Great expectations: basic human decency.

Last week, I went to my first ther­a­py ses­sion since I was a teenag­er. (For those remem­ber­ing my sum­mer post about start­ing ther­a­py, I was wrong — that was see­ing a psy­chi­a­trist, not a psy­chol­o­gist.)

My pri­ma­ry care prac­ti­tion­er rec­om­mend­ed the coun­selor who vol­un­teers at the clin­ic. I’d known that the clin­ic had a pas­toral care coun­selor, so I told her I was appre­hen­sive about going to such coun­sel­ing as an athe­ist, par­tic­u­lar­ly an athe­ist whose men­tal health has been so dam­aged by Chris­tian­i­ty. She assured me that despite his work on his Mas­ter of Divin­i­ty, he would be respect­ful and objec­tive.

From these assur­ances, I assumed he must not be a bib­li­cal coun­selor like those I saw as a teenag­er, but clos­er to the many lib­er­al Chris­t­ian friends I have who mere­ly want to make the world a bet­ter place through com­pas­sion­ate social jus­tice work, much like my PCP is.

I also assumed that if he wasn’t licensed yet, he was work­ing on it.

Ohhh, how wrong I was, on both counts.

While I don’t want to get dis­tract­ed by the details of this ses­sion, a few things strike me as par­tic­u­lar­ly notable about it. They’re themes I’ve noticed emerg­ing from my more fun­da­men­tal­ist and evan­gel­i­cal friends alike, and it’s trou­bling.

On the one hand, he claimed that his office was a safe space free of judg­ment, much like you’d expect from a coun­selor.

On the oth­er hand, he kept reit­er­at­ing that he wasn’t going to stop talk­ing about God.

Despite my repeat­ed insis­tence that approach­ing my care with God as the focus (espe­cial­ly know­ing that I’m an athe­ist) was dis­re­spect­ful and made me very uncom­fort­able.

He dis­agreed, even man­ag­ing to work a “God’s Plan for Sal­va­tion” speech in, all the while assur­ing me that’s not what he was going to do.

Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said mul­ti­ple times before, I tend to not police Chris­tians’ talk about their faith. I accept that it’s a sig­nif­i­cant dri­ving force in their lives, and real­ize if I want a rela­tion­ship with them, it’s unfair for me to expect them to keep qui­et about it (much like it’s unfair for them to expect me to remain silent about my beliefs, but we’re still work­ing on that one).

This par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, of course, was stark­ly dif­fer­ent. This coun­selor was not act­ing or talk­ing to me as a peer. I was in his care, and he was abus­ing the posi­tion of pow­er that care afford­ed him.

This expe­ri­ence high­lights a cou­ple of the many rea­sons I have this on-going series of con­ver­sa­tions for well-mean­ing Chris­tians. There are rea­sons I keep com­ing back to the con­cepts of empa­thy and respect and lis­ten­ing to peo­ple who believe dif­fer­ent­ly than con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians do.

One such rea­son is the vast divide between what Chris­tians expect from non-Chris­tians and what they expect of them­selves in rela­tion to non-Chris­tians.

Great expectations.

Many con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians see no prob­lem what­so­ev­er with “speak­ing the truth in love” to me at every gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty.

They expect such a thing is entire­ly per­mis­si­ble through the divine author­i­ty giv­en to them by God and the Bible, utter­ly fail­ing to rec­og­nize that my very belief in the nonex­is­tence of super­nat­ur­al realms or beings means the author­i­ty they believe they have through God and the Bible is an author­i­ty that has no sway on me what­so­ev­er.

With God on their side, many Chris­tians take the lib­er­ty afford­ed to them from on high to run roughshod over any bound­aries I’ve set, even over bound­aries set by soci­etal norms, in order to con­vince me to change my ways. After all, the Word of the Lord will not return void. So who cares if any­one has a prob­lem with it, amiright?

And so they link me to videos of Lee Stro­bel talk­ing about his mirac­u­lous sal­va­tion, as if I’ve nev­er heard it before. (I still own The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith, for what it’s worth — both books I’ve read mul­ti­ple times.)

They tell me that bad Chris­tians and bad the­ol­o­gy don’t rep­re­sent the true heart of Christ — who, if only I real­ly knew, would be my sav­ing grace.

They email me and tell me that Satan’s peo­ple have spent years drug­ging me in an attempt to bring me away from Christ (I am total­ly not kid­ding here).

They spend a tru­ly inor­di­nate amount of time and ener­gy craft­ing let­ters to explain to me why my expe­ri­ences and voice are invalid.

They say that by writ­ing and shar­ing “con­tro­ver­sial things” (read: not espous­ing con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian val­ues), I am per­son­al­ly attack­ing them and their faith.

