Mixed Signals

To the city on Wednesday to take the homeschooled kid to the Museum of Science and Technology, which he already knows like the back of his hand. While he was playing electronic hockey, I found myself fiddling with one of the hands-on radio exhibits. This particular exhibit showed how different waves could reinforce each other (producing a pure tone) or could cancel each other out (no tone at all).

In real life, the signals we get from each other are often mixed in such a way as to self-cancel. "I'm being honest with you" may mean exactly the opposite thing. We damn with faint praises; we learn to sugarcoat our salt; we slip in the little dig in the middle of apparent bonhomie, so that the recipient won't notice when the blade slips betwixt the ribs. And then there's always the immortal one: "I love you, dear, in spite of all your failings and faults and personal problems, in spite of the burden you are to me..." Oh, that's a real sweetie, that one.

The technical term for this is "cognitive dissonance," and it is deeply crazy-making. It's confusing; it pulls you both ways until you're not sure which was is north or whether the sun rises in the east. To change similes, it's like having two completely different pieces of music playing in your head at the same time. We've probably all had to live with this at some time or another. And we've probably all done it to others, too.

What are the reasons for mixed signals? Fear comes to mind first: we're afraid that if we're truthful, we're cruisin' for a bruisin' --and indeed, this fear does come true sometimes. Or it's the social conventions we've been brought up to regard as law: "don't air your dirty linen"; "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Good manners do grease the skids of existence, but they can also confuse the issue. They are, after all, intended to preserve our social masks, not to reveal the truth. Or the problem may be our own confusion. I know sometimes I feel I'm fronting the world with a calm and pleasant face, while everyone around me can tell that I'm really upset and angry. If I don't want to deal with my personal dragons and insist on turning my back on them, they have a habit of peeking over my shoulder and frightening innocent bystanders--and then I can't figure out why people get upset (DUH!)

Or finally--least frequently, I hope--the problem may be simple Evil. People may use mixed signals to manipulate and control others, to undercut them (and often thus keep them obediently captive), and to get their own way. Using crazy-making tactics is a notable feature of most forms of abuse. It's no accident that Satan is called the Father of Lies...

It may be some comfort to realize that Paul had to struggle with similar issues. It seems that church politics--which can, as we all know, be quite stunningly nasty--go back to the beginning. Paul faced a mess in the church in Corinth: his authority was being undermined and his motives called into question. He is hurt; he writes with "many tears", and he postpones his planned visit rather than risk another confrontation.

He has been accused, he says, of saying "yes" and "no" --of giving mixed messages. But, says Paul, I don't do this. I don't do this because God doesn't say "yes, yes" and "no, no": I don't say one thing out of one side of my mouth and another out of the other, and neither does God. He gave us the Word, and the Word was a great big unequivocal YES. God's message was Christ Jesus, and Jesus is a "yes" without a trace of "no" anywhere, because God knows his own, and it is us.

We may see God as confusing or two-sided or even hypocritical - as judging and loving, as angry and tender, as distant and intrusive, as omnipotent and helpless to keep us from harm, as witholding forgiveness and demanding that we forgive. God can look terribly two-sided at times. But this isn't God's problem; it's our perception, which is so clouded by our own confusion, our own need to keep love for ourselves and see our enemies pounded into applesauce. We visit our own issues and baggage and confusion on God and then complain that God's got a problem. Oh. Right.

God's message isn't "I love you, but" or "I'd love you if" or "I'll love you when." It's simply "I love you." It is love without illusions; it goes right past the masks that we want others to stop at and into our core, whether or not we want the Light shining there. We can accept it or reject it, but we can't make it conditional for ourselves or anyone else. It is love so intimately entwined with knowledge and truthfulness that you can't part the strands. Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit speak to us straight, clear, and truthfully. And therefore we can trust and relax our need to control, however unclear or confusing life seems to be.

But there isn't the slightest shade of No in God's unending Yes. Paul is very sure of that. We are God's, created and redeemed in order to respond with the only really reasonable answer to God's love: our own unequivocal Yes.

Copyright © 1999 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 16 Oct 1999
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