Imagine that you are in a theater. There are actors on stage, a prompter hidden off to the side of the stage, the director is back stage franticly pacing and taking notes on what to say to the actors later, the technical crew is concerned about props and costumes, and there is the audience of 500 people who occasionally laugh, cry, cheer or fall asleep during the performance. Some audience members even get up and leave midway through the show out of boredom or disgust.
When I am pondering my relationships with other people I often consider this metaphor of the theater. Who am I in relationship to others, at this moment? How should I handle watching others around me when they are living outside of integrity? If I think of other people as the actors on the stage, which am I today: director, prompter, technical crew member, audience, or audience member who left the building? It really makes a difference once I become clear about my role at that moment.
Let’s start with imagining that I am like the audience member who left the building. I have walked out of movies that I hated. Have you? I remember the first time: I was going on a date to the movies when I was about 20. I really liked the guy, but since I did not like certain songs in the movie, I asked if we could leave. He agreed. I remember having very mixed feelings about doing this. Since then, however, that moment has given me the courage thousands of times to simply back away from a situation where I do not like the way people are behaving, but I am not in charge of them. For example, I am not comfortable when people get very drunk and flirt with someone else’s spouse. If I see this happening, I leave the party. It is not my job to tell adults how much liquor to consume, so I simply act like theaudience member who leaves the building.
But what about when I am like the audience member who stays for the duration? I even sometimes imagine whether I am sitting front and center (in close relationships) or way in the back row (with acquaintances). When the actor in my life starts doing something that feels against a moral code, I can choose my reactions. I can laugh, cheer, boo, clap, yawn, check my text messages, or sit in silence. I want to act consistent with my own moral code even if the rest of the audience is doing something different. For example, I am not fond of jokes that are racially degrading. While I want to continue in that relationship, and since it is usually not my place to tell the adult not to say such jokes, I just don’t laugh.
Now let’s consider the metaphor when it involves more activity on my part, such as being like the prompter or technical crew member. If I am in a relationship that I value and want to keep, I have to be very careful when I act in these roles because now I am telling the actorsin my life what to say, how to dress, and what stuff to have in their lives. In my profession as a college teacher, there are times when it is totally appropriate for me to do this. For example, I coach seniors in college on how to dress for a job interview, what to wear, and to remember to bring a briefcase as a prop. They need this advice and they are asking for it as they transition from the college student in baggy jeans to the professional person in a business suit. But so many of my own friends and relatives do not want or need this kind of advice, so I keep my mouth shut. Instead, I think it is better to just dress myself and speak the way I feel is appropriate for each situation. Maybe others will imitate, but often they do not… and it is none of my business. I have learned to respect that.
There are really very few relationships in my life in which I think it is appropriate for me to act like the director in someone else’s life. Sometimes, I sense my love of dominion coming into my heart and I really feel like telling my husband, my daughters, my boss, or my colleagues exactly what I think of their behaviors. This is a good time to take a breather. If these people are violating me in some way, denying me my rights, destroying my dignity, then yes, I should speak. Then I will try to have a balance of judgment and mercy, and put it in the form of a request, or an “I” statement, or a charitable type of confrontation. I choose my words carefully, wait until I am calm and then make my statement, watching my tone and nonverbal behaviors. This is when the Golden Rule is very helpful. Even more important, I try to think of how angels gently influence us, bending us towards what is good, all the while honoring our freedom. I long to be like those angels and not like some director who has a short temper.
Finally, what about when I am the actor? At this point in my life, I look more toward the Lord to be my director, and see the Word as the prompter. Everyday I try to act more deliberately and with purpose (see True Christianity 443:2). I cannot always please myaudience, or all the people in my life. Oh well. Audiences are fickle. The rounds of applause may be fun for the moment, but not if I have to be inconsistent with what I think the Lord would want me to do.
When I work on having an integrated life, bringing what I understand to be good and true into my life, and when I am bringing a balance of judgment and mercy to my relationships, I find that integrity brings peace. This is so much better than hollow applause.
“…Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8).
Dr. Soni Werner teaches psychology and interpersonal communication skills at Bryn Athyn College and has studied Swedenborgian influences in psychology. For more information, visit www.brynathyn.edu