Culture

5 Life and Relationship Lessons from Finding Mr. Righteous

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Lesson #5: Everybody’s human. Very, very human.

I once heard a guy tell a story about a disastrous first date he went on. He was ultra-liberal, and didn’t realize the girl he’d asked out was a libertarian. They discovered their differences soon enough, and their debate was so fierce she left in tears. It didn’t end there, though; he followed up with links to articles and documentaries she had to see, to correct her point of view. She participated as well, sending him material from her own side. But it was clear there was no romantic possibility between the two of them — instead of finding love on a blind date, they found hate.

He asked, “What do you do? When you meet up with these DC vampires who are just dead set on destroying the world?”

I told him the first thing you do is stop denying their essential humanity by calling them monsters. Then, give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming they hold their views because they want to make the world a better place, too — or, at the very least, not because of some desire to burn it all down. I wish now I could have just given him a copy of Finding Mr. Righteous, the romantic memoir by conservative activist Lisa de Pasquale.

If he’d read Finding Mr. Righteous, he would have understood that many people on the right are just as earnest about making the world a better place as he is — so much so that they’re willing to risk their careers to disagree within their own ranks. But more importantly than that, he’d find the self-portrait of a distinctly human woman, prey to the insecurities, fears, hopes, and doubts that deserve compassion no matter from whom they come. And she’s someone brave enough to admit it all, honestly, sparing herself very little in her quest to examine her past mistakes and become a better person.

Finding Mr. Righteous is a memoir about dating in DC. It’s also about seeking spiritual answers in a political scene crowded with vain, self-serving, or simply confused people. It’s a book I’d highly recommend to anyone. It’s been the subject of much gossip in the DC conservative set, as readers try to puzzle out the men behind the pseudonyms, unlocking tasty new gossip. But the people I’d actually recommend it to most strongly are my diehard liberal friends who often throw around words like “vampire” and “monster” to describe people on the other side. It’s hard to read Finding Mr. Righteous and still deny the humanity of the conservative woman who wrote it. And that’s about more than finding common ground between conservatives and liberals — it’s about finding common ground between human beings, in a way that goes far beyond politics.

There’s a lot to learn in Finding Mr. Righteous, which is why I chose to write my review of it as a relationship advice column. 

Lesson #4: You can’t negotiate feelings.

When breaking up, two lovers try to convince each other that the other doesn’t feel the way they claim to feel. When consoling a friend, we try to convince her that she’s not as sad as she is. When embarking on a new relationship, we try to tell ourselves we don’t feel the reservations nagging us at the backs of our minds. Lonely and restless, we try to imagine attraction where there is none, possibility where there is only disappointment, or interest where there’s only desperation.

We always try. But at the end of the day, you can’t negotiate feelings.

There are lots of negotiations about feelings in Finding Mr. Righteous, by Lisa and others, including the situations described above. But perhaps the most dangerous negotiations are the ones described last — the negotiations we attempt with our own feelings.

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We don’t have to be prey to every emotion that arises in our hearts. But we can only fully control ourselves and wisely direct our behavior if we openly and honestly accept our feelings as they are, and then work with them from there. One can act contrary to feeling; but it’s much harder to act contrary to feeling in a wise and informed way if you refuse to acknowledge the feeling, or you strive to stifle it. And that’s when truly magnificent relationship disasters happen.

Lisa’s book is searing in its honesty, and I was blown away with her depth of self-awareness in looking back on her previous relationships. One of the things that she records are her many negotiations with her own feelings. It’s a little bit like her awkwardness in receiving hugs — something in her simply doesn’t want to cut herself some slack. But eventually it’s owning all her feelings, accepting them and recording them, that seems to have resulted in her becoming the kind of insightful woman who could write a book like this.

Lesson #3: In order to listen to God, you’ve got to stop talking.

Alongside her romantic quest, Lisa describes an even bigger journey — her efforts to discover her own spirituality. As she tries to reengage with her Christian beliefs, she discovers that many of her romantic encounters are fueled by a longing for spiritual support and guidance. She also longs for her “conversion moment” when she first feels God’s presence in her life in a real and personal way. In the end, she doesn’t have that moment during one of her long conversations with a potential mate about religion, or during a church outing with any of them — it happens quietly in a moment of personal good fortune, when (in a dark period of her life) she finally receives a desperately needed job offer.

I was reminded of a moment in my life when I distinctly felt God’s presence. I had grumpily been thinking to myself, “Why do people ask for specific stuff when they pray, like a shopping list? Does God listen? Does He send special deliveries to those people? Is that what they’re expecting, a literal rain of gifts? You’ve got to be kidding me.” But then, something very quiet in me answered, “He does, because God’s greatest gift to us is ourselves.” Lisa did all the hard work that earned her that job offer. But in that moment, she felt like it was a gift from God. Perhaps that was because God had given her the work ethic, the ability to make friends, the strength and determination and intelligence and willpower to accomplish that thing. And perhaps it felt like a gift from outside of herself because she was so overwhelmed by these things God put in her that she couldn’t quite believe she had done it (using His tools).

