Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 1, 2006
Offer a mellow heart during a bitter time
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
In her novel, A Good House, Bonnie Burnard tells the story of a relatively happy family. But even happy families have unhappy moments where bitterness chills an otherwise warm house.
She describes one such incident: A young couple, solid and trusting in their relationship, are having an intimate talk one afternoon when the woman's instincts tell her that her husband is hiding something from her.
Instantly a door begins to close inside of her, her warmth and trust harden, and she feels the need to protect herself, assert some independence from her husband, and let him know that there are aspects of her life that he doesn't necessarily know about either. Their intimacy dissolves for awhile into a certain coolness and distance.
What's happened is what happens to all of us, spontaneously and daily, in virtually all of our relationships, particularly with those with whom we are most intimate. Such is our emotional metaphysics, the way our hearts try to protect themselves: We tend spontaneously to replicate the energy we feel around us and feed it back in the same way as we feel it.
Quite simply, whenever we feel warmth, mellowness, vulnerability, transparency, generosity, trust and big-heartedness in a relationship, we tend to respond in kind. But the reverse is also true: When we feel coldness, bitterness, self-protection, jealousy, dishonesty, pettiness, or distrust, we tend to become cool, hard, self-protective, assertive, small-hearted, and distrustful.
It's not easy not to do this. More than anything else, our hearts crave the warmth and trust of intimacy, but precisely because these make us vulnerable, our hearts also tend to close doors quickly at the first signs of betrayal or dishonesty.
Fear, especially, tends to do this to us. Most of our anxieties arise out of a lack of confidence. Then, because we are insecure, we try to assert ourselves, to prove we are loveable, attractive, and worthwhile. When we are afraid, we can't risk vulnerability. Instead we try to do things to show that we aren't weak or needy. But to do this, we have to harden ourselves against the type of vulnerability that invites others into our lives.
Jealousy, especially of a person we love but whose love we can't have, also creates that same hardness in us. That's why we can be caught up in that strange anomaly where we are cold, distant and perhaps even hostile to a person whose love we badly want. Our coldness and feigned indifference towards that person is simply the heart's attempt to protect itself.
The heart has its reasons, even for turning cold.
Given the truth of this, what makes for a truly big heart is the strength to resist this emotional metaphysics and remain mellow, warm, trusting and present to others in the face of bitterness, coldness, distrust, jealousy and withdrawal. More than anything else, this is what defines a great lover.
This is perhaps the greatest moral challenge Jesus left us: We all do pretty well in love when the persons we are loving are warm and gracious, but can we be gracious and mellow in the face of bitterness, jealousy, hatred, withdrawal? That's the litmus test of love. It's also one of the deeper invitations towards maturity.
Everywhere in our world - in our most intimate relationships, in our families, in our workplaces, in our churches, and in society as a whole - we forever find ourselves in situations where we meet suspicion, jealousy, coldness, distrust, bitterness and withdrawal.
The challenge is to offer a heart that creates a space for warmth, transparency, mellowness, vulnerability and trust inside of hard places. The challenge is to offer our hearts as a space within which people can be honest, where nobody has to assert herself, where no games of pretence need be played and where intimacy isn't held hostage to the momentary fears, jealousies, hurts and emotional acting out that forever assail us.
The more bitter and the more emotionally trying the situation, the more this is needed. When times are bitter, full of disrespect, and fraught with jealousy, when it seems everyone is withdrawing into his or her own world, what's called for is not less, but more, attention to the quality of graciousness and warmth within our response.
Bitter times call for a deeper response of warmth, mellowness, transparency, truth and compassion.
What's needed most in a bitter time is a mellow heart.
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