Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Loving Act of Saying No

Love has boundaries. Sometimes we have to say no to those we love because to say yes would create a condition in which we are no longer ourselves and no longer able to love. Most of us have experienced the pain of having to say no to someone we love. As young adults, many people who love and respect their parents beyond words have to suffer through the anxiety and sometimes misunderstanding of saying no to them. It is often a shock for parents to hear the word no from their adult or near adult children. But at some point the child has to say no; otherwise, the child cannot love: you cannot love as someone you are not, you can only love as yourself, as you are. If a child has to pretend to be something to love, then it is mere pacification, not love.
Even very loving parents are sometimes unable to see who their adolescent children are becoming and who their adult children have become because they are so blinded by who they want them to be. It is very difficult for parents to see who their children are, to separate their hopes and dreams (and fears) for their children from who they are actually blossoming into. We want our children to be putty in our hands. We want to be able to mold them. But human beings are not mere clay--human beings are clay formed in the image of God, in whom God has breathed the Spirit of Life. If we are not careful, if we do not pay attention to who are children are, it is possible to twist or bend them in ways that will not, in the end, keep them from becoming who they are, but will merely put an awkward bend in their psyche--like a great fir tree with a bend in its trunk from a too heavy snowfall while it was still young.
Even between husband and wife, no is a necessary word, a loving word. Even without realizing it, a husband or wife can sometimes overpower his or her spouse with an image of who he or she imagines the spouse to be. Not wanting to make waves, or afraid of the consequences of challenging one’s spouse, an overpowered man or woman can quickly lose his or her ability to love as him/herself. Then all that is left is pacification, a walking on eggshells, an appeasement, anything to avoid trouble, but nothing like love.
I once counseled a couple who were typically blindly in love before they got married. The husband was an only child who had been quite spoiled in many ways and was used to speaking to his mother as though she were his servant. The fiancee noticed this, but since he never spoke to her that way, she thought it was just a quirk in his family, something that had nothing to do with her--until they had been married three months. One evening after a particularly stressful day at work, the husband came home in a foul mood and began ordering his wife around as though she were his servile mother. The wife immediately confronted her husband: “Don’t you ever speak to me like that. I am not your mother and you will not treat me as you treated her!” A shouting match ensued, and a couple hours later I got a phone call from the woman who was spending the night with a girl friend.
She was a wreck, but I encouraged her that she had done the right thing. No one whom her husband loved had ever said no to him before. It was going to take him a bit to get used to it. She had to say no. To become like her husband’s servile mother would have destroyed who she was. And who she was, was who her husband had married, who her husband loved. By giving in, she would be taking away from him the very woman he loves and whom he had married. (And, although I didn’t say this to her, taking away his opportunity to grow up in a way that had been denied him up to that point.)
It was a rough first year, but they worked it out. I spoke with this couple on the phone recently. It’s been almost ten years of marriage and they are doing very well. They love each other as much as ever; they respect each other; and they serve each other--not because one demands it from the other, but because they are both free to love as themselves.


elizabeth said...

I have not heard this articulated in this way before; thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Fr. Michael. I loved this post. It is so painful to say no and so difficult to try to distinguish between when saying no is dying to myself in the right way or not being myself in the wrong way. I sometimes shake my head and smile, because until recently, the thought that I should be myself had never really occurred to me.


Fr. Michael said...

Dear Anna,
We don't realize how much God loves us--not as abstract human beings, but as distinct persons. We are all sick and need to be healed and cleaned up (so to speak), but we must never lose sight of the fact that it is us whom God saves. When we get to heaven, God is not going to say to us, "Why weren't you more like St. [fill in the blank]." God will ask, "Why did you hide yourself like Adam in Paradise?"

Michelle said...

Wow. You should post your last comment as a blog entry in itself.

'When we get to heaven, God is not going to say to us, "Why weren't you more like St. [fill in the blank]." God will ask, "Why did you hide yourself like Adam in Paradise?"'

I find that incredibly helpful.