By Father Casey
Last week, I wrote about the crisis we’re facing in two pandemics. We know well the coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 210,000 in our country alone, and shows no sign of slowing. But we are also being ravaged by another pandemic, one that is similarly dangerous: contempt. It is everywhere these days, infecting our society and making us all sick. And it, too, shows no sign of slowing.
A few years ago I read about the destructive power of contempt in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Gladwell tells about the work of psychologist John Gottman, who has the uncanny ability to accurately predict whether a couple will divorce after observing them only briefly. Dr. Gottman is not a mind-reader or a fortune-teller, nor is he just a good guesser. What he looks for in couples is what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. The presence of these elements in a marriage is a good sign that a marriage is headed in the wrong direction, and the one that Gottman says is the most destructive is contempt.
In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. Gottman writes, “When contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship you tend to forget entirely your partner’s positive qualities. You can’t remember a single positive quality or act.” Contempt conveys, “I’m better than you. I don’t respect you.” It erodes the bond that holds a couple together, because it’s impossible to nurture and love someone you don’t respect. Healthy co-existence can’t happen when one person feels superior to or spiteful of the other. Which is why, when he witnesses contempt, Dr. Gottman knows that marriage will almost certainly end.
We should heed this wisdom. Contempt is destructive. It erodes respect and empathy, and drives people apart. And it is infectious. When I feel contempt for someone, it will almost certainly lead to that person feeling similarly about me, and it may even spill over to other people who are connected to us. Is it any wonder, then, that we’re experiencing such a terrible time of division and dysfunction as a nation? The most dangerous of Dr. Gottman’s “Four Horses” is riding roughshod through our society, driving people apart, sowing anger and resentment.
The good news is that we can get better; we can be better. Marriages suffering from contempt can heal, and so can societies. People can change their behaviors so that they move forward together. Habits can be broken. Relationships can mend.
As followers of Christ, we have been called to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), which means we need to be Jesus’ “first responders” to this pandemic of contempt. Our church needs to be a community where contempt is treated and healed, not nurtured and spread. And two of the most important tools for this holy work are profoundly simple.
The first is remembering how to listen. We need to listen to one another’s experiences, and let their stories and perspective affect us. Listening conveys respect, and it is essential to any healthy relationship. This Sunday, Mother Rebecca and Anne Schmidt will lead a session in our “Sharing Our Story” series about the spiritual practice of listening, and I encourage you to tune in. Their focus will be how listening informs effective evangelism, but their ideas and insights will be applicable to any context.
A second tool for fighting contempt is related to the first: curiosity. We need to remember how to be curious. Curiosity is a powerful antidote to contempt. It causes us to ask questions, rather than attack. It slows us down from saying what we want to say in that moment, and leads us beyond our initial assumptions. So, for example, instead of reacting to the email in which someone wrote something that made you upset, consider asking questions first. Be curious. Ask for more information. Don’t assume you know the whole story. Try calling them, and instead of telling them off and proving your “rightness,” pose some wondering questions. “I wonder why you wrote that?” “I wonder if you can tell me a little bit more about what you’re thinking?”
Curiosity is a soulful orientation that helps us resist the temptation to escalate conflict and use our words to wound. Curiosity helps us ask questions not to gain ammunition for our rebuttal, but to genuinely try and understand. Curiosity is the attitude of someone who believes in the dignity and worth of the other, even someone with whom we disagree.
Friends, we may be fighting a pandemic. There may be “Four Horsemen” on the loose seeking to foster division and tear us apart. But our Lord has shown us that they are feeble enemies. Where sisters and brothers listen carefully and curiously to each other, where people seek to understand rather than be understood, where charity and love abide, those Four Horsemen are put to flight.