Love and Fear

I’m going to be spending a week at this beautiful spot next week – away from the incessant, assaultive  demands of electronics and media.  I know I’ll laugh at myself the first time my friend, David, and I have a discussion about something and I’ll wonder, “Who was it that said that?” and I’ll reach f025or my phone to Google the answer and then realize that this is exactly why I was there in the first place – not to be near a cell phone tower.  I know what books I’ll bring with me and I’m planning the menus for the five nights.  Maybe the best thing about camping is how everything tastes great – franks and beans…you name it.  One thing that I will welcome next week is a respite from the aura of fear that has descended like a thick, gray blanket on our public consciousness.

Public fear is much like the private fear I see in my office on a daily basis.  I am convinced that the driving force that unsettles so many marriages and intimate relationships is quite simply – fear.  It may be the fear of something concrete and nameable.  However, usually what I observe is more something that lies deeper within us.  When that attachment bond – upon which our inner security seems to depend – is shaken – is cast into serious doubt – we shift into a desperate, often ragged, attempt to regain that safety.  This comes in many forms.  I have seen these efforts expressed as rage, as utter abandonment hijacks one person’s well-being.  I have seen it, as well, in the silent withdrawal of the partner who, like Boticelli’s St. Sebastian, feels riddled with the arrows of criticism and unhappiness aimed at them by their partner.  One thing is certain.  The intensity of the fear is directly proportional to the level of anger, judgment or withdrawal.  When we are fearful, we react.  Our only goal at that moment is safety.  Abraham Maslow, in his famous Hierarchy of Needs, identified “safety” as a primary need, after basic physiological sustenance.  If we are starving, the only thing we need – that which dominates and overwhelms our consciousness – is food.  That need being satisfied, we are able to summon the psychological resources to seek out higher needs, which ends with living the highest expression of ourself in this life.  However, second in Maslow’s pyramid is “safety” and, just as with food and shelter, if this need is threatened, we will mobilize all we have available to us to satisfy that need.  Only when the anxiety – the fear – is abated, can we turn to higher, better, ends.  On the personal level, this includes listening and empathizing with the worries and fears of our partner.  On a broader level, it is building a more inclusive and tolerant society.

Years ago I heard a colleague share what seemed at the time to be an overly simplistic personal equation. That was my mistake.  He said, “We are motivated either by love or fear.  Fear distances us from love, but love, when embraced, will vanquish fear.”  This love isn’t simply sexual love or being “in love.” It is an opening of our heart to another person.  It is the certainty that whatever another person may need, fundamentally, we have inside of us to provide.  We have the power – the capacity – to ease another’s pain – and their fear.  When I see that realization gleam in the eye of an individual in relationship distress, that distress always lessens.  I witness love conquering fear.  I’m going to mull on that further in the mountains next week, away from the noxious fog of fear that is being pumped into our society during this terribly overheated election year.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All

When I was a kid (back in the 50’s and 60’s) the United States was a more unabashedly Christian country.  Christmas was universally celebrated and “Merry Christmas” was on almost everybody’s lips.  Nobody was saying “Happy Holidays” in an effort to be all inclusive.  As a Jewish kid,xmastree2 I’ve got to say, I wasn’t particularly offended or confused by the emphasis.  I was in a kids’ choir and loved singing those gorgeous carols.  The lights were magical!

I particularly loved the general good feeling that shone through the holiday – probably best reflected in the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The magic of that time was all about open-heartedness,  kindness and gratitude.  Santa was most definitely a bonus and I was, indeed, one of those acculturated Jewish kids who believed in the jolly old man whose elves made toys for kids somewhere in the North Pole.  I recently reviewed the many Jewish holidays to see if any one of them so explicitly trumpets goodwill to all men in quite the same way and was unable to find one.  The many holidays honor parts of our history, the seasons, the beginning of the annual cycle of reading the Torah and, of course the High Holy Days in which we are urged to look deep inside and cleanse our souls, seek forgiveness and turn the page for a coming year.  One theme for almost all Jewish holidays I heard from a friend a few years ago, which is perfect, goes, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”  Hanukkah is a very minor Jewish holiday and commemorates a time, more than 2,000 years ago in which the Jewish people were at risk of being absorbed into a hostile dominant culture.  A band of rebels were able to wrest away their people’s freedom.  It’s pretty much the same theme as the more major celebrations of Purim and Passover.  Somehow, American Jews long ago converted this into a more significant celebration so their kids didn’t have to feel left out in all the Christmas gift-giving…but Hanukkah is not Christmas.

