Friday, June 19, 2015

Understanding “importance” is the key to intimacy

             Let’s begin with a few statistics.  In 2010 the Nielsen Company conducted a study that examined dependence on texting among 60,000 mobile phone users.  As would be expected, teenagers scored the highest, averaging 3,339 text messages a month.  The average texting among female teens topped out at 4,050 messages a month.  That’s one text message every seven minutes of a sixteen-hour day.  Tellingly, the researchers also noted that voice communication among teenagers dropped by fourteen percent in just one year.
            What is the impact of this trend?
            We are losing sight of what is important and what is urgent.  Let me define my terms.  Importance is our highest calling—our personal mission—founded on such principles as love, integrity, understanding, forgiveness, and transcendence.  In contrast, urgency is the interruptions—the loud, demanding voice that shouts, “You need to pay attention to me right now!  Text messages—and other faceless communication—that do not advance a personal mission are examples of urgency.  To be clear, a text message that says “I love you” is mission-based (although such intimate messages are better suited for face-to-face encounters).  Text messages that are glib, trivial, pompous, or sardonic are seldom principle-centered.  It’s not that living a life of urgency is wrong; in the long run, it is just not very emotionally or spiritually fulfilling.
            Yes, there are times when urgency is in alignment with one’s mission.  For example, if your son were in a serious accident, you would drop everything to get him to emergency.  That’s an example of something that is both urgent and important.  But that’s the exception.  We spend the lion’s share of our lives responding to interruptions that are urgent but unimportant.
            Consider texting and driving.  A 2011 report by The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that roughly half of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old Americans send and receive text messages while driving.  Personally, I think the number is higher.  When I was teaching at Washington State University, all my students admitted they routinely texted while driving.
            Texting behind the wheel is the perfect example of tending to what is urgent but unimportant.  It’s like saying, “I ran out of gas because I was too busy driving.”
            But is it possible that texting (along with our love affair with selfies, iPads, Twitter, and Facebook) is eating away at our very character?
            A 2013 University of Winnipeg study reported that low-texting college students identified with life goals that were moral, aesthetic, and spiritual.  In contrast, high-texting students (punching out over four thousand messages a month) reported an affinity for life goals that centered on wealth and image.
            I’m not suggesting that the Winnipeg study is evidence of a cause-and-effect correlation.  But I do think it is representative of a cultural trend—a move from community to individual desires, from empathy to narcissism.
            Technology has another downside.  Our youth have come to equate the number of cyber connections with intimacy.  At the end of a course on interpersonal communications at WSU, I asked my students what they could do to make their relationships more meaningful.
            “I’m going to build greater intimacy with my friends,” one student said.
            “That sounds noble,” I offered.  “How do you plan to do that?”
            “I will text them more often.”
            Ouff, that hurt.  If he had been even marginally attentive during the term, he would have known that texting and intimacy are not synonyms.  Texting may be efficient, but it is not intimacy, for intimacy is qualitative, not quantitative.  It evolves through face-to-face transparency, non-judgment, and empathy—all of which takes time.
            In today’s society, when a young, sensitive person seeks more from a relationship than a ream of cryptic messages, the other will often become impatient.  The French author and journalist, Jean-Louis Servan, said it succinctly:  “With the slightest disruption or inconvenience, we have the sensation of being wrong about the other, and we determine that it is easier to simply drop the person.”
            There is a physiological reason for Servan’s observation.  Antonio Damasio, director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, explained that deeper emotions—such as empathy—“are inherently slow.”  Although the brain reacts instantaneously to threat, it takes much longer to respond to the psychological suffering of another person (a phenomenon of the brain that can actually be observed on a magnetic resonance imaging machine).
            Nicholas Carr, author of the Pulitzer finalist, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, explained that the synapses in the brain become permanently shaped by repetitive functions.  In a phrase, we become what we practice.  On the average, Americans spend eight hours a day on their screens—computers, iPads, televisions, and cell phones. Their eyes are constantly flitting from one point of interest to the next, not spending more than two minutes on any internet page, and no more than ten seconds on any image or text within that page.  Eventually, their brain synapses become “hardwired” to respond quickly and superficially.  As Carr put it, “ as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.”  In other words, as avid consumers of technology, we are training our brains to be built for speed—and not for empathy or intimacy.
            I know that I cannot turn back the clock of technology.  There is probably not a teenager on earth who would set aside a smart phone for, say, an evening of singing around the piano.  But that knowledge does not ease the pain of rejection when I reach out for a moment of compassion—from anyone, young or old—when I say to a pair of darting eyes, spellbound by flashing thumbs over a flickering screen, “Hello.  Do you see me?”

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

True community is the secret to marital longevity

            My wife Nita is a salamander, which may be the most reckless metaphor of my lifetime.   Please don’t misunderstand me.   The figure of speech is not meant to be disparaging to Nita or the salamander.  In fact, it’s a compliment.  To begin with, salamanders are amphibians, which is pretty cool—right?  But even more astonishing, they are capable of regenerating lost limbs.  That’s my wife!  No, she can’t pop out a new appendage at will (although she does have the baffling knack of extending her leg six feet under the dining table when I say something rude to our dinner guests).   However, like a salamander, she has the uncanny ability to adapt and evolve.  And that powerful facility is why we have been married for nearly half a century.

