In my last Meridian article, I outlined eight forms of bias that keep all of us from seeing each other objectively or charitably.
It is my view that we have overemphasized the development of skills as the solution to family problems. Conventional wisdom has taught us that if we develop better communication, listening, and conflict resolution skills, etc. then we will be more effective in our family relationships. Yet research has regularly shown little or no effects of skills training for improving family life. More than skills, we need proper motivations and attitudes. What we really need is a mighty change of heart.
How can we effectively train hearts? I nominate humility and compassion as the two keys that open us up to God and to His children.
For relationships to flourish we must be open to each other and different views of the world; this is akin to humility. Psychologists have not traditionally been ardent advocates of humility. That is changing. Two scholars, Tavris and Aronson, observed that “when confidence and convictions are unleavened by humility, by an acceptance of fallibility, people can easily cross the line from healthy self-assurance to arrogance” (p. 228). Humility has even commanded its own chapter in the new Handbook of Positive Psychology.
It is human nature to think that our way is the right way. We are unaware (unless we are humble) of the myriad ways that our thinking and preferring is formed by a lifetime of idiosyncratic experience. We are, each of us, odd.
Humility recognizes that my way is not the only way or the true way. As long as we are humans, it is not the best way either. Only when my thinking is filled with God’s way of thinking can it be remotely right. Only when I am open to the views and preferences of the people around me can I sustain healthy relationships.
G. K. Chesterton, the remarkable English writer suggested: “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men [and women] with common curiosity and pleasure. … You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, and in a street full of splendid strangers.” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image Books, 1959, pp. 20–21.)
Chesterton’s observation about living under a freer sky in a street full of splendid strangers applies equally well to our homes. When we can break out of our own dramas, we can truly understand, appreciate, and bless the members of our families. We are not the centers of the universe. God is. When God is at the center of our thoughts and affections, we are naturally more open to each other.
Jonathan Haidt, the remarkable psychologist, invites all of us to be more receptive to the views of others. “A good place to look for wisdom, therefore, is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents. You already know the ideas common to your own side. If you can take off the blinders of the myth of pure evil, you might see some good ideas for the first time” (p. 242).
It has been personally painful to me to see members of my religious and professional communities so polarized on various issues that even good friends and respected colleagues cannot listen to each other or learn from each other.
I’ll make a difficult confession. In my own longitudinal research spanning 38 years of living with Nancy, I have often been judgmental and condescending. I have more than once questioned her logic chain and faulted her conclusions. I tend to hold up her thinking to the standard of my own way of thinking. I have placed greater value on thinking I was “right” than on being kind and open to my beloved companion. I know. That is awful. When I act that way I am making myself and my thinking into god. When any of us do that, we worship at the altar of a false and frail god.
I am repenting. I’m learning to listen to Nancy, to honor her perspective, to learn from her. I am indescribably blessed when I listen to that mild woman I married! She may process in a way quite different from my own—and she sees vast tracts of truth that I miss including simple faith and gentle understanding. I thank God for her influence in my life.
Anjelica Huston tells the story of an encounter with her father, the famous film director, that illustrates the natural man’s way of teaching humility: “Once, at the dinner table, the subject of van Gogh came up. I said somewhat flippantly that I didn’t like van Gogh. ‘You don’t like van Gogh?’ he countered. ‘Then name six of his paintings and tell me why you don’t like them.’ I couldn’t, of course. And he said, ‘Leave the room and until you know what you’re talking about, don’t come back with your opinions to the dinner table’” (Mark Morrison in LA Times Magazine).
John Huston may have thought that he was teaching his daughter to be humble and reflective. We often have noble motives when we attack people. Yet attacking people does not make them humble. It does not make them wiser. It makes them resentful.
We can contrast the John and Angelica Huston experience with a story adapted from the parenting genius, Haim Ginott. When Ashley, age fourteen, criticized modern painting, her mother did not dispute her opinion. Nor did she condemn her taste. Instead, she taught her.
Mother: You don’t like abstract art?
Ashley: I sure don’t. It’s ugly.
Mother: You prefer representational art?
Ashley: What’s that?
Mother: You like it when a house looks like a house, and a tree like a tree, and a person like a person.
Mother: Then you like representational art.
Ashley: Imagine that. All my life I liked representational art and didn’t know it.
Ashley’s mother used the daughter’s ill-informed declaration as an opportunity to better understand her perspective and then to both teach her and draw closer to her. In the process Ashley learned about both art and civil dialogues.
Humility is essentially the willingness to learn, a fundamental openness to other people and their views. It is foundational to civil dialogues and personal growth.
How Can We Cultivate Humility?
