Archive for February, 2010

posted by Amy on Feb 25

The six essays I wrote for seminary transfer applications took me forever to do, and I was disappointed in them. I thought they were over-written, and lacking in vitality. I worked on them diligently, and for a very long time, but I didn’t feel particularly inspired. Despite efforts to be original, to avoid cliches, to be clear, and to convey a sense of how important this calling is to me, I didn’t know if admissions committees would see me as I hoped to be seen. I sent them all in anyway, hoping for the best.

I’m more satisfied with some other writing I’ve done lately. As part of an independent study of Methodist history I read and then reviewed two books, one about the development of the world Methodist movement, and one about the life of Francis Asbury. I found it easy to write the reviews, and I did a good job. Maybe I was just happy to have something to write about besides myself.

Right now concern for my writing students is keeping me awake nights. I have a whole new group this semester. Of the three people from last semester, two did well enough that they are no longer required to work with me. The third student was close to that point, and might have gotten there after one more semester, but decided to suspend seminary studies.

I have four new students, and will soon add a fifth. As before, I like and respect all of them. We have great conversations, and I love hearing their stories. But I can’t figure out how to help them.

I keep buying books about teaching writing. I also collect articles. I have found some excellent university web sites, and I’ve copied many of their articles and worksheets. I give my students handouts to read and study, hoping they will learn from them. But it’s not working out very well. To me, it’s obvious that if I want to learn something new, first I read about how to do it, then I practice it, and I master it. To someone who doesn’t operate that way, it’s not an effective teaching strategy.

I wish I could get them to love the written word. If they loved words, then they would love reading and writing. If they loved words, then they’d relish the process of saying just the right thing. They’d connect their hearts and minds and spirits with each written assignment. They’d see that writing can be a way to pray, and to deepen faith by reinforcing understanding and insight.

Many of my students are already pastors. They preach and exhort and teach and pray, but for the most part it is extemporaneous, and oral. They say the Holy Spirit gives them the words that the people need to hear. I do not doubt that, but, regrettably, they don’t seem to think their written work is or can be Spirit-led or Spirit-inspired.

I wish I could teach a writing class patterned on “The Karate Kid.” I imagine myself getting the students doing things that seem completely beside the point, like Mr. Miagi’s “wax on, wax off” exercise, then, somehow, tricking them into writing in their own voices, with their own passion and creativity. Then they would quit worrying about word counts and mechanics and trying to impress the teacher, and they would pour out something heartfelt and profound. Right now, they are imprisoned by fear and loathing, by thinking it’s too hard, or too dull. I would give anything for the keys to unlock those cells.

Writing can provoke, transport, uplift, admonish, chasten, and inspire. It can give life. It can destroy. The written word is the foundation of civilization, and an instrument of social and spiritual transformation. It is sacred. It is magical. It is powerful. The Bible tells us that the law is written on our hearts. Our Hebrew forbears wrote the Shema on scrolls fastened to their doorways, and touched them when going out or coming in, praying “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” We are People of the Book. Yet I don’t know how to convey a proper sense of awe about writing, or desire to do it.

I wish I could infect my students with a burning desire to write as beautifully, persuasively, powerfully and convincingly as possible. I’ll keep buying books. I’ll keep reading. I’ll keep praying and thinking and analyzing. I will find the keys.

posted by Amy on Feb 9

Valentine’s Day, the most high pressure of Hallmark holidays, is coming up, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about love and marriage. Two men that I’ve known since they were babies told me recently that their long marriages are ending in divorce. I asked both of them to reconsider. I don’t imagine that I, someone who has been divorced twice, have a lot of credibility in that arena, and I don’t think they’re going to take my advice, but I had to try.

In a study of unhappy marriages conducted by the University of Chicago, (read the report here) researchers found two rather amazing things. One is that most of the unhappy people who divorced were still unhappy five years later, and the other was that two-thirds of the unhappy people who didn’t divorce rated their marriages as happy five years later. Furthermore, it was the unhappiest marriages that showed the most dramatic turnarounds. The only exception to the “divorce won’t make you happy” finding was where there was domestic violence. A larger percentage of violent marriages ended in divorce, and for those spouses there was an improvement in emotional and psychological well-being after the divorce.

The researchers found three patterns in the marriages that had transformed. The report calls them “the marital endurance ethic, the marital work ethic, and the personal happiness ethic.” Couples with the marital endurance ethic just hung in there and toughed it out. The work ethic involved people deciding to figure out better ways to do things, and make changes that led to greater happiness and satisfaction. In the last pattern, people took responsibility for their own happiness, and found it whether or not the marriage improved. (I would speculate, though, that if spouses attained higher levels of satisfaction and happiness independently, that would “spill over” into a better relationship.)

