We’re up to the third deck in our role play. We have our power, our weakness, our resist factor and our material/spiritual intent. We now choose our mode of operation: OPENNESS or SELF-PRESERVATION. This card describes how we approach other players in the game.
This is a very laid-back simulation. We have not mentioned scorekeeping or stockpiling, and it’s not altogether clear if this is a competition or a friendly gathering, but we do know that it is a game of individual players, not teams. If this is a competitive game, the mode of operation takes on particular importance. “Openness” is useful in team play but not in head-to-head competition. You don’t want to be too open in chess, or in poker, or in dodge ball. “Self-Preservation,” on the other hand, seems to be an obvious game strategy. You want to protect your position, your pieces and your gains, and it’s not a good idea to let your guard down.
What about relationships?
Openness in relationships is about the same as it is in game play. The price of openness is vulnerability, and the payoff is interconnected participation. Self-preservation, on the other hand, is a safer way to operate, at the expense of sharing yourself and experiencing others more fully.
The word “preservation” itself has its origins in the concept of sealing things against disease and decay. It was originally used in the context of extending the safe shelf life of food, so you can get the sense of what that might entail: pressed, isolated, airtight packing; curing and dehydrating meat; adding agents such as salt to inhibit the growth of bacteria or to keep foods dry; or boiling, followed by canning or freezing. The premise is to destroy things which break the food down and then to create a breach-proof barrier against future agents of disease.
Self-preservation, obviously, is a different sort of concept, referring to an act to protect our bodies and spirits against attack or malaise. We hear about it during times of extremes. Self-preservation during war is a necessary and intelligent course of action. Self-preservation in times of high duress is also reasonable and appropriate. First responders and emergency workers often use techniques to lessen the intensity of the emotions they feel on scene so that they can function more rationally and with the focus needed to operate under horrible and tragic conditions. There are also times when self-preservation becomes necessary in our relationships, particularly if we find ourselves being abused or witnessing abuse. It happens.
For a role play simulation, these outlooks are fine and interesting to contemplate and explore. It seems, though, that there is an imbalance of probability between the two. The extreme conditions leading to self-preservation are, for the most part, much less likely to occur than the ordinary conditions which lend themselves to openness. Even first responders, who see extremes on a daily basis, have a day off now and then. It seems disproportionate to have these as choices for our modes of operation if self-preservation is more of a situational variable and openness is more of a long-term habit.
Unless, of course, they are, in fact, equal.
The stark truth is that there are many people who operate in self-preservation mode routinely. Some have had traumatic events in their past which have robbed them of the ability to trust. Some are highly sensitive people who experience their emotions and relationships so intensely at baseline that they need some form of modulation to cope and function well. Some are people who have adopted these habits so gradually over time that they may not even be aware they are using them.
If we were to create a set of pamphlets on “How to Operate in Openness Mode” and “How to Operate in Self-Preservation Mode,” it might surprise people to see how quickly they recognize their patterns. In lieu of pamphlets, we’ll give you the basic rundown of the operating rules for each mode in a hypothetical scenario.
Two guests are sharing a meal put on by their mutual friend who is hosting them. Toward the end of the meal, one guest leaves the table unexpectedly, abruptly getting his coat. “I have to go,” he says. “Thanks for dinner!”
As he leaves, the remaining guest and the host have two different reactions.
The remaining guest, who operates in Openness Mode, is confused by the surprising departure of the other guest. This person actively extends herself to understand what happened. She discerns, considers, observes, ponders. She does not have any lack of emotion – in fact, she’s rather upset, because she knows the other person quite well and feels miffed that he left without any warning or explanation. She wonders if she said something offensive. She worries. She is a bit irritated, because the other guest had something important to give her for a project they had been working on, and now she is left feeling frustrated. She runs all kinds of possible ideas through her mind. Maybe he became ill. Maybe he forgot something. Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe she just cannot know right now. No matter what, she seeks the best possible interpretation, aware that it could be that he has not worked at all on the project and that he is acting very rudely in his behavior. She is open to his side of the story. She will remain as optimistic as the situation will allow.
The host, on the other hand, who operates in Self-Preservation Mode, is livid. He knows better than to trust people. He is always on alert and prepared for the worst case scenario. He is ready to attack or defend, in a state of perpetual presumption. He will not allow himself to be hurt, used or let down. He spends the next ten minutes angrily insulting the guest who left, unable to believe he went to all this effort for someone as ungrateful as that. Furthermore, he never had much use for him anyway. He remembers several other times this man was reluctant to help, and he is not surprised he acted in such an offensive way tonight.
Who knows what really happened? Who knows what will happen? Will the abrupt absentee return briefly with the packet for his friend, saying “Oops! Almost forgot!” Will he act like nothing happened in a few days? Is he even aware of how his behavior came across?
Now take the host’s outlook and extend it across every other possible scenario. The habit of assuming the worst is very easily nurtured. People with this outlook are rooted in fear and distrust. While it does keep them from being taken advantage of, this safety from hurt is also a safety from love, mercy, need and engagement.
Put another way, people who adopt the regular habit of self-preservation are immune from disease… because they keep themselves in an emotional vacuum. Just like a good, well-sealed mason jar.
Some of the characteristics of items which have been in a state of preservation for longer than intended:
Food this far gone is usually thrown out and replaced. This is not an option for people. Nor should the spiritual state of our hearts ever get to this point.
To be fair, we need to acknowledge there are just as many risks that come with being open and “unpreserved.” People who assume the best are at risk for being hurt… being disappointed… being let down… looking foolish… looking naïve… and being wrong.
That’s the chance you take with discernment. People who are open allow in all kinds of possibilities, including the ones that are incorrect, and even sometimes dangerous. People who trust indiscriminately are especially vulnerable to danger and exploitation. Discernment is key. Openness does not require one to be a stooge or a doormat; it calls for discernment, a sifting of facts and an active search for that which is useful amidst the lint and clutter.
We could say that openness is a willingness to feel pain for the sake of finding the good… and that self-preservation is a pre-emptive rejection of anything that might hurt.
We could say that openness is an act of humility… and that self-preservation is a bold stand of pride.
Openness says, “I don’t understand… I need you to show me.” Self-preservation says, “I don’t need you to protect or defend me, I can do it myself.”
Notice which says “I need.”
There is a time to preserve, and a time to be open. Think about what these concepts mean, and we’ll put them in the game – along with our last deck – next week.
PRAY: Our prayer this week is a look at Sacred Scripture.
Read Luke 17:32-33.
CONTEMPLATE: What does this passage say to you about self-preservation?
RELATE: Carefully notice your interactions and attitudes this week, and see which mode of operation surfaces most. Do so with a spirit of wonder and not dread or fear. If you find that you do not like what you discover, then, thanks be to God – you now understand others who may be operating this way, in a manner you did not see before.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak