Saturday, March 26, 2011


“Intimate Wrestles”
A Reflection on

                 Relationships and Unstable Marriages Today 
By John Abraham Ayieko
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St. Thomas Aquinas National Seminary, Nairobi
This Reflection was first presented to Inter-Collegial Young Christian Students (ICYCS) in St. Thomas Aquinas National Seminary’s Aula Magna during a Rally on the 26th of February 2011 under the title “Embers of Hope”. Inspired by the nature of reactions it elicited, and encouraged by the overwhelming interest it generated, I have chosen to adapt it for our blog whose theme it very appropriately fits. After all, people of faith must wrestle with the Divine and with human beings. Which greater human wrestle could there be than the one that defines our relationships and marriages?

Janice was sure that her decision to take her life was the wisest under her circumstances. It mattered little that none of her trusted friends had stood by her on this. And yet they all understood her unenviable predicament. Had she not fled to the safety of their homes countless times as Derrick battered her now frail body? Had she not sobbed all night long, turning and tossing and cursing, as her imagination tortured her on the safety of her three lovely children under the drunken custody of their violent father?
But this particular night was uniquely different; she had not only learnt of her HIV positive status earlier in the day, but had also fled to an unusual venue – the long and busy Changamwe Bridge.
And now, staring blankly into the vast turbulent monster of destruction, she felt lucky. She had generous choices to make. She had the choice to jump onto a speeding vehicle, or to dive into the Ocean! Whatever choice she would make – she was sure – would simply be better than walking back to her marital home. She dreaded the sheer possibility of surrendering her afflicted life yet again to the power and wrath of her alcoholic husband of nine years. Not any more! Never again! She did not even want her dead body to have anything with it. It is indeed for this other reason that she found, in the beckoning ocean waters an intensely irresistible offer. For her, it was an invitation to perfect liberty!
As the traffic continued reducing with the increasing darkness, and as the last pedestrians disappeared into the night, Janice thought that she had to act, and fast…
To be a person is essentially to be in relation. Persons exist only in communion with other persons, spend their lives interacting with them and, what is more important, constitute themselves as authentic or inauthentic by free gift of themselves to others in love, or by freely closing themselves from others in selfishness and pride.
Human rationality operates in four-fold direction: I-Thou; I-Society; I-Environment; I-God. If I interact with all four of them on a daily basis, there is no doubt that my relationship with God is unique, for it determines the quality and nature of the other three relations. Only if I truly love God can I love the others. My being in love with God constitutes my status as an authentic person, capable of self-transcendence, thus making me a principle of benevolence and beneficence in the society. This is because I was made for God. My relationship with God is therefore constitutive of my spiritual being at its most basic personal-structural level. To be in relationship is therefore roundly intrinsic to our nature. The quality of our relationship directly translates into the quality of our lives. As long as one relationship remains healthy and satisfying, we retain the urge to live on. We find meaning in our existence and we grasp some value to live – and if necessary – die for. ‘What greater love can there be than for one to lay down his life for his friends? (John 15:13). It might sound strange, but without even a single person to call friend, or to understand and accept us, none of us would find any meaning in this life. This is why seizing Christ’s offer of friendship should mean so much to us (John 15:15).
Against the foregoing backdrop, we must NEVER rush to judge Janice who probably had known only one friend, Derrick. Her decision to take her life is by all means awful, but pitiably understandable at the same time.
Some questions must however be asked; Why should relationships push one this far? Why would the intended comfort of intimate marital partnership lead one to such utter self-destruction?
The reality that the marriage institution has all sorts of odds stacked against it is an open secret. The home, a place that should be a haven for comfort, security, refreshment, consolation and growth has become a war-zone, pushing countless children into the cold anarchy of our city streets. In the recent past, we have been treated to heinous forms of cold-blood homicides both here and abroad. Even though the numerous broken homes, shattered dreams and spine-chilling betrayals might make Janice’s stand understandable, this reflection holds out glowing embers of hope; hope that marriage still is attractive and possible.
 We cannot run short of reference families that constantly attest to God’s own observation at the dawn of history. ‘…It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him’ (Gen 2:18). With this divine affirmation, our nature from the outset is one that is relational. We were created for companionship without which we can only play games by claiming that we can stage a solo cast in the drama of life. Our true worth is only revealed in the mirror of human friendship where an echo of what we offer comes back to define the substance of our being. We all need at least one person who understands us, who can accept us just the way we are, and who help us then, to find some meaning, some reason to live and even die for. A true friend indeed is one who, like Christ can die for us (John 15:13).

