Thursday, 5 April 2018

Discerning Relationships: You, me, JP & Ed Sri

By Isaac Withers

'I ship that.' If you haven't heard this phrase, then you're clearly not in with the kids, or at least, that's what people were saying when I was at uni. It was kind of a game, you clocked a pair that you could see as a future couple and you called out the future relationship, you 'shipped it'. I suppose it exists somewhere between gambling and matchmaking, which I realise sounds terrible.

I was probably a bit too into this game but there was nothing better than accurately shipping people, when you saw two friends actually find that kind of happiness together. Anyway, it's maybe a good example of how fun relationships and dating is from a distance, but when it's you, there's obviously stakes involved. 

Recently, I've been doing a lot of reading into this sort of stuff, mostly in the form of Edward Sri's book, 'Men, Women and the Mystery of Love'. Lets say that that kind of book has been relevant to me this year, which is the nice way to put being confused to the point of reaching for a text book. Anyway, it's a really good book, and is a distillation of St. Pope John Paul II's 'Love and Responsibility', JP II's great philosophical work on relationships. Sri describes it as: 'the fruit off Wojtyla;s extensive pastoral work with young people and his philosophical reflections on this topic while serving as a priest and university professor in Krakow - long before the world would come to know him as Pope John Paul II.' p. 1

Not being a philosopher, that book kind of scares me a bit so I was happy to find this easier read. So, here are the big lessons on navigating this time of inbetweening from these great thinkers that have been relevant to my experience. In other words, its you, me, JP & Ed Sri. Let's go.

1. Be virtuous friends to each other

Interestingly, Sri kicks off the book with a chapter on friendship that blew me away with how accurate it was. He quotes Aristotle's three types of friendships, of pleasure, of utility, and virtuous friendship. In short, friendships of pleasure are the people you like to hang out with casualy, friendships of utility are friends you make through mutual work, and virtuous friendships are the deep ones. Sri writes:

'For Aristotle, the third form of friendship is friendship in the fullest sense. It can be called virtuous friendship because the two friends are united not in self-interest but in the pursuit of a common goal; the good life, the moral life that is found in virtue.' p. 8

When I read these categories of friendship, I could see the people in my life fit so clearly into them, not in a judgmental way, but I knew the people I had just gone clubbing with at uni and they contrasted so much with the people I shared that common goal with, the deeper, lasting friendships. Sri goes on to say that it is essential that our relationships be built on these virtuous friendships, so that we can be selfless and push the other to their good. John Paul thinks highly of this ideal of friendship also because it helps us avoid using others. He writes:

'When two different people consciously choose a common aim it puts them on a footing of equality, and precludes the possibility that one of them might be subordinated to the other' (28-29)

Speaking of using each other...

2. We have a tendency to use each other

Ok, here's a big philosophical word for you: Utilitarianism. Oo. Sri describes it like this: 

'In this view, the best human actions are those that are most useful. And something is useful in so far as it maximizes pleasure and comfort for me and minimizes pain and discomfort. The underlying assumption is that happiness consists in pleasure.' p. 3

In short, Utilitarianism is really the outlook of what I can get from others for my own benefit, it's a self orientated way of looking at the world. It's really the big word that sums up the love vs use debate that I've written about previously here when talking about porn, so it plays in to the objectification of people and is really not in line with the self sacrificial (or agape) love, that is the Christian ideal of love. However, the danger of using each other in the relationship dynamic is not always as overt, sometimes it can creep in subtly. Sri checks this:

'Utilitarianism is so much a part of the modern world that many people today - even good Christians - may approach a relationship in terms of how useful a person is in helping them achieve their goals or how much fun they have with this person.' p. 3-4

To speak of a recent experience of this, utilitarianism can be emotional sometimes. I had my first real encounter with anxiety and work stress last year and really found a lot of peace in the femininity of the girl I was seeing at the time. Now that's not overtly bad, but I did have to check myself, that I wasn't using the peace that I got from this person as some form of coping mechanism, especially instead of say praying or being meditative. 

