A Sermon on Assertiveness
For most of my life, I have been ultra-compliant, people-pleasing and self-disregarding. It served me pretty well growing up as an eldest daughter in a faithful Latter-Day Saint home with the motto "Obedience is the first law of heaven." Well enough that I thought my general outlook was righteous. But it wasn't sustainable in marriage to a man with deep wounds, gaping needs, deteriorating mental health and a tendency to be self-absorbed. And by the time our family burgeoned to include 4 little ones under the age of 5, my life was becoming unmanageable. I needed to learn a new way of being.
That was when I received a priesthood blessing that counselled me to seek guidance from the Savior's teachings that were given first at the Sermon on the Mount and repeated in Bountiful to the Lehites. This was surprising to me, as my understanding of those teachings was a part of what drove my self-disregard and my efforts to appease others. Apparently, I had misunderstood. I began to study them again, with earnest attention and aching questions. And I found treasure. Since that time, I have sampled some of what the world has to offer in assertiveness training. But I would say that the teachings of Jesus in those famous sermons are perhaps the finest treatise on assertiveness there is.
First, let me define assertiveness. Sometimes, I hear it presented as the polite opposite of passivity, a kind of a toned-down aggression. But it's not. Aggression, passivity and passive-aggression are all unhealthy and damaging ways of interacting that tear down relationships. Each of them invite others to behave badly. They draw us into a self-perpetuating, dysfunctional dance of fallen reactions to another's wrongs. By contrast, assertiveness is healthy. It invites the best from others while doing justice to ourselves.
I've found it helpful to think of the four ways of interacting as if they're on a quadrant, where the y-axis represents our caring for ourselves and the x-axis represents our caring for others. Aggression, at the top left, has the attitude "I care for me and not you." Its opposite, at the bottom right, is Passivity, which says, "I care for you and not me." Often, people who tend to be aggressive attach to people who tend to be passive. Eventually, though, at least in my experience, the passive person runs empty, stops meeting expectations, and moves into passive-aggression, where they think "since you don't care for me, I sure as heck am not going to care for you." The aggressive party might then move to passive, or join their partner in passive-aggression. Roles move around, the dance continues, and no-one is lastingly happy. At least, not until someone decides to stop dancing and chooses assertiveness instead, with the attitude, "I care for me and I care for you." Assertiveness is the only truly happy place in relationships and the partner who chooses it invites the other to join them there. Whether or not the other decides to accept the invitation is their choice. Either way, an assertive partner is in a place that offers inner peace.
Now, back to the teachings of Jesus. The Sermons on the Mount and at Bountiful are not just about assertiveness. There's depth and breadth enough in them to reward a lifetime of study on a multitude of questions. But I'm going to limit my discussion here to how the teachings in Matthew 5 and 3 Nephi 12 can lead us out of dysfunction into relationships of love and mutual respect.
First come the Beatitudes. This is where the Lord lays down the foundation on which assertiveness can be built. Assertiveness requires security and a well of personal strength. The only steady unfailing source for that strength is God, and the surest way I can access it is by coming unto Christ. In the Beatitudes, my Savior meets me in my place of weakness and pain and invites me into blessedness, a place of power. He calls me to receive comfort, to see my inner emptiness (or poverty of spirit) and be filled by him, to get anchored in God as a maker of peace. He even invites me to become proof against pressure and derision from others by finding my security in him and my companionship with the prophets. This is a process. It may take a lifetime. But I don't have to be perfect at it before I can start transforming my relationships. And when I'm having trouble, this is where I need to keep coming back.
Then, he commissions me to care for others. "I give unto you to be the salt of the Earth," he says. In reality, I cannot be the salt of the Earth except by his gift. On my own, I don't have the security or the staying power to minister where ministry matters most. I can't cope with the brokenness of others if their jagged edges are a danger to me; my fragility then makes me like salt that has lost its savor. But if I have brought him my broken pieces and he has filled the empty places in my heart, I can be resilient, and he is the light that I hold up (3 Nephi 18:24), a light that draws others to him, for healing.
Given that security, I'm ready for a higher law. The old law was a schoolmaster to the aggressive. It forbade us to kill, to commit adultery, to perjure ourselves. Now, he invites us to cast off aggression altogether. We need to see others as our brothers and sisters, precious to him, and avoid objectifying them as enemies (vs 21-26), sexual objects (27-32), or as obstacles from whom we hide our agendas (33-37). We need to treat each other with the dignity of the truth instead of walking in a haze of misrepresentations and polite deceptions that require us to make an oath before people can tell if we're being sincere.
For me, the counsel to be 100% authentic in my communication is particularly challenging. I have been much too inclined to cringe from hard conversations and to offer reassurances that I wish were sincere. But that's not how I want people to treat me. I'd much rather have somebody give me the painful truth over a comfortable lie. Then at least I'll know where I stand and I have the dignity of being trusted with, rather than shielded from, reality. If I truly see others as my equals, I need to be real with them, as I want them to be real with me.
