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Analyzing a quarrel over 'nothing'
By Orson Scott Card June 2, 2011

I just saw a rerun of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, in which the husband and wife have a quarrel about a new can opener. The point of the episode was that even when quarrels seem to be about something trivial, they are really about more serious underlying issues.

Except that even the underlying issues are trivial, and the real problem is even deeper, at the core of character. So often, quarrels in a family, regardless of what they are "about," are caused by good old-fashioned sin.

Either someone is trying to conceal a sin -- in which case they often lash out at the person whose lack of sin puts them to shame -- or someone is expressing a sin which they have not yet rooted out of their heart.

(For anyone who dislikes my use of the plural "they" when the antecedent of the pronoun is the singular "someone," ask yourself first if you have any problem using the plural "you" when speaking to a lone person, for whom the correct pronoun is the singular "thou" or "thee." Resorting to plural pronouns when singular is grammatically required is a fine old tradition in English, and it gives us the neuter pronoun that we so desperately need when we wish to be imprecise about gender.)

Let me give you an example of such a quarrel-about-nothing which is really about unrepented sin.

Bob and Celia -- fictional husband and wife -- are at Subway with two teenagers. Bob has ordered two six-inch sandwiches for himself, one a hot meatball sub, the other a cold spicy Italian.

Bob is surprised to see that Subway has started putting eat-in sandwiches in plastic baskets instead of paper bags. At which point Celia pipes up with an instruction to the sandwich-maker. "Those two can go in the same basket," she says, referring to Bob's two sandwiches.

Only Bob doesn't want the two sandwiches in the same basket. One is hot, the other is cold. The meatball sub is wet with sauce, and he knows it will get all over everything -- he wants to keep it separate from the cold sandwich.

So easily this could become a husband-and-wife quarrel. Bob, filled with umbrage, might say, "I'm standing right here, Celia. If I want my sandwiches put in one basket, I can ask for it myself."

Celia might defend herself. "I was just trying to help." Or she might go on the counter-offensive. "Oh, so you want to try to fit two cumbersome baskets on the same little patch of a table."

The quarrel might end right there, and it would be one of those little spats that some married couples indulge in all the time, oblivious to the fact that their sniping embarrasses everyone around them.

Or they might escalate the quarrel when they get to the table, or even -- if either of them is skilled at grudge-holding -- when they're alone together, hours later. "You must think I'm one of the children," Bob might say, "making decisions for me without so much as asking me what I want, let alone assuming I'm an adult who can decide for myself."

Or Celia might decide to escalate. "Why do you contradict me like that in front of other people? You sounded so annoyed, like I'm a horrible burden that you have to drag around with you."

Or they might talk "like adults" about "deep underlying issues," like Bob's feeling constantly put down by Celia's assumption that she can decide "everything" for him, or her assumption that if she doesn't step in he'll do "everything" wrong.

Or Celia might feel the underlying issue is Bob's unwillingness to let any mistake of hers go uncorrected, as if she's supposed to be a silent wife and walk on eggshells lest the slightest thing offend him.

Either might conclude that after all these years of marriage, their partner doesn't understand them at all, or even love them. It can fill them with despair. Or they can let it turn to rage, lashing out again and again.

But "issues" like these are extremely unlikely ever to be resolved, for the simple reason that the real cause of this quarrel-about-nothing is sinful pride, and the entire cure is repentance.

Bob's reaction to Celia's "intrusion" might have been to think, "How lucky I am to have a wife who looks after the needs of other people, including me." He could have given her a smile and eaten the sandwiches from a single basket.

And when he realized how much less space the one basket took up on the table, he might even thank her for her foresight.

Or if it really mattered to him, he might have said. "I don't actually want the hot and cold sandwiches in the same basket, dear." Or, "Actually, the meatball sandwich is messy and I'd like to keep them separate."

Followed by a smile and a squeeze of the hand, to reassure her that he appreciates her looking out for him -- but he has a reason to want it otherwise.

If she has the sin of pride, then his correction might cause her to feel hurt and rejected, and fill her with resentment. But if she is free of that sin, she will not take his contradiction as personal rejection, but merely as a matter of his personal preference.

Here is the sad truth about pride: It is such a "humble" sin that it will take possession of the smallest, simplest, lowest "offenses" and blow them up into battles

And yet it can be overcome by simple love, assuming the noblest motive for the action of a beloved spouse.

Prideful spouses live on the verge of constant war. Generous spouses are far more likely to find their lives filled with love and peace.

And when only one spouse is sinfully proud, both their lives are filled with turmoil -- resentment on the part of the proud one, undeserved fear and guilt in the heart of the innocent.

Discussing such empty "issues" will only cause more pain to both. But quiet repentance of one's own sinful pride will bring peace and joy. So often the solution is not in therapy but in the sacrament.

Copyright © 2011 by Orson Scott Card

 
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