We tend to assume that the only two choices for unhappy spouses are to accept whatever situation is making them miserable, or to get out. It’s surprising to find empirical evidence that these assumptions are not necessarily true. With the exception of marriages involving spousal abuse, the study found no big differences between unhappy couples who divorced and the ones who didn’t.

I was in counseling with one of my kids for a long time. There were five years of great unhappiness and conflict. But I stuck it out. As a parent, I was not willing to give up, and I think that the mere fact of my refusal to cave helped the relationship be healed eventually. It also ultimately brought us closer, which was something I used to predict during the rough times. The report says the same thing about married couples. If they remain committed to each other, and to staying married, if they don’t give up, they stand a good chance of becoming much happier together.

In an interpersonal conflict that has a lot of emotional energy in it, there are two sources of that energy. One is whatever is being done or said; the other is how the other person is receiving it and reacting to it. I’m not saying we can make black into white by telling ourselves a different story, but I know now (from the hard times with that one kid) that it can be very difficult, when my buttons are being pushed, to take ownership of the buttons. The person doing the pushing is definitely doing something, and is responsible for his or her choices and behavior. But I am responsible for mine, and if I’m overreacting, or behaving badly myself, then that’s my department. The reaction shows me where my weak spots are, the places that I need to heal. If I don’t take advantage of those “teaching moments,” then I will continue to have the weak spots and they will continue to cause trouble for me in other relationships.

Another expert on marriages, John Gottman, says that in longitudinal studies of marriages his group is able to tell within three minutes of observing how couples argue which ones will stay together and which ones will part. They identified what they called the “Four Horsemen” of marital apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. He also says that in good relationships, there is a strong underlying friendship that makes it possible, when things get out of hand, for repair efforts to be successful. There’s a video of Gottman talking about his marriage studies here.

The way human beings experience spiritual growth and maturation is within relationships, with God and with other people. Of all relationships, it is the “special love relationships” that have the most to teach us. Somewhere along the line I read that “you marry the person you’re supposed to marry until you learn what it is that you need to learn.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that once the lesson is learned the marriage then ends. It can mean you get to a new level of intimacy, love, and connection.  Although some marriages are truly destructive and dangerous, and can’t be fixed, people often take the wrong lesson from the experience, and they give up too soon. We should teach our young people that until there is crisis in a marriage, it’s really more like a long date than a real marriage. The crises are the places for deep soul work. If more people saw them as opportunities for growth, instead of focusing on the other person’s behavior, more marriages could be saved.

“People build walls when they can’t maintain boundaries.” The people who can’t hang in there through difficult spots in relationships of all kinds (parent-child, spousal, even business or friendship) have their own work to do–on their boundaries, on their communication, on clarifying their own values, and on their own deepest fears. If our only childhood model of love was uneven, flawed, or crazy, we grow up thinking that’s normal, and believing it has something to do with us. That makes us get side tracked into unhelpful things like trying to manage other people’s lives instead of our own, or thinking that if that person really loved me he/she would know what I want without my having to ask.

Often we partner out of need or emptiness or brokenness. A partner can’t fix those things. The partner holds up a mirror that reflects what needs to be transformed. It’s up to us to decide what to do with what we see in the mirror. All the while, of course, the partner is simultaneously working through his or her own “stuff.” That can get really messy, even dangerous, but it’s an excellent practice to ask oneself, “What is being taught here?” instead of, “How do I get my partner to change?” Getting mired in anger and resentment will hurt both you and the relationship. And it isn’t love.

So, on this Valentine’s Day, if you’re in a long term relationship, congratulations. Remember to tell your special one how much you love him or her, and be sure to show it, not just one day a year, but every day. And if you see any of those Four Horsemen galloping around, get rid of them. Your partner deserves love, respect, empathy, kindness and patience as much as you do (even if you don’t think so. Even if you’re really angry and think that so-and-so should be punished. Resist the urge.) Show how you want to be treated by modeling it. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with bad behavior, and if your safety is threatened, that is an entirely different subject. Instead of the Four Horsemen, learn to communicate responsibly and respectfully, with assertiveness and not aggression. Try to step back from the situation and learn not to take it personally. And be patient. Even if things are really miserable, you can take steps to improve your situation, and, five years from now, you might just be happily partnered–without having to abandon your current partner.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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