The last week I’ve been reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and also read a few of the online comments of reviewers. A lady reviewer shared her mother’s Rules for Life. One of them was “Be nice to the janitor,” which is basically the idea to not take anyone for granted and be thankful wherever you are and be kind to those who serve you, because how you treat people behind the scenes really reflects who you are. The people who see you in your private moments really know you. You can’t fake being a nice person to them.
I remember a janitor of a church denominational headquarters sharing with me that part of his job was to clean the denominational president’s office. He was so grossed out doing this, because every week he had to vacuum up the denominational leader’s fingernail clippings that he absentmindedly left on the carpet. Gross. And this guy was preaching to hundreds every Sunday in churches all over the state? The janitor wasn’t impressed. Preaching on Sunday; leaving fingernail clippings on the carpet for the janitor on Monday. Somehow the message and this little routine didn’t line up for his janitor. No doubt the denominational leader wasn’t even aware of this little quirk.
Your kids will see how you treat the Walmart checkout lady and the teenager taking your order at McDonalds.
The latter is the toughest for me:
McDonalds Teenager Order Taker: Can I take your order? Me: Sure. I’ll take a hamburger, small fry and a small drink to go. McDonald’s Teenage Order Taker: I’m sorry. What was that again? Me: I’ll take a hamburger, small fry and a small drink to go. McDonald’s Teenage Order Taker: So that will be a hamburger, small fry and a small drink? Me: Right. McDonald’s Teenage Order Taker: OK. Will that be for here or to go? (Me to myself: ”Be nice to the janitor. Be nice to the janitor. Be nice to the janitor.”) Me: (usually with admirable self-control): To go.
Really, really hard for me. I have to just give up my expectations. I’ve got a new personal rule I’ve been following:
Do not tell the order taker your order is for here or to go unless asked.
Keep your dignity. Do not let the teenage order-taker at McDonalds take you down.
Your kids see you. They watch you like a hawk. I carry a Swiss Army Knife in my pocket. It has a cool little can opener that curves to a point and I use it in non-aware moments by habit when I frequently get something stuck in several too-big-of gaps in my teeth. My 4-year-old grandson grabs my Swiss Army Knife and sticks it in his mouth! I kid you not. Holy crap! I wasn’t even aware I was doing that and wow…that was scary.
And if they see you stick your knife in your mouth, what else are they observing? And what else will they be doing, following your lead?
How you treat the people who serve you is one of those unaware moments where you need to be aware. There are consequences to your behavior, whether you are aware or not. Your life is made up of all your actions, some spontaneous, but mostly habitual. What kind of actions are governing your life? This goes for your marriage, too. How do you treat your wife in those non-aware, habitual moments? You inwardly scoff your husband? You won’t look at her? Your kids can tell.
There’s a really scary verse in Ecclesiastes that reveals our darker side: “Do not revile the king even in your thoughts.” (Ecclesiastes 10:20a). Ouch! Who of us ever even remotely kept that command?! Maybe we should all be switching the channel! The next phrase says, “”Or curse the rich in your bedroom.” Then a reason is given: “because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.”
Of course. There are consequences to your secret, revengeful thoughts. Who’s the little bird? A poetic voice to imply “Who knows?” Your wife heard you say those things. Your kids heard. Maybe the maid. God, heard, of course. You heard. You are nursing your wounds. Your resentments stifle and limit you. They define you. They eat you away from the inside out. It’s a habit … often you are unaware.
There’s another take on this in Deuteronomy (27:18): “Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray on the road.” And in Leviticus ( 9:14) “Do not curse the deaf.” The blind man doesn’t know you are leading him astray. The deaf man doesn’t know you are cursing him. The King doesn’t know you are cursing him. But you know. God knows. Your kids know. In another place Jesus says (Matthew 6: 3-4) “let your giving be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
There’s secrets about you good or bad. You can invest your private thoughts and feelings and actions for good or ill.
Be nice to the janitor.
Do not curse the deaf.
Do not lead the blind astray.
Do not curse the rich in your bedroom.
Give in secret.
Do not curse the King in your head.
Do not rush the McDonald’s checkout dude.
Don’t leave your fingernail clippings on the carpet for somebody else to pick up.
All very hard things to do that reveal our shallow souls. Your life is made up of these very tiny, seemingly insignificant, mundane, moments that truly reveal who you are. Your wife or husband, your children and co-workers, fellow students and neighbors see these little unaware moments. They make a mental note.
