Relationships have rather predictable paths. We get acquainted with someone. We discover shared interests. We enjoy talks and activities together. We settle into friendship, and we are delighted to discover the other person cares about us. The relationship becomes a source of joy.
However, given enough time together, the day may come when the person who once delighted us says something that hurts our feelings or does something that fails to meet our expectations.
At first we are surprised. “How could he or she act this way?” Unless the offense is a big one, we usually brush it off and return to friendliness.
But eventually another assault against good will drops into the middle of the relationship. Again we are surprised and disappointed. We begin to analyze the person and the offense. “Maybe he isn’t what I thought he was.” “I’m beginning to notice she can sometimes be very self-centered.”
Over time, there are bound to be more instances of disappointments and offenses. Because all humans have flaws, no relationship is perfect. The most profound effect of the accumulated difficulties is that we may start to interpret the friend differently. Rather than focus on the joy of the relationship, we begin to focus on our grievances. We analyze more. We gather more evidence of misdeeds and attribute negative motives to those misdeeds. We begin to build a case in our minds with ourselves in the role of the victim and the other person in the role of the villain who has mistreated us.
Perhaps we make our case to a third party, another friend or family member. And that person, in an attempt to support us, validates the interpretations we are presenting. “You shouldn’t have to put up with that!” This further solidifies our version of the story in our minds. Now we are certain we are the long-suffering victims.
In every close and enduring relationship, the time will come when we must decide: Are we going to honor the relationship with charity, patience and forgiveness? Or are we—influenced by the father of contention—going to stack up our complaints and analyses of character defects and sideline the person who has been our friend?
Perhaps one relationship after another fails or disappoints. The cynics resolve never to invest in relationships again. The naïve repeatedly try relationships and may start to wonder what is wrong with them. Spirits sag.
Inviting God into the Thought Process
All the while God stands by hoping we will invite Him into our thought processes. He will not force Himself on us, but He is willing and equipped to help. There are many things He hopes we will learn—though He may be too gracious to tell us unless we ask.
Disagreement and contention is not just about “them.” We all offend others just as often as they offend us. Of course, we often don’t notice our own misdoings because our behavior makes sense to us in our own minds. We understand and thus tend to excuse our own weaknesses and shortcomings. Or we think that the other party deserved what we gave them. Yet “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” It is a delusion to believe that we are not dishing out just as much as we are being fed of life’s foul gruel.
God’s design in this mortal experience is evident. We will never be able to sustain relationships unless we get out of our own narratives. We must enter and authenticate the feelings and experiences of others.
Of course the perfect example of this is Jesus who, after the paying the full price of sin, then bore the terrible burden of ordinary disappointment, pain, infirmities, etc. so that His compassion would be fully informed (Alma 7:11-12). He knows how to succor us because He has lived our stories fully.
Changing our Perspectives
God knows that we cannot effectively join Him in His work of salvation unless we are willing to take the perspective and carry the burdens of those around us. This is what compassion requires. Just as the Good Samaritan put the injured man on his own beast and walked along side him toward healing, so God invites us to walk along side each other in disappointment and affliction.
It is not enough to be humbled by our own failings and offenses. We need to have compassion or charity toward those whom God has placed in our lives.
The human tendency is to tell the story of our own lives in self-serving ways. In our version of the story, we are going along trying to do good and juggling our many challenges and needs when someone inexplicably and unfairly hurts us.
Satan wants us to be so absorbed by our own pain and disappointment that any hope of empathy—any hope of stepping outside of our own stories—is impossible. In fact, this is just how God has designed earthly contention. Getting out of it is supposed to be supremely difficult. It is supposed to stretch us toward the heavenly gift of charity.
We cannot rightly understand those who offend us unless God mercifully grants us His insight. It is only He who sees “things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24). On our own, we see through glass darkly if at all.
When we can set aside our own pain and offer compassion to the people in our lives, a new day dawns. We see the earnest efforts of others, and we also see our own offences.
Getting the Question Right
Often we get quite absorbed in the question of who should be blamed. Our legal system is preoccupied with that question. When we feel we have been wronged, we take the role of prosecutor, easily finding enough evidence to assign most or all of the blame to the other person.
But God wants us to fire our mental attorneys and lay down our weapons of war. Instead of assigning blame, He wants us to ask His question: How can I bless?
One of the realities that complicates the process of peace is our sense that we have a privileged view of truth.
- Because we do not see our own biases, we think we don’t have any. But we do.
- Because we don’t know what we don’t know, we think we have all the pertinent facts. But we don’t fully understand the other person’s intentions, experience, or challenges.
- And then we stir in our creative remembering, which is wonderfully flexible. We fill in gaps in recollections with new details of our own devising. We perceive all that happened through the lens of our own interests and then retell the story to ourselves so often that we soon come to think our recollection is a faithful rendering of reality. We can put our minds and memories in service of complaint, accusation, and condemnation—all according to the whims in our souls.
We cannot determine the truth of relationships on our own. Instead, we must humble ourselves and turn to the only One who knows truth.
He created a world in which we would be invited into relationships that could be the source of great joy for us, but He also knew that we would misunderstand and be disappointed by each other.
He was aware, however, that these simultaneously delightful and perplexing long-term relationships would be great opportunities for growth, the ideal scenarios for us to learn to emulate the greatest of all mindsets: the mind of Christ.
Jesus looked at people who seemed miserable and disagreeable, and He reached out in love. When friends and followers behaved in disappointing ways, he forgave them and continued to invite them into relationships with Him. His example is remarkable!
It seemed that the only ones who were difficult for Jesus were those who claimed to be righteous while being judgmental. They claimed to be holy but did not have the humility and compassion to help and save His children.
Occasionally we may find ourselves in friendships with those who are consistently not good influences in our lives. We may find that certain friendships are draining us of energy or goodness. We may need to move on from those relationships.
Even in that case, we can do so with a charitable attitude, without blame, judgment or condemnation. We can wish the other person well. We can honor all good memories we have of the friendship.
However, most cases of friendship contention are not of that nature. In most cases, formerly positive and rewarding relationships have simply been overcome by offenses, misunderstandings, or disappointments. In these cases we must choose whether we will ruminate on the worst, continually building a case for complaint and blame, or whether we will focus on the positives we once saw and the worth we found in the friendship. We can demonstrate compassion and forgiveness. We can stop demanding that our friend live up to all our expectations and seek to bless him or her.
Every day we decide whether we will follow the Pharisees—standing atop our own glaring self-righteousness to condemn others—or whether we will follow Jesus and look at each other redemptively with the compassion He offers unto us.
If you are interested in additional ideas for personal well-being, strong marriages, or effective parenting, you are invited to sign up for a free resource we have created at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Navigating Life’s Journey is a weekly e-mail series that offers helpful ideas based on research so you can trust they will work in real life. To sign up for any or all of these resources, go to http://arfamilies.org/family_life/life_journey/default.htm
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Deanna Smith for their substantial contributions to this article.
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