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December 2007 Archives

December 2, 2007

The Price of Being Right

One evening my wife, Donna, and I were ordering dinner at a restaurant when my eye was drawn to a beautifully illustrated insert that served to introduce a few new dishes on the menu. I was especially drawn to one of the photographs, which displayed a bowl of pasta, topped by a cream sauce that was filled with such an abundance of perfectly sauteed scallops and shrimp that the underlying pasta was scarcely visible. Wow, I wanted one of those, and right now. Moreover, our waitress assured me that the kitchen was eager to prepare me one of those. It was my lucky day.

Donna and I resumed our conversation, and before long the waitress brought out a dish, set it in front of me with a smile, and walked away. For a moment, I was certain she had brought me someone else’s order. The photograph I had examined only moments before was a virtual festival of shrimp and scallops, while the bowl sitting in front of me was clearly an attempt on the part of the kitchen staff to be mindful of the health of some customer who might suffer from a shrimp or scallop allergy. True, with some effort pieces of seafood could be excavated from the pasta, but this dish bore little resemblance to the glorious dish whose picture had tantalized me when I first sat down.

I admit that for a moment I entertained thoughts of calling out to the waitress and asking her to bring me a copy of the menu insert, so I could point out the dramatic difference between the photograph of my order and its pathetic reality. I even allowed fantasies to dance through my head of engaging the manager in self-righteous moral combat, pointing out what a terrible injustice had been done.

In the old days, I would have found this irresistible. The justifications were plentiful: After all, were they not being dishonest? Yes. Were they not cheating their customers, notably me? Yes. Was there not a possibility that if I protested, I could be saving other customers from similar dishonesty and humiliation? Yes indeed.

But no matter how right I would have been, if I had insisted on being right, I would have paid the price of losing the peace I was enjoying in a lovely conversation I was enjoying with my favorite person in the world. I could not have focused on being right in that moment and still have enjoyed sharing Real Love with another human being. I made the decision in that situation that I was not willing to give up the peace I was enjoying.

Being right usually takes a lot of energy, and it’s often quite difficult to focus on that effort and to focus on being unconditionally loving at the same time. So the question is, is it ever worth being right? Is it ever worth insisting that you’re right about something? Sure, sometimes. If the Founding Fathers hadn’t insisted on being right about independence, the United States might still be the Colonies. If Gandhi hadn’t insisted that he was right on the issue of home rule, England would not have turned self-government over to the Indians. If Martin Luther King hadn’t insisted on being right about civil rights, that movement would not have made the progress it did.

It must be noted, however, that those two men emphasized a non-violent, non-hateful—even loving—path when pursuing change or when insisting on being right. Martin Luther King, speaking at the Riverside Church in New York City, said, “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation . . . For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems . . . Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door that leads to the ultimate reality.”

Sometimes we must insist on being right in order to effect righteous change. If in our efforts, however, we ever sacrifice love, if we ever insist on being right in an unloving way, we will not be happy with the results. The price for being right will then be too high. I didn’t speak up in the restaurant, for example, not because I wasn’t right but because I sensed that I couldn’t do it in an unconditionally loving way without too much effort. I simply wasn’t willing to pay the price to disrupt the experience I was enjoying. If I had felt more loving in the restaurant, if I had been more full, I would have said something to the manager, in the hope that the restaurant would have corrected the difference between the advertisement and the reality. But I would not have insisted on results, I would not have been irritated, and I would not have been disappointed had no change been effected.

As King said, it is not being right that is the ultimate answer to mankind’s problems but love—and only Real Love at that.

December 4, 2007

Megan Meier and the Legislation of Kindness

Less than a month ago a Missouri newspaper began telling a story of events that had occurred nearly a year before. For six weeks thirteen-year-old Megan Meier had enjoyed a close relationship with a sixteen-year-old boy, Josh, in MySpace, a popular social networking website. Then one day the tone of Josh’s communications became unpleasant. He accused her of being mean to her friends. Someone from his account posted insulting messages about Megan, including that she was fat. The next day Megan hanged herself. After her death, a final message arrived: “Everybody hates you. The world would be a better place without you.”

Teen suicide, sadly, is common, as are insulting messages over the Internet. What made this story newsworthy was the information that unfolded weeks after the suicide—that Josh was a fictitious character who had been created by a family living in the same neighborhood as Megan. It seems that Megan had severed a relationship with a thirteen-year-old girl in that family, and in order to learn what Megan might say about her, the girl’s mother—aided by several others—created the Josh character. Initially, there was no intent to cause harm, but the neighbors did know that Megan had a history of weight problems and depression. Then additional people gained access to the site, unkind things were said, and death resulted.

