What else is in the room?
It hit me when we were arguing about which and how many scraps our dog Gigi could eat. Are we really doing this? Has it come to this? I asked myself. We were. It had.
Our tempers and anxiety had been escalating. Dan and I, like nearly everyone else right now, were feeling the effects of the holiday stress: more work to finish in a shorter time, the perpetually challenging juggle of schedules and family members' feelings, incessant external urging to join the chorus of voices expressing that now truly is the most wonderful time of the year. But I think the holiday commercialism is too convenient a scapegoat. We have lapsed into nonsensical but extraordinarily heated arguments at other times of the year--you know, the arguments that are not actually about the words exchanged at surface level.
Dan and I were not fighting about Gigi the other day. Other people, other worries, and other baggage had entered the room with us but we both were too preoccupied with our own agendas to recognize the fact. Usually one of us is level-headed enough to ask, "What really is going on here?" but the times when we both become swept up in the argument, we lose touch with what ultimately is important, instead pursuing the moment.
Several summers ago, I worked as a hospital chaplain, and the program required me to complete a unit of CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education. CPE drew on much of the psychological theory from the 1950s era, and I, along with the other chaplains, would frequently be asked by my supervisor about the subtext: "So what else was in the room?" Nothing ever was what it seemed. Never was a hello just a hello or an I'm sorry just an I'm sorry.
I don't particularly miss my time in CPE (and sometimes I do think that a hello is just a hello) but its attention to subtext and interpersonal dynamics has remained with me. In many ways, the CPE approach simply as too articulate the uncomfortable, the elephant in the room. At an instinctual level, we understand that when we blow up about the remote control not being replaced to its coffee table bin we are upset about something more than missing the introduction of our favorite show.
In recent years I find myself thinking more and more about healthy relationships. Maybe it is because the first few people in our peer group have begun to divorce, or maybe it is because I see all sorts of complicated family relationships in my work at the church. But whatever the reason, I am realizing what I want, which are the kinds of relationships that above all, are not perfect or even necessarily free of conflict--for those are impossible to maintain for long--but those that have depth, perspective, and compassion.
About ten minutes deep into our fight, Dan and I looked at each other incredulously. "We're really fighting about breadcrumbs right now?" "Yup." We laughed, and then we talked about what else was on our minds.
I hope we continue to remember that it is never only the two of us in the room--we bring our pasts, our deepest fears, our mundane stresses from the day, and our other relationships of influence into every interaction we have. For better of for worse, we are not alone.