Stuck in the Middle With You

A fraternity brother, who also bears the burden of the name “David”, gave me a powerful image the other day of being stuck. . Stuck…on a ski lift chair from Hell! An image of “stuckness” that seems to apply to our current situation in this country.. Are you feeling “stuck” these days?

David is a land man who lives in Utah, originally coming to Emory from California. As I recall, he was carrying with him a rather conservative read of the Christian faith, and I was just the dude to help him straighten it all out. Actually, we were all caught in the vortex of religious thought, in which Jesus freaks shared the central green space on campus, the Quad, with peaceniks, TM meditators, and folks flying frisbees. It was a jungle of thought, a Serengeti of values, truths, and theories.

David and I became good friends in college but the ensuing years had seemed to move us further apart on the political spectrum, which is not uncommon for me, God knows. But I continued to have great affection for him, remembering good times together at the fraternity house as we forged our identities in the shadow of the Viet Nam war.

That was a time of great music and large ideas coming from both sides  of the political spectrum. On a micro level, it was a time of learning to balance freedom and responsibility, the herculean task of young adulthood. We were learning how to own our own identity while beginning to share our selves in the confusing world of intimacy. In addition to all that was on our psychological plate, there were classes and other tertiary concerns, like getting into medical or law school, or getting a date to the formal. More importantly,  David and I shared the thrill of winning the intramural football championship my senior year. By the way, in case you did not know it, football rules at Emory……not. If memory serves me, and she always does, a generous donor stipulated that collegiate football would never sully the pristine green fields of Emory. It’s in the charter.

The other day, David wrote to tell me of an experience on the ski lift at his home slope in Utah. He wound up seated on a lift, as my friend, Chris Wall, wrote a song about,  “three across”. Tellingly, David was on the right, a guy on vacation from New Jersey was in the middle, and a young guy from Utah on on the left. Fate threw them together for a pregnant time of meeting in the sky.

During the precarious ride up the mountain, David followed the natural introductions with a question to the dude from New Jersey, probing for his take on Gov. Christie. “New Jersey”, as David called him, bemoaned the fact that Christie had ruined his promising political career with his “traffic jam bridge” fiasco.

That prompted the guy on the left to launch into a diatribe about his own governor, the Governor of Utah, being a moron, having opened the forests to logging, and allowing the development of roads in the wilderness areas. As a developer himself, this created immediate tension on that ski lift chair, with David screwing himself into the bottom of the lift chair. They were “stuck” in that tight space.

David, with the sense of humor that I loved in college, commented that he and his fellow Utah native were fortunate to have the guy from New Jersey between them, putting “New Jersey” on notice. Imagine, hanging high in the air, stuck with one another on the ride to the top. David concluded his communication to me with a reminder of the admonition, seek first to understand.

Indeed.

The image was so suggestive to me as to where we are in this country: stuck. Stuck on a long, precarious, ride to the top of the mountain. Some on the left, some on the right, and some stuck in the middle. It prompts me to recall the lyrics to a Steelers Wheel song, with clowns to the left, jokers to the right, but I digress.

It made me think of the word “stuck”.

I have worked with “stuck” people before. And I know something of feeling “stuck”. How about you?

The most pressing image comes to me from talking with Trappist monks who have made solemn vows before one another and the Almighty, a definition of the term covenant, to live with one another. Never mind the vows two people make at an altar to love and cherish. But buying into a whole community of others is a different order of complexity. To live the rest of one’s life with someone who sings off-key in the choir, who in just a bit slow in the recitation of the psalms in choir, or just a wee bit ahead in the rhythm. To live with a brother who is seemingly unthinking in his bathroom behavior, sloppy in the upkeep of his space. It’s the little things that drive you crazy, one monk told me. This is “stuck” in spades.

Having listened to monks talk about one another is fun as a spectator. But living within this community is a different thing. It is the genius of St. Benedict who knew that living, working, and praying in community is the crucible that forms the soul in patience….or drives one out of your mind. Examples of Thomas Merton and others lead one to the conclusion that it is in such intimate, close community that we learn truth best.

Certainly, that is also true in marriage. Living in relationship with another human is a sure-fire way to get one’s ego tried and tested. After the pomp of a lovely ceremony, the shrimp cocktail digested, the glow of the honeymoon over….the bill comes due. The cost of being in relationship  become clear.

Other marriage therapists and I would joke about it taking three to seven years for the reality of a decision to marry, to couple to break into consciousness. The illusion, or myth of the “other” that got you to the altar in the first place, is maintained for a time, but finally the reality breaks in. He or she does not see life the way I do! He or she does not know what I really really need. He or she squeezes the tooth paste tube from the middle, not the bottom. Just what did his/her Mama teach him/her? He or she no longer buys into my persona but sees through me to who I really am. One awakes to the reality of being stuck, and by one’s own choice.