When the neighbors’ involvement became known, six weeks after the suicide, Megan’s parents vandalized some property that belonged to the neighbors. Bloggers learned the identities of the neighbors and posted their names and other information for the entire world to see. Harassing phone calls were made, and somebody threw a brick through the neighbors’ window. Eventually, the neighbors moved out of the area to an undisclosed location, keeping their daughter at home for schooling.

The public outcry over this episode has been predictable. Everybody has an opinion. It seems that almost everyone wants the head of the neighbor’s mother on a plate. The vengeful language is remarkable. And people were outraged when the local prosecutor finally decided that no charges would be brought against the neighbors, stating that there really wasn’t a law that covered what they had done. “There should be a law,” many said. More outrage. Megan’s small hometown actually did create a law, such that online harassment is now a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine. Through all of this, Megan’s mother has fanned the flames, demonizing the neighbors who contributed to the death of her child.

So, what should be done about this? Before we get to that, the people involved in the story so far have already provided us with unforgettable examples of what doesn’t work and, I would hope, of what we should not keep repeating.

The most prominent players in this drama should not be the neighbors but Megan’s parents. As soon as something goes wrong, we are in such a hurry to fix the blame, and as parents we just don’t have the heart to even look in the direction of the mother who is holding a picture of her darling deceased daughter in her hand, with tears streaming down her face. Who could be so heartless as to suggest that the bereaved mother could have had anything to do with the death of her daughter?

Nonetheless, at the risk of such heartlessness—and in this case of stating the obvious—the reason people kill themselves is that they’re not happy. Period. And the most common cause of people being that unhappy is that they are experiencing a complete absence of the one thing they need most in order to be happy, which is Real Love. People who feel unloved and alone are at greater risk for everything bad: depression, physical illness, suicide, and so on. Megan clearly did not feel loved, which is why she was desperately seeking attention and acceptance on MySpace. She felt so unloved that when her virtual boyfriend announced that he wouldn’t be communicating with her any longer, and when she learned that some faceless collections of electrons—“people” she had never even met—were saying unkind things about her, she went upstairs to her bedroom closet and hanged herself.

What are the odds that a child would do this in a home where she felt unconditionally loved? Do I know for certain what kind of environment Megan’s parents provided for her? No, but the clues are overwhelming. The very day that the tone on the website turned ugly, for example, the day that Megan became hysterical at what she was reading, her mother didn’t stop everything she was doing to see to the welfare of her child. She didn’t give Megan what she really needed. According to the local newspaper reporter, Megan’s mother was furious at her for not signing off the Internet and for retaliating at those who had been unkind to her with vulgar language of her own. She said to Megan, “I am so aggravated at you for doing this!”

There are more clues. When Megan’s parents learned of the involvement of the neighbor family, they marched over and vandalized some property in a highly visible and dramatic way. Mrs. Meier has been quite vocal in her public criticism of the neighbors and of the legal system that let them “get away with this.” These are quite understandable responses, but they’re also reflections of the strong tendency of the parents for vengeance and anger, rather than for compassion, which is what their daughter needed while she was alive—which is what she needed to stay alive. Now Megan’s parents are divorcing, even further indication of the lack of love that had existed in the home all along.

The public response to this death has been a kind of virtual vigilantism. How ironic that we could condemn the unkind behavior of others in such unkind language and tones of our own. The hypocrisy of throwing a brick through someone’s window for being unloving is obvious, but the hypocrisy is no less when we do it with our words. The people who are condemning the neighbors for using the Internet to be hateful are themselves perpetrating the same crime, somehow rationalizing their behavior because their intended victims are adults.

Finally, we come to the intriguing notion that we can pass laws to control this kind of behavior. Megan’s community has done just that. I wonder what will be next. Will it become illegal to send any kind of email that could be interpreted as unflattering? Can I sue the manufacturers of weight loss products that spam me over the Internet on a regular basis, claiming that they have made me feel bad about myself? Shall I attempt suicide to make my claim more believable? Will it become a crime to honk your horn in a menacing way? Or to look at your neighbor with a really unkind expression? Will standup comedians be put out of business, because the targets of their jokes will sue them for harassment? Perhaps only if they tell their jokes online.

We can’t legislate kindness. We can’t force people to be nice to each other. And when they are unkind, we have many options. We can speak to them about their behavior, we can avoid them, or we can make a mental note not to model ourselves after them. But if we respond to their unkindness with more of the same—which happened in almost every corner of the Megan Meier case—we succeed only in depleting the level of love in the world. And that is what killed Megan, a lack of Real Love.

If we want to point a finger of responsibility at someone for her death, we might most productively point that finger at everyone, including ourselves. Whenever any of us is critical, unforgiving, ungracious, or unkind, we help create an environment where children like Megan can more easily die. Again. And we must not forget that for every child like Megan who actually dies, there are many more who are in such pain that they wish they were dead. Although my words about Megan’s parents have been unflinching, I don’t blame them. We have all contributed to the environment that produced her parents and everything else surrounding her death. We need to ask ourselves, then, what kind of world we want to create. Right now. Immediately around us. With each word we speak and each step we take, do we wish to make the world a more loving or a less loving place? Because the decisions we make are literally life or death. Megan proved that. I hope we will learn from her choice and help the next child make a happier one.

