by Roland Hearn
Many years ago my family made plans to go to the beach for the day. We looked forward to enjoying the wonder represented in a clear blue sky, golden sands, a gentle breeze and cool waves breaking on the shore. As the day approached we discovered an unexpected event would make it impossible for our oldest daughter to come and she was deeply disappointed. My wife and I decided we would grant one of those rare opportunities for a break from school by rescheduling the trip to a school day. A couple of days before the rescheduled trip we discovered our oldest son was now unable to come. He had committed to an after-class robotics club on that day. He felt he needed to keep that commitment and decided to skip the trip to the beach.
The afternoon we returned we were met by a very discouraged, upset and somewhat angry boy. His day had been a disaster. He and his partner had created a dancing robot and were getting ready to display it when they met a major problem. Another group of boys had accessed their computer and accidentally deleted all the programming they had been working on for months.
As a parent I want my children learn to deal with disappointment in appropriate ways. I saw a teaching moment. I started to talk about the best ways to deal with his situation; my son became increasingly agitated. As he communicated his frustration I felt my own level of annoyance increasing. In that moment it seemed more important to me for him to gain an understanding of bigger issues than to keep rehearsing his pain and disappointment.
Across the years I have learned, when talking with people who are distressed, to first try to listen to their struggles before I attempt to fix or offer advice. As we talked I discovered, even more disappointing to him than the robot failure was the decision we had made to go to the beach without him. That revelation significantly increased my own level of irritation; we had given him plenty of opportunity to communicate earlier his true feelings. Now I had another teaching moment: the importance of honest communication as well as accepting responsibility for choices.
I began the teaching exercise, but at the same time I did some honest introspective processing. I discovered my own level of displeasure was not about his missing the lessons I was trying to teach. It was much more about my feelings of inadequacy. Like most parents I want to be a father who makes it possible for my children to live happy lives. As he talked I felt culpable in his sadness. At a deep level I felt I had failed him in this fundamental task. I felt bad about myself because my son was experiencing pain. I wanted to fix the situation, and getting him to accept my lesson would relieve my pain. I stopped immediately and told him I understood how disappointing his day was, and how the world looked unfair and devaluing from his perspective given those circumstances. I told him I was sorry. Without hesitation he smiled and his demeanour transformed.
Recently I recounted that story to him. He had no memory of it. However, he did say that while he didn’t remember the incident he remembered the environment and how much it had shaped him into being a person who tries to listen to others’ struggles and not react from his own. Huh, turns out I’m not such a bad parent after all.
My response in that situation was built on years of processing an important truth: Love seeks not to control, but to engage. Love’s confidence is not in its capacity to make circumstances right but in developing love soaked relationships in the midst of circumstances, both good and ill. The best of life is not built on resolved struggles but on the pervasiveness of love. Love draws toward the goal of creating more loving people. It does not arbitrarily prioritize other goals, even admirable ones, and then drive toward them. It certainly does not seek to fix situations and circumstances without regard to developing relationships into mutually valuing ones.
As I have wrestled with the truth of engaging love in my own life and in my leadership opportunities, I have come to understand how powerful a principle it is. I am far from adequately able to represent this truth, but it has become my unshakeable goal to live and love in this way. A key idea which has helped me discern the difference between love and control is that love is experienced as worth. When God created out of love he called it good – creation is innately valuable. The trajectory of scripture is God communicating love by revealing the worth of his beloved. This is hardly better seen than in the incarnation. If I desire to communicate love to another, I must first communicate their value to them. Control does not communicate worth because it implies the one being controlled is of inferior worth. If I desire another to move toward a certain goal I must engage with them and cooperatively seek that end. If I coerce, manipulate, push, or use authority, I may achieve the goal but I will damage the relationship by reducing the perceived worth of the other.
As a human being I can choose my means of goal achievement. I can choose to make my goals higher priorities than my relationships, but that would not be love. God, who is love, cannot do that. He cannot choose to act as less than love. He cannot communicate with us in a way which dishonours our worth. It is not that He will not control; he cannot. His nature forbids it. God cannot control. God expresses love through engagement.