By their fruits, we shall know them
Marriages can only be as good as the relationships that yield them. Christ our master is so clear and unambiguous on this; “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43-44a). It is therefore only fair that before we bemoan the sorry state of our marriages, we should honestly asses the pedigree of our youth relationships.
The wisdom of time has revealed that nearly all happy marriages were preceded by responsible courting and engaging friendships, which seem to remain even years after marital union. In other words, most of the best couples are also best of friends. One of the most indispensable recipes to a healthy marriage is communication. In any case, genuine friendships are also chiefly marked by the endless and free atmosphere of the two friends to engage in meaningful dialogue as they grow in the knowledge of each other.
In this reflection, I hope to confirm that there is no greater key to happy and fulfilling youth relationships – and eventually marriages – other than communication; gut-level communication to be precise. A cursory glance at Jesus’ apparent concept of friendship would be of service to our argument.

“I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15).
Friendship by its very nature is an initiatory relationship. We unconsciously wade through the waters of friendship with measured caution. Oftentimes, we test the depths of the waters ahead as we gradually allow ourselves to be immersed in it. That is how it should be. Note that Jesus can only elevate his disciples from the status of ‘slavery’ to the status of ‘friendship’ after he has taken them through so much already. Real friendship with his disciples actually begins only after he has told them everything. Jesus, being the Son of God obviously knew everything about each one of them, including the son of perdition who would betray him (John 6:71). This was therefore a genuine friendship; a relationship that was marked by deep mutual and intimate knowledge, exchanged and lovingly embraced. 

Our own relationships hardly meet this important criterion. We hardly bare our hearts and souls to each other. We rarely allow the dynamics of intimacy to shatter our masks and slough off the cocoons that life vests us with. That is why our friendships soon break; that is why we are promiscuous in our relationships; that is why we keep hopping from one relationship to another. 

When we jump into pre-marital sexual intimacy because it is warmer and more pleasant, we miss out on pertinent opportunities for growth. We avoid taking important risks and enduring pains that would eventually (if we had only waited) make the intimacy worth its consolation. We totally block any further progress in communication. This is often because after conjugal intimacy, the genuine partner is soon encompassed by a strong sense of insecurity. Such a one begins wallowing in some strange fear of the unknown. (S)he might not know what the other partner might want to do with the full knowledge he or she now has. The genuine partner begins wondering whether the vulnerability that (s)he has allowed will be protected or grossly misinterpreted. This is immediately followed by a tendency to withdraw and close up, as if to make a non-verbal resolution never to share any more until one has guarantee of safety. Where the maturity required to genuinely love is lacking, or where one or both partners were only up for an orgiastic escapade, separation soon takes place. Premarital sexual encounters always create wounds that must be healed if genuine communication has to be restored. Unfortunately, not many are aware of this reality. That is why many have confused their sexual partners for intimate friends, only to discover long after settling together that they wedded total strangers!

Against the foregoing backdrop, we can finally place our fingers on certain handicaps that seem to define our modern day relationships, and which consequently result in the unstable marriages of our knowledge and experience.

‘Houses Built On Sand’: Wanting Relationships
Like an underground spring that secretly makes the lawn green, good marriages are defined by their foundations, which are rock-solid. Unstable marriages on the other hand are founded on the quick-sands of infatuation characterized by the following;

Half-Truths, Falsehoods and Pretenses as a Starting Point
No genuinely human story can pass the muster as truthful without being punctuated by modest struggles, mistakes, fears, weaknesses – even guilt and anxieties.   Of course there are good stories too; stories of resounding successes; of lofty aspirations; of lovely dreams and hopes and joys. Moreover, even though there is always harmony and smoothness from a distance, there is always also a scar here and a spot there. But these are only visible to those who come really close. The tragedy in most of our relationships is that many of us live in constant denial of nearly everything that in the actual sense define who we really are. So, then; how would we accept someone else if we have real difficulty accepting our very selves in the first place? If we cannot marshal the courage to face our own shadows, how possibly would we embrace the shadows and inevitable dark spots of our spouses?

