Handle with Care
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 4, 1997


Isaiah 50:4-8 Let my adversaries confront me
Matthew 5:21-26 Be reconciled to your brother
Arcana Coelestia #7042 The Divine never opposes itself to anyone

When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23, 24).

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the East Coast ministerial Peer Supervision meeting, which is held each spring at Blairhaven. This is a chance for the ministers in our church who serve on the Atlantic seaboard to get together, support and share friendship with each other, and talk about issues that affect our ministries and the church. We are fortunate in this part of the country to have a large complement of ministers--at least, large for Convention. There were eleven of us at the East Coast Peer Supervision this year.

One topic that we discussed this year came from some guidelines that Convention's Council of Ministers adopted several years ago for its ministers to follow. Among other things, this statement puts forth the ideal of practicing direct and caring communication. I would like to spend some time this morning considering just what it means to practice direct and caring communication--especially with people and in situations where we might have a hard time communicating at all, let alone in a direct and caring way.

But before we look at times of conflict and confrontation, it is a good idea to consider what communication is all about in better times, with people that we are close to. If we cannot engage in direct and caring communication under these circumstances, then we will certainly not be able to do so during times of tension. On the other hand, if we do practice direct and caring communications during better times, it may be just the practice we need to communicate well under difficult circumstances.

There are certainly many different factors in direct and caring communication. We could not cover them all even if we could name them all. I would like to focus on two that are so basic that without them, none of the others would make any difference. Those two are love for the other person (or people) and respect for the other person.

Though love and respect are related to each other, they are not the same. We can love someone that we may not respect, such as a close family member who, through stubbornness and bad choices, has made a mess of his or her life. We can also respect someone that we do not love, such as a boss who is very competent and professional, but lacks a sense of warmth and caring.

Love is something we do with our heart. It may be conditional or unconditional; but the most genuine form of love is unconditional. We love our children whether they make good or bad choices; and like a parent, God loves us whether we make our bed in heaven or in hell, to use the Biblical phrase.

Respect is something we do with our head. When we recognize skill or integrity or some other good quality in another person, it makes an impression on our minds. Because of that, we give him or her respect.

The best conditions for direct and caring communication are when we are with people that we both love and respect. Our love for them gives us a strong desire to communicate with them--to share with them our thoughts and feelings, our ideas, aspirations, and concerns. Our respect for them prompts us to share these things in the best way we know how. When we are with people we respect, we put all the clarity and depth that we can into the things we say to them--or that we communicate to them in non-verbal ways, such as through a gesture, a touch, a hug.

It is especially important to have open, direct, and caring communication with the people that we share our everyday life with. The members of our family; the people we work with each day; these people--especially our family members--form the core of our interrelational world. Without direct and caring communication, we do come into contact with these people, but we do not really touch them, nor do they touch us. With direct and caring communication, we share ourselves with each other; we share both our minds and our hearts. In this way, we form a network of mutual support and care that adds richness and depth to our lives and keeps us going through our more difficult times.

We may think that communication is something that happens automatically. That is a big mistake. As too many of us have found out, it is all to easy to spend days, months, or years in the same workplace with each other--even in the same house with each other--and still be like strangers. We get caught up in our own work, our own hobbies, our own concerns, and before we realize what has happened, we no longer know the people that we share our daily lives with.

One of the first things we need to do to have direct and caring communications, then, is to make time for it. We may think that we have too many things to do; that we couldn't possibly carve the time out of our day just to "sit around and talk." However, this is a decision we make. Of course we have work to do. Of course we have hobbies and other interests. It is a question of priorities. How important are our relationships to us? Are they as important as our work? Are they as important as our sports or hobbies?

When we opt not to take the time to communicate with the people around us, we are making a decision that those people are not as important to us as all the other things we do. We may not want to recognize it, but when something is very important to us, we devote time to it. Often, we devote as much time to it as we possibly can.

We should pay close attention to the things we devote our time to, since they are the things we really consider important. We should also pay attention to the things we do not devote our time to. Perhaps we assure ourselves that we care; but if we really do care, we will express it by making sure that some of our time is spent with the people we say we care for. If not, we are in danger of losing what we profess to love. All too many divorces and breakups in other kinds of relationships come after a long history of neglect.

The positive side of this is that if we do care enough to make time for sharing and communication--and for simply spending time together doing things we enjoy, or pursuing interests we have in common--our relationships with the people we love or work with will continue to grow stronger and deeper. There is no end to the levels of connection and trust we can achieve if we devote ourselves to a relationship in this way. Once we have felt the deep rewards of sharing honesty and love with others, we will wonder how we could ever not have taken the time to build up this wonderful kind of relationship.

Let's return to our consideration of love and respect. At its core, love applies to all, and brings all together into connection and unity; respect is a function of truth, which distinguishes between good and bad, better and worse.

This presents us with a problem. I said earlier that without love and respect for the other person, we might as well forget about direct and caring communication. But what if we have no respect for the person we are attempting to communicate with? When we do not respect someone, we generally do not think that person is worth the effort it takes to combine directness--meaning honesty--with caring. In fact, there may be reasons we do not want to be honest at all, such as a fear that the other person will use any information we may give him or her against us or against other people who are innocent. So the problem is, if we do not respect the other person, how can we possibly have direct and caring communication with him or her?

This is where our communication skills are put to the test. But it is more than simply communication skills that are being tested. It is our willingness . . . our commitment to love others as we love ourselves. What is being tested is our ability to care about and love others even when we tend not to respect them. If we cannot find it in our hearts to love the people that we are in a confrontation with, we will never be able to find enough respect for them to serve as a basis for direct and caring communication.

It may seem like too much to ask that we should love the people that we consider to be our opponents or enemies. But this is exactly what our Lord asks us--even commands us--to do. Jesus said, "Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked" (Luke 6:35). It is easy to love those who love us; it is very difficult to love those who hate and abuse us . . . or those who we think hate and abuse us.

We would be wise to keep in mind what Swedenborg says about our perspective and the Lord's perspective when there is a conflict. When we are in the wrong, we tend to blame the other person for any difficulties or conflict. However, we may simply be projecting our own wrongs onto the other person. This is one of the first steps toward developing some respect for those we consider our enemies. If we can recognize that we also may be mistaken, or at least partially in the wrong, and that those we are confronting may have some valid grievances against us, then we have a beginning that can develop into respectful communication.

The other side of this coin--and this is what can enable us to develop the respect needed as a basis for direct and caring communication--is that we must actively look for the good and the right in the other person's position, and actively work on understanding the other person's grievances. Perhaps we are right and they are in the wrong in certain areas. But in other areas, we may be mistaken, and they may hold the key to helping us fix a problem that exists within ourselves and in our own actions.

Our natural tendency is to see only the good in ourselves and only the bad in those who oppose us. In order to engage in direct and caring communications, we must balance that. We must also be willing to see the wrong, or bad, in ourselves, and the right, or good, in the ones we are confronting. If we can do this, no matter what the outcome of the confrontation, our "opponent" will have done us a valuable service. He or she will have given us an opportunity to overcome some of our self-centered tendencies, and develop our capacity to love those we consider our enemies, as our Lord commands us to do.

Confrontation with others must always be handled with care. There may be times to shout; there may be times to cry; there may be times to grow angry; there may be times to yield. If, during peaceful times, we develop the ability to express ourselves directly and honestly, yet with concern for the other person's feelings, then perhaps during the more turbulent times we will have had enough practice at it that we can avoid a destructive blowup, or even worse, a cold war. Perhaps we can instead turn confrontation into a time to develop our character while building mutual understanding, respect, and even love.



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1999 by Bruce DeBoer