My dinner companions worked all day to line up the perfect twilight picnic for my wife and me. Candles, flowers, wine, and a table with linens were laid out, accented by a flowing stream in the heart of Saint Louis’ Forest Park.
Three glasses of wine, and several appetizers in, the conversation was moving just like the little creek that was meandering, and laughing right next to us. Before long the narrative arc turned toward my three female dinner companions’ collective experiences of operating as professionals in a world where men held all the positions of leadership and influence. Perhaps it was the wine, or maybe it was just me not wanting to be left out? Who knows. I wasn’t counting, but it seemed as though there were about three rounds of stories where I heard myself responding with the equivalent of, “Well, even though I’m a man, I have the experience you’re talking about.” For example, “I’m lousy at negotiating for what I think I’m worth too!”
After the third round of my dinner companions listening to, “Well, I go through that same thing all the time, and I’m a man!” (I’m imaginingthat last line delivered in Barney Fife’s exuberant voice). Perhaps wanting to spare me future embarrassment, one of my dinner mates turned and responded to me. “Tom, here’s what you need to say, that you have straight, white male privilege, and while you may have overlap with some of a woman’s experiences, you can’t know what it’s like to be in that position.”
Up until that moment, it seemed to me that the soundtrack for the evening could have been Mozart’s soothing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. There was something in my dinner companion’s words and delivery that abruptly screeched the stylus across the evening’s mood for me.
The combination of my silence, and a kind of pucker that must have formed on my face caused my dinner companion to circle back around to assert the disadvantages that women in our culture (and maybe every culture) experience in the company of men. “You believe that right?” (Insert my silence or stammer for a response)“Maybe you don’t believe that….?” (Uttered in disbelief and mild shock). My obvious distaste for the turn in our conversation created maybe even a louder stylus screech across the soundtrack of my dinner companions’ evening.
My eventual attempt to move past the feedback and go radio-silent was blocked by my wife. Knowing her, she was concerned that I might grow a thin layer of skin over a resentment that would cause a heart-deep subcutaneous ulcer in these relationships. She must have believed that her husband’s Ph.D. and three decades of teaching people how to resolve conflicts would have ensured resolution of this momentary hiccup if her husband would just speak up.
So I spoke up. My efforts to explain my discomfort with the conversation sounded lame. Being on the receiving end of my friends’ attempts to convince, and then mollify me did little to restore the evening for me or them.
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage (Luke 12: 49-53), Jesus described a landscape riven with divisions: father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law. In the first reading (Jeremiah 38: 4-10), a man who spoke truth to power reaped the wages of a prophet. Jeremiah was dumped into a deep, and muddy well.
You and I live in a time marked by divisions of every kind, that like Jeremiah in the first reading, get conversations, civic action, and relationships stuck in the mud. Even in the midst of a gorgeous summer’s evening picnic, close friends can find themselves on either side of a divide that they didn’t see coming, and can’t quickly bridge.
The scripture from this Sunday indicated that there is something in the human condition that lends itself to division. It seems to me, that among other things, each of us are meaning-making creatures. Once something happens, each and every human being is busy constructing meaning out of it. That’s why people in my profession have noted that if there are five people in a family, in a way, there are five different families. Each of those five members in that family constructs their memories and the meaning derived from those memories differently. It is not hard to imagine how this state of affairs could lead to disagreements, conflicts, and divisions too.
In light of this natural tendency, I would like to return to the story recounted earlier. Through the lens of my twilight picnic, here are a few reflections that may help me, and others like me prevent differences from devolving into needless divisions.
Take Care of Your Own Side of the Street
After the snag in our evening, I could have spent my time informing my dinner mates of how they could have handled themselves differently. In truth, I did a little of that, and learned quickly the futility of that approach. I got a lot further by examining what I could have done differently, and will do differently in the future, including…
Don’t Mix Adult Beverages with Important Communication
The night of my relationship hiccup, I had three glasses of wine on board. Important topics require nuance, empathy, and understanding. Each glass of wine subtracts some measurable portion of my capacity to listen with warmth and intelligence. Every adult I know in America, including myself, should examine his or her relationship with alcohol from time-to-time. Each and every friend and family member I have is perfectly enjoyable just the way they are. I don’t need wine or beer to enhance the experience of conversation with any one of them.
In Important Conversations, Start with Generosity and Kindness, End with Generosity and Kindness, and in the Middle, Sprinkle in Generosity and Kindness
Lately I have been listening to tapes of the great Twentieth Century scholar/mystic/prophet, Rabbi Abraham Heschel. This week I stumbled upon a Youtube video of his daughter Susannah Heschel (Praying with their Legs, October 31, 2014), recounting the experience of her dad’s dear friend, Martin Luther King Junior. She said that she and her father were always struck by the generosity, graciousness, and kindness he manifested, even with those who misunderstood him, even with those who opposed him.
This tracks nicely with marital and family therapy literature. Research indicates that the first three percent of a conflict predicts how the next ninety-seven percent of that conflict will proceed. In effective marriages, spouses consciously seed the beginning of their conflicts with generosity and kindness. I would add that they conclude their conflicts with generosity and kindness. And in the middle, they sprinkle in plenty of generosity and kindness.
An Experiment to Avoid Unnecessary Divisions
The next time you find yourself experiencing one of those divides Jesus described in this Sunday’s readings, find a way to consciously mix graciousness, generosity and kindness into the truths you are trying to express. Some divisions are insoluble, and even necessary. On the other hand, every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary division if possible.