In her novel, A Good House, Bonnie Burnard tells the story of a relatively happy family. But even happy families have unhappy moments where bitterness chills an otherwise warm house.
She describes one such incident: A young couple, solid and trusting in their relationship, are having a rather intimate talk one afternoon when the woman’s instincts tell her that her husband is hiding something from her, not necessarily at the level of infidelity, but something that he, for whatever reason, will not share with her.
Instantly a door begins to close inside of her, her warmth and trust harden, and she feels the need to protect herself, assert some independence from her husband, and let him know that there are aspects of her life that he doesn’t necessarily know about either. Their intimacy, so warm and trusting just minutes before, dissolves for a while into a certain coolness and distance. What’s happened here?
What’s happened is what happens to all of us, spontaneously and daily, in virtually all of our relationships, particularly with those with whom we are most intimate. Such is our emotional metaphysics, the way our hearts try to protect themselves: We tend spontaneously to replicate the energy we feel around us and feed it back in the same way as we feel it.
Quite simply, whenever we feel warmth, mellowness, vulnerability, transparency, generosity, trust, and big-heartedness in a relationship, we tend to respond in kind, with warm, mellow, vulnerable, transparent, generous, trusting hearts. But the reverse is also true: When we feel coldness, bitterness, self-protection, jealousy, dishonesty, pettiness, or distrust, we tend to become cool, hard, self-protective, assertive, small-hearted, and distrustful.
It’s not easy not to do this. More than anything else, our hearts crave the warmth and trust of intimacy, but, precisely because these make us vulnerable, are hearts also tend to close doors rather quickly at the first signs of betrayal, distrust, or dishonesty.
Fear, especially, tends to do this to us. Most of our fears and anxieties arise out of a lack of confidence, from a poor self-image. Then, because we are insecure, we to try to assert ourselves, to prove that we are loveable, attractive, talented, and worthwhile. When we are afraid, we can’t risk vulnerability, instead we try to do things to show that we aren’t weak or needy. But, to do this, we have to harden ourselves precisely against the type of vulnerability that invites others into our lives.
Jealousy, especially of a person we love but whose love we can’t have, also creates that same hardness in us. That’s why we can be caught up in that strange anomaly where we are cold, distant, and perhaps even hostile, to a person whose love we badly want. Our coldness and feigned indifference towards that person is simply the heart’s attempt to protect itself, to cope with an intimacy it can’t have and the loss of self-esteem that comes with that.
The heart has its reasons, even for turning cold.
Given the truth of this, what makes for a truly big heart is the strength to resist this emotional metaphysics and remain mellow, warm, trusting, and present to others in the face of bitterness, coldness, distrust, jealousy, and withdrawal. More than anything else, this is what defines a great lover.
This is perhaps the greatest moral challenge Jesus left us: We all do pretty well in love when the persons we are loving are warm and gracious, but can we be gracious and mellow in the face of bitterness, jealousy, hatred, withdrawal? That’s the litmus test of love.
It’s also one of the deeper invitations towards maturity. Everywhere in our world – in our most intimate relationships, in our families, in our workplaces, in our churches, and in society as a whole – we forever find ourselves in situations where we meet suspicion, jealousy, coldness, distrust, bitterness, and withdrawal. Our world is often a hard, rather than an intimate, place.
The challenge is to offer a heart that creates a space for warmth, transparency, mellowness, vulnerability, and trust inside of hard places. The challenge is to offer our hearts as a space within which people can be honest, where nobody has to assert herself, where no games of pretence need be played, and where intimacy isn’t held hostage to the momentary fears, jealousies, hurts, and emotional acting out that forever assail us.
And, the more bitter and the more emotionally trying the situation, the more this is needed. When times are bitter, angry, cold, full of disrespect, and fraught with jealousy, when it seems everyone is withdrawing into his or her own world, when most everything seems a lie, and when we are feeling most hurt, taken for granted, slighted, and marginalized, what’s called for is not less, but more, attention to the quality of graciousness and warmth within our response. Bitter times call for, precisely, a deeper response of warmth, mellowness, transparency, truth, and compassion.
What’s needed most in a bitter time is a mellow heart.