When my children were young, and I was filling their moral toolbox with all the items I thought they’d need one day in order to be good and decent human beings, I had a fairly clear idea of what it meant to ask for forgiveness. To me, the simple utterance of the words “I’m sorry” was never enough. I always stressed the notion that while the act of apologizing was a good place to start, it was impossible to undo the harm or damage that had been inflicted without asking “What can I do to fix this?” or “How can I make this better?” After all these years, I still feel the same way. When I wrote the Moral Skill Set post a few weeks ago, I became enamored with the thought of forgiveness being called an “art” because wording it as such implies that there is craft involved, and by further extension, mastery. It presents a bit of a moral conundrum though, right? In order for us to perfect any craft, we usually need lots of practice, and we certainly don’t want to spend a good bit of time hurting other people so much that we do indeed master this particular art. And yet still the idea intrigued me and left me wondering how I could elaborate on it further.
Gary Chapman is the theologian and relationship counselor responsible for developing the theory of The 5 Love Languages. I read excerpts of his book with great excitement back in 2018 when I was writing my first post on this topic, promptly took the quiz, and immediately became a huge fan of the entire concept. Originally, Dr. Chapman maintained that there were five basic ways in which we give and receive love: words of affirmation, quality time, giving and receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Although we practice all of them at one time or another, we tend to favor one more than the others, and this is considered our primary love language. It’s the expression of love that works best for us, in terms of both giving and receiving. Sometimes more than one will resonate, and so we actually prefer and employ a combination of languages. The quiz is simple to take and very revealing, especially when we have our partners take it too. We quickly learn that if we are someone who prefers acts of service and our significant other favors physical touch, we can do the dishes or fold the laundry until the cows come home, and it won’t ever score us any points. All he or she really wants to do is hold hands. Dr. Chapman believes that these differences in love languages can be the root cause of many relationship problems, and a good number of therapists use his concept as a starting point when counseling couples. It makes perfect sense. Once we understand the love language of our primary person, we can often meet somewhere in the middle and work towards an expression of love that’s more harmonious for both of us.
My oldest granddaughter Nora has no shortage of confidence. She will often say things to me like “Freezie, I am magnificent at art.” Or “Freezie, you know that all my ideas are really, really great.” That last one, in particular, always gets me. I think of my reactions to my own ideas, and the fact that I usually have to consider them ten ways to Sunday before I decide that they’re even marginally good, let alone really great. I’ve only ever seen her confidence falter once when she brought sleeping bags over for a slumber party we were having, but then decided that my bed was cozier. “I guess that wasn’t one of my best ideas,” she said in a way that broke my heart, and I replied that not only was it a really, really great idea, it was a scathingly brilliant idea! If you’ve ever seen the movieThe Trouble With Angels from way back in 1966 starring Rosalind Russell as the Mother Superior and Hayley Mills as the less than cooperative student, you’ll recognize the line. If you haven’t seen it and attended Catholic school as a child, then you need to watch it as soon as possible. So many things will resonate! Since the sleeping bag incident, I’ve told Nora at least three times a week that her ideas are scathingly brilliant, and she wholeheartedly agrees with me every time. It has led me to wonder at what point along the way do we lose the ability to maintain that level of nearly unfaltering confidence?
In last week’s post, I mentioned that I’d discovered a new podcast called On Being with Krista Tippett. I confess that up until about two months ago, I was not much of a podcast listener. I had a few favorites, mostly astrological, but I hadn’t really branched out all that much beyond those. I think people who regularly listen to podcasts will say, however, that once you discover some good ones that you like, they will often lead you to more that are similar in style and content. And so that has happened to me. I came across House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy through On Being and have quickly become a huge fan. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you that I did not immediately know who he was. For those of you who are in that same boat with me, Vivek Murthy is the 21st Surgeon General of the United States. In a groundbreaking move on May 1st, he issued an advisory to call our attention to the mental and physical effects of loneliness, which he sees to be an epidemic in our country. The powerful force of loneliness is a topic that I’ve written about quite often on this blog and as recently as last week, in fact. As it turns out, over 50% of U.S. citizens have reported feeling isolated even before the Covid-19 pandemic, with those feelings intensifying in its aftermath. As you would expect, House Calls covers topics related to the ways in which we can manage these kinds of emotions and move in a far more compassionate and empathetic direction overall.
I was unfamiliar with the idea of ambiguous loss until only recently when I heard it explained by the rather famous psychotherapist Esther Perel on an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, an equally famous podcast. Originally coined in the 1970s by Pauline Boss, also a relational therapist, ambiguous loss is most simply explained as loss without the opportunity for closure. Even when a loved one dies under the most tragic of circumstances, we generally have knowledge of the events that led to their death or may have even experienced those events firsthand. Despite our seemingly insurmountable feelings of grief, being armed with such understanding will eventually lead us to acceptance and closure. When the facts of death are unknown, however, such resolution remains beyond our reach. Consider the example of losing a loved one to a disappearance or kidnapping, to an act of war or terrorism, or to a natural disaster. All of these cases deal with the concept of “physical absence with psychological presence.” Our loved one is gone, but we are unable to fully accept this as fact because the circumstances of their death or disappearance remain remote and unexplained, rendering them impossible to process. Similarly, there are instances when we know where a person is or what has happened to them, but our relationship has changed because of circumstances like separation, divorce, or incarceration, and contact may become unwelcome, restricted, or even prohibited. The very modern occurrence known as “ghosting” would also fall into this category, in the sense that when a relationship ends without explanation or an opportunity for conversation, it can feel very much like a death or disappearance. Closure and acceptance can take years.