They tell me unap­proach­able.

In short, they assure me they respect and love me — all the while try­ing to con­trol me. The expec­ta­tion they seem to have about how they’re allowed to treat me involves attempt­ing to silence and change me, osten­si­bly for my own good. But I’m not allowed to expect them to not treat me this way, and in fact the expec­ta­tion is that I’m oblig­at­ed to allow them to vent their spleen at me.

These Chris­tians mean well.know they mean well. I whole-heart­ed­ly believe they have only good thoughts and love and care for me in their hearts.

And so I don’t fault them for their inten­tions*.

I fault them for their impact.

Nope. Not how this works.

Nope. Not how this works.

Magical intentions and mythical impact.

Melis­sa McE­wan of Shakesville fame has writ­ten a fan­tas­tic post defin­ing mag­i­cal intent. She describes it thus:

Mag­i­cal Intent is the prin­ci­ple by which some­one who has said or done some­thing offen­sive, hurt­ful, rage-mak­ing, mar­gin­al­iz­ing, and/or oth­er­wise con­temptible argues that the per­son to whom they’ve said or done it has no right to be offend­ed, hurt, enraged, alien­at­ed, and/or oth­er­wise dis­dain­ful because their intent was not to gen­er­ate that reac­tion.

In oth­er words: “I didn’t intend for you to feel that way, so if you do feel that way, don’t blame me! My intent mag­i­cal­ly inoc­u­lates me from respon­si­bil­i­ty for what I actu­al­ly said and how it was received!”

This is explic­it­ly what I was refer­ring to in regards to my eye-open­ing ther­a­py ses­sion last week. I have no doubt what­so­ev­er that my coun­selor meant well as he explained how his faith informed and direct­ed his coun­sel­ing tech­niques and strate­gies. And yet he could not (or would not?) under­stand that con­tin­u­ing to treat me with a faith-based approach to my care was explic­it­ly dis­re­spect­ful.

The fact that he was try­ing to help me, in his mind, super­seded the fact that he was not actu­al­ly help­ing me. And the way he repeat­ed­ly framed the prob­lem was if I could “accept” his help, then it would help. Which was a nice sort of gas-light­ing rou­tine he had going, whether cog­ni­tive­ly or not. In his mind, there was this myth­i­cal impact that his mag­i­cal inten­tions would bring about if only I would allow it. He heav­i­ly implied if his faith-based approach was not help­ful, then it was because I didn’t let it help me. In oth­er words, if his well-inten­tioned approach didn’t have his desired impact, then it was my fault.

This sort of thing hap­pens so often, it’s down­right weary­ing. Some­how, a person’s inten­tions sup­pos­ed­ly have more weight than the impact of their words or actions, mag­i­cal­ly reliev­ing them of all respon­si­bil­i­ty since they’re expect­ing some sort of myth­i­cal impact that nev­er comes to pass.

Let me clar­i­fy that there are, of course, lim­its to this. We can’t go around say­ing that every­one else is respon­si­ble for the neg­a­tive feel­ings we have about them sim­ply liv­ing their own lives. That’s not what I’m address­ing here at all. What I am address­ing is how direct words or actions aimed at a per­son or per­sons can have a clear neg­a­tive impact despite good inten­tions. Inten­tions do not out­weigh impact, and blam­ing some­one for being hurt by your actions is the epit­o­me of unlov­ing and dis­re­spect­ful.

At this point, Chris­t­ian read­ers, you may be feel­ing real­ly frus­trat­ed. “I do mean well, and I do want what’s best for my unbe­liev­ing or dif­fer­ent­ly believ­ing friends and loved ones! How can I even have a rela­tion­ship with them that’s ben­e­fi­cial to both of us with­out offend­ing my con­science or push­ing them away?”

I’m glad you asked. I’d like to intro­duce you to the sin­gle most influ­en­tial rev­e­la­tion I’ve had regard­ing human inter­ac­tions.

The least common denominator.

Those of you who know me well might be scratch­ing your heads after that head­line. “Dani is not a math per­son. What’s going on?” All I can say is some­how, a cou­ple of my great­est light-bulb learn­ing moments have come from find­ing a math tie-in, despite my abysmal grasp of high­er math. This hap­pens to be one of those times. Anoth­er time was when I real­ized that draw­ing in Illus­tra­tor using bezi­er curves was exact­ly like plot­ting points on a graph.

But any­way.

I’ve said before that I’d much rather my rela­tion­ships with Chris­tians be based on what we have in com­mon rather than focus­ing on what sep­a­rates us.

Enter: the least com­mon denom­i­na­tor.

