What Makes Meaningful Relationships Difficult: The Other’s Freedom

Lewis

Bonhoeffer 2

In rereading Bonhoeffer’s masterful Life Together (1954), my favorite book, I was again blown away by the passage quoted below, where, in discussing how Christians must “bear each other’s burdens,” he says that the reason that such bearing (or forbearing, or sustaining) is difficult is because of the other’s freedom, meaning that in all their particularities and needs and quirks and sins, that person – something completely real, outside of ourselves – makes demands on us and challenges our own freedom and preferences and selfishness. I think this is a basic but profound reality that sheds light on what makes all meaningful relationships – whether in friendship or brotherhood or marriage – so difficult at times. This same reality, however, is what can make them so worth it, because in testing our limits, as such relationships will often do, they broaden those limits to make us more loving, more patient, more humble, and stronger – in short, more large-hearted. This reminded me of another passage (below) that stopped me in my tracks: What C.S. Lewis said about marriage, based on his brief experience as husband to Joy Davidman, an American poet and writer whose romance with Lewis began over a series of intellectually- and literary-minded letters to the Oxford Don.

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C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed (1961), his devastatingly honest account of his spiritual and emotional agony following the death of his wife Joy:

“The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.” (19)

And from Bonhoeffer:

“It is, first of all, the freedom of the other person, of which we spoke earlier, that is a burden to the Christian. The other’s freedom collides with his own autonomy, yet he must recognize it. He could get rid of this burden by refusing the other person his freedom, by constraining him and thus doing violence to his personality, by stamping his own image upon him. But if he lets God created His image in him, he by this token gives him his freedom and himself bears the burden of this freedom of another creature of God. The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept it and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” (101)

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