A New Recipe: Grace in Family Life

This is an edited version of a talk given by the famed child psychologist, Dorothy […]

Mockingbird / 10.16.18

This is an edited version of a talk given by the famed child psychologist, Dorothy Martyn, at the second annual Mockingbird Conference in 2009 and republished in our most recent issue of the magazine, the Deja Vu Issue. She died in January 2018.

I suppose that you are, in some way or another, engaged in a relationship of nurturing love, either as a pastor, a teacher, a parent, or in an intimate relationship. I want to go right to the nature of nurturing love as I understand it. The nature of nurturing love is, to me, authentic and effectual to the degree to which it transcends the commonly assumed principle of “this for that” or circular exchange. “This for that” is such a commonly assumed principle in the world that it’s hard for us to imagine how we could do without it in intimate relationships. For many of us, we don’t know how we could manage things at all without saying, “If you do that, I will do this,” and, “If you don’t do that, I’m going to do this.” “Ifs” are very common among us. But the kind of love that we’re talking about is not based on an exchange of this for that. It is “a new recipe.”

That phrase comes from having had therapeutic relationships at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center for very, very angry and troubled children. I have to describe one little girl for a moment to make this clear. She was a terror. I was a brand new psychotherapist, and trying to do therapy with her was something like trying to do therapy with a hornet. I was quite taken aback that she was so filled with rage, rage at the unrelenting punishment and emotional poverty of her family. I don’t know if any of you have ever seen anything like it, but this rage could scarcely be contained. Of course, it was my job to help her contain it.

After doing some play-work together with her little dolls and some play dough I made for our session, she was having a tea party for her dolls with the little play dough set out on the table. She looked down at the table, and down at her dolls, and said thoughtfully, “This is a new recipe. My dolls have not had it before.”

I was struck with the profundity of that remark. Indeed, it was a new recipe for her. And while it’s a very old recipe—as churchgoers know—grace is new to most of us in our ordinary dealings with those right around us (and even those much further from us) in the daily world. Now, I know that the daily world has to operate on a principle of the world outside—it has to operate on a principle of “this for that.” We have to pay for what we buy, we have to earn our salaries. Some people have their children earn their allowances. We understand that that’s the way the world works.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael remarks that the reason he went to sea as a sailor and not as a passenger was that passengers have to pay. He says, “The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that those two orchard thieves entailed upon us.” Adam and Eve, Ishmael describes, have involved us with this business of paying, and we expect to pay—expect to earn our grades and expect to earn our money.

But here is where the justice model of “this for that”—we pay this and we get that—is utterly transcended by another reality altogether, where there is something that cannot be earned, cannot be bought. This other principle, while we may take it in at church, escapes very quickly from us when we’re with our children, or others.

Several decades ago, I heard a sermon at Union Seminary from Edmund A. Steimle about the parable of the workers in the vineyard. I never forgot it and it changed my life and my way of thinking—I think that’s probably what has come to fruition in my work today. I’m sure you will recall that there were some workers who were hired early in the morning, some who came at noon, and some who came late in the day, when there were very few hours left to work. When the paying part came, the lord of the vineyard paid them all the same. You can imagine the angry outcries: “What was this?”

That parable is about what the New Testament is about. It’s about that which cannot be earned. Merit and credit—in the sense of getting paid for output—go out the window altogether. Since I happen to live with a biblical scholar, I have been on the inside of this conversation a few times, and I remember being surprised at what it had to do with: that the lord of the vineyard had the freedom to do what he would with what he had, and he was not governed by rules of fairness or justice. That idea, that there’s something that could transcend and transform a circular exchange, that Jesus Christ was the end of merit—it’s a very strong statement. But I believe it’s true.

Now, nurturing love has this as one of its main qualities. All of us know that nurturing love is not invented by human beings. It comes to us from God, and it has certain qualities. The qualities of that kind of love actually are very particular qualities. These qualities—there are three of them I’d like to describe here—come from Karl Barth’s “Perfections of God.” These qualities form our guide for how to love each other.

The first quality is “givenness.” It is conditionless; it just comes, unsummoned. And it comes first; it is not contingent on what somebody else is doing. It is what Mockingbird is all about, what we call the nature of grace: it comes first. It does not wait for anybody to deserve it.

The second quality of love Barth identifies is “mercy.” Mercy, for Barth, means entering into another person’s need or suffering. It stands with that person and not over or against them. Mercy has to do with presence within a person’s situation and suffering.

There is a story I have to tell about this. Susie was a well-brought-up child of professional parents, and she had a terrible sleep problem. She was maybe five or six. She didn’t want to stay in her own bed at night, and she would get up at all hours of the night and come get in bed with her parents. The parents, who were knowledgeable and who read all the books about childrearing, tried all of those things that professionals suggested about how to get children to sleep in their own beds and to stop pestering you in the middle of the night. But none of these gimmicks worked with her.

