Emotional Memory and Relationships

There are two kinds of memories. The normal recollections of past events that we commonly call memories, and also emotional ones. And of the two of them, emotional memories are the stronger. An emotional memory is when you feel again some emotion, usually a very intense one, that you felt at some time in the past. And it is caused by some circumstance that reminds you of the circumstances in which you felt the first emotion. Just a smell, a phrase, or a particular situation can cause all of the original emotion to come flooding back to you. These are pretty sneaky, because they happen without your conscious awareness. You might not even know what it was that triggered the feeling. And because of that, it’s really easy to mis-attribute such an emotional response to your immediate circumstances.

Here is an example: I had a traumatic experience in a swimming pool as a child - in fact my earliest memory involves a fear of the water. And I happen to be particularly risk-averse. One day when I was examining my panicky reaction when contemplating a major life change, I thought “huh, it feels sort of like drowning”. Like being tossed about in the uncertainty of change with nothing solid to hold onto or to be grounded in. I can look back and think of several times in my life when I let a promising opportunity go by, and I always had a reason I gave myself for not pursuing it, but really I was just valuing solidity - stability, certainty, and familiarity over opportunity.

You can see kids misattribute their emotions a lot. One of the things that surprised me about parenting was that one of my jobs was to know my kids better than they knew themselves. Most of the time they have absolutely no idea why they are upset! I had one child who would just give me an endless string of unrelated circumstances when asked why he was feeling that way; it was clear he was just latching on to whatever happened to be present before him, when really he was tired or hungry or etc.

Well, it turns out that it is not just children who do this. Most adults at most times have no idea why they are feeling what they are feeling. This is not an exaggeration. But adults are usually very good at providing justifications for why the present situation warrants their full emotional response, and such justifications are strongly persuasive to oneself. After all, we have a powerful motivation for believing them - otherwise we would have to admit that the torrent inside us, sometimes unleashed on another person, was ultimately the result of our history and not the fault of the person or circumstance which happened to push a particular button.

These emotional memories have a magnifying effect. They can turn some provocation which could legitimately be moderately distressing into the end of the f’ing world. This is why relationship conflict can go sideways so quickly; two people are arguing about the present issue with emotional responses imported from much deeper sources which fuel the conflict but remain unaddressed. I’ve heard it said that most conflict in marriages stems from an overreaction to an overreaction; emotional memories are where those overreactions come from.

I’ve learned a few strategies for surfacing and addressing these kinds of memories within the context of a committed relationship; I hope they can be useful to you as they have been to me.

The first strategy is to realize that your emotions are your own responsibility. Completely. No one can make you feel a certain way, no one is at fault or to blame for the way that you are feeling. You own your emotional response. This is the sort of thing that sounded obviously true to me when I first read it, but it seemed very difficult to apply because identifying an external cause for my emotions was such an ingrained habit.

The second strategy is to do some introspection about your own emotions. When frustrated or upset at work, home, church, etc. take some focussed time to examine the way you are feeling. Bring it before your conscious awareness and ask yourself “when in my life have I felt this way before?” Weaker emotions are easier, so start with “the guy who annoys me at work” over “the thing my spouse does that infuriates me”. You won’t always be able to identify a time, and even if you can’t it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but if you are consistent with examining yourself in this way you’ll make some surprising discoveries about yourself.

The third strategy is to use a 1-10 scale as a way to find the deeper emotions lying behind a conflict. Use the scale as a measure of distress, with 1 being mildly annoyed and 10 being someone is about to die! Just asking your spouse where they are on the scale can be really illuminating. For example, “On a scale from 1-10, how important is it to you that I put the peanut butter back in the refrigerator after I use it?”. If the answer is “8”, stop talking about the peanut butter.

In case it is not obvious: this kind of knowledge is not for justifying your own behavior and explaining why you cannot change. Exactly the opposite! We tend to take our brokennesses, even when we recognize them, as givens and expect others to accommodate them. Now, to love another person and to see them for who they are, the good with the bad, really does require making allowances for the other’s faults. But often we communicate “I require you to change because I cannot” which is neither true nor helpful. Instead, walk together. You take a step toward me, and I’ll take a step toward you, and let us continue to love each other even when we fall down and to see in each other not only the depth of our brokenness but also the bravery of our tiny steps.


