Less Complements, More Jesus (#330)

The Principle of Complementarity states that a person’s emotional state tends to evoke complementary responses in others. When a spouse is depressed similar emotions are induced in the other. Likewise, when one is happy, the other is inclined to be as well. We have a propensity for deducing the emotions of others and matching them in ourselves. Such complementarity shows itself in our normal interactions. For example, if a waiter serving our restaurant table is pleasant and charming, we’re likely to be so in return. The opposite is also true. A rude and unfriendly waiter will naturally draw from us a like reaction. This isn’t limited to people with whom we have close relationships. When we’re around strangers, if the emotional vibe is strong, we’ll find ourselves being caught in up those emotions, for good or for ill, that is if we don’t check ourselves.

Complementarity makes sense from our social evolution in tribal cultures. It’s a way we’ve evolved to be in tune with others and to build alliances. So, we tend to go along with the emotions around us without reflecting on them. It’s an effective bonding response within groups. Most often the stakes aren’t very high when complementarity is unconsciously occurring. But, of course, it has a shadow side. It explains how quickly mob behavior forms and just as fast turns mean or deadly. With the advent of social media, mobs also occur in cyberspace. Read comments to new stories on social media and see how emotions get ginned up and shared with each additional comment posted.

It takes considerable self-awareness to notice how our emotions are driven by those around us and to not always go along with them. Those emotions may lead to harmless behavior (and thus we can ignore them or just enjoy them). But if such emotions are leading in a sinister direction, we can try to exercise non-complementary behavior. Jesus was a master at such non-complementary behavior. It’s throughout the Gospel.

Consider Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. The self-righteous emotions of the people around him build until they are determined to stone her. Jesus doesn’t “fight fire with fire.” Rather than “complement” their anger with his own, he calms the situation down by kneeling and doodling in the dirt. He then turns the emotional tables and says: “If any of y’all are without sin, then go ahead and cast the first stone.” In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father, the older son, and the entire household upon seeing the younger son return could’ve said to him: “You little degenerate, go to the bunkhouse, take your place with the hired hands.” Given what the younger son had done, that would’ve been a justifiable emotional reaction to his behavior. But the father turns the tables and declares the young man will have the finest garb put on him, a feast thrown, and his place restored.

The Good News is God’s non-complementary behavior toward us. Jesus doesn’t “complement” our sin with judgment, but rather with grace. We don’t get our “just deserts.” And he calls us to such non-complementarity with the world. Love rather than hate our enemies. Be tender when others choose toughness. Exercise mercy when those around are calling out for blood. Forgive when others want to condemn. We’re going against powerful evolutionary forces when we do. Still, it’s God’s way with this world.



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