Charles and Jane Perryman, who lead the Marriage Preparation Programme in the Diocese of Hallam and wrote a very welcome series on marriage in earlier editions of the Hallam News now begin a series considering Pope Francis’ post synod document, “Amoris Laetitia”, (The Joy of Love).
In Chapter 4 of his exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia”, Pope Francis presents an extended reflection on St Paul’s great poem about love (1 Cor 13: 4-7). Pope Francis refers to other parts of scripture to draw out the meaning of the various aspects of love. He then writes about qualities and behaviours we need to cultivate in order to live a life full of love. Pope Francis, quite rightly, holds before us the highest ideals of love. Sometimes, however, it seems to us that he does not make sufficient allowance for two imperfect people trying to love another. He says, for example, “We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the centre and expect things to turn out our way. Then everything makes us impatient, everything makes us react aggressively” (AL 92). Looking at this in a more measured way we would say that angry reactions are often an expression of the pain we are feeling as a result of our earlier experiences.
Although in this chapter Pope Francis is referring specifically to love within marriage, much of what he has to say is applicable to all. What Pope Francis has not been able to do within the space of the exhortation is to draw out the ways in which we can cultivate attitudes and behaviours in order to deepen our love for another person.
In this series of articles we will explore how we can make changes in our thinking and reactions where we become aware that we don’t live up to these aspects of love in the way that we would like. Francis reflects that “when Paul says that ‘Love is patient’ (1 Cor 13: 4), this does not simply have to do with ‘enduring all things’, because we find that idea expressed at the end of the seventh verse. Its meaning is clarified by the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where we read that God is “slow to anger” (Ex 34:6; Num 14:18). It refers, then, to the quality of one who does not act on impulse and avoids giving offence.” (AL 91)
Pope Francis is making the distinction between feeling angry and the action that follows. As we grow up we all finds ways of dealing with difficult situations. Whenever we judge that we are the victim of injustice, or believe that “it isn’t fair” we usually feel angry. Often, though, what lies underneath these angry feelings is a sense that we are not important, that we don’t count, that we are stupid or incompetent. On many, many occasions these incidents are trivial but they have a cumulative effect.
If a child is constantly criticised and told that they can’t do things, or that their brother or sister is better than they are or that they see that another sibling seems to be the favoured one, they will grow up and expect to hear these same opinions or to experience similar feelings of rejection. No parent is so good that their children are not affected at all by some negative experiences. It is only a matter of degree. These negative experiences lead us to develop finely tuned antennae that will hear the critical remark and the negative message very quickly. It is as if we have created a filter that lets through the critical remark or action and slows down other messages.
Let us think about a common situation. Your spouse comes in and asks you “Have you put the bin out?” If you are someone who expects criticism or expects to be taken for granted, you will not hear that question as a simple request for information. It will come through as an accusation! We all have triggers like this. When they are activated our feelings and often our response to the feelings move very much faster than our thinking. We are talking about milliseconds here. The words or the reaction happen before we know it.
How can we go about changing this sort of reaction? The first thing is to notice when it happens. In a quiet moment think about any incident when you were annoyed, particularly if you can think of one which involved your spouse. Try to describe to yourself the feeling and in a very honest way think of what you actually did. It may only have been a little grimace or you made a face that your partner did not see. If you could relate the feeling to things that happened much earlier in life, it will help to get these incidents in perspective.
Then there are two big questions. Was my instantaneous interpretation correct? How might I have reacted differently? We start the process of change by thinking about how we might have handled things better. After a while we will be able to choose to act differently at the time of the incident. If we are able to make a link to the past, it will help us to see the current incident in its proper perspective.
It will also help us if we are able to share what has happened to us in earlier life with our spouses. What is important is not just to relate what happened but also to share what it felt like then and how those feelings still affect us now. In that way some of that pain of the past can be healed and we learn to be patient with one another.