Sometimes life is humming along and you are fine and you can handle whatever comes your way and then, BOOM!, something happens out of the ordinary and it’s very scary or worrisome or confusing and you feel a bit lost. That would be, like, normal. It happens to all of us. Not all the time, but once in a while, and you can’t predict it, and all of a sudden it’s there and what-you-do?
Hey, that’s where we come in. Sometimes it’s nice to get another perspective. Sometimes it’s comforting to be able to talk to someone that isn’t personally in the quagmire with you. Sometimes it’s helpful to be able to think out loud and to get feedback from someone who’s been through similar terrain with others and knows what and where the snafu’s are. Don’t be afraid to give us a call.
People usually don’t think about going to counseling until they reach a point where something seems out of control or unmanageable. For a lot of us, it is the loss of something: loss of your innocence or the innocence of your spouse or other loved one, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of your dignity, the loss of your spouse’s dignity, the loss of your inner peace, just to name a few. Throw in crime and tragedy and addictions and odd proclivities and breakups and fires and being fired and all of a sudden you are in the middle of a storm-tossed sea, having feelings you can’t make sense of and fears that seem more menacing than before. Then the thought occurs: maybe I should get some insight into this from an impartial observer?
You talk to your spouse or dad or mom or trusted friend or even your pastor or priest, but maybe they aren’t impartial enough. Or perhaps you want to unload your concerns more than once or explore another angle or you want to make sure the advice you are given is coming from, you know, a well with water you can actually drink. In addition you don’t want to be a burden or to create problems with your loved ones and friends. Meanwhile your distress and discomfort and fear or sadness lingers and doesn’t seem to want to leave, and what-do-you-do?
That’s where we come in. We don’t just listen. We give out road maps. We can’t make you take the journey, but we can point things out. We can mention other people who have gone through the same thing and this is what they did or didn’t work and this is why it worked. Others have done this and this or didn’t do this and this and this is why it didn’t work. You can try it on for size, or not. But the ideas won’t be an option unless you know about them!
Meanwhile, the reality is, if you didn’t have this loss, you wouldn’t be motivated to make this change and actually this change, whatever it is, might be the biggest blessing that’s ever come your way. You just might not know it yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Many clients over the years have commented to me that my blog on Living as Roommates was really creepy, like I had been observing from their living room. How did I know that stuff? Keep in mind I listen for a living and thousands of individuals and couples have told me about their relationships. Some of them had horrendous problems and were able to figure out how to get out of the quagmire. I’d ask them “How did you do that?” Or, “What worked?” Others of them got further and further into the pit and I’d ask them how they got to that point? Or they would just tell me. Meanwhile, I’m taking very good notes. I’d sock away their observations and over time I’ve learned a thing or two about marriage.
If you watched my video about my storage unit and the thousands of client files I have stored, you may note I didn’t say a whole lot. The following is what I wrote ahead of time that’s I’d hoped to share during the video. It’s not bad. I wish I would have said it! So here’s my running commentary after the fact:
Here we are where I keep my thousands of files and notes from couples and individuals who told me about their lives and relationships. There are 13 file cabinets here with 4 drawers each leaving 52 drawers. There are room for about 100 client files in each drawer. It’s not quite full yet, but that’d be over 5000 files. Note that Carol Putz has worked with me 18 years and her files are in here, too. We’d see around 200 different couples and individuals a year so in the twenty years I’ve been on Lincoln Way in Ames and the 19 years I’ve been on 86th Street in Urbandale, Iowa. Lots of people. Lots of stories. Lots of lessons people did or didn’t learn.
In this envelope I have the different keys to the various file cabinets. I’m going to pick out three keys randomly out of this envelope and then open that particular cabinet and you can see the many file folders that are in the drawers.
(While opening three drawers and showing the contents): You’ll note my comment on quotes today is from Solomon’s statement in Proverbs that “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter and the glory of kings to search them out.” I’m certainly not a king, but Proverbs is full of principles and if the principle is that it’s the glory of kings to discover God’s mysteries, then for us common folk it would be for our glory to also figure things out in whatever little corner of the world we find ourselves. My little corner is working with adults and couples about their relationships. They’ve told me thousands of stories. Some of them are stories of victory. Some of them are stories of defeat. I think about these stories. I put two and two together. I come as a learner. I discover patterns and principles and things that work and don’t work.
