Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How To Love Idiots

“Love one another,” “Treat others as you would be treated,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” “Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you”— Jesus was clear, that loving those around us is our most important task, apart from being faithful to God. And yet, it is funny how we often take our relationships for granted (unless we are dating someone we really like). We assume that we treat everyone fairly and with love—even though sometimes it is “tough love”—and we expect to be treated fairly in return.

However, dealing with people is the most difficult task imaginable—just ask God, He has a terrible time with it! Jesus told us that our relationships should be a major priority in our lives just because they would be so difficult to maintain! Jesus didn’t tell us to treat everyone with fairness, but with love and humility. And this means, often, that we need to set aside our own ideals and focus on someone else’s needs and goals. We cannot love if we are just thinking about being “fair” in relationships. To love we must sacrifice and reach out.

1. Meet others needs
When Jesus taught about love, he did not mean that love is a feeling, or a response, or a particular kind of relationship. Rather, when Jesus said, “love” he meant an action. To love is to act in the other person’s benefit, whatever that means. And the most basic way of doing what will help another person is to make an attempt to meet their needs. This is why when Scripture talks about Christian duty, it describes feeding the poor, visiting the sick and welcoming the stranger. Because loving means seeing the need and doing your best to meet it.

But we also need to recognize that people need more than bread and clothes. Jesus himself did much more than meet people’s physical needs—although that was a big part of what he did. Fundamentally, people feel that they have the following needs:

• Survival—Having one’s basic needs met, such as hunger, sleep and health
• Security—Feeling safe from what one fears
• Inner Peace—A sense of contentment with life
• Pleasure—Enjoyment and laughter
• Honor—A sense of being significant to others
• Society—Feeling a part of others and communicating with them

There are other needs that we have—a relationship with God, understanding significant truths, a sense of being a “good person”, but we don’t always feel these needs. The six above we feel almost every day at one point or another, and they deeply control our sense of well-being and color our perception of everything around us. When Jesus met needs, he recognized that people not only needed their “survival” needs met, but also the other ones. Especially in his teaching, he wanted people to feel secure, to have peace, to have joy, to gain honor and to be a part of a good society.

Even so, when we are looking to meet people’s needs, we need not only look at survival needs, although those are foundationally important. But we must also remember to give people respect, to ease people’s fears, to help them laugh and enjoy themselves, to just communicate with others. In doing all of this, we are loving. And all of it is acting in love.

2. Be Humble
Perhaps when you picked up this tract, you thought, “Oh good—I’ve got a lot of idiots I’m supposed to love.” However, the most important lesson Jesus taught us in loving others is “the first shall be last and the last first.” If we really want to love others, the first step is to remember that, more often than not, WE are the idiots, not the people around us. Rather than thinking, “I wish so-and-so could read this tract,” you need to take responsibility for your own idiocy in relationships. If we are really going to love, we need to be humble. How can we do that?

• If a mistake was made, give others the benefit of the doubt
• Take blame upon yourself, instead of pushing it on others
• Focus on what other’s need, not yourself
• If changes need to be made in communication, take as much responsibility on yourself as you can
• Pray for other’s blessing—especially those you are in conflict with

If we place ourselves in the giving position, then we will find that we can actually deserve the honor we might expect others to give to us—whether we get it or not. Most importantly, assume that the other person is trying to be as good and as polite as they can. You may feel that they are acting rude or badly or stupidly. But, chances are, they are not. They are just trying to meet their needs, just like you are.

3. Recognize differences in communication
Another way we can be humble is to recognize that, more often than not, the people around us are not idiots, or jerks, or rude, but they have different communication patterns than we do. If we see someone who looks like an immigrant come up to us and speak loudly in a foreign language, waving his hands, we would not think he was rude, but that he just didn’t have the same customs that we do. But if we see someone speak to us in our language, with our accent, speaking loudly and waving her hands, we would think that she is rude, or possibly have some mental problems. But some people grow up in situations in which speaking loudly (or quietly) and using expansive gestures (or using none at all) is normal, and they are just trying to speak to us normally. We do not feel that it is normal at all—we feel that it is rude, or that they have a problem with us. But often it is not that case at all. We have to take account of other’s different way of speaking.

