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  • Attending For A Change

    The way we attend changes what we perceive. Or in more proverbial language, we generally find what we are looking for. Have you ever experienced this? There has actually been a large amount of research studying this phenomena, known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias, according to Jonathan Haidt, is “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think. People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession – your child, almost – and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it.”

    Haidt wrote about this in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. But it is quite relevant for marriage relationships. In relationships, especially the intimate context of marriage, we often find ourselves in “enemy mode”: operating from a fight/flight/freeze stance because we feel threatened. Perhaps it’s the felt absence of love, or the felt presence of criticism. Either way, when we are in enemy mode, we focus on real or potential signals of danger. And at a neurophysiological level (in our brains and bodies), we literally close off our ability to perceive signs of safety. 

    Perhaps an extreme example, but consider King Saul’s behavior in the book of 1 Samuel. One episode from chapter 22 shows Saul’s “confirmation bias” in his unshakable conviction that David is his enemy and conspiring against him with Ahimelech the priest. When Ahimelech denies Saul’s accusation, Saul is not convinced; rather, he goes from accusing Ahimelech to issuing a death threat: “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house” (1 Samuel 22:16) Albeit Saul is probably not a model of social/emotional health, it is a vivid illustration of just how far we fallen creatures will go to “find what we’re looking for.” 

    Psychiatrist and researcher Ian McGilchrist helpfully describes this reality in social terms:

    “Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention.”

    Notice that last line: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. What if we are able to change our attentional mode? And what if that in turn changes how we experience one another?

    If you are aware of temptation to see your spouse as enemy, what are other ways you can and do see him or her? Surely, at one time at least, you saw each other as lovers and friends. Probably, even in difficult contexts, there are times when you still have an awareness of loving perception, viewing one another as a gift from God to be enjoyed. In context of war, where failure to see the other side as the enemy would be dangerous to both self and comrade, there is nevertheless a warrior code that calls for the capacity to see an enemy not just as a fellow soldier, but also as human, vulnerable to physical, moral and spiritual injury. 

    There are countless stories throughout history of soldiers showing mercy to the enemy. Among the possible reasons for this, one is that the soldier saw the helplessness of the enemy and realized that to kill would actually be murder. For one such story, see the account of American pilot Charles Brown and German pilot Franz Stigler in World War II ( Brown certainly “felt changed” by the compassionate attention of Stigler, who had Brown’s bomber in his sights and yet shockingly refrained from pulling the trigger.

    What might happen if you attended to your spouse as another wounded creature, threatened and vulnerable, as one wanting to love you but struggling to feel safe? Perhaps you’re reading this because you are desiring to change the negative cycle, while your spouse seems content with the status quo. Would you be willing to take a risk, put the weapons down first, and choose, by prayer, to attend to your spouse as one just as battered and torn down by the battle? Could you pray for the spiritual sight to see your beloved as a soldier following orders, caught up in the propaganda of sin, and acting out of his or her own history of warring against the world, the flesh and the devil? Might God use your compassionate attention to change your enemy into a friend?