In many ways, we already use a com­mon denom­i­na­tor sort of sys­tem for mak­ing friends and relat­ing to peo­ple. Shared inter­ests, hob­bies, careers, geo­graph­i­cal place­ment, pas­sions — these form com­mon bonds or com­mon denom­i­na­tors on which we can base a friend­ship.

I’d like to shift that idea from com­mon denom­i­na­tors that bring us togeth­er to com­mon denom­i­na­tors that ought to deter­mine how we treat one anoth­er.

My part­ner and I are lit­er­al polar oppo­sites with our per­son­al­i­ty types. I’m an intro­vert; he’s an extro­vert. I’m deeply intu­itive and dri­ven by emo­tion; he’s more prac­ti­cal­ly log­i­cal with­out emo­tions com­ing into play eas­i­ly. These dif­fer­ences can make com­mu­ni­ca­tion between us real­ly dif­fi­cult, par­tic­u­lar­ly if we treat one anoth­er and expe­ri­ence one another’s treat­ment of us sole­ly from our own per­spec­tive with­out stop­ping to empathize with one anoth­er. So as we’ve grown, we try to approach com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fer­ent­ly by appeal­ing to shared val­ues rather than dou­bling-down on our dif­fer­ences. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in argu­ments, we look for the least com­mon denom­i­na­tor — the val­ues and beliefs we share — to help bring us togeth­er to approach the prob­lem unit­ed rather than frac­tured.

In the same way, with many of my more lib­er­al Chris­t­ian friends, we tend to approach how we treat one anoth­er dif­fer­ent­ly than how I might treat a fel­low athe­ist or how they might treat a fel­low Chris­t­ian. They don’t appeal to divine author­i­ty when help­ing me nav­i­gate sit­u­a­tions, because that’s not a com­mon denom­i­na­tor — it’s not a belief that we share. Like­wise, I do my best to appeal to our shared val­ues of respect for all, empa­thy bal­anced with healthy bound­aries, informed con­sent and hon­esty. We allow what brings us togeth­er to be what deter­mines how we love, respect, encour­age, and sup­port one anoth­er.

In short: the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor in all rela­tion­ships ought to be basic human decen­cy.

When Chris­tians tell me that it’s not fair for me to expect them not to tram­ple on my bound­aries or treat me with dis­re­spect for my auton­o­my as a human being, all I can hear is, “You can’t expect basic human decen­cy from me or my peo­ple.” More than that, I hear, “You don’t even qual­i­fy as human enough for us to con­sid­er treat­ing you dif­fer­ent­ly.”

Chris­tians? This is a prob­lem.

How will the world know you as lov­ing if you refuse to act lov­ing­ly? How can you say you pos­sess the love of Jesus Christ when this is how you treat unbe­liev­ers? You claim that you’re no bet­ter than us, yet treat us like you’re the Des­ig­nat­ed Adult and we’re the naughty chil­dren you must put back in our places. You insist that for me and oth­er unbe­liev­ers (or even lib­er­al believ­ers!) to write and live and share our authen­tic selves is a direct attack on you, and so you try to con­trol us through silenc­ing tac­tics and what you must think are counter-attacks. You can’t see the dif­fer­ence between some­one being hon­est about who they are and some­one exert­ing con­trol over a per­son? How can you not see the dis­re­spect of that? How can you not see the con­de­scen­sion? How can you pre­tend to be shar­ing Christ’s love when you refuse to see the image of God in any­one but those who look and think and act like you?

Despite being an athe­ist, I do think the Bible has a few nuggets of wis­dom here and there. And one of those nuggets is this: “Let us not love in word…but in deed and in truth.” In oth­er words, don’t tell me that you love me while show­ing me that you don’t.

I’m remind­ed of Eliza Doolit­tle talk­ing to Fred­dy Eyns­ford-Hill in the musi­cal My Fair Lady:

Words, words, words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through –
first from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?

Don’t expect to be allowed to tram­ple over those who believe dif­fer­ent­ly than you in order to sat­is­fy your need for them to agree with you (which nec­es­sar­i­ly involves their capit­u­la­tion to your opin­ions on their lives). Don’t expect that your mag­i­cal inten­tions will bring about myth­i­cal impacts that over­write what peo­ple actu­al­ly tell you the impact of your words and actions are. If you love me, if you seek to love oth­ers like me — do not “expline,” show us. Treat us with what ought to be the least com­mon denom­i­na­tor between all.

Basic. Human. Decen­cy.

*It could be eas­i­ly argued that the inten­tion to change me is, in fact, a bad inten­tion. I tend to agree with that assess­ment. How­ev­er, I know the intent to change me is, from their per­spec­tive, for my good. They just don’t real­ize that manip­u­lat­ing some­one to only do or say or be who they want them to be is wrong.