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BY ROBERT DOCTER – 

Assessing self-centeredness

Few people go through life without either sustaining or delivering some interpersonal damage. In fact, I’ve yet to meet the first one. The mystery to me concerns the desire of some to deliver the damage, while others seem to need to continue to carry the burden ­ to hold on to the pain ­ to be reluctant to find ways to bury it. Sadly, I suspect some of us even kind of revel or glory in the damage we’ve done.

The term self-centeredness describes these behaviors. It’s my term for sin.

Many of us resist the need to make some kind of assessment of the ways we might have hurt others or refuse to consider the possibility of forgiving those who have hurt us. We just don’t want to look at ourselves in this way. A lot of that resistance is probably pride.

Can you hear it?

Here’s Mr. Self-Justification: “Do you know what he did to me? ­ Why should I even consider forgiving him?” Or ­ meet Mr. Self-Righteous. He says: “He deserved what I gave him ­ I’m right and he’s wrong ­ I don’t care about the consequences ­ don’t ask me to forgive him — it was unforgivable.” Or ­ how about Mr. Minimizer: “He’s making much more out of this than it deserves ­ my words couldn’t have hurt him that much.”

Great gobs of ungrace.

The receiver of a message brings meaning to the exchange. It’s built on a personal background of experience. It’s totally unique, individual. The sender brings a different background. Meanings of messages never completely match. Sometimes I wonder how we ever communicate at all. On top of this, words and actions generate thoughts and feelings. Meaning becomes clearer when the participants in an exchange share those thoughts and feelings about the content of the exchange.

Any attempt to review one’s interpersonal experiences in an evaluative manner is seen as threatening ­ damaging to our fragile egos ­ even scary. So, there’s fear in our resistance as well.

Going through life without some kind of regular assessment of our past and present interpersonal history simply means we are flying blind ­ lost in the clouds ­ moving in an interpersonal darkness ­ unaware of the havoc we are creating for ourselves and others. It means we ignore feedback cues ­ we terminate communication ­ we disassociate ­ disengage.

Did you ever meet Mr. Oblivious? Look in the mirror. These characteristics seem part of the human condition. None of us are spared. Some of us find acceptable euphemisms to justify our conduct ­ like: “I’m just a very frank person ­ I tell it like it is ­ I can’t be responsible for your feelings.”

Let’s remember, there’s a sense of caring honesty in frank communication. It seeks to make an important point in a sincere manner. It’s unfair to the word to make “frank” a euphemism for “hurt.”

The critical factor in what someone might describe as a “frank” exchange lies in the intent of the message sender. It’s possible the person wanted to deliver pain ­ wanted to hurt the receiver. Similarly, it’s possible the sender simply wanted to make a strong point, and the receiver found it loaded with something else. The best time to examine intent is in the immediate moment. Being open and unreserved in speech is one thing. Hurting others in the process is something else.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know when we have hurt someone. We don’t read body language very well in this culture, and even if we get a slight hint we might have hurt someone we often fail to check it out. The message receiver’s gift to the sender is a report on the true and honest feeling resulting from the exchange. That gift seems rarely sent.

My hope is that I can continue to assess the nature and meaning of my interpersonal life. I want to know when I need either to seek forgiveness of others or bring myself to forgiving them that quality of humanness that allowed them to hurt me. It will require me to confront my pride and my fears ­ and move to action.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me. (Psalm 139)

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