I think of the “Holidays” as bounded by Thanksgiving and Christmas – both times when we gather with those we love (and who love us) and breathe in the warmth of care and community.  For those of us who feel isolated and adrift during this time, my hope and prayer for you is that you can, step-by-step, heal, renew or create the bonds that may allow you to experience that care in the years ahead.  My hope is also that you find some way to give to others during this time.  You will enter the tide of humanity whose spirits join in loving-kindness and there is no better gift you can be given.  There are volunteer opportunities here.

My wish for anyone reading this is that your world is blessed with the comfort of another’s  loving heart, that you treat yourself and those around you with the gentleness reserved for a baby (which this holiday is about) and hatred, fear and violence be banished from our lives.

Reaching Out – The Power of Repair

All relationships have conflict. We will wound each other, often withtout even realizing the depth of the hurts we inflict. When our partner protests, often with anger, we recoil and defend ourselves. We think, “You’re saying I’m a bad person. You’re wrong and here’s why.” We so want to protect ourselves from the bad feelings that arise when our partner protests, that we can’t hear their own pain through their anger……and so it goes, until each of us reacts to the other’s anger or withdrawal, distancing ourselves further from the one person who can provide us safety and care. How can we slow and reverse this distancing? Many suggest that it is through the power of Repair. What is Repair? One way of thinking about it is that Repair is the word, act or touch that says, “I don’t like what’s happening to us, here. I don’t want to be hurt, angry or distant.” It can be stated in those simple words. It can also be the soft touch of concliation or gesture that moves towards the lover rather than away (helping with a task; making a cup of tea; giving a small, but thoughtful gift). It can be with humor. It can be with an admission of our part in the painful exchange. A colleague, and therapist trained in Gottman’s work suggested to me that the most powerful of John Gottman’s ideas is the power of repair. This is a useful idea in this time of gift giving.

Thinking About Pompeii

I’ve got to admit, I think about Pompeii from time to time.  When Vesuvius buried that Roman city nearly 2000 years ago in ash, the inhabitants were frozen in time.  They exist today as human forms only – their personal histories, their essence, erased.  Forms only.  Who were these individuals?  None were “famous.”  Their names do not pass down the generations.   But in their time, as they breathed and gazed on sunlight, they touched others with simple acts of kindness by the boatload.  There must have been the teacher who encouraged a child and transformed his view of himself…and the wife who cared for an ill husband whose life faded -before a mountain erupted to bury her as well.  No doubt those of light spirit brought smiles and laughter to others who were otherwise burdened by their own cares – daily worry must have been as much a part of First Century Roman life as it is in ours.  Those of gentle heart or fierce passion touched their fellows and raised their spirits.   Gifts were given out of the blue; visits were made to the grieving to lighten the weight of their loss; countless acts of simple kindness were made without any thought of compensation or return.  And in a literal flash, they were all gone.  Does that render the love and life-force-energy they shared pointless?  We read history to hear stories of the storied.  Yet the fabric of life is made up of the millions and millions of normal, loving, caring, giving, simply kind people who came before us and who live among us today.  Every day I experience acts of kindness in my own home – simple gestures that no-one but me will ever know about.  I do believe that these loving gifts have a power – a grace – that is transcendent.  So when my mind wanders to these forms in ash, I invariably think about the blessings of simplicity and kindness all around me every day – and do everything I can to let them fill my heart.  May 2011 be a year of kindness we provide, and receive….and recognize.