It is very difficult for humans to get past the inner defense-lawyers in our souls. Scientists have tried many ways to help people be more open to other points of view. They tried teaching them about bias and then asking them to write an essay in favor of the opposing point of view. It didn’t work. Only one intervention worked:
“When subjects read the essay about self-serving biases and were then asked to write an essay about weaknesses in their own case, their previous righteousness was shaken” (Haidt, 2006, p. 70)
When we are humbled by a realization of our own limited understanding and we consider the flaws in our own arguments, we may be teachable. Think how much more peaceful the world would be if we all practiced this technique. Maybe Arabs and Jews could find common ground.
Maybe some theologians would come to appreciate amazing LDS doctrine.
Maybe some latter-day saints would be more appreciative of diverse life experiences. Without humbly calling on God’s help, we are all narrow and stilted in our views. Maybe we will truly be the children of God when we learn to be peacemakers (See Matthew 5:9 and 3 Nephi 12:9) and open to other points of view.
When we set aside our own distress to understand and minister to others’ distress, we open the door to solutions. Compassion may be the key to godliness.
In our marriage study in Arkansas, we found that perceived empathy was the best predictor of marital satisfaction. Tavris and Aronson (2007) reported that: “the couples who grow together over the years have figured out a way to live with a minimum of self-justification, which is another way of saying that they are able to put empathy for the partner ahead of defending their own territory. Successful, stable, couples are able to listen to the partner’s criticisms, concerns, and suggestions un-defensively” (p. 180, emphasis added).
You can see how humility and compassion work together in magnificent harmony. They open us up to each other in beautiful ways. I have previously shared John Glenn’s story of his love for his wife, Annie. In spite of her severe problem with stuttering, John never complained of the seeming inconvenience it entailed on his life. Annie could not read simple stories to their children. She could not communicate simple requests in public. She refused to be interviewed with the vice president. Her problem kept him from some political opportunities.
Yet John expressed nothing but love for his dear Annie. One of the marks of his humility was that he never mentioned any of these problems as inconveniences for him. He only expressed his love for her. (You can read more of the story at https://www.arfamilies.org/family_life/marriage/guides/1_Commit.pdf See pp. 4-5)
How Can We Cultivate Compassion?
Having compassion is not a happy accident. It requires great personal and spiritual exertion. When we are truly humble, we can be more open to other people’s perspectives. We can enter their life stories, seek to understand their dreams, and feel the pain of their struggles. This takes patience and great desire. We can do much to open ourselves to the emotional lives of others. Yet the ultimate form of compassion, charity, is a gift from God that comes as a result of praying with all the energy of our souls (See Moroni 7:48).
John Gottman invites partners to see their spouses’ actions as bids for connection. Even in simple requests, our partners are often asking us to be more a part of their lives. In response, we can turn against, turn away, or turn toward.
When we criticize each other we are turning against each other. When we ignore our partners’ invitations, we are turning away. But, when we welcome every opportunity to be a part of our beloveds’ lives, we are turning toward.
Turning toward will also include turning toward the pain, hurts, and challenges our partners face. Rather than experience their challenges as personal inconveniences, we can “be touched with the feeling of [their] infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). This is a godly attitude. (For more information on this idea, see the article “Will I Ever Receive His Image in My Countenance” at https://www.meridianmagazine.com/article/159?ac=1 )
There is another element to compassion. When we feel genuine compassion for our partners, we realize that any feelings of irritation we have are an invitation to shift from our self-centeredness to thinking about our partners’ needs. Irritation is indeed an invitation to shift from natural man thinking to godly thinking.
Terry Olsen tells a story about a woman who became exasperated with her husband’s inability to understand her feelings and express himself. She was sulking and fuming when her husband tried to stammer an apology. Then something clicked inside of her. Rather than hold his feet to the fire, she pulled him to her heart. In essence she said, “Yes, dear. I’m sorry, too.”
She reported that the difference in her made a difference for him. As she set aside criticism, he expressed himself more and better.
It is true that the natural man is an enemy to God–and the human family. Our human biases keep us from seeing and understanding the struggle and glory in our fellow travelers. We can remain ever separate and grumbling or we can be changed by God. God can soften our hard-heartedness with humility and compassion. God can turn our separateness into at-one-ment. We can see with new eyes. May we draw that mighty change into our hearts and relationships.
You may be interested in Brother Goddard’s books such as Soft-Spoken Parenting, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, and Between Parent and Child. For more information about his books and programs, visit www.FamilyCollege.com or www.DrWally.org
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annmarie Worthington for their insightful improvements of this article.
Glenn, J., & Taylor, N. (1999). John Glenn: A memoir. New York: Bantam Books.
John Glenn and Annie
Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure. New York: Crown.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.
Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me). New York: Harcourt.