By Fr. George Morelli
"... learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (Mt 11: 29)
There is so much in the teachings of Christ and His Church, that if one is committed to be a follower of Christ that one of the major virtues that would be nurtured would be a firm commitment to truth. Consider the approbative words Jesus told the Samaritan woman: "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him." (Jn 4: 23) St. John (8: 22) records Jesus very strong assertion: "...you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." During the Divine Liturgy, after reception of the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, the choir (congregation) chants: "We have seen the true light ...found the true faith..." It would appear, Christians should not get away from what is the truth. (Morelli, 2010a) Of course this focus on truth would certainly extend to how the husband-wife-father-mother relate to each other in a blessed marriage when they create a domestic church, a little church in their home, and this extends to their children as well.
The Church Fathers on Truth
St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia II p. 188) regards truth as equivalent and linked to divine knowledge: "Truth is divine knowledge, and virtue the struggles for truth on the part of those who desire it." St. Maximus uses strong words to convey the ubiquity and demand character of truth. He tells us: "Real faith is truth which is all-embracing, all-sustaining and free from all falsehood." Furthermore, to emphasize being truthful St. Gregory of Sinai (Philokalia IV p. 215) points out it is not enough to study truth such as in an academic discipline one has to live it:
To try to discover the meaning of the commandments through study and reading without actually living in accordance with them is like mistaking the shadow of something for it reality. It is only by participating in the truth that you can share in the meaning of truth.
It's about how truth is practiced
The marriage and family breaker is not truth itself however. It is how truth is insisted upon and forced on spouse or offspring. It is when truth is obnoxiously imposed on, that is to say, when it is arrogant and rude. It is the pragmatics of the communication interaction between husband, wife and children which is the family problem. It is the insistence that one's point of view is not only true, but must be adopted by the other, simply because it is true. It is offensively asserting on one's truth over the other's viewpoint and demanding they acquiesce to your viewpoint. It is the continual demand that your spouse or children acknowledge your viewpoint and admit they were and are wrong. In disagreements, it is the attitude held is that your spouse and children should acknowledge and submit to 'truth as you see it.'
Roger Brown, a Harvard University research psychologist, made what might be termed one of the most important discoveries in modern psycholinguistics. He reported (1965) that when we communicate it is the onomatopoeic aspect of language that conveys the most meaning. In other words, it is the tone of voice and the manner in which the words are spoken which convey the overwhelming meaning in the communication, rather than the linguistic-definitional content of the words themselves. Over the years I have found this Brown's research very pastorally and clinically helpful.
For example, I may have a mother present a problem she claims "her son has." She reports that she simply asks him to clear his dinner dish from the table after supper. The mother tells me this in a pleasant non-emotional conversational tone. She goes on to say, "when I tell him this, he flies into a rage, what is wrong with him?" Immediately yellow (caution) flags arise in my mind. I ask myself, "if she said this to her son as nicely as she is conveying it to me, why would he respond so angrily?" Two hypotheses emerge, one, her son does have an emotional problem, or two, she is not accurately conveying to me how she told her son to perform the cleanup. At this point I usually ask her to role play the exact words and tone of voice she used when talking to her son. I may have to recite a possible typical script to get her started. I begin with a saccharine intoned: "Sweetheart, would you please, help mommy and take your dinner dish to the sink;" or "BOBBY, TAKE your dish to the SINK, NOW!" It has been by pastoral and clinical experience that in most situations such as this example, invariably the words she chose to talk to her son and her tone of voice is closer to the second script. This is not to say the child may not have a behavioral-emotional problem as well, but it is to say, the parental communication is harsh and mean.