What follows is a process of making way through this “stuckness” to a recognition of differences, and a creative way of living within that reality. In the worst case scenario, it becomes the stuff of a hostage stand-off, in which neither person gives way. Sometimes this is done in order to maintain a social face of being, or at least appearing “okay”. I have seen this kind of marriage a good bit, resulting in what I once disturbingly called out as a “zombie” marriage, with diminished motion and no verve  of life.

I say “worst case” as these merely settle, and live out life in proverbial quiet desperation. Others choose to cut and run, jumping off the chair lift when they can.

However, the good news is that many couples find themselves in “stuckness” and decide to work hard at forging a healthy relationship, recognizing and respecting differences, in fact, celebrating and learning from that “other”. The persons I have witnessed negotiating their way through this shaky ground have used a therapist, or a coach, to help them move carefully through this treacherous landscape. The “third” person, in the middle, is able to assist in this demanding process of listening, engaging, and celebrating. This tends to not be a linear advancement of progress but rather a circuitous journey of discovery, acceptance, and repeated learning. The couples I have worked with in this dance say that, while it is not what they imagined marriage to be when they took their vows, it is worth the price. The result is a relationship where differences are respected and there emerges a dynamic of growth and a deep joy.

Monks in a monastery, couples in a marriage, folks on a ski lift….all stuck. Stuck with one another, stuck with themselves, stuck in the middle.

That image of “stuckness” can easily be applied to our country these days. Two sides, stuck in opposition. Two opposing forces that push against a disappearing middle. Two adversaries that wish to overcome the “other” in what feels like a fight to the death match.

How are you doing in this epic struggle? Some people say that we’ve never been in such a conflicted moment. But I grew up in Atlanta, burned to the ground in a little conflict of stuckness called the Civil War.

And I saw the flames and smelled the smoke of the civil rights movement that tore at the familiar social fabric as our country was stuck in the non-payment of human rights to ALL the people.  Is this just another moment, historic or trendy? Or is this the beginning of the end of our democratic experiment?

I grow weary of how members of different sides seem to not respect the other. I sometimes find myself reacting in non-helpful ways to taunts and statements from people who are expressing their opinions or values. This alienation is the subject of books and studies that document and analyze this “stuckness”. One experiences it in cyber dialogue on social media, and then in the real world of family gatherings around the table. Even on a ski lift, these alienating forces threaten to disrupt whatever peace that might exist and accentuate the differences that might suggest that the “other” is from some other species or is an alien life form.

I think my friend, David, has it right: seek first to understand. It harkens back to biblical admonitions, expanded in a Franciscan prayer, and even popularized as recently as Covey’s best-selling seven habits. Seek to understand the other. In the beginning, try to understand the perspective of the other person. It’s about perspective-taking. Can you articulate the unique position of the other that might explain their particular and peculiar perspective?

Working with monks, I asked them to imagine their way into the soul of the other monk, the specific pilgrimage the other monk has made to land here in this moment in time. In marriage, working with couples, I attempted to get both members of the couple to articulate the values and the mind set of their “other”. In all situations, it was this perspective-taking capacity that made the difference that opened the door to understanding.

How might that happen on a larger scale? Is it even possible on a national level?  What political figure will leave a position of advocacy and take the risk of embracing the “other” rather than demonizing? What pundit from from MSNBC or Fox will venture into the psychic no-mans-land to allow for a fair hearing of the other’s perspective? In this time of investigations and retributions, who has the presence to simply pause, not react, and listen.

What happened in the “stuckness” of the moment on the ski lift symbolizes where we are. Suspended, mid-air, between yesterday and tomorrow, we are stuck. With no hero on horseback or inbreaking divine miracle, what is left for us to do?

For me, an exposure to Gandhi and his hard-won wisdom gives a clue. It was first given to me by an Atlanta icon on understanding, Martin King, who urged his civil rights disciples to be the change you want to see in the world. Later, walking on the streets of my city, a word from Anglican bishop Tutu, forged in the fire of South African apartheid, reminded quietly to do your little bit of good wherever you are. Those little bits of good come together to change the world. That rang true for me as a young priest and still echoes through my touch of gray today.

I have made a vow, following the lead of my Utah land man, to seek first to understand. To strive not to be as quick to be reactive, to seek to understand the other and what is driving him/her. It’s not an easy order to fill, but I simply see no other option.

How about you?

2 thoughts on “Stuck in the Middle With You

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