Love at the Crossroads – Michelle Bishop
The Importance of Authenticity in Relationship
I dwell. I dwell on past events. I dwell on past conversations. I dwell on friends lost and gained. Mostly though, I dwell on how I wish I had acted, on what I wish I had said, how I wish I had responded. For today, my thoughts turn to two decisions that I still dwell upon that I made when I was 12 years old and that have affected the course of my life in ways I never could have imagined at the time. While contemplating those decisions I realized that all humans make decisions out of emotion. We all struggle between self-preservation and the need for relationship. These are universal stories, applicable to all our lives, all stages of our lives. Finally, in my contemplation, I came to appreciate how much of an impact this faith movement, Unitarian Universalism has had on how I view relationality.
Emotion wasn’t really allowed in my childhood home, and this was a problem, you see. As a child I was a giant bundle of emotion, loud bright ones, joy, rage, panic, sorrow. In my family home, only pastel emotions were really allowed. I was a magenta, lime, sunshine yellow sort of girl. I asked my father recently about this, his response was that he never told me not to feel strongly, just that he didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences so I wasn’t allowed to show it.
My sister, she was much more able to control her emotions. While probably not truly a pastel, to my mind, her emotional colors were muted shades, perhaps forest green or burgundy. She was two and a half years younger than me and both the bane of my existence and the apple of my eye. I hope that those of you with siblings in the room can identify with that. Please tell me I’m not the only one.
So, you have to imagine me as a 12 year old, sitting on my bed in my room, after a particularly hard day with my mom. Trying to figure out how to change the situation I was in. After much thought, much internal debate, I finally came to the conclusion that the safest way to survive living – in that house – with those people – was to stop caring, no – stop loving – anyone in my life except my sister. This was the only way I could find that would help me be less emotional, be more pastel.
A very short time later, I found myself in a huge squabble with my sister. Yes, that very same sister that I held out hope for my ability to still truly be myself with. I don’t know how it was for you but, my sister had the uncanny ability to anger me beyond words. Never before and never since has anyone in my life been able to bedevil me in such a way. So, during this squabble and in the midst of a fury that had moved from bright to fluorescent, I found myself holding a glass bottle and without thought I threw it at her!
Never in a million years did I expect that bottle to break. But it did and a large piece of glass sliced her leg a couple inches from the femoral artery. Once I realized what had happened I frantically carried her to a neighborhood mom who was a nurse. With a few stitches she ended up being fine. But, knowing that I could have really hurt, and perhaps even killed my sister was terrifying for me. This event left me determined that I would not get that angry ever again. That there was no safe place for my emotions to be shown to the world.
Did you notice the euphemisms I used instead of “decision” or “decide” in those story? “came to a conclusion” and “left me determined.” The origins of the word decide means literally “to cut off.” I use this softened wording because it is the way I think of these decisions. Because the events, and honestly the decisions themselves, are painful even now. Subconsciously I soften the language I use. The thing is, in situations like this, you make a decision and you follow through. You have to live with the consequences. Life isn’t like a video game where you can make a choice, die, restart, make a choice, die, restart as many times as it takes in order to make a better decision.
I learned recently in a TED Talk by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert that in 1738, a Swiss mathematician named Daniel Bernoulli came up with a foolproof way to make the right decision, every time. A rough translation of his principal is “The expected worth of an action is the product of two things: the odds that this action will allow us to gain something, and the value of that gain to us.”
Value of an action =
odds of being better off X worth of the thing.
One simple example of how this plays out in real life is whether I should decide to make cookies. The odds of creating yummy cookies are pretty high, my memory tells me that I have made many cookies and they came out tasty. The worth would be the experience (think flavor, mouthfeel, smell) combined with nutritional value. The experience factor is high, nutritional value is, mmm, less high. Overall, the choice to make cookies comes back as a good decision.
Why didn’t I know about this principle sooner? Why aren’t we learning about this in kindergarten? Because, even knowing the right ingredients for a good decision doesn’t help us much when we are facing complicated choices. Social scientists tell us that humans are really bad *both at estimating value* and *at determining worth.*
In that same TED Talk, Gilbert, tells us that we are at the mercy of our memory when we estimate odds regarding a decision. “The quickness with which things come to mind can give you a sense of their probability.” The problematic factor in this is that – as many of us know – memory is fallible, incomplete. When I thought of making cookies, I remembered them being yummy.
The inherently subjective nature of many choices makes determining worth difficult to judge. Complete knowledge of the situation is imperative. But even further, understanding what effect the opposite action would cause is also crucial. Typically, humans are not able to see the entirety of the situation or know fully what would happen if they chose the opposite of what they want. When you add in our tendency to compare to the past, people stick with *choices they know the value of* and *pass up unknown, perhaps better, choices.*
It is even more difficult when working with intangible decisions like those involving relationships. This creates a situation where it is almost impossible to correctly estimate either side of the equation. When a decision includes something foreign to you, something new to your experience, you do not have anything for your mind to turn to in order to correctly gauge probability. On the other side, the effects of your action on a relationship have to be viewed through your interpretation of the worth of that relationship to you.