A Public Service Announcement on marriage advice

There was a time when almost all of the marriage advice I heard (and maybe you can relate to this) sounded really shallow - even some advice I knew had been personally useful to people. Now, some advice truly is terrible. But many years (and years of counseling) later I realized that most marriage advice and most books about marriage assume a base level of relational health. If you are really struggling with long-standing, unresolved conflict then going on more dates is not going to help. Sharing or taking turns or doing some specific couple activity is not going to help. Reading the Bible together is not going to help. And just being told to think about your spouse differently is not going to help. When you’re staring deeply into the void that separates one soul from another, when you can’t cross it and all of your efforts to do so only widen the gap, when you are lost and stuck, that is when you realize how superficial most of our ideas about marriage are.

But I don’t mean that such things are worthless, just that there is a level of stuck-ness that can cut much deeper. If that is the spot you find yourself in, you need a trusted third party to help you see things in yourself and each other that you can’t see on your own. Counseling has been really helpful for Emily and I. Done right, it hurts - because it hurts to be willing to see in yourself desires and motivations that you don’t want to see, and because it hurts to change. I remember reading somewhere that “people will change when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing”. And I hope it doesn’t always take that kind of a crisis, but I took it as an invitation to contemplate whether hanging on to my old ingrained, comfortable habits was really worth what it was costing me.

Relationships require constant vigilance, there is no safe state. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall”, as St. Paul says. I remember when Emily and I had just graduated from 2 years of counseling, things were going really well in our relationship for the first time in years, we had both changed and grown a lot, and I thought “this is great, we’ve done a lot of really hard work, left that dark time behind, and it’ll be smooth sailing from here on out”. And then a couple years ago we went through a storm and in the aftermath of that pain and hurt it felt like we lost all our progress and wound up back where we started. It was really depressing and we just looked at each other and said “wow, we suck at this. I thought we had learned to do better!”

We were better, but it was still 7 or 8 rocky months (and some more counseling, and some more looking hard at our own hearts) before we were back to relating to each other normally. And afterward we had more sobered and realistic expectations and we knew each other better. I originally thought we would be able to reach some kind of state where we had resolved all of our conflict and could just float along peacefully. But it doesn’t really work like that, life is messy and people are messy and it won’t stop being like that, but we have better tools for dealing with the mess so that it doesn’t feel quite as impossible as it did before, and we've built up a reserve of trust.

All that to say, if you’re in a relationship and feeling stuck and despairing because the sort of things that everyone says are supposed to work aren’t working, don’t be. It just means that the change needs to happen on a deeper level than most people talk about. That is the most worthwhile level anyway. You can’t do these sorts of things by direct effort - “I’m going to start respecting my spouse more”, “I’m going to stop being mad about that thing she does”. But you can make tiny decisions to open yourself up to your spouse, even in ways that make you uncomfortable. You can seek an outside perspective. You can choose to examine your heart and consider that your conclusions might be wrong, and the story you're telling yourself about your own motivations might be too (if this seems nearly impossible you're doing it right). You can bring Jesus along on the journey, because you're so screwed up that you need the help. You can give them the opportunity to respond differently than you expect them to - so much of marriage problems is in building a tidy-but-incorrect mental picture of your spouse as a stand-in for who they actually are. Real people are always surprising you.

On the other hand, if you have that base level of trust and you're not in the midst of a storm then now is a great time to put some effort into being and living together to strengthen what you have. It’s a lot easier to do now than it is to let your relationship languish on autopilot and then wake up one day to discover a huge gulf between the two of you.


Dealing with Grief

I am much more acquainted with grief than I used to be, and now that I’m acquainted I have a different experience reading about grief. I’m going through the Odyssey again and this time I’m really noticing how the Greek’s mourned and handled mourning. Reading the descriptions I can think “yeah, I basically know what that is like” and I can enter into that part of the story much more that I have before. And I know that nearly all the original listeners could have similarly related, at a deep level, to the sorrow felt by Menelaus on learning of his brother’s murder, or of Odysseus’ mourning the death of his comrades and his long years away from home. But their mourning was not like ours, grown men and mighty warriors throwing themselves to the ground or sobbing uncontrollably in public, with no shame. Really, they knew how to mourn and we do not.