In addition to this Solomon says in Ecclesiastes “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might” (See Ecclesiastes 9:10a). Over the years I’ve worked hard to figure things out. I’m not good at everything. But I’m good at this. I thank my clients for sharing their stories with me. I count it a privilege.
If I’m going to do something with all my might I’d want to do it around a topic I’m good at and and what am I the best at in my life? What is the best thing? My greatest success in life is my marriage and my wife of well over forty years: Mary Sue, and our relationship and love for each other. She’s taught me some great insights. She’s literally kept me alive! And the laughs? Not to mention four fun and delightful children and wonderful daughter-in-law and five, filled-with-life, grandchildren.
It’s not easy to figure this stuff out sometimes. There’s pieces of this puzzle I still haven’t sorted out. In another place in Proverbs it says that “The way of a man with a maiden” is one of the world’s great mysteries (See Proverbs 30:18-19). The fact that it’s a mystery is one of things that keeps my interest. Likewise it’s one of the reasons you might be in a quandary and not be sure quite what to do.
Oh, and having a Ph.D. in the field probably doesn’t hurt either and you put these all together and over time I’ve been able to learn a thing or two about what ruins relationships and what makes marriages work.
This quote from Benjamin Franklin often comes to my mind while I’m paying the company bills or taking care of small things to keep the company going. Pay your bills on time and keep the doors open. Pick the place up so clients don’t have to fret about that. But here, today, though, I thought I’d switch it up a bit: “Take care of your marriage and it’ll take care of you.” A shared laugh. The goodbye kiss. The hello kiss. Finishing up the dishes. Putting away the dishes. Turning down the covers. Making the bed. Folding the clothes. A call on the way home from work. A text, just because. A thoughtful note. Sweeping the garage. A thank-you, Appreciate that. You look nice today. Holding hands in church. A tease. A light touch. Sharing news. Alone, just the two of you in bed together. Scooching next to each other.
Brain research is all the rage and how you get these neural pathways when you develop a habit and how hard it is to change up these pathways and old habits die hard. Your life is made up of these little, unnoticeable routines, hundreds of them, that get you through the day. You barely think of them. You have your little routine in the bathroom and do the same routine each day. If we videotaped you every morning we could put the video tapes on top of each other and they’d all look the same. While you are going through your routine you are thinking of other things. You do it almost absentmindedly.
Your love routines were absent minded at one time with your spouse, too. Those little kisses and hand on your wife’s hip to guide her through the door. That little flirty look you used to give him with the twinkle in your eye. You had hundreds of these things you did without thinking. They were natural to you.
But then resentment came into play, right? He hurt your feelings. Something she said, something he did or she didn’t do. Maybe it irked you to no end. Hurt you. The pain lingers.
How do couples handle hurt? There are two major ways: saying critical things or shutting down and not saying anything. Either can be infused with anger and snide remarks or rolling of eyes or, the worst, total indifference. It’s not a problem that your feelings were hurt. No one is perfect. It’s what you do with those hurt feelings. We’re all taught forgiveness is the way in the Lord’s Prayer, but that seems too easy. Let the bugger off the hook? You kiddin’ me? You’re just not one of those forgivy kind of persons, right? So what do you do? You cut her off emotionally or criticize him to convey your displeasure and to motivate him or her to change, right? Good luck with that.
You may recall how you’ve recoiled your entire life when someone treated you with anger, scolding or snobbishness? You ran from them emotionally as fast as you could, right? And now your anger and hurt is telling you your snobbish self-absorption is going to motivate your spouse to change, when instead you are motivating your spouse to ignore you or scoff at you even more and helping them develop their own neural pathways that don’t include tenderness toward you. All the while you may be wanting your spouse to change and they ain’t budging and now you are left with the bad habit that is almost unconscious now; basically being a jerk, but blaming your spouse for it all.
And your little neurons are firing just like you’ve told them to. They are obeying your will and pretty soon the snobbiness, the sarcastic comments, the disdain, the sleeping on the complete opposite side of the bed or not even in the same bed or even in another room or not saying hello or calling or giving a light touch or the goodnight kiss? Forget it. All the while your resentments that you are nursing are congratulating you that you are doing the right thing and telling you your spouse is in the wrong and you wouldn’t want to convey that your spouse’s behavior is acceptable and how the marriage sucks and it’s because your spouse doesn’t do this or that or does this or that and then when you divorce you can tell people the reason was because of all these hurtful things your spouse did or didn’t do, but meanwhile you’ve trained your brain to do all these crazy, resentful, bad habits when you are under any kind of duress and you marry somebody else and do the same frickin’ thing because your new spouse isn’t perfect either and it won’t be long before he or she hurts your feelings, too.