When the relationship is important to you, your choices about that relationship matter even more. My twelve year old self, sitting in her room, could only see two choices. First, figure out a way to live with her family in a way that was less emotional. Or (in the way of preteens everywhere) run away, hitchhike to Florida and live with the actor Burt Reynolds. Taking those choices, she determined the odds of being better off after having made her decisions and estimated the worth of the consequences of her actions.
The odds were high, if she brought less vibrant emotionality to her life, it would be smoother sailing, and those calm waters were worth a lot. But there is more to this decision than just the hope for emotional safety. The alternate option led down a path where I was no longer in relationship with my parents. Even though strained, this relationship was important to me.
The alternate option led to the unknown. I would have no certainty of living in a physically safe space. I had never met Burt Reynolds, and had no idea how to get to Florida (other than walk south). At the moment I made these decisions it was far easier to choose relationship, to cut off my strongest emotions, my love, my anger than it was to decide to leave the situation I was in.
Now we know sitting here – looking at this situation that there were way more alternatives available to that 12 year old than she had the presence of mind to see. As an adult, an outsider looking in, I can easily suggest other options… But that 12 year old, seeing everything in the black and white way that preteens do, couldn’t see past her immediate misery and made the decisions that she could.
When humans make decisions and it goes well, there is a tendency to think the positive outcome is caused by the good decision. In turn, that leads to the thought that this good decision may be useful in more places. This theory is illustrated well in one of the essays from Conflict Management in Congregations.
The authors remind us that both individuals and congregations “pay a price to discover what will work in our lives. The successful things we learned to do become our precious habits. The newly won ground becomes our home. Even in the face of declining rewards for using our time-worn approach, we will be tempted to refine those habits and depend on them.”
Because my twelve year old self’s decisions were successful, as I aged I continued to make those choices. Cutting off parts of my personality, my character that weren’t desirable at the time in order to maintain relationship. Presenting a version of me to the world that wasn’t true to who I am. Even for relationships that were tenable at best.
To be human is to balance the need for individuality with the need for community. Family therapists term the tension between these needs for community and individuality the integration-differentiation continuum. Those on the far left of this continuum are like that 12 year old sitting in her room – willing to give up everything to be part of the community. Those on the far right of this continuum either aren’t interested in community at all, or are only interested in a kind of community that requires no compromise on their part.
Traditionally, European American culture focuses on the individual in this continuum. Rev. Francis Manly tells us in her Essex Conversations essay, “the human being is [seen] first and foremost [as] an autonomous individual who comes together with other individuals to form community. However, our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that at the very least relationship should be equal – for we are in relationship far before the time when we have any sense of ourselves as individuals.
Rev. Manly goes on to say “The great web of inter-relationships in which we exist does not come into being because we in our individual worth and dignity have chosen to participate in it. To the contrary, we have individual worth and dignity not because of our separateness, but precisely because we are first part of the whole, a part, in Emerson’s words, of “the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which each part and particle is equally related.”
Let me say that again – “we have individual worth and dignity not because of our separateness, but precisely because we are first part of the whole.” Our very nature as humans calls us to place relationship – to place community – high on our priority list. In order to grow and mature as individuals we must both find ways to be in community and differentiate ourselves from that community.
After my sister died at 21, I realized that this cutting off of who I am – in order to please other people – wasn’t working anymore. The pain from her death was too present in my life to turn off. People in my life were, for the first time, having to deal with the – me who felt emotions vibrantly. I realized I needed to make a better decision, find a better answer, a more mature answer than that 12 year old could have found. I needed a way to be authentic to who I am – allowing those around me to know me. This required me to temper my emotions enough that I wasn’t alienating friends and family. But also, I needed to surround myself with people who *could* accept me for who I am.
I used to dwell on these decisions because I was ashamed. Because I had made a choice that I hated myself for. I am grateful now that I can forgive that 12 year old girl. She made the best decision she could, given the information she had. Authenticity is important to me, being true to who I am and being able to present that person to the world means a lot. Today, I dwell on those decisions from the perspective of a parent. As the person who doesn’t want her teenage girls to feel like they have to make these kinds of decisions. Yes, my home is sometimes louder, sometimes more vibrant than even I am comfortable with, but allowing my children space to grow up authentic to who they are is what called me to Unitarian Universalism.
As a Unitarian Universalist I am called to be authentic in my relationships. In my relationship with myself, with other people, with the world. Only by being true to myself can I dare to parent in a way that calls my children to be true to their selves. Only with authenticity can I hope to be successful in my search for truth and meaning and to help them with theirs. Our Universalist roots remind us that every person in the human family is loved; we’re all saved; we’re all okay just the way we are. We need to bring our loved, saved, okay selves to the world. Only by being whom we are, can we make a difference in the world.
A few weeks ago, here at UUCA, Rev. Erik Martinez Resly asked us to question what we are hiding from the world when we keep our voices locked up behind bars. His question deeply resonated with me – but I want to take us a little deeper. I ask you to consider how much better the world would be if we were willing to share not only our voices, but our whole selves. I call on you to do so whenever possible. Share who you are with the world. In doing so, you will show those you love how to join you.