By Elton HiggsMy wife suggested that I write a piece on ways that I have learned from my mistakes. That opens a broad field of possibilities, but probably the most fruitful area would be bungled relationships, particularly when close friendships have been injured, sometimes permanently. The bottom line of what I learned from these snafus is that confronting others to point out their mistakes requires not only courage, but also compassion and awareness of one’s own vulnerability. Gal. 6:1-2 presents the standards for correcting a brother or sister: “You who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” I would like to relate a couple of instances of my own mishandled confrontations and the painful lessons I learned from them, detailing how those mistakes could have been avoided had I fully understood the passage just quoted.
The most painful of these was the rupture between myself and an intimate friend who was one of my closest confidants. He was a minister and a psychological counselor of great ability with whom I shared many common perspectives and tastes. In fact, the combination of our both having some academic and religious standing and enjoying fairly frequent stimulating and satisfying conversations meant that the intensity of our mutual reinforcement weakened our ability to challenge one another when we needed to. For either of us to do that would have threatened the ego satisfaction we had from boosting and being boosted. So when I became aware that his messages had lost their freshness and that he had settled into being comfortable in his reputation, I felt I needed to confront him with this error, but I had had no experience in doing so constructively. More than that, I was not guided by the advice of Paul in the passage quoted above to be gentle, to be aware of my own moral vulnerability, and to share my brother’s burden. Also, I thought the relationship between us was so strong that it would survive my being bluntly frank with him. At the time I saw my actions as being morally courageous, but my friend felt they were brutal and out of character with what he thought me to be.
It took me many years to understand fully why my attempt to challenge my friend shattered our relationship (which, by the way, was mended on the surface but never recovered its previous intimacy). As the years went on, I realized how I should have done it, and my deepest regret is that after the alienation he never again trusted me in the deep way he had before, and I destroyed a relationship that could have been enriched by my handling the confrontation more sensitively. I realized too late that had I dealt with his fault with more humility, gentleness, and compassionate sharing of his burden, I could have been his partner in correction, rather than merely his accuser. Moreover, the way would have opened up for a mutually beneficial relationship in which our love and regard for one another didn’t depend on our each maintaining an unrealistic image of who we were. We needed to see and acknowledge each other’s flaws and to experience the richness of God’s and each other’s forgiveness.
The other example of how I brought about an estrangement and how I could have avoided doing so took place in my workplace, an academic institution. Although the split was not with a fellow Christian, in a way it was worse, because my actions turned out to compromise my Christian witness, even though I acted from a desire to stand up for Christian standards. This incident involved two of my colleagues with whom I had close ties because we were next-door neighbors and members of the same academic department. Part of the mistake I made was from naivete, since it took several years for me to realize that they were homosexual companions. Consequently, Laquita and I became friends with them and socialized with them with no self-consciousness about their relationship. They naturally assumed that we knew they were sexual partners, but had found a way to accept that fact in spite of our conservative Christian convictions. (In retrospect, what we were able to do in our ignorance might well have been possible merely on the basis of respectfully dealing with people where they are, not where we think they ought to be.) One summer in the late 70’s, when homosexual militancy was gaining ground but did not yet have the majority support it has now, a group of people on campus decided that there needed to be a homosexual support group. When I read about it in the student newspaper, I felt moved to write a letter to the paper about my reservations concerning the acceptance of homosexual practices as normal and morally neutral. When the letter was published, I was thoroughly excoriated by my colleagues, and my next-door neighbors exploded in both public and private indignation at my “intolerance” and “bigotry.” They felt betrayed and stabbed in the back and regarded me as a hypocrite.
How could I have applied the principles of Gal. 6:1-3 to this secular situation? First of all, I could have put myself in their shoes and have anticipated how they would react to my suddenly, without any attempt to soften the blow for them, going public with remarks that they found personally insulting and disrespectful, seeming to reject out of hand a vital part of their identity. Had I gone to them privately and expressed my views, they would have been shocked and disappointed, but perhaps at least they would not have seen me as insensitive to the opprobrium and ill-treatment suffered by open or suspected homosexuals at the time. I could perhaps have stated my convictions with firmness but gentleness, not self-righteously minimizing my own vulnerability to sexual temptation, but showing a willingness to share the burden of our human condition. That could have opened the way for meaningful discussion that was not charged with the emotion of public argument. Once again, I was guilty of mistaking my boldness in confrontation as virtuous courage.
Unfortunately, there are several more instances I could cite, but even mea culpa can be overdone. I hope these examples are sufficient to deter others from the mistakes I made. If so, that is some compensation for the damage I did. I’m not sure that old age necessarily brings wisdom, but it certainly brings a deeper understanding of our experiences.
(To an Estranged Brother)
When God has done,
He has undone, too;
The knots of will unraveled
Await the Weaver’s hand.
Though that which bound our love
Seemed closely knit,
He knew that it required
A purer bond to make us one.
So, Lord, secure the cords again,
And stay our fumbling hands,
Lest we re-tie what you undid;
In one deft stroke,
Retwine our hearts in unity,
For love alone, and not security.
–Elton D. Higgs
(Oct. 29, 1982)
image: “Broken” by H. Olsen. CC License.