Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The God Who Weeps" and Emotional Relationships

"That God has a heart that beats in sympathy with ours is the reality that draws us to Him. That He feels real sorrow, rejoices with real gladness, and weeps real tears with us. This, as the prophet Enoch learned, is an awful, terrible, yet infinitely comforting truth."

"God chooses to love us. And if love means responsibility, sacrifice, vulnerability, then God's decision to love us is the most stupendously sublime moment in the history of time. He chooses to love even at, necessarily at, the price of vulnerability."

"God is not exempt from emotional pain. Exempt? On the contrary, God's pain is as infinite as his love."

"Tenderness suggests sensitivity. A loving heart, like an exposed nerve, is by definition susceptible to pain."

"This vulnerability, this openness to pain and exposure to risk, is the eternal condition of the Divine."

These are all quotes from the introduction and first chapter of The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl and Fiona Givens. The basic argument of the first chapter is that emotional vulnerability is a divine attribute and that our Heavenly Father chooses to love us even though it comes with the price of experiencing hurt and pain caused by our imperfect decisions.

This has given me a lot to think about. Throughout my short life, I've known those (myself included) who have learned to deal with hurt by limiting the extent to which they emotionally invest in relationships with others, be they individuals or communities. When others inflict harm (whether intentionally or not), a common response is to withdraw emotionally to one degree or another from the relationship. Experience suggests that the less we emotionally invest, the less it hurts when others do us harm. I suppose this is a natural defensive mechanism that we develop over time as a way to protect ourselves and our emotional well-being.

In contrast, the compelling and persuasive argument put forth in The God Who Weeps seems to suggest that the ideal for us is to emulate God by deliberately choosing to love and emotionally invest, even at the risk of pain and hurt, and continuing to love and invest even after experiencing real (as opposed to expected or hypothetical) pain and hurt.

Reason and experience, however, strongly suggest that persisting in harmful relationships is not a wise course of action, as protecting oneself (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) is also important counsel that we are regularly given, both in the secular world as well as the Church. We simply cannot fulfill our covenants to be of service to one another, not to mention maintaining a strong emotional and mental well-being, if we have no emotional resources to draw upon. Thus, protecting those scarce emotional resources seems also to be a goal worth prioritizing, which can be jeopardized by choosing to invest and engage in hurtful relationships.

So how are we to reconcile this apparent paradox of pursuing the divine ideal of loving and investing versus taking preventive measures to protect our emotional health and overall well-being?

One possible avenue would be to recognize that while God has an infinite reserve of emotional strength to draw upon in choosing to love us, we mortals are imperfect and finite, meaning that our "emotional reservoir" necessarily has a limited, finite capacity to handle emotional trauma. While it may be ideal to be able to love and emotionally invest in unlimited quantities as God does, it seems ultimately impossible to do so in our limited, mortal capacity. Perhaps at this stage, we're called upon to emotionally invest to the extent to which we are reasonably able given the depth of our "emotional reservoir," and then to allow ourselves to not feel guilty when we decline to love and invest beyond our realistic capacities. (And this capacity is different for everyone. I sometimes envy those who seem to have bottomless "emotional reservoirs"...) Perhaps this should be done in the recognition that it is an imperfect solution and that as we continue to grow and progress, our emotional reservoirs increase their capacity to love and invest, and that someday we'll be closer to the divine ideal than we currently find ourselves.

In conclusion, this prompts me to consider questions like these: What can we do to increase the capacity of our emotional reservoirs, so that we have more resources with which to love and invest in relationships? Is this something that is "fixed" by our personalities and/or physiologies or can this be increased by methods either secular or spiritual? What, if anything, can we do to foster relationships that are safe for all parties involved to be emotionally vulnerable while limiting exposure to emotional risk? To me, at least, these are some fundamental questions to our efforts to create Zion-like communities using imperfect building blocks of human beings.


Lonna said...

Wow Ben, that is profound and is actually something that I've been contemplating lately. Thanks!

Kimberly Wilson said...

Very thought-provoking, and a tough thing. Can you link to that article you sent to me about us being a messy church, a community church? I've really been wanting to read it again, and misplaced the email. It goes along perfectly with this post.

So does the movie Shadowlands, where you see that C.S. Lewis had surrounded himself with people where he didn't have to invest emotionally, thus minimizing his possibility of emotional hurt.

Yet he was "Surprised by Joy," as his book of the same name states, when he met Joy, his wife. He ended up marrying her first just to keep her from her abusive ex, but later married her before the church AFTER he knew she was dying of cancer, even though he knew how badly it would hurt when she died.

Rob and I actually watched and discussed the movie when we were dating, and it is a foundational movie to our marriage.