Psycho-spiritual Consequences of "mean-spirited" communication
As Brown points out if something is said in an angry or mean tone, it is the tone rather than the words which carry the message. In this example, the mothers "tone." was strident and angry. This is the message received by her son. He then would most likely respond emotionally himself, perhaps experience some anger, hurt or confusion, and would likely infer his mother was mean. He will likely close himself off to any forthcoming messages. Interestingly, I have found the most consistent complaint children have about their parents is that they speak "meanly" to them. If the content of the 'truth' one is insisting on is of a spiritual nature, one's opponent, spouse or child may in fact, stubbornly resist, simply to retain some sense of self-worth. I have previously emphasized that learning is much more effective when "discovered" by the learner than being forced by some "teacher." (Morelli, 2010b)
One problem with the attitude that one has to get husband, wife and children to affirm the truth as you understand it is that individuals with such cognitive sets tend to be in-cognizant that they may both hold points of view that both may be contain a portion of what is really true. Referencing the Parable of the Wheat and the Chaff, it may be a failure to realize that each family member's viewpoint may contain some 'chaff' but some 'wheat' and as well. Thus it behooves the members of the domestic church to listen to Christ's parable and apply it to marital and family interaction: "But he said, `No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them." (Mt 13: 29).
Pride: The Spiritual Root of Insisting on one's view of truth
Our first thought should be to consider and utilize ourselves Our Lord's own question about involving oneself in the affairs of others: "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" (Mt 7: 3). This meditation should be done in the context of St. Paul's famous description of love, part of which reads: "Love does not insist on its own way..." (1Cor 13: 5).
One of the descriptions of Pride given by St. John Climacus in his Ladder of Divine Ascent (1979) is that it is "the mother of condemnation [and] a source of anger." This is exactly what obnoxiously insisting on imposing one's truth on others is (even if correct according to Christ's teaching). The seriousness of Pride, the passion that leads to insisting others conform to one's view point can be seen in this dramatic metaphor of St. John: "Pride is utter penury of soul, under the illusion of wealth, imagining light in its darkness. The foul passion not only blocks our advance, but even hurls us down from the heights."
Communication versus Obnoxiously Insisting on Your Point of View
This is not to say that family members should not communicate their real feelings to one another about some issue. This is especially important if their viewpoint or feelings are 'true,' that they conform to Christ's teachings. In fact, we could consider communication of what is 'true' as a gospel imperative. This is described to us by St. Luke (8: 1) in telling us of the very actions of Jesus Himself: "Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him..." Of course in dysfunctional families some may insist on their own way regarding everyday things as well. In one non-normative case I had several years a the father in the family would demand no viewpoint on any issue except the viewpoint he would first utter. But there is a world of difference between simply, communicating one's viewpoint, (which in fact may reflect the view of Christ and His Church), versus obnoxiously insisting that others accept it. As I pointed out in a recent article (Morelli, 2011) Jesus did not make demands on others, He respected their free will.
One method of effective communication is related to the psychological communication skill of assertiveness. (Morelli 2006d). Assertiveness is defined as an honest communication of real feelings in a socially acceptable way; that is to say not mean-spirited, harsh, arrogant or rude. This means all assertive pragmatics imbibe the ethos "of the love of Christ which includes patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control - what is known in scriptural terminology as the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5: 22-23)."
There are socially and spiritually appropriate behavioral boundaries that must be in place in a Christ-like family (Morelli, 2006a), but they should be enacted and guided by the love of Christ just mentioned. The most effective methods of ensuring behavioral compliance is a scientific cognitive-emotive-behavioral program enlivened by Christ's Holy Mysteries and His Church. (Morelli, 2005b, 2006a,c,e, 2010b)
Trying out the others perspective
One insight I had early on in my pastoral and clinical ministry is that the world always makes sense in some way to the person I was talking to. Their perspective many not be mine, but it made 'sense' to the other. As a priest-psychologist I found it important to attempt to see the world as the other saw it, so I could understand their perspective. A non-family case provided the material for this understanding. My patient was a financial planner. He reported significant anxiety and depression when his clients did not take his advice. One specific example he gave stands out. A female senior-citizen consulted him regarding investments. He suggested a high yield municipal tax-free bond. When she found out this would mean giving up her "bankbook," (a passport-like book that had a typed sequential 'bank stamped in' printed record of deposits and withdrawals and balance) she declined his advice. He could not understand her decision at all. Objectively he saw it as irrational (he was correct). She would be giving up 7% interest for a 'bankbook.' I perfectly understood the elderly woman's perspective. For her having a printed record in a bankbook, was safe, it was 'proof' of her holdings, a bond certificate was simply a 'piece of paper,' it meant nothing.