Our ‘fallenness’ must thus form a very crucial portion of what we share with our friends. We risk inhibiting personal growth if we pose to our friends as faultless creatures. We risk remaining strangers forever. Had the Samaritan woman been dishonest, she would never have known the LORD (John 4:1ff). This rather unpolished serial divorcee gives us a glimpse of the instant reward of crude honesty. She hides nothing from the LORD who also hides nothing from her. A casual encounter soon becomes an epiphany, a phenomenal revelation of Christ to an entire village! Owing to the fact that we can only know the other to the extent that they know us, the fatal result of dishonesty is that we end up with two professional strangers trying to start a family. This is why we must be wary when it emerges in the process of our courting that our potential spouses appear faultless and angelic all the while. 

But maybe, the best course of action would be to retrospect ourselves and reassess our own relationships. We should be able to see the extent to which we have rationed truth to our partners. Which truths about us are we yet to share? Which realities might we never share? As long as we “keep some clothes on”, our partners will keep an equal share of clothes on too. We should never forget that we can only know so much from the other as we reveal. We must take the risk to initiate this process.

Covered in “Fig Leaves”: Pseudo- Intimacy
Before we can begin a journey on the path to true friendships and marriages, it is important that we know each other; not just about each other. True and genuine friendship happens when two hearts meet eye to eye in perfect nakedness. Intimacy is indeed the art of being ‘naked together’ without feeling shame’ (Genesis 2:25). Like Adam and Eve, we keep clothing ourselves from each other with ‘fig leaves’ in fear that when we are fully known, we may be rejected. We work towards ‘saving our courtships and marriages’ by playing games. God’s idea of human company was not merely a multiplicity of bodies. Many of our friendships can accurately be described as ‘corporate loneliness’. 

Many of us talk for hours on end with our friends. The tragedy is that we only exchange opinions and views, and never really set aside time to share deep feelings about ourselves. There is some sense of true freedom before we donate ourselves to be ‘known’ by the other. That is why when we finally expose our nakedness in trust; we are suddenly engulfed by the fear of the unknown. Knowledge is power. Other than rejecting us, we know not what else the person who has conned us of our ‘nakedness’ might want to do with such personal information. That is why many of us can freely share everything about others and about the weather; we can argue and bet over premier league ratings. We can pontificate about the unfolding in popular TV soaps, but deep within, we remain lonely and even more estranged. We remain longing for someone who would understand our real experiences. Someone who would affirm our deepest fears and hold our trembling hands. Someone who after listening to our dirt will still look into our eyes with unfeigned love and tell us; ‘you are still precious and even more authentically human in your weakness.’ These are delicate issues that cannot be shared by anybody. We need a friend. We need an intimate soul-mate who can help cover us with ‘garments of love and understanding’. Many people have confessed serious loneliness even in the company of their spouses! Jesus counsels that, the ‘…two shall become one flesh’ (Matt. 19:5).This takes time, and especially courage.

Lack of Commitment
From wealth to pleasure and everything in-between, the greatest undoing of our generation is a chronic lack of patience. Ours is a generation of instant things. The pathetic result of this ‘instantness’ is a convenient phobia of the word Commitment. Healthy relationships are weaved in the loom of time. Commitment often means patient endurance as this happens. Without commitment, we soon turn our fiancées into sex partners and sign up to conjugal slavery. Marriage then becomes more like servitude and we begin feeling that it is hard because we robbed it of all mystery in pursuit of pleasure. Once our relationships are characterized more by sex, the line between sheer exploitation and genuine friendship becomes desperately thin. Sexual intimacy’ then becomes an orgiastic escape from the reality that we really can no longer face both ourselves and our partners. Genuinely heart-to-heart and free communication can no longer take place. There occurs some shared intrinsic embarrassment at the inability to master our own sexual emotion to an extent that we let sensual pleasure rule us. Sex soon becomes sedative opium that helps us carefully avoid the real responsibilities that intimate commitment calls for.

 We may not even call each other by their real names because we know we are living a lie. We resort to fancy terms as ‘Honey’, ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Love’, ‘Darl’ and others like them, unconsciously taking cover behind them to present exactly who we are not. These names, we must admit, are good. They gladden our hearts and douse us with sweet and pleasant feelings. They make life taste pleasant and easy which is not always true. We should actually go ahead to use them, but not all the time. Experience continues revealing that it is easier to lie to ‘Honey’ than to George or Georgina. There is hardly any commitment to ‘Sweetheart’ as there must be to Erick or Henrica.

Names are powerful nouns. They sort of come along with our real worth. We only need to recall the power in the name of Jesus. Muslims fondly recite the several names of Allah as a Prayer. The “Hare Krishna” mantra, arguably the most powerful formula for union with the divine among the Hindu is purely about the name of God!