December 10, 2007

Falling in the Creek

Our backyard is out in the woods, and over the years I’ve spent a lot of time making improvements : gardens, outbuildings, fences, drainage ditches, ponds, bridges, and the like. Lately I’ve been evolving into my zero-maintenance phase—also known as my lazy phase—but every once in a while I do like to see something change, and I was in that mood one day as I was crossing the bridge that spans a creek that runs through our yard. As I was on the bridge looking up the creek, I noticed that my usual view of the beaver dam and other sights in that direction were rather obstructed by a collection of shrubs growing from the creek bank.

I walked along the creek for a short distance to inspect this uninvited guest, and I discovered a rather dense growth of small bushes and trees that I had not previously noticed. Having cut hundreds of trees and bushes on our property in the past, this appeared to be no great obstacle, so I walked back to the shed where I keep my “man-equipment” and gathered my assault gear: axe, loppers, machete, chain saw, and so on.

I set to work with my usual enthusiasm and found that these shrubs and trees were thicker than I had thought, and removing them was made more difficult by their location, right at the edge of the creek bank. In order to accomplish my task—hacking away at the branches and trunks with my assortment of blades—I had to stand in a variety of positions: up to my knees in the water and mud of the creek, at precarious angles on the side of the creek, hanging from the branches themselves, and so on. Finally, I swung at a branch with an axe, slipped in the mud, and fell into the creek on my back. I was cold, soaked, and mildly humiliated.

At this point I experienced an urge to go in the house and watch television. Who needs an unobstructed view of the creek anyway? It would be a lot more work—in the mud, sweat, and dirt—to get rid of all those branches. Besides, in order to do the job right I’d have to pull a lot of those plants out by the roots, and the roots had proven to be a great deal more, well, rooted, than I had hoped. But if I quit, the wild growth would only continue, and before long, I’d have no view of the creek at all. In fact, in a few years, I wouldn’t even be able to cross the bridge.

I remembered back to the day I purchased that property, twenty-two years before. The woods and blackberries and other shrubs were so densely overgrown that the previous owner had never succeeded in walking more than a hundred feet behind the house. He hadn’t even been aware that a creek existed in his backyard. There’s a small lake bordering our backyard too, and he hadn’t known about that either. So I’m not exaggerating when I say that over time nature would have reclaimed my bridge and everything else in the yard.

If we don’t carefully tend any outdoor space in whatever way we want it kept, nature tends to fill that space in rather quickly. I recently visited some of the Mayan ruins in Mexico and Belize, and it was astonishing to see how that process had occurred there. Although the ancient people in these areas had built enormous and impressive structures and civilizations, once they left an area or died out, within a few hundred years the jungle completely took over and erased all external evidence of the people having ever existed there.

What is natural has a tendency to quickly eliminate what has been planned or organized, and we see this happen with Real Love in a way similar to what we see in civilizations or in the creek in my backyard. Our fears and flaws, and our Getting and Protecting Behaviors—which are natural—tend to sprout like weeds, like unwanted shrubs and trees, in the gardens of our lives, and if left untended, they will literally choke out everything good that we try to build. Continuing the metaphor of the garden, they will eliminate our ability to move and even blot out the light of the sun. If we don’t tend to them regularly, if we don’t identify them and hack at them with all our energy and all the tools we possess, they will naturally fill in every available space and literally choke us to death.

Occasionally the work of eliminating the weeds and shrubs is hard work. We have to get down in the creek where it’s cold and wet and muddy. Sometimes we slip and fall right on our backs. Sometimes we look foolish. But if we quit, the weeds will only grow. In all my years of gardening, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that weeds never take a vacation. Neither do the weeds of our personal lives.

So, understanding all that I’ve said about nature filling in every available space, I got up from my supine position in the creek that day, cold and wet, and I recommenced my work. Swinging an axe and a machete soon returned the warmth and circulation to my body, and before long I was breathing hard and replacing the creek water with sweat. Grabbing a mattock and shovel, I also dug up the roots of all those plants, so they wouldn’t return, in the same way that I try to dig at the roots of my personal flaws—though with less success.

It wasn’t long before I’d cleared a lovely view of the beaver dam and the creek upstream, which I have enjoyed for many days since. Since that time, I have reflected on several occasions that when I work as diligently to remove the “weeds” and other obstructions in my personal life, the rewards are even greater. I would do well to remember this lesson better than I sometimes do.