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In Buddhism, there’s an idea that we all contain the bodhichitta — the “wise heart,” or the heart that is capable of infinite peace, compassion, and openness — and that it’s simply buried by layers of desires, nasty attitudes, worn-in habits, fears, expectations, and all the other freight we human beings carry with us. The process of attaining enlightenment, therefore, isn’t so much trying to improve ourselves by adding on or recasting — it’s improving ourselves by uncovering what is already there, latent, a “jewel buried in dirt.” Like most discoveries, it takes close observation, attentiveness — there’s a reason Buddhists strive to do it (alongside other methods) by sitting quietly in meditation. There are lots of other, little, daily ways to quiet the mind and listen to the spirit, besides sitting cross-legged on a mat for twenty minutes to an hour. (Though, for the record, it’s not as crazy or pointless as it sounds.)

For Christians, bodhichitta may be translated into the innate capacity for good that God gives us all — our free will, our ability to choose good, our capacity for redemption. (Before I get lambasted by theologians — this is a VERY rough approximation, meant more in the spirit of these concepts than their dogma.) Sometimes things happen to us that are so great, or so awful, that they spontaneously silence the mind’s voice, and we have a moment of pure spiritual feeling — a moment of bodhichitta, or a moment of experiencing God’s gift to you of yourself. Maybe that’s what Lisa experienced when she received her good news. It just stood out to me as an important lesson about spiritual seeking as a process of listening, or receiving, as much as it is about talking, questioning, participating, experimenting.

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Lesson #2: It’s not always him or you.

In my earlier post about dating jerks, I noted that many times when my friends complain that all the guys they date are jerks, the real problem all along is just that the two of them weren’t suited for each other, and trying to force an incompatible match made both parties act like jerks. Assigning blame is a lot more fun (and preserves one’s ego better) than admitting that sometimes things just don’t work out.

There’s an inverse problem that I hadn’t touched on, that Lisa’s book poignantly highlights. Just as some people unproductively blame the other person for every breakup, others unproductively blame themselves. Lisa constantly fears she’s not attractive enough to interest a good man, and that this makes her fundamentally undesirable — that she has to offer professional favors and gifts constantly because no one would want to be with her “just for her.” But in her flood of favors and gifts, she never gives anyone the chance to just be with her for her. It’s less a strategy, and more a security blanket. As long as she offers the gifts, she never has to find out how long a guy will stick around without them. In fact, she never has to learn who she is and what she has to offer besides these gifts and favors.

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Lisa was wise not to place 100% of the responsibility for her breakups at her exes’ feet. But her fatal flaw — which she recognizes at the end of the book — was assuming too much of the blame, and for the wrong reasons. In fact, the word “blame” is misleading here, because part of this relationship trap is seeing all breakups as a matter of culpability instead of compatibility. In that mindset, it always has to be someone’s fault; it can’t simply be. By the end of the book, Lisa finally realizes that it wasn’t some cosmic joke, or bad luck, or lack of God’s favor, or the universal jerkiness of all men, or her personal appearance that were keeping her from landing a good man. It was her own sense of worthlessness.

Will overcoming that feeling of worthlessness immediately result in a good relationship? No. There are all the practicalities of encountering the right man for her — and life is funny sometimes, and we don’t always find that person, or find him right away. But as I said in my jerk-dating post, being the sort of person you want to date is its own reward. When you feel worthless, you date other people who feel worthless, because you need their weakness to feel strong — you need to take care of someone else to feel like your own life has any meaning at all. But that only results in two people dragging each other down into deeper and deeper realms of worthlessness and self-neglect, as they place all their meaning in each other. A man who is essentially good will also recognize his own essential worth. And to date a man with self-worth, you have to have some of your own.

Lesson #1: The only person who can soothe (and eventually eradicate) your insecurity is yourself.

Insecurity is a monster with a bottomless stomach. Nothing you or anyone else throws into it will fill it up. It eats high-powered jobs for breakfast. It sprinkles love and affection on its cereal. The more you feed it, the greater its hunger grows. It takes the affirmation, the demonstrations, the hugs and kisses, the words of kindness you receive and it digests them down until they all turn into crap.

Halfway through her story, Lisa gets lap-band surgery to restrict the size of her stomach, and help her control her weight. By the end of the book, she’s performed lap-band surgery on her insecurity. It’s something a person can only ever do for herself — no one can convince her before she’s ready, and no one can tell her how it’s done. You can’t look for that one special word from someone, that one gift, that one moment, that one hug that someone else gives you to make you feel like you have worth. You are alone with God in that journey, whether you’re single or not.