Article for November 6, 2011

A colleague of mine once made the observation, that in every good marriage, there is a problem or two that will never quite get resolved.  From a spiritual perspective, one might say that problems like these show up in our lives, not so much for us to solve them, but so that they can solve us.  Every time a perpetual problem like this arises, each spouse is invited to exercise more patience with the self and other, more love, and more compassionate humor, until over time, he or she becomes a more loving, patient, compassionate, grace-filled man or woman.


From time-to-time, my wife and I revisit one of these kinds of ongoing problems.  Perhaps you have had an experience similar to the one my wife and I suffered through several years ago.  In the heat of a good old fashioned marital dust up, we stared silently across the chasm of powerlessness, not knowing what to say or do.  Mercifully, the vicissitudes of parenting called us away from our stand-off.


As I busied myself with some household task, my under-the-breath grumbling made me aware of the smoldering self-righteous anger in my gut.  I felt misunderstood and mistreated.  As I listened to my heart, I discovered that deeper down under my anger, I felt fear.  Like any good pscho-therapist, I have developed the habit of asking myself, “When have I felt something like this before?”


Throughout my childhood years, I observed my parents in moments like this.  One unresolved conflict piled on top of another, which gradually accumulated into bushels, dump trucks, and then landfills of defensiveness and heartbreak.  Their marriage eventually crumbled under the weight of it all.


This sense of fear led me to whisper a quiet prayer, “God open me to whatever would help me to be closer to Lisa.”  Ten minutes later, Lisa walked downstairs and said, “I don’t want to be your enemy.”  Her attempt to repair us led me to say, “I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you.”  The original issue was still not resolved, but I had my friend back.


On that evening, I learned that it is not always conflict resolution that matters, but the ability to remain connected, or to reconnect in the middle of conflict.  In retrospect, there is one more lesson that I learned.


When surveying the titles of self-help literature, one could come away believing that the emotion of “fear” is now somehow passé, or even harmful. In my profession, so many people present themselves with a need to transcend crippling states of anxiety, that an unwary clinician could begin to inadvertently lump the healthy, God-given emotion of “fear” into the category of “neurosis.”  This Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 25: 1-13) about some lackadaisical bridesmaids getting caught off guard has me contemplating the importance of the much-maligned emotion of “fear.”


Here is a case in point.  My friend Eugene was a spiritual heavy-weight, and a role model for me.  He was the PTO President of our parish school who regularly led retreats and workshops on prayer.  One day I got a disturbing call from his wife, Betty, that he had left her for another woman.  Besides the usual questions, I found myself putting myself in his place, and wondering what it was like on the very first day, the very first moment when Eugene took his first baby step in the wrong direction.  I found myself wondering, where was the internal red flag of fear for Eugene on that day when his heart fluttered and he accepted the invitation to go out to a clandestine happy hour, or a walk in the park, or a dinner date outside the awareness of his spouse?


In the wake of numerous ethical lapses by CEO’s and their minions, the same question surfaces for me, “On that fateful first day when you felt your heart pounding in your ears as you contemplated a Houdini-like accounting maneuver, how did you manage, (like the drowsy bridesmaids in this Sunday’s Gospel), to put your appropriate sense of fear to sleep?  How did you anaesthetize your fear as you continued on this pathway?


For those of you who have taken Psych 101, I am not advocating that anyone would descend from the summit of Maslow’s hierarchy, or hopscotch backward from Kohlberg’s advanced stages of moral development in order to return to a childish fear of punishment as their primary motive to lead an ethical life.  One of the “Seven Gifts” of the Holy Spirit, “The Fear of the Lord,” is not a gift when people misinterpret it to mean that God is harsh and punishing.  Our Tradition witnesses to a merciful, all loving God.


Here is a description of a healthy, and appropriate fear that is analogous to the gift of “Fear of the Lord.”  It took me a long time to find my wife, Lisa, and become a father.  I am not scared of her.  I know she loves me with her whole heart.  But I do nourish a realistic and appropriate fear that leads me to want to avoid even the smallest thing that could screw up the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me.  That fear keeps me awake so that I can avoid taking the first small steps down the wrong pathways by nurturing a resentment, or closing my ears to her needs.


What is your preferred way to numb yourself from listening to the early warning system of fear?  With the holy season of Advent fast approaching, can you turn off the TV, slow down the busyness, skip girls or boy’s night out, and listen to your heart?  Are there any red flags you have been ignoring in some area of your life?  Can you locate even a small thing that sets off the appropriate alarms that God has installed in your heart?

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