December 24, 2007

Amazing Grace

At the age of twenty-two, an age when many young men in our time are still living with their parents, John Newton had already been at sea for eleven years. He’d served on a merchant ship, on a British man-of-war, and on several of the slave ships that plied the lucrative but bloody trade routes between the coast of Sierra Leone and the British West Indies. In May of 1748 Newton was returning to England as captain of his own slave ship, having delivered his human cargo to the New World. During the crossing, he encountered a storm so severe that the ship began to fill with water, so he called out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

When he survived the storm, he began to believe that God had listened to him and had mercy on him. He saw a great deal of pain in his life: He suffered illnesses that nearly killed him, he was severely beaten and experienced other barbaric conditions at the hands of British naval authorities, and he witnessed the indescribable treatment of slaves during many ocean voyages. It was from these experiences that he became prepared to learn the lessons that he later expressed in words that nearly all of us recognize:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
and mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.

John Newton allowed his experiences to open his heart. He became humbled and teachable. He became a minister and shared his experiences with slavery, as well as his wisdom about grace and compassion. Newton’s church became so popular that the building had to be enlarged. The influence of this one man can hardly be calculated, since among those he taught and profoundly affected was William Wilberforce, who would become probably the most influential figure in the abolition of slavery in England, which in turn influenced the Civil War and abolition of slavery in the United States three decades later.

So much good came from the difficult experiences in the life of one man, not because the experiences themselves were difficult, but because that man chose to learn from them, because he chose to see in those experiences the power of grace and compassion.

This is not a lesson to be remanded to the eighteenth century. We all have difficult experiences. We’re all inconvenienced and treated badly—by people, by circumstances, by illness, by governments, by whatever—and when, in the words of the song, we encounter these “dangers, toils, and snares,” we always have a choice. We can complain and blame. We can act like victims. We can rage. We can give up. Or we can be loving. We can find the grace in everything—as recipients, as givers, or both—and find “a life of joy and peace.”

December 25, 2007

Something Wonderful Has Happened to My Husband

I recently received this letter by email:

“I talked to you at a seminar over a year ago, and I described my husband, Martin, as critical, angry, distant, withdrawn, and unloving. You told me that I was just as angry and unloving as he was and that the only hope of having a loving relationship with him was to learn how to become loving myself. You told me to quit talking about him and instead to tell the truth about myself to friends who could love me unconditionally.

“At the time, I must say that I was offended. I could see so many things he was doing wrong, and thought I was the loving one in the relationship, so I couldn’t accept what you said about me being the one who needed to change. So I kept trying to change him, and as you might expect, our marriage only became more and more miserable. I finally realized that all my efforts had never succeeded in changing him one bit, and I certainly wasn’t happy. So I decided to read the books Real Love and Real Love in Marriage, and I devoted myself to being truthful about my own mistakes and finding unconditional love in my own life.

“As I felt more loved, I became much happier and more complete. Because I was already happy, I lost my need to nag at Martin all the time. I didn’t need him to change in order to be happy. Finally, I began to share the love in my life with him. I thought of what he needed instead of selfishly focusing on myself. And you know, it wasn’t hard. Loving unconditionally is pretty easy. Easier than fighting, for sure.

“A few weeks ago it suddenly occurred to me that Martin and I hadn’t had an argument in weeks. And I remembered that four times that week he had called me from work for no reason at all, just to talk to me and see how I was doing. One day, in fact, he met me for lunch. Another time we went shopping together—he hasn’t done that for years—and he stayed right by my side the whole time, talking to me. This change in him has happened so gradually and naturally that I didn’t even notice it at first. And here this is exactly what I’ve been wanting for the longest time. It’s exactly what I complained to you a year ago that I never got. Oh, and lately he’s been snuggling with me in bed.

“Greg, this is a miracle. As I write about it, tears run down my face. I thought my marriage was over, and I thought it was all his fault, but none of that was true. We just didn’t know how to love each other. Certainly I didn’t know how to love him, and I finally realized that I had a choice to make: I could keep complaining about him, or I could take the responsibility to change myself. I’m glad I finally listened and did what it took to become more loving. I can’t believe how different our lives are now.”

After counseling with thousands of couples, I am impressed with the consistently powerful effects of Real Love as it heals wounds and creates rich and lasting bonds between partners. Real Love doesn’t repair or revive every relationship, but it’s the only power capable of creating the personal joy and healthy relationships we all really want. No amount of trading and manipulation can do that. If you want to find, create, and maintain loving relationships—with everyone, not just a spouse—dedicate yourself to becoming more unconditionally loving. Don’t find fault with others. Don’t expect them to change. Tell the truth about yourself, find the Real Love you need, and then share it with those around you. You will experience rewards beyond what you can imagine.

About December 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Greg's Real Love Blog in December 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

November 2007 is the previous archive.

January 2008 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.