Sri quotes students throughout the book and one of them also spoke of this emotional use of people.

'"I didn't really want to date this guy, but I felt good about myself knowing he was interested in me - I'm being pursued, I'm wanted, I'm interesting. But looking back, it was selfish. I was just using him to meet my emotional needs." p. 91

3. We always go head over heels

Ok this one was an unexpected slap in the face from JP. When talking about sentimentality, he says this:

"Thus, in the eyes of a person sentimentally committed to another person the value of the beloved object grows enormously - as a rule out of all proportions to his or her real value.' (112)

If that's not clear, Sri drives home the point.

'Did you catch that? He doesn't say sometimes we exaggerate the value of the person. He says this happens as a rule - we do it all the time!' p. 37

This was another moment when this book shocked me into realising something. That every time I've started to like somebody, somehow I became convinced that they could be it. As JP and Sri put it, the idealisation of the person explodes as you fall for them. I realised that this had happened to me maybe six times in my life, and sometimes without nearly enough conversation with the person to justify how perfect they become in the mind. I had a classic experience of this at uni where I totally fell for someone I mostly saw in lectures and had a handful of real encounters with. But I had never had it pointed out to me that every time I liked someone, this process of idealising kicked in fast and also had a steep disillusionment on the other side when you rationally start to think of them as a normal person again. John Paul goes on to say that this process is so amazing that we can even sometimes fall in love with the process more so than the person.

The beloved '...often becomes merely the occasion for an eruption in the subject's emotional consciousness of the values which he or she longs with all his heart to find in another person.' (112)

C.S. Lewis can point out though that the emotions do not themselves make up love.

'love as distinct from "being in love" - is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit... "being in love" first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise.' 

Mere Christianity, pp 192-193

4. No experience is wasted

After that kind of intense process, if things don't work out, the thought 'what was the point of that?' can come to mind, especially as this point comes after months of conversation and messaging, an investment of time and heart. Are these experiences then wasted experiences? Sri, JP and me, would tend to be on the side of no.

'For the way they live out their friendships, interact with the opposite sex, date, and live in community with others shapes the many habits they will bring into their marriages - for better or for worse.' p. 138

In short, Sri phrases this 'You'll play how you practise', quoting his kids football coach. He persuasively puts across that this time of inbetweening is when we really learn. In the bends of relational craziness and general uncertainty, I'd found myself a few times recalling my uni chaplains words to me in second year, that, 'in your twenties you have really bad weeks and really good weeks, but in your forties is generally all pretty middle.' I've found myself wanting to be in that middle ground a few times since, but that undermines the now with all its messy opportunities to learn. As much as this book taught me, it taught me in the context of a great male/female friendship and the realest discernment process I've ever earnestly entered into, a serious learning experience no matter the outcome.

'In an era that tends to view the young adult years as a time for self-discovery and having fun, single people should be even more intentional about being self-less, about living to serve other people's needs and not just there own.' p. 140

I loved this book for many reasons, but I think foremost because these ideals of Christian love just ring so true of my experience and the conversations I've had with people who have given up on them, or who've become cynical after witnessing too many bad examples of love.

If there's one thing that my recent experiences have taught me, it's that discernment means being open to all the options, even the ones you don't like. I realised that the idea that a relationship is inevitable is not really a discerning attitude, because you're only really open to one outcome. And actually, detaching from that way of thinking has given me a lot of peace, and has come with the acknowledgement that as fun as relationships (and 'shipping') can be from the outside, they were made to be long term. So its big stuff. Vocational state of life stuff, and it's ok if that's slow, tentative work. 

It's a good book. 

'God is real. He is present in your life. 
Do not resent the current situation or live in a fantasy about the future. 
Encounter him with you right now in the present.' p. 146
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