In verses 38-45, the Lord instructs us on how to avoid being drawn back into the dysfunctional dance. Another's aggression toward us will tempt us to respond in kind -- an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But that serves no-one. The Lord invites us to consciously choose a path that invites others to meet us on a higher plane.
First, he teaches us not to rise to the bait. "Resist not evil," he says, "but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (vs 39). In other words, don't fight back. Do instead the things he's just taught us. Do be the salt of the Earth, the light on a candlestick. Behave in a way that invites them to come unto him. It's significant that he speaks about being smitten on the right cheek, since the smiter would need to be using his generally-weaker left hand. This isn't an injury, but an insult, an effort to pick a fight. But if we refuse to surrender our power to a would-be opponent, if we respond kindly and non-defensively, we invite them into a relationship of mutual respect. This is not inviting them to hit us again and harder. It's inviting them to be our friend instead of our adversary.
Nowadays, this counsel is known as the assertiveness technique of "fogging." It's the deliberate defusing of a charged situation by becoming like a bank of fog. An adversary throws a barb at the fog and, instead of it's being returned, it simply disappears. Pretty soon, they lose interest in fighting. Later, when things have calmed down, we may take the opportunity to talk about the incident and establish new ground-rules for the relationship.
Here's how it's done. When someone comes at us with a barb-laced complaint or demand, we don't defend ourselves, don't fight back, and (this is important) don't give in to demands. Instead, we non-defensively agree to any truth in what they say and offer empathy as possible. Here's an example.
Person A: What's the matter with you? Supper's 30 minutes late and now you come breezing through the door?
Person B: Yes, I should have been home an hour ago. You must be feeling really hungry.
Person A: Hungry? More like starving! You're so inconsiderate! You never even called.
Person B: I can see you're really distressed that I didn't check in. You must have been worried.
Person A: I was. Where were you?
At that point, when the would-be aggressor is no longer throwing barbs, it's possible to explain and move the relationship forward. This is turning the other cheek.
In verses 40-41, he teaches us how to be assertive in the face of coercion. It's important to note that coercion is deeply offensive to the Lord. He suffered incomprehensible pain, bled from every pore and died for our agency. It's priceless to him. And it matters to him that we prize it. Here, he teaches us how to retain it when others try to take it away.
The natural man response to coercion is not so much aggression as it is passivity or passive aggression. We are tempted to comply with the demands of a superior and unjust force either with hopelessness or sullen hatred. Either way, we are diminished. Instead, when we're forced to serve, we can refuse to surrender our agency by giving more than is required. This has a doubly-blessed effect. It turns the enforced service into willing service so that we no longer feel like victims. That's the caring for ourselves part of the equation. And it invites the person we're serving to see us as agents and equals. Imagine the surprise of a Roman soldier who compels his enemy, a Jew, to carry his pack for a mile, only to have the Jew volunteer to carry it for another mile afterwards. For the first mile, the soldier regarded the Jew with a heart that was hardened against his humanity, thinking of him like a beast of burden. But for the second mile, that would no longer be possible. The Jew was walking with him, of his own free will, like an equal. The soldier would then have an opportunity to begin seeing Jews as his brothers. That's the second part of the equation -- caring for others.
Finally, in verse 42, the Lord addresses other demands that are not coercive. "Give to him that asketh thee," he said. For many years, I understood that out of context. I thought it meant that I was obligated to meet whatever was demanded of me. But, in context, that can't be so. That would be an abdication of our agency, which is priceless to him. So he must be saying something else. I believe that what he's saying is that every time someone makes a request of us, we have an opportunity to be assertive -- to care for them and to care for ourselves. If the request is appropriate, we can give what's asked. If it's not, we can still invite them into healthy interaction by giving them something else. If my substance-addicted neighbour comes to my door and asks for $50, the Lord doesn't expect me to shell out the money. But I should offer something that is appropriate, swiss chard from my garden, a package of Kraft Dinner, or maybe a visit on the front porch. If a telemarketer calls me, I may not want to buy what they're selling, but I've just been given an opportunity to connect with one of God's children. I can at least give them a kind word.
Similarly, "from him that would borrow of thee, turn thou not away" does not mean that the Lord expects me to lend my family heirloom to the boy scouts who trashed my canoe last summer. Instead, it means that when their leader comes knocking on my door, I'm not supposed to pretend that I'm not home. It means that I should open that door, look the leader in the eye and have a courageous, authentic conversation about the canoe and what would need to happen before I would feel comfortable loaning my things again. That would be honouring both him and me.
"Love your enemies," says the Lord in verse 44. That's really what assertiveness is all about: Love. It's love for me, since I can only lastingly love my neighbor insofar as I love myself, (Mark 12:31). Loving them without loving me is unsustainable and invites from them their worst. Loving me and them gives them an opportunity to stop being my enemies. Then old patterns of behavior are done away and all things have become new (verse 47). Our future is bright and his final invitation beckons us toward the horizon, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect."
It will take more than a lifetime to reach that glorious destination. But assertiveness, as taught and modelled by the Savior, is part of finding the path.