Trying out the others perspective is also related to the psychological process of empathy. (Morelli, 2005a. 2007). Empathy can be described as thinking and feeling what the other is thinking and feeling. Being a member of a relational unit which emphasizing shared goals, objectiveness and cooperation and being of one mind should facilitate empathy. The research of Markus, & Kitayama, (1994) demonstrated in fact that a socialization pattern emphasizing an such connectedness indeed fosters cooperation. In turn such a collective focus helps to bring about empathy, agreeableness and cooperativeness. (Church and Ortiz, 2005) A proper understanding of the psycho-spiritual ethos of the domestic church, the little church in the home as well as the parish community, would indicate this is exactly what Orthodox family life, as well as membership in the parish community should look like. The exclamation ending the Anaphora prayer the priest recites during the Divine Liturgy expresses this relational perspective:
And grant us with one mouth and one heart to glorify and praise thine all-honorable and majestic name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The Domestic Church
As alluded to above, the family is the most immediate place where the teachings of Christ should be understood and practiced. Like the Holy Trinity, the members of the domestic church, being of one flesh through marriage of the husband and wife, or their offspring is a relational unit based on love. The words, teachings and actions of Jesus should be the spirit of family inter-relationship. Husbands, and wives, as such, and as fathers and mothers, should be the leaders of the "church at home" in Christ's name, with the enlivened by the counsel of St. Paul: "Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself." (Eph 5: 28). These words of St. Paul, often overlooked, indicate marriage is not a dictatorship of the husband or wife, obnoxiously insisting one one's point of view, but rather a relational mutuality of family leadership and partnership. They should bless one another and their children, and reciprocally witness and guide their children in Godliness. This can be done in ordinary daily events like blessing the food which is partaken, give thanksgiving for all that God has provided (house, furnishings, etc.), and thanking God for the health and talents He has rendered to all family members. The God-centeredness of the family should also be applied in dealing with individual problems family members which may incur and in witnessing to one another how Christ would view and deal with contemporary events (Morelli, 2005c). The sanctity of their conduct, cooperativeness and empathy should be shown in word and deed. An detailed outline of how the Domestic Church can fulfill its obligation to preach, teach and practice Christ, with kindness and love can be found in Morelli, 2009.
The Disarming Technique
At times a family member, or even someone outside the family will stubbornly insist on his or her own viewpoint and be intent to prove the other wrong. It almost appears like warfare in which the insisting one will not back off until their spouse or child declares "unconditional surrender." Morelli, (2010a), discussed a very effective communication tool in dealing with such situations. It can be used in situations in which your point of view is rejected outright. It is called the disarming technique:
After expressing your view to a person and it is rejected, disarming becomes a powerful way to deflect conflict. Basically it makes a neutral statement about the other individual's response. One does not have to agree to what was said and what you consider false, so truth as you see does not have to be compromised. This is especially important if the truth you expressed and that was rejected by another individual reflects the orthodox teaching of Christ and His Church. Some representative Disarming Responses: "Hum! That's an idea;" "That is one way of looking at it;" "That's a possibility;" "That's a point to consider." If the person you are communicating with is a friend and you want to maintain the friendship and they keep pursuing the point a last effort communication might be: "Well if we want to keep our friendship, we will just have to agree to disagree on this point."