Commitment demands clarity to someone with a real name. It is thus a helpful habit to refer to our loved ones with their real names, especially when we are discussing important matters.

The story of Jacob who waited for fourteen long years to get the hand of Rachel in marriage should be a source of encouragement to us (Gen 29:15-29). We should grow in the conviction that there are no lifts or elevators to good marriages. We must go by the stairs! 

Very closely related to lack of commitment is indecisiveness. Many of us are indecisive in many ways; sometimes even on very mundane choices. This is partly because we have subscribed to what our Holy Father refers to as Ethical relativism. Many young people today cannot make little everyday decisions. The countless voices in the world as well as the aggressive media have left many folks in our generation confused.
Our elitist culture is strangely starved of RESOLUTENESS! We can no longer respond to the questions life raises with a clear and categorical YES! Or NO! We do not even settle in relationships as a result. Without an ‘anchor’ in the vast Ocean of Love, we cannot but lend ourselves to be tossed mercilessly in all directions by waves that churn and turn relentlessly. 

Not even our intimate friends can say with certainty what we love or abhor, let alone our interests and preferences. What else would one expect of a generation that leaves it to the restaurant waiter to pick any drink for them? If we cannot make such a small decision as to take ‘Sprite’ or ‘Pepsi’, how shall we make the serious decisions that all relationships demand now and again? Human relationships by their very nature have high and low moments. Lovers may desperately seek the presence of each other and soon wish to be all alone. Others might enjoy whatever form of ecstatic pleasure at one time, and then feel totally empty soon after. It thus takes a decisive character to stay the course amidst these realities that define the human condition.

What Then Must We Do?
I wish to propose four steps that in my considered opinion are also interconnected. Through these steps, we may hopefully sanitize our present relationships as well as rehabilitate those that in our assessment are up to no good. We will then be able to grow in ways that will make us initiate and sustain true genuine and authentic friendships that would yield fulfilling marriages.

It would be helpful if we first of all appreciated the fact that there is a problem in our society, and with us. Our way of life inflicts in our souls septic wounds that we carry with us in our social interactions. These problems, we must admit, have festered into our relationships and matured in our marriages. The culture of unfaithfulness in marriages for instance takes root in a lifestyle of multiple sex partners that begin early in life.
This conversion would therefore mean that we correct erroneous beliefs and perceptions that make sin look normal and righteousness appear strange. We must redefine many concepts, including Love and suffering. Conversion here is thus more the need to restructure our thought categories and allow Christ to be our sole teacher.

Above all else, it is important that we continue growing in the art of simply and honestly expressing exactly what we mean in our relationships. Saying YES! Or NO! is an art to be learned. Lies and make-ups hardly go far. Since we always wish to go the distance of our entire life-span in our relationships, it pays to build our relationships on the most precious of stones; stones of honesty and truth.

Openness to Growth
Sometimes, we carry with us hangovers from the early days of our lives. We must accept that as we grow, we attract greater responsibilities. We must also be flexible to the many realities that will gradually become clearer even in ways that may not be pleasant to us. Growth is basically change. Many marital woes would perhaps have been avoided if only someone became a little more flexible; a little more realistic. We must have the courage to face our weak points and strive to work on them with honesty and understanding. Lack of Self-esteem for instance continues playing a big role in militating against the success of many marriages. We must get used to seeking clarity, not trying to make up for what we might not understand about our spouses.

Gut-Level Communication: Truth at any Cost!
We must embrace and take the risk of being known by the ‘significant others’ in our lives. We should grow in the courage to relate with others authentically, especially if we intend to enter into such a serious affair as sharing our lives with them. This remains a healthy and indispensable option even if it raises stormy conflicts, and the results are always worth the risk. We must never forget that marriage is a choice to share your world with your partner. In fact, to fuse the two worlds you both bring along into one, and share it. Genuinely deep friendships and marriages translate into a meeting of souls. The two souls must feel each other. The important concern would then be how to go about it. 

Many questions might arise at this stage. How fast and how far, for instance, should one go in sharing the deepest and darkest recesses of ones being? How sure would one be that the other partner has engaged the heart rather than a wondering mind as we share matters of our naked hearts? What realities should I remain with to keep my integrity just in case my nakedness is turned as a weapon against me? What skills would I employ in passing across ‘truths’ that I may not otherwise marshal the courage to express? 

