An Act Of Moral Imagination

Earlier today, as I wrote this, I met a close friend of my roommate who will apparently be visiting for some time.  I had never met him before but I was familiar with his name, and he expressed the same level of knowledge about me.  Like my roommate, he is somewhat of a bitter elderly man towards women, and he talked about three lengthy failed relationships with women.  He seemed particularly embittered by the most recent one, a relationship that had lasted nine years, had begun based on pressure that he had received from many people to marry in light of our church culture’s longstanding bias against singlehood, and had ended when the wife said she wanted some time to herself to get some space and ended up never seeing him again, filing for divorce some two months later.  I listened politely, as is my fashion, and then found it most convenient to quietly go to my room, where there are plenty of books to read and plenty of materials to write where I need not indulge any of my own taste for bitterness, no matter the provocation.

It should be important to note that this is not an unfamiliar story.  Certainly I am familiar with the pressure to marry, and I have heard others complain about the problem as well.  My father, for one, was single until his mid 30’s and felt immense pressure to marry despite having far less inclination to do so than I have and certainly far less longing.  At least as I heard it, the gentleman sinned against his conscience by choosing to act against his inclination merely to avoid the awkward and unpleasant situation of loneliness that he found himself in, and feels it impossible to trust anyone again.  What struck me particularly forcefully, though, was the certainty that there was another side to the story that was not being considered, and that neither of the two people I was talking to had any particular inclination to explore the other side of the story.  When a woman you have been involved with for nine years decides to up and leave hundreds of miles away, almost immediately file for divorce, and never wants to see you again, it would perhaps be natural and appropriate to ask what could possibly drive them away so thoroughly.  At least I would ask that question.  I am not saying that either one side or the other is all right or all wrong, but rather that there is more than one side of the story.  The leaving partner, however much I am in favor of intact marriages and however much I lament separation and divorce, has a story of her own.  She is certainly no irrational cardboard villain [1].  People do not leave that abruptly and that completely without any reason at all.  The fact that she may not have felt comfortable telling him her reasons, perhaps because she did not think he loved or respected or was interested enough in her feelings for her to risk her own vulnerability does not mean that she did not have her own feelings and reasons.  Simply because someone does not wish to tell us something does not mean there is not a story to tell, sadly.

How do I know this to be true?  Partly because I know myself.  I know myself to be a person who finds it deeply uncomfortable to convey unpleasant truths in face-to-face conversation, who feels deeply anxious about dealing with people who do not seem to be interested in what I have to say or who I am, and who has had plenty of experience dealing with other people who are as anxious and flight-prone as I am, and even more so.  I know that I am a person who has a hard time trusting others, and I know that other people have not felt that I was the sort of person who would listen to them patiently and thoughtfully or who cared about their own feelings and their own longings.  I consider this judgment to be unjust, but it is not unreasonable that someone would think it impossible to tell me the burdens of their heart, no matter how much I cared for them.  Certainly I know my own silence has hurt other people, and certainly I have been hurt by the silence of others.  Because I am somewhat pitiless about examining myself and my own complicated motives, it is not too surprising that I would find in that penchant for self-examination the material to give other people the benefit of the doubt, to come up with some plausible reason why they could act as they do that makes them a human being and not some sort of b-movie cardboard villain.  Paradoxically, the harder I am on myself, the easier I find it to be understanding with others, because the more I know about myself the more moral imagination I have to at least guess at the levels of depth within other people.

This does not seem to be a very common phenomenon.  I can think of many occasions, for example, where others were surprised that I was keeping them in on the loop about something, or seeking some sort of counsel about whether a proposed post or message I was working on was a good one.  It is no secret, for example, that I greatly enjoy the company of ladies.  I find it helpful to bounce ideas off of people who have a different perspective than I do, because there are some very notable blind spots in my own thought process and one gains a great deal of perspective in being able to work with those who have complementary skills and approaches to our own.  This is, it should be noted, one of the ways the grand alliance between men and women is supposed to work.  God divided His gifts among people so that we would be best served by developing the capacity for unity and communication and cooperation between sexes, between personality types, between generations, and so on and so forth.  And yet we often fail to develop the capacity for understanding others and appreciating what they have to offer, only interested in telling our own stories and not listening to what others bring to the table.  And when we do that with our spouses and other family members, it should not surprise us if they get bored of hearing all the same stories and never having their own stories or insights appreciated and if they seek refuge in silence or seek to leave altogether.  It ought to be a disappointment, though, when we fail to have the moral imagination to at least guess at what went wrong, even if we may find it difficult to open ourselves up to hurt again.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to An Act Of Moral Imagination

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Collateral Damage | Edge Induced Cohesion

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