This burden that we live under, we like to think that it has been lightened by science and medicine. And we have made real improvements. But the burden is still there and in some ways the lie that we’ve softened it only makes it worse. We are not in control, we are subject to forces compared to which we are ants and grains of sand. At least the Greeks knew it!

But, also in the Odyssey is the idea of lessening the pain by forgetfulness - the release of sleep and the intoxication of wine. These are temporary and not permanent, but even so I just really find the idea of dealing with pain by forgetting about it distasteful. I mean, I understand - death and broken relationships and betrayal and evil are these crushing weights and how could we ever look them in the face and stand up under that weight? Part of my distaste might be that temperamentally I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to. I especially remember a particular counseling session where I was talking about how I hang on to pain and my counselor said “wow, you’re going to be hurt by the world”. And oh, was he right. I just hang on rather than letting go. So maybe I am just trying to turn my dysfunction into a virtue.

But if I’m going to live in this twisted, terrible world, I don’t want to have to cope by pretending it is better than it is. I want to sorrow and grieve but still have the courage to stare it in the face and know that it didn’t break me. Only that sounds impossible. As small and weak as I am, how could I not be broken?

This is not the kind of post where I tell you I’ve figured out how to do that impossible-sounding thing. But the thing that gives me hope is Hope itself: a hope in the final victory of Good over all the crud that we go through down here; a hope that Life is as much stronger than death as death is stronger than me.

I’ll leave you with a song that expresses this crazy hope, and the confidence I’m searching for.


Eulogy for my Dad

This is the eulogy I gave at my Dad's funeral. He died on July 6, 2016.

Family was so important to Dad. He loved his kids, and gave himself for us. He sang us to sleep at night, songs I still sing to my kids. He loved to work with his hands; he gave us a treehouse and a play house in the backyard. He loved green and growing things and surrounded himself with them. He always had a money-making scheme, and a lot of them actually worked - buying a storage locker and sell the contents, or buying an old car and flipping it.

 Although his own father died when he was 4, and my mom grew up in a single-parent home as well, they gave us a more stable home than either of them had known growing up. He took his role as provider seriously and worked hard for us. His care was self-sacrificial and focussed on our needs over his own. And even when he was dying it was sometimes hard to know what he wanted for himself.

 This has been my closest experience of death, and it has really brought home to me the vulgarity of death, which consumed his body like that. Standing by him shortly after he died, I thought “That’s not right, it isn’t him, he shouldn’t look like that!” But I was also reminded that this is not the end. In II Cor. 4:13-18, Paul writes:
Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
And that was Dad’s life. He lived it for others and for Jesus, and now he is in glory, waiting with us for all things to be made new. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.



Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you'll come to love it
And how you'll never belong here
-Rich Mullins

I’m still recovering from and processing one of the most painful seasons of my life, seeing how it’s changed me and looking for where God is. And the thing that most stands out to me is the idea of sojourning, that I don’t really belong here. I feel so much less attached to the world and the things that are here than I used to.

This is not exactly a dark-night-of-the-soul experience, but I think it’s analogous. I think God is weaning me off my love of the world - not just the material goods but even, and more importantly and deeply, the contingent goods that we can become too attached to and hold on to. And when those are ripped away it hurts a lot, and it changes you. The world is a horrible place! It’s full of pain and hurt and betrayal, even inside the church, and I don’t want to be here!

It’s been a long road. Last spring I was on a silent retreat trying to process the hurt that I was carrying over the way way we and friends of ours had been treated by some of the clergy the year before, and an accompanying deep unhappiness at church. Romans 5:3 stood out to me: “... we know that suffering produces endurance”. I wrote “Endurance I want! Suffering, not so much… although it’s kinda embarrassing to call this suffering”. And indeed, in the grand scheme of things this was hardly up there very high on the scale of sufferings.

But it was big to me. There was good that came out of that: I spent a lot of time with Jesus’ commands to “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”, and I understand a lot better that I used to what that means and how to do it, even when I don’t always succeed - and that was legitimately a gift. But, it still sucks when church is not a safe place.

