets was a well-thought out strategy put in place for my own good.
Now that I am (mostly) grown-up, and run a practice as a counselor and consultant, I regularly act as a guide for married couples who are fishing for a happier life together. I often observe troubled couples getting snagged up in a way very similar to my father’s conversations with me. Like my dad, they expend great amounts of energy telling, or retelling their version of a shared painful memory to make sure that their hidden positive intentions become clearer to their spouse. When their partner reacts negatively to their story, they interpret that as an invitation to re-tell the story yet again to re-emphasize their misunderstood positive intention. That boring old story sucks them into the same old familiar sink-hole.
On this Third Sunday of Advent (i.e. “Joy” or “Gaudete” Sunday), John the Baptist popped up again in the readings (John 1: 6-8;19-28). His presence in the Church’s pre-Christmas narrative week-after-week is meant to bring up an old fashioned idea. For we humans to taste the potential joy that is available to us, we have to submit to an on-gong process of repentance and conversion.
This week, I am suggesting a very particular way that you can create a smooth landing for a Christmas gift of more joy in your relationships. Consider the possibility of being freed from your exclusive, and perhaps narrow version of “the truth.” Somewhere in your past, did a well-meaning attempt to do one thing result in something less than joyful for someone else? Rather than re-explaining what was intended, can you simply and humbly say, “But I can see that, while I meant to do good, I have unintentionally caused you pain.” Then apologize.
In every close relationship, there are the facts, and there are at least two stories that are woven around those facts. My dad was a profoundly good man. Even though he said otherwise, I have always suspected that his compulsion to retell his version of “the facts” in these kinds of stories had something to do with some useless old guilt he was lugging around in his psychic tackle box. This Advent, can you let yourself and someone you love off the hook by simply letting go of your need to cast your mind back to that place that continually snags things up for you? Can you acknowledge the validity of someone else’s experience of “the facts” and drop your compulsion to have your understanding of things amplified? Through this kind of spiritual discipline you can create a space for a further sharing of Christmas joy in your relationship