A former boss/mentor/fatherly-friend once told me ‘You can’t not lead; the fact is you’re always leading, it’s just a matter of how well or poorly you’re doing it.’ This phrase has been stuck in my head for years now, and always seems to find new areas to lay hold of. Lately, this saying has modified into ‘You can’t not affect others in relationships, you’re either building up or tearing down, there is no neutral.’
“Sin sprouts, as banana trees on the Nile, whenever the effect of your relationships with others is to diminish rather than enlarge them. There is no neutral corner in your human encounters, no antiseptic arena in which ‘nobody else is hurt’ or ‘nobody else knows about it.’ You either make people a little better, or leave them a little worse.” Frederick Buechner
When I read the above quote I was affirmed in so much of my own woundedness, as well as provoked to consider the many ways in which I have wounded others. It seems that so much of what we do we consider to have no effect on those with whom we are in relationship – such as friends, spouses, children, or family. In my own story, this is most clearly seen in addiction. Typically an addict believes the only harm being done is to themselves, and in the fog of addiction they fail to see the emotional harm done to those around them – whether by blatant jabs and emotive cuts of anger, or in the more subtle but quite as harmful inattention and neglect.
This also seems to be the case in those personal problems we so often think are kept secret, such as with pornography. The idea that one can use pornography to meet internal needs is in itself a denial to those with whom you are relating to intimately meet those very needs (intimacy is much grander than just sex). By overly giving my attention to an object, behavior or substance, I am essentially denying another to know me, and in the process denying another of being known. Sadly, what I once considered something harmful only to myself has wounded those who I was made to share life with intimately. This wound typically finds its target in another’s worth and identity.
Unfortunately, the buck doesn’t stop with addicts and pornographers. This giving of myself to an object, behavior or substance occurs at a much grander level. What about when I deny intimacy as I give myself too fully to my work, leisure, religion, entertainment, studies, self-satisfaction, etc.? When God asked for Israel’s affection, He referred to their neglect of relationship with Him as worshiping idols and false-gods.
I write this with much sorrow as I recognize the past, current, and future wounds I gave and will give to my wife and children, friends and family, neighbors and churches; all due to my self-absorbed activities and behaviors which I considered harmful to no one but myself.
“Life can be taken out of others in rivulets and drops, in the small daily failures of inattention, that bitterest fruit of self-absorption, as surely as by the terrible strokes to their hearts.” Brennan Manning
This stirs up the question, ‘Who am I denying intimate relationship through my busyness and inattention?’
I believe that to begin changing this life-habit is to simply start paying attention.
First, I must pay attention to myself and the needs I am seeking to meet in my behaviors and relationships. What are my true desires?
Second, I must pay attention to those with whom I am in relationship. Am I tearing them down or building them up? There is no neutral.
Third, I must pay attention to what those around me are longing for with and from me.