            The American psychologist, Scott Peck, said it best when he spoke about the “stages of community” in his book A Different Drum.  Peck explained that a couple (or any close-knit group for that matter) goes through stages of development in their quest for community.  They evolve—or not—depending on their level of maturity.  There are four stages.  Many stagnate or give up at stage one or two.  Only the most psychologically and spiritually evolved get to stage four.
            Stage One:  Pseudo-community.  The first stage of any relationship is the honeymoon.  It’s called pseudo-community because from the outside it may look like true community, but it is all built on pretense.  The couple wants the relationship to work so badly that they present an idealize avatar of their true selves.  Imagine the first date.  They scrub their faces, put on their best duds, and maybe even speak with an English accent—anything to be appealing to the other.  Meanwhile, they ignore their differences.  “It makes me cringe when he talks with a mouthful of pizza, but, hey, no one’s perfect.”
            My wife was a trooper during this first stage of our marriage.  When I was in my early twenties, water skiing was one of my passions.  I was sure my petite and graceful wife would share my enthusiasm—not an easy assignment for a woman who never really learned how to swim.  In fact, her definition of swimming was “staying alive in the water.”  Still, she wrapped herself in the over-sized orange life vest and slipped her feet into the long planks, looking like a terrorized jack-o’-lantern on a stick.  For Nita, slip-sliding on water was as natural as a Parisian fashion show with sumo wrestlers.  But she loved me, really loved me—and for that I am both eternally grateful and woefully embarrassed that I put her through so much needless misery.
            Stage Two:  Chaos.  Stage two is not a happy time.  It’s as though a marriage certificate suddenly mutates into a license to criticize.  What we are willing to ignore in pseudo-community becomes intolerable within the chaos of stage two.  We want our partner to abide by our standards, our world view.  It is tantamount to saying, “Let me take a moment out of my day to make you a better person.”  It’s crazy, I know—why would we want to replicate ourselves?—but somehow we harbor the kooky impulse to take dominion over our spouses.
            When this happens, no one is happy.  Those who stay in chaos often resort to defense mechanisms to survive.  For example, some will emotionally check out and live in their own world of fantasy.  I once counseled a woman who relied solely on romance novels to get through the day.  “How many do you read?” I asked. 
            “Just one a day,” she said meekly. 
            Uhhh, okay.
            Others choose more toxic get-my-way tactics, including such favorites as depression, anger, addiction, and adultery.
            Stage Three: Emptying the self.  We always have a choice.  We can choose to be right, or we can choose to be kind.  Being “right” is about ego; being “kind” is about spirit.  Recently, I had a respectful but spirited conversation with a Christian friend on a controversial church doctrine.  At one point I said, “But that’s crazy.  You can’t believe that . . .”  Then I caught myself.  “No, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to say that; that was a cheap shot.” 
            “You see, Allen,” my friend said, “that’s an example of the Holy Spirit talking to you, counseling you to be less harsh and more kind.”
            Although I am more likely to label my regret as a twinge of “social conscience,” I do agree with my friend.  In that moment I emptied myself of my ego and determined to be kind.
            Replacing ego with spirit in a marriage requires an Olympian leap of maturity.  We have to truly believe it when we say, “I love you just the way you are.”
            That has not been difficult for my wife.  I think that being loving is in her DNA.  I’m not so virtuous; my genetic code seems to be laced with rungs of “bossy” and “crabby.”  But with time—and a wife imbued with indefatigable patience—I have learned that Nita cannot be all things to me (just as I cannot be all things to her).  So we both have turned to other friends to satisfy many of our unique passions.  Nita has her birding and ecology friends; I have my music and theatre friends.  At stage three we no longer need to be constantly together—as we did in the early days when poor Nita rode shotgun on my umpteenth trip to the hardware store.
            Not everyone understands this kind of freedom.  Nita once received a phone call from a friend who reported that I had been seen playing tennis with a mysterious woman.  The meddler was convinced that I was having an affair.  Nita and I laughed about the phone call.  What the officious friend did not know was that our love has always been deep enough to be faithful and liberated enough to be expansive.  Some might argue, “But what about appearances?”  Frankly, we don’t care about appearances; we care about love.
            Stage Four:  True community.  It will sound a bit like the Age of Aquarius, but true community is characterized by understanding, forgiveness, respect, and love.  It is a wonderful sanctuary, a place where problem solving is civil, even effortless, because you know that you can be completely transparent—or silly or fumbling—and rest assured that your partner will never be derisive.  You are at peace.
            In the end you know you are at true community when your wife remains unruffled, despite an unbecoming comparison to a salamander.  And why shouldn’t she?  She knows it is said with humor and affection and that I love her exactly as she is—a woman who is amazingly adaptable, loving, trusting, and positively unsalamandrine in her beauty.

Dr. Allen Johnson is a columnist for the Tri-City Herald and the author of the novel, The Awakening.  His column, “Mindfulness,” appears on the first Sunday of every month.