Susie had other symptoms, too. She called her mother terrible names, like “you worm.” It would be easy to assume her behavior perhaps reflected how she was being treated at home, but that wasn’t the case. This language came from somewhere deep inside the little girl and would take us some time to understand. As the story unfolded, we had decided that the mother, the little girl, and I would spend some time in the playroom together. (This was not to say that it was the mother’s fault; usually when a child has a problem involving a parent, it’s usually more direct with the parent of the same sex.)

So the mother and I watched the little girl play, which took on some most interesting forms. We had the Barbie dolls there, and the Barbie dolls had a party, and we each had a Barbie doll: one belonged to the mother, one belonged to me, and one belonged to her. The little girl said to one of the dolls, “You can’t come to this party.” It was her mother’s doll. “You’re sick and you have to stay in bed, and I hope you don’t get any better.” From there, it became much more violent—these dolls were in for a rough ride. It came to pass, so to speak, that the mother was told her doll had to be attacked with harpoons and spears—and the other dolls had to do it—indeed unto death, and not just unto death, but as a final kind of insult, bugs were put all over the body of this dead Barbie doll.

An ordinary person looking at this would think, “What on earth is the matter with this child? Does she have some terrible disease?” Well, I want you to know I’ve spent 30 years doing play therapy, and I have seen cannibalism and dismemberment regularly come out of the play of the most “normal” little children. It seems to be a part of the human condition, something in us all. It became very clear that the daughter had a rage at the mother for possessing something that she herself wanted, namely the father. Now this may sound Freudian and very outmoded, but this was the way children played this out; when there was this kind of a crime leveled against a parent, the “criminal” had to go through terrible, terrible punishments, and this little girl was extremely confident in constellating the punishment scene, where her mother was forced to die in an electric chair.

I had clued the mother in that these were not horrible things, that we were just trying to find out what the underneath stuff was. Which is why I consider this an accurate portrayal of mercy: the mother had mercy for this child. The playroom was an old-fashioned apartment where there were still servant bells, so she found that she could push the servant’s electric bell, and that would be the discharge of electricity at which point her mother’s doll was supposed to fall dead. Her mother entered into this play, always being the bad guy and getting electrocuted. The girl devised this scene and played it over and over.

I know this is shocking, but you know those children who space out at school? Children have shown me over the years where they space out to. They are busy thinking about much more important issues than what the teacher has in mind for them and, with all due respect to current diagnoses, their attention span to things that are important to them is unlimited.

I tell this story mainly because of the power of mercy at work. It was astounding to both parents that with this kind of allowance to play—and to just have it watched and understood and reflected—the little girl started to sleep better. She just had to get it all out; it had to be externalized. The mother and the father entered in without manipulating the behavior in any way, and the symptoms got better. I don’t mean that this little girl was forever saved according to this world’s standards, but that problem did go away.

The third and last of these qualities is patience. I don’t mean patience in the sense that most of us mean it, when we mean our fortitude in standing up to other people’s misdeeds and wrongdoing. We often think we are patient if we put up with what’s being meted out to us right now. Patience, in the sense I mean, is a sustaining and accompanying of the Other, without coercion, until the latent design of that person can emerge in freedom, freedom to become his or her own true self. I’m not talking about freedom as license, in the sense that “anything goes.” I want quickly to dispel any ideas that I preach permissiveness. Like any of us, a child is under the worst sort of tyranny if abandoned to his or her own impulses without any kind of restraint. A child is very grateful to have somebody bigger to help with all of the stuff inside that they cannot handle, but that doesn’t mean that a child’s basic integrity has to be manipulated or formed or created or pushed into being by a parent or a teacher.

If anyone wonders what it means to come through forcefully for a child against an action, knowing that the action is the child’s enemy too, they should know that that is not a question of license. Instead, those kind of controls are actually giving the child freedom, because he or she knows the parent is there to help with the impulses that can’t be managed.

I will give one brief illustration. Another little girl, one not so different from the little girl in the hospital, was also full of rage. I helped her over a period of years to contain her rage by simply holding her, by saying, “No, that isn’t good for you.” During that time, she was trying to tear the books off the bookshelf, and it was a little much to be taking on in the halls of Union Seminary. After she had come some ways toward internalizing these controls, she would still ask to recreate the scene of being stopped and held: “Let’s pretend that I am tearing the books off the bookshelf, and trying to run into your kitchen, and you catch me, and you don’t let me do it.” Now, that is what I mean by the power of this kind of love that does not base itself on what you deserve. I am reminded of the miracle of it all in something I recently read about in a book of prayer I love. It speaks of the miracles of eternity that are made in the course of the simple circumstances of everyday life. One of his prayers was, “We live in a world of time, enfolded by a world of time, and now and then the splendor of eternity simply breaks in.” Now these simple victories of power of love are not so simple after all; they are really miracles of eternity. That’s what we mean, I think, when we pray Sunday after Sunday, “thy kingdom come.”

I was taught by some learned person that the Kingdom of God means the Kingdom of Love, where love and mercy and patience and kindness and joy, where those things come to us, and they break in to the common days, our common days. That is what it means for thy kingdom to come, and that is our daily bread, and for that, we give thanks.