I jotted down in the margin of a piece of scratch paper, “Could this be preparation for something bigger?” I mentioned this thought to Emily when I came home from the retreat - I wondered if this in-the-grand-scheme-of-things-not-that-bad hurt, even though it felt pervasive and overwhelming, was a kind of training wheels for something else that God was trying to prepare us for. And we both said “I sure hope not!”

The very next week Emily, who had stayed late at church busy with some choir responsibilities, came home in tears and distraught, and a chain of events was set in motion which culminating in her firing a few weeks later, and a relational meltdown the size of which I had thought could never happen to me.

But, it did happen. And I, who have this need to be vindicated and understood, had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t fix it. God is the judge, not me. It’s his job to make everything right, and one day it will be. But until then we carry on, not holding on too tightly to anything but Him, and crying out “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”


reading and e-readers

I've owned a Kindle for several years now, and I love it. But after an initial period where I tried to move all my reading to the kindle, I'm dialing back a bit. Any new technology not only enables us to do new kinds of things, but also changes how we act - our behavior patterns and habits (John Dyer has a great discussion of these things in From the Garden to the City). E-readers make some things much easier than paper books, but they also make some things harder, so that they tend to change how you read in subtle ways. This is not a bad thing, but it is important to be aware of it so that you can make conscious, informed decisions about how you read rather than just falling into the patterns suggested by a particular new way of reading.

Some things that e-readers are not very good at:
  • Reading books you want to have a relationship with. There are certain books that you read over and over again, that you curl up with, that you scribble in the margins, that helped you get through a difficult time, for which re-reading gives you a familiar, comforting sense of place - "I'm home". There are some books you live in and with - a Bible, a prayer book, etc. You can never have this kind of relationship with an ebook because it is disembodied. You can still underline and make notes in an ebook, but the personality is not there - in fact I've stopped making notes at all because I found them difficult to access (on my device anyway; it might be easier on a touch-screen reader), more time-consuming to enter, and not very helpful for those reasons.
  • Studying a book. You lose a sense of place in a book; cross-referencing what you are reading with a previous section might take just a few seconds in a paper book. In an e-book you will not do it because it is too hard to find the section you are thinking of. Ebooks do have full-text search, but even so it is more trouble and there is a nagging worry about whether or not you'll be able to get back to where you were when you're done cross-references, simply because there is no sense of place in the text.
  • Saving you money. It is true that e-books are generally a little cheaper than a new copy of a book; but not by much. And if you are really price-conscious, used copies of books can be had on Amazon for less than the price of an e-book almost all the time. The exception is public-domain texts, which I'll get to in the next section.
  • Owning a book. All ebook stores currently have very similar licensing: you are purchasing a non-transferable, revokable license to read the book; you are not actually purchasing the book itself. Your rights are severely limited compared to paper books: you cannot re-sell it or even give it away; you have limited (legal) choices about how and on what devices to read your books; your right to the book could even be revoked at any time (this is rare, of course, but Amazon has done it).
  • Having a conversation about a book. Because paper books have covers, other people can see what you're reading. This can be a conversation-starter around the house, in a coffee shop, in an airplane, etc. When I'm reading an e-book it could be Plato or a romance novel for all anyone else can tell (which, incidentally, is why romance novels are so popular as ebooks). This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you're looking for.
They are very good, on the other hand, at:
  • Reading novels or any book that you intend to read straight-through, front-to-back. I do find kindle reading very immersive; it is easy to get lost in what you're reading and this fits well with novels which tend to draw you in. Long novels are especially compelling; Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books are a fantastic argument for a kindle. I find that this covers about half the things I want to read; but my reading tends toward the academic and for most people it would probably cover a significantly higher percentage.
  • Reading older public-domain texts that are hard to obtain, out of print, or only available in expensive editions. There is a lot of really good content that can be obtained for free or very inexpensively. Free versions, though, are generally very poorly formatted. Usually I prefer to spend a few dollars on a version that has better formatting.
I still love my kindle, but I'm putting more thought into trying to use it for the kind of reading it is good at, and not for the kind of reading it isn't.