2016-06-30

From "Words That Hurt, Words That Heal," published by Quill, an imprint of William Morrow & Company, Inc.



The Bible always describes romantic love from the male's perspective. We are told that Isaac loved Rebecca (Genesis 24:67), Jacob loved Rachel (Genesis 29:18), and Samson loved Delilah (Judges 16:4). In the entire Bible there is only one woman whose love for a man is recorded: "Now Michal, daughter of [King] Saul had fallen in love with David" (I Samuel 18:30). A short time later, when Michal's father, afraid that David would usurp the throne, plotted to kill him, she helped David escape by lowering him from a window. She then confused the hired assassins by placing a human image, topped with hair and dressed in clothes, in David's bed (I Samuel19: 11-17). By the time the would-be killers realized Michal's ruse, her beloved was far away.

Although the Bible never reports that David reciprocated Michal's love, we do know that he risked his life in one-on-one battle with 200 Philistines to win Michal's hand in marriage (I Samuel 18:25-29). Later, when David spent years hiding from King Saul, Saul married off Michal, still David's wife, to a man name Phalit. Although many husbands would have repudiated a wife who had acquiesced to such an arrangement, when David became king, he restored Michal as his queen.

Yet, despite the intense love at their relationship's outset, David and Michal's marriage becomes perhaps the saddest in the Bible, and within a few years this once devoted couple were totally estranged. David and Michal both suffered from the same character flaw--a sharp tongue, which they refused to control when angry.

The Bible describes the incident that triggered the end of their love. Ironically, it was a celebration: David was supervising the return to Jerusalem of the Ark of the Lord (the holiest object in ancient Jewish life), which the Philistines had captured many years earlier. In an outburst of joy, he danced passionately, even wildly, in front of thousands of his subjects. Watching the whole scene from a palace window, Michal was disgusted by the spectacle of a monarch carrying on with such abandon. And so when David returned to the palace, she greeted him with cold sarcasm: "Didn't the king of Israel do himself honor today-exposing himself...as one of the riffraff might expose himself?" (II Samuel 6:20).

Were Michal's withering remarks justified? Had David truly acted in a manner that diminished the dignity of his office? Perhaps, but whether or not Michal was right, her tactless criticism of her husband on this great day in his life blew a dispute into a gale-force fury.

Michal's attack, however, was only the first factor in the tragedy that ensued. In the face of his wife's scorn, David did not remain silent, walk away until the tension eased, or even try to defend his behavior. Instead, he responded with the cruelest counterattack he could muster: "It was before the Lord Who chose me instead of your father and all his family [that I danced]."

David's words in no way addressed the substance of Michal's critique. As many of us do when criticized, he went "straight for blood," attacking the most painful event in Michal's life, God's rejection of her father, and his subsequent death, along with three of Michal's brothers, at the hands of the Philistines.

In the very next verse, the Bible records: "So to her dying day Michal, daughter of Saul, had no children." Why is Michal's childlessness recorded at this point? Perhaps because after so brutal an exchange--and there might well have been others--Michal and David were never again intimate.

The Bible's point is as clear today as it was in 1000 BCE: If a husband or wife, or two siblings or friends, do not restrain their words when they are angry, love is unlikely to survive, no matter how deeply the two people once cared for each other. The ability to control what we say when we're angry is prerequisite for a lasting relationship.

Unfortunately, this piece of biblical wisdom flies in the face of much modern thinking. Today, many people believe that it's unhealthy to suppress rage. If you feel an emotion, it's considered important that you say exactly what you're feeling.

This sort of pop-psychology assertion can be deflated with a one-word question: "Why?"

That you feel rage does not entitle you to inflict emotional pain on others any more than feelings of sexual attraction entitle you to rape the source of your attraction.

Human beings may well have little control over what provokes their anger, but all of us, unless we are under the influence of mind-altering drugs, or suffer some mental illness, or have certain types of brain damage, usually can control how we express our anger.

If you believe that you truly can't control your temper, imagine the following scenario: You and another person (say, a family member) are having a screaming, no-holds-barred fight when suddenly the doorbell rings. Someone whom you're very eager to impress (a boss or a new client) stands in front of your door. Would you go on ranting or would you find a way to suppress your rage?

Perhaps you would suppress your rage for a short while, for as long as it took the visitor to leave, whereupon the fight would erupt again. But even if that happens, your ability to delay the rage means that you do have some control over your temper. Furthermore, the delay itself would likely lessen the fight's intensity. As psychologist Carol Tavris cautions: "Expressing anger while you feel [most] angry nearly always makes you angrier."

Obviously, we have more control over our rage than we are willing to acknowledge. For some, the control might be almost total; for others it might be far less. People who have less control must recognize the moral obligation to curb their harsh words. If they find themselves incapable of doing so on their own, they are morally obligated to seek the sort of professional help that will enable them to exert greater self-control.

If you've ever ruptured a close relationship with angry words, consider whether observing the following rule could have led to a different outcome: Limit the expression of your anger to the incident that provoked it. Focusing the discussion in this way enables the criticized party to feel that his or her whole being isn't being attacked. It was this principle that David violated in his cruel counterattack after Michal mocked his dancing.

He could have responded in many different ways: "It hurts me that you attack me on this incredible day. I was overcome with joy, and I didn't control my dancing because I didn't want to" or "I wish you'd give up your aristocratic ideas of how a king must act, and realize how wrong you are. I made myself more, not less, beloved in the eyes of the people by showing them that I am a creature of flesh and blood just like them." He could even have spoken more sharply: "You are the one who acted wrongly, Michal, by remaining in the palace and acting coldly and indifferently on so great a day."

However, what David did wrong was to attack Michal at her point of greatest vulnerability. "It was before the Lord Who chose me instead of your father and all his family [that I danced]." These words were calculated to humiliate and devastate his wife; they were the equivalent of responding to a slap in the face with a shot to the heart.

To bring another person's vulnerability into an argument is wrong, not "maybe" wrong, not "sometimes" wrong--but absolutely wrong. If you ever become tempted to attack someone where he or she is most vulnerable, stop yourself from doing it. The worst time possible to allude to painful areas in another person's life is during a fight. You are likely to be much harsher, and the other person far less receptive if he thinks your comments are part of an attack. If sore points must be discussed, do so when you are feeling love for the person, not animosity.

Had David and Michal abided by this rule, they could have fought about the issue that provoked their anger, but their dignity, and hence their relationship, could have remained intact.

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