But of course, you won’t be self-aware enough to know that these marriages are crashing because you didn’t take care of either of them. You’ll be too busy blaming your spouses, nursing your wounds and wondering why your life sucks so much.
Or you could kick resentment to the curb in the first place and do the right thing and take care of your marriage and nurture the small, loving gestures and not let a “root of bitterness spring up and ruin” your marriage nor your life.
The “she” in this story is Curdie’s mother. Curdie is the boy miner who rescues the Princess from the Goblins. The boy, Curdie, and his mother were both giving people and it would never have occurred to them to keep score as to whom was doing more. The Princess and the Goblins is a fantasy, and you might be tempted to think the major fantasy here is that a mother and son could both work hard enough that neither would nurse wounds of unfairness! When unfairness creeps into your brain, and your marriage, you are beginning a downward spiral: it’s a sign you’ve opened the door to the dark side.
While the quote from George MacDonald is about a mother and son relationship, I’d like to apply the principle of “unfairness” to marriage, as unfairness is a love killer.
There’s a fancy family studies theory in family research called Equity Theory that tries to reduce familial relationship to a simple give and take. But it really doesn’t apply to the family. It does apply to some relationships: like business and college roommates. You want a gallon of milk? You pay the dollar equivalent and the milk is yours: both sides of the equation. If you don’t have enough money, you don’t get the milk. Maybe you could talk the clerk into letting you go home with the milk and come back with the money, but you better be back pronto or the clerk will call the police. You’ve got your college roommates and everyone divides up the rent equally. It needs to stay pretty equal and you stay out of my cookies, buddy. There were three slices of baloney here. Who’s taking my baloney? Roommates can’t stay out of balance very long or there will be an immediate bill to pay. You go too long unbalanced and you are out on the street.
But family life is not based upon Equity Theory. Sadly, it is for some folk. Often, cohabiting relationships start out that way: splitting the rent and having their money separate. And then if they get married, they keep living as roommates, which sucks to high heaven. I’ll trade you three cleaning of toilets for one changing of oil? I paid for your nieces wedding shower present. But I paid the oil change on your car last month. Where do you stop this nonsense?
Family living is based upon, or I should say, it should be based upon love. Fundamentally, love protects. Love gives. Love does not seek its own. It is not selfish. We are in this together. We look out for each other. There are a myriad of things that need to be done to run a family and we divide and conquer. Sometimes I do it. Sometimes you do it. Sometimes we do it together. Sometimes we’re both tired and neither of us does it.
Or not. Sometimes love has grown cold and spouses keep score and then gentleness and tenderness and generosity and servanthood wanes.
Let’s assume for a moment that neither of you nor your spouse are lazy and you both work hard. You both have your interests and your habits and your proclivities and tendencies and things that you don’t like undone and things you don’t mind undone. Neither of you are carbon copies of each other. That would be good. A little variety. At the end of the day you aren’t nursing your wounds: “I can’t believe I did more than her today.” Or, “This is a bunch of crap. It’s so unfair. He never does X.”
Sorry. I should say, at the end of the day you SHOULDN’T say… Because if you did, unfairness enters the picture and unfairness breeds resentment and resentment breeds … you get the picture. No. We’re in this together. We both do what we need to do to run the family. How you give is different than how I give, but we aren’t wasting time nursing wounds.
I remember hearing a story my dad told when I was a teenager of one of my dad’s friends. My dad shared the story with me in a parabolic way, as in, this is a really sad story, don’t do this. Dad never said that. He assumed I’d get the point: He knew a man, who was married for a decade or two when his wife got MS. He had an affair with another woman and then dumped his sick wife.
That’s equity theory in play. Cold. Selfish. Equity. Theory. Tit-for-tat. Or maybe going to the highest bidder?
Contrast that with my dad, who was married 62 years, but toward the end of his days my mom, his sweetheart, started to believe the newmen on TV were talking to her. He didn’t bat an eye. He never made a stink. He took care of her to the end of his days, even though there was no way she could have ever made it up to him and balanced the score. There was no scorekeeping. There was no score. There was no, “I do more than you.” Or “I ain’t gonna take no crap.”
There was only love.
And … a demonstration to the next generation, and now to you, that you don’t go dumping each other just cuz things get out of whack for a bit.