Agreeing to Disagree
As simple as it sounds, in a communication impasse (especially within family and among friends), just suggesting to the other, a change in how to continue to relate to one another, a truce so to speak, may be an effective communication tool: "Look! We are all members of our family, we love one another, and should love one another. Sometimes we have to 'agree to disagree.' You know, we all can't agree on everything, nor should we have too. I can love you even though you hold a different viewpoint than I do. The most important thing is for us is to accept that we have different views on this subject and move on." Psychologically at least there are no winners and no losers.
Humility: The Spiritual Cure
In contemporary American (and Western) secular society, humility is not a virtue, it is considered a vice and disability. Jesus beautiful words known as the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Mt 5:5), would be re-phrased: 'Cursed are the meek, for they shall lose it all.' Robert Greene (1998) would utter the motto of the proud in his 15th Law of Power: "Crush your enemy totally."
Jesus taught us just the opposite: "For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself." (Lk 9: 25). How apt for those who obnoxiously insist on imposing their viewpoint on family, friends and others to apply to themselves the Idiomela by St. John of Damascus sung during Funeral Service in the Eastern Church:
I called to mind the Prophet, as he cried: I am earth and ashes; and I looked again into the graves and beheld the bones laid bare, and I said: Who then is the king or the warrior, the rich man or the needy, the upright or the sinner? Yet, o Lord, give rest unto thy servant with the righteous.
St. Paul's instruction to St. Timothy should be the motto of a good, smart marriage in Christ: "And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing..." (2Tim 2:24).
St. Dorotheos of Gaza dedicates a whole chapter his in Discourses (Wheeler, 1977), that he entitles 'On Building Up of Virtue.' St. Dorotheos uses the analogy of building a house, that must starts with its foundation. In this context, he then first discusses faithfulness which is a foundation that without which "it is impossible to please God." (c.f. Heb 11: 6). He moves on to the stones of obedience and patience, and with perseverance and courage as the cornerstone of the structure. But what holds it all together is the mortar, which is humility. St. Dorotheos goes on to point out humility "...is composed of the earth and lies under the feet of all." Then to accentuate the extraordinary importance of humility, he goes on to say: "Any virtue existing without humility is no virtue at all." To this however, must be added discretion, which braces the building so to speak, and the roof of the building will be charity, which "completes the house." But at the end of his description, he returns back, or rather looks up to humility again, which he calls the house's crown:
The crown is humility. For that is the crown and guardian of all virtues. As each virtue needs humility for its acquisition--and in that sense we said each stone is laid with the mortar of humility--so also the perfection of all the virtues is humility...the man that is getting closer to God looks on himself more and more as a sinner.
It is impossible to overcome the barriers to a good marriage without humility. As St. Isaac the Syrian (Wensinck, 1923) tells us: "Grace is preceded by humility." St. Isaac goes on to say humility is "embracing a voluntary mortification regarding all things." In the case of the obnoxiously insisting on imposing your point of view on spouse or other family members, it would mean letting go, giving up, putting to death this prideful stance. As St. Isaac writes: "He that has humility in his heart, has become dead to the world." So in regard to insisting on others acquiesce to one's own viewpoints, we should apply St. Isaac's wisdom: "...honor silence; for it prevents many wrongs."
When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but with the humble is wisdom. (Pv 11:2)
Brown, R. (1965). Social psychology. NY: Free Press.
Church, A. T., & Ortiz, F. A. (2005). Culture and personality. In CV. A. Derlega, B.A. Winstead, & W. H. Jones (Eds.) Personality: Contemporary theory and research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Greene, R. (1998). The 48 laws of power. NY: Penguin
Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1994). The cultural construction of self and emotion: Implications for social behavior. In S. Kitayama & H. Rl Markus (Eds.), Emotions and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influnence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
St. John Climacus (1991). The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.
Wensinck, A. J. (ed., trans.) (1923). Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh. Amsterdam, Holland: Koninklijke Akademie Van Wetenschappen.