The Places Where We Are Nothing

I’m not a very judgmental person. Really, I’m not.

I typically understand that everyone has something going on in life that is causing a deep emotion—whether good or bad—within them that will occasionally render them rude, inconsiderate, oblivious, or all of the above, among other things. So when someone cuts in front of me, goes through the express lane with $300 worth of groceries, or otherwise commits one of life’s standard offenses, I shrug it off. (Not always, but usually.) This is true whether the person is friend, stranger, or relative. The only person who doesn’t make this list is my husband.

I am grateful—dare I say proud—that I don’t get upset easily and tend in general to be a patient and understanding person. My family of origin is made up of yellers and quick tempers. It took a while to shake that off, but I did it. These days it takes a lot to push my buttons, and once pushed, my anger isn’t even that bad. Unless my husband is the button pusher.

Let me be clear: this is not because my husband is one of those sitcom-type men who can’t figure out how to work the toaster. My husband is wonderful. He works, he parents, he plays, and he is the best writer I know. He is far more accepting of my faults than I am of his, and he loves me unconditionally.

So the fact that I am harder on him than any other person is something I’ve thought about a lot. And, obviously, have tried to change. I don’t like that I notice and dwell on every common offense committed. That I can’t turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to dirty socks or a snippy comment on a tough day. That I can’t say, like I do for perfect strangers, “it’s okay, I understand you’re under stress right now.” That I am unable to extend easy forgiveness to the love of my life.

I think I’ve finally figured out why this is: I do not recognize, other than intellectually, that we are not the same person. Now, I don’t mean we have an unhealthy co-dependent relationship. Far from it. What I mean is that I assign to him the unhealthy, perfectionist expectations that I place on myself that so many women fall victim to. If I cut someone off on the freeway, I might spend the next hour internally yelling at myself for being so thoughtless. If I say something inconsiderate, I might dwell on it for a week. I berate myself for every thing I should have done better or differently, that “should have” been perfect but wasn’t.

And because we are married, because “husband and wife become one,” I extend unhealthy and unrealistic expectations to my husband that I would never extend to anyone else, other than myself. Realizing the root of the problem won’t make me try any harder to correct it—I already try as hard as I can to “fix” this part of me. This is, of course, a Catch-22. I will feel like an imperfect failure if I can’t change my perfectionist mindset, yet I shouldn’t expect perfection because no one is perfect.

I’ve never believed that intentions are what matter: actions and results are what matter. But there does come a point where we reach the end of our own abilities. Today in church the pastor said that within all of us are places where we know ourselves to be nothing except for the grace of God. I wonder if this is one of my places. I hope not. I want to feel, deeply and sincerely, that the softened (not lowered) expectations I have of others should also apply to my husband and me.

A Common Call for Empathy

My husband wrote a remarkable blog post today,  reflecting on the media’s coverage of the bombing in Boston. In the post, he expresses the need to treat every death, every injustice, every senseless act of violence with the same sadness, despair, and anguish, regardless of the victim/perpetrator’s color, religion, or origin.

I couldn’t agree more.

Sadly, over the last few days it has come to my attention, mostly by clicking links on friends’ FB postings, that not everyone feels the same. One blog post especially comes to mind, in which the author states that she cannot feel the sadness she should feel at seeing the senseless acts of violence of both Sandy Hook and Boston, because the victims are white. She goes on to say that she dislikes this about herself; however, white liberals are to blame because they do not treat the persistent, senseless deaths of minority inner city children or third world children the same as they do white, blonde, American children.

I certainly don’t disagree with her latter point. It is a deep shame, and an enormous blight on America, that we do exactly what she excuses us of: we ignore, play down, shrug off, disengage from the fact that children die every single day in this world from beyond-senseless acts of violence. And that sometimes, sometimes, political acts that America institutes or supports are even responsible for those deaths. But that isn’t what this post is about.

Instead, it’s about the sadness this woman’s post made me feel. Sadness because 1) the author is correct about many things she reports, and 2) because she says she cannot feel sadness over the senseless death of white children unless or until white liberals treat minority deaths with the same outrage they treat the death of white American children.

It is always, always a personal choice how we respond to tragedy. Sometimes we don’t want to alter our response: What if Kermit Gosnell gets the death penalty? Well, I may be against the death penalty (I am!), but I probably won’t shed too many tears if his sentence is one of death. I will pray for his soul, but since I am a broken person myself, it would take a superhuman effort for me to dredge up enough sympathy to feel a whole lot of remorse for him.

But why? A life is a life and a death is a death. Do we respect and value human life or not? If we do–if *I* do–I should care deeply, even about someone who has committed so many horrific acts. If I don’t care deeply, I cannot blame anyone but myself.

My sadness is not aimed at a particular person–I am using this author’s blog post as a jumping off point–but is rather a global sadness that the global “we” cannot feel the sadness and despair that we should over every single senseless act of violence and loss of life, and that we blame that inability to feel on others.

Perhaps we say it’s the fault of white liberals. Or perhaps we say it’s because we cannot feel sympathy for someone who repeatedly commits infanticide. Or it’s because “those people” are Muslim, or live so far away, or because they “choose” to bring violence into their neighborhoods.

But really, if we cannot feel heart wrenching despair over every child lost, it is no one’s fault but our own.

This isn’t to finger point. It is instead to say that we are all fallen, broken individuals in need of grace and a good self-talking to. Forgiveness, love, peace…. these things should be in our lives abundantly, indiscriminately, passionately. I try daily to make that a reality in my life, and it is very, very difficult. I usually fail because I am not superhuman. But we cannot even begin to hope for success if we continue to shift the blame to anyone other than ourselves.