For instance, different people have a different sense of how long one must pause to allow another person to speak. If one person expects people to talk over her, then she might not give anyone else a chance to speak, and so feel that no one is interested in what she is talking about, because no one is responding. On the other hand, another person might feel that she is hogging up all the time to speak because she won’t stop for a few seconds so they can chime in. Neither person is rude, they just don’t understand how the other person communicates.

There are many kinds of communication differences: How much space to give another person when talking, how direct or indirect one’s requests should be, what kind of touching is appropriate between people, how people should apologize, and how a conversation should begin. Instead of assuming others are “idiots”, perhaps we should try their kind of communication with them and see if they respond positively to it.

4. Respond Positively to Interactions
Every time we communicate with others, we may have as many as a hundred interactions with them in ten minutes. With everything people say to us, we are reacting—even if we think we are giving a neutral or a non-response. With every bit of communication, we either respond with them—on their side—against them or just ignoring them. In a positive relationship, up to 9 out of 10 responses will be positive. If even four out of ten of the responses one gives is offensive or ignoring the other, then the relationship is rapidly going downhill, and may never recover unless something is done.

A negative response to someone doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with them. On the contrary, two people could be having a conflict, but their reactions are positive toward each other. It is HOW they disagree. If they keep the conversation upbeat, break the heavy discussion with humor sometimes, always show respect for the other person and the relationship, then even a conflict can be a positive relationship. However, if a conversation is characterized by biting sarcasm, insults, outbursts of anger, threats, treating the other like a child, or simply ignoring what another person says, then that conversation will tear down the relationship.

In loving others, we need to work on our communication, so we always try to respond positively. This does not mean just ending the conversation on an upbeat note, but trying to communicate in a positive way throughout the conversation. This can be difficult, and we can make many mistakes along the way, but with God’s help we can do it—even to those who have hurt us.

5. Find the True Meaning behind the Words
None of us means what we say. Most of our communication is a parable of what we really mean. We often ask “how are you?”, but we almost never are looking for a doctor’s diagnosis. A husband may say “I love you,” but not at that moment feel a surge of emotion for his wife. Our child may say, “I don’t feel good,” but they might just be emotionally hurt, not having a physical ailment. Even so, quite a bit of our words have meaning that is not stated directly in the words we used.

And it isn’t only words. I could say, “My mother in law is coming to visit,” and depending on the look on my face or my tone of voice, I would communicate to you whether I liked that idea or not. But if you didn’t understand my non verbal communication—you heard disgust in my voice when I was trying to communicate with my face happy anticipation—then we will get our wires crossed and spend time trying to unravel the miscommunication.

Or we might get into a conflict with another person, and we can argue about the silliest things—whether the sky is actually sky blue or not—whatever. But if we get into a conflict, often the conflict is not about what we are directly discussing. Perhaps the argument is about how one communicates. Or it could be about a long-held ideal or dream that hasn’t been communicated yet. And the conflict could go on eternally without resolution, because the true meaning of the conflict hasn’t yet been discussed.

If the person we are communicating with understands our indirect communication, fine, no problem. However, every time we use indirect communication, we are taking the chance that the other person might misunderstand. And then we don’t understand what they misunderstood because we communicated as clearly as we could—or so we thought.

We need to do our best to get behind the simple meaning of the words. And how do we do this? We ask. We tell the other person what they think they meant by a face or an argument, and give them a chance to explain in a different way.

6. Listen Carefully
Jesus told us that we must “Be careful how you listen.” It is never enough to just listen, but we must listen in a way that communicates. Even our listening communicates a reaction to what others say. And how we listen can either meet others needs or tear them down.

If we do not look like we are listening to the other person, then they think we are ignoring them and they are not important to us. One person may expect someone to look at her when she is talking, but her partner may need to look at the floor to concentrate. Even if he can repeat everything she said, she will still not feel listened to, but ignored. When listening, we need to show that we are interested, in the best way we can, in the way the person we are listening to understands.

We might ask questions, but not too many. We might make listening “noises” like “uh huh”, but not too often. We might nod, but not too excitedly. If we do not do these things enough, the other will think that we are ignoring them. But if we do these things too much, then the other person will think that we are not trying to listen, but to take over the conversation. We must find the right balance for each person.

The most important part of listening in love is two things: First, don’t be trying to force your agenda on the other person. Let them say what they need to say. Second, do your best to give them your full attention. Because we live in a society in which everyone feels that everyone is too busy to listen, this is the best gift that anyone can give.

(Thanks to the work of John M Gottman and Deborah Tannan)

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