Sometimes, we express our nakedness only to be subjected to rejection, heart-breaks and irredeemable shame. And yet we cannot change our pasts. It is all we have. We cannot modify our histories. On the contrary, without taking this risk to be hurt and rejected, we loose out on the possibility of ascending to the level of true intimacy which strangely, is no more than” solidarity of the weak and the vulnerable”. The special bond that makes lasting marriages is occasioned by the realization of the two partners that they are weak, and need each other to feel stronger.

Truth sets free. Truth liberates. Indeed, even if separation occurs because a partner has opted to shun fear and for once live in freedom befitting a child of God, the door of peace and perfect joy is flung open. Raw honesty in relationships is always rewarded with robust health. This is usually as a result of the fact that the energy that would be spent in hiding shadows and black spots is used to build the marriages instead.
Luckily, it remains possible to re-invent our relationships. It is possible with some courage and patience to unblock the channels of communication and retrace our steps into fulfilling intimacies and friendships. It is possible to fall in love yet again; and as many times as we might want to with our intimate partners. This however must be treated elsewhere.

Friendship with Jesus
Genuine intimacy with Christ will be an occasion to be taken through the delicate steps of healthy relationships by the perfect teacher. We will then be able to share with him everything. We will be in a position to seek his counsel as we scale the scary heights of the mysteries of friendship and marital Love. Our faith in Christ must therefore find a meaningful place in our relationships. We must dare to be different. By our actions and way of life, we must inspire such values as honesty, respect and commitment in our own relationships with others. We must be humble enough to ask for God’s help and guidance.

True Love as a Decision, Not an Emotion
Stable marriages and authentic friendships rest on rock-solid foundations of uninhibited gut-level communication. A keen analysis would easily reveal the reality that nearly all the other marital problems have their roots on the quick-sands of hypocrisy dishonesty based on sheer interests or some other forms of convenience. They are marked by very little, if any genuine and real communication.
We have a duty to hold out to Janice and all those who might share her attitude the embers of hope; hope that all is not lost in the institution of marriage; hope that there are still young people who can love responsibly and within the holy will of God; hope that our loving savior remains ever nearer to walk beside us and accompany us in all we do, if we invite him.

We can begin by being the good friends everyone is looking for. All we need to do is walk this talk, and to hold out the ‘Embers of Hope’ in constant awareness that we must take the stairs and – one  step at a time – advance  towards the fulfilling marriages that we all wish to witness.

A recapitulation of some key points would suffice at this stage;

*    Genuine and intimate partnership of life may begin as an EMOTION, but only grows and matures as a DECISION.

*      TRUST, UNDERSTANDING and HONESTY are the foundation stones of every successful marriage.

*    PEACE at all cost is the BEST example of what not to do in marriage. Nothing strengthens the bond of Intimacy than genuine conflicts and arguments carried out with an open mind and unfeigned concern to understand; not merely win!

*      LASTING FRIENDSHIPS do not just HAPPEN. They are allowed to unfold in the CRUCIBLE of time.

Relationships as “Intimate Wrestles”
Relationships can be wrestles. Indeed, being properly a preserve of rational beings, they are bound by their very nature to be conflict zones.

Conflicts are indicators of growth. Disagreements in all types of relationships are not only necessary but also crucial for genuine growth. Any relationship marked by perfect peace can at best be only a caricature. Untroubled peace in a relationship often implies stagnancy. The kind of motion every relationship needs to mature is conflict, for in conflict is excitement, surprise and motivation to continue discovering the mystery in each other. Strange as it might sound, true peace in relationships and marriages is never constant and uninterrupted. It is intermittent, and yet deeply satisfying. It comes, lingers and goes; then it comes again. The brief breaks may be marked by a period of indifference or even conflicts. 

Conflicts have a way of deepening our knowledge of each other. We are all likely to spill out our true feelings about our friends within the heat of an argument. It is important however to underscore the fact that we only benefit from conflicts when we embrace them with an open mind and without merely wanting to win. Wise wrestlers ‘fall’ when they are pushed. We must therefore freely admit when it emerges that we are on the wrong. One who refuses to fall might soon break.

Our attitude and commitment to a relationship can help us use conflicts to make or break; to build or destroy. We actually need to dispose ourselves fittingly so we may ‘listen’ to our emotions even as we integrate them with our reason in order to draw the best that lies hidden behind every seeming intimate tension.
We will all start off as poor ‘intimate wrestlers’ of course, but as we grow in the art of expressing our true feelings, we will be able then, to savor the sweetness of love, honesty, rationality and freedom at the service of sheer human dignity in friendship.

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