To me, family dinners are sacred. For those thirty minutes (more like five for one of my boys who eats like it’s the steeplechase), I have my brood gathered in one place and I can check their pulse. How was everyone’s day? What are you learning at school? Who are you playing with at recess? What was your kindness quotient today? During dinner a few nights ago, the kids were discussing what they were learning in health class. My youngest rolled her eyes as she described the baby-ness of learning basic social emotional words like “conflict”, “respect” and “#compromise.” Only, she pronounced it “com-promise.” I corrected her. We laughed. She flushed. In her defense, she had only read the word on paper, since she missed school the day they learned that concept. I reassured her that it wasn’t her fault no one had ever taught her how to pronounce the word, and I scolded her brothers for teasing her.
Later, when it was just she and I and no jeering brothers around, she asked, “What does compromise mean anyway?” I faltered as I tried to explain using the classic split-the-last-cookie example, then the example of sharing physical bed-space with her sister. I’m not sure she understood. She will someday.
Compromise was a dirty word in my religious circles growing up. It meant lowering your standards, giving in to social pressure, letting your guard down. Someone who denied the inerrancy of scripture had compromised. Someone who settled for less than God’s best had compromised. Someone whose fear of man caused them to change their stance on an issue had compromised. Someone who rubbed shoulders with a compromiser was a compromiser. Compromisers were pragmatic, unprincipled, double-minded, corruptible, changeable, fickle, and unstable. Those who stood their ground in the face of opposition were brave, dependable, consistent, certain, loyal, unwavering, and faithful. In the hierarchy of our fundamentalist virtues, constancy was right up there with piety.
I remember red-faced surly preachers raging behind pulpits about liberal compromisers like Billy Graham (yes, the late, great) and Martin Luther King Jr. As a young person I was warned that if I gave an inch, I would begin my treacherous descent down the slippery slopes of compromise and before I knew it, I would be worshipping to Amy Grant’s music and reading Frank Peretti’s books. Bending and yielding: bad. Standing and defending: good.
I’m sure if you talked to one of these preachers privately, they would tell you that in relationships, especially marriage, some compromise was a good thing. You would just never hear them preach about it. I never heard a sermon on Ephesians 4:3 which says,
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Or Romans 14:19, which says,
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
There were no sermons about the sins of obstinacy or provocation. Not once, in all my twenty-one years in fundamentalism, did I ever witness healthy compromise in any form, publicly or privately. If someone disagreed, we did not seek understanding or common ground. We shut them out and cut them off.
Just as no one ever told me there was such a thing as good biblical compromise, no one told me it could be so beautiful either. I had to figure that out on my own through my marriage. As a babe-in-the-woods twenty-one-year-old bride, I had no category for the kind of emotional turbulence that was marriage. One minute you are riding high on the clouds of affirmation and acceptance, understanding and trust, and the next minute you are crying your eyes out in the bathroom after a shouting match over household chores. What were we to do? We could not just shut each other out and cut each other off when we disagreed, which happened on an almost daily basis the first year of our marriage. We had to find a way forward that didn’t involve cussing, throwing things, or hiding out in the bathroom. The path of compromise was rocky at first, but to our surprise, the further we traveled down it, the lovelier it became. Eventually, it led us to lush tree-lined pools of peace and empathy.
The traditional “give and take” explanation of compromise feels transactional and cold. As with most words, I learn more about them from their etymology than their common definition. The root “com” means with. And we all know what a promise is. To compromise means to make a mutual promise. My daughter had it right when she pronounced the word wrong.
When we compromise, we promise to try to see things from the others’ perspective. We promise to give up some small freedom, so we can both be free. We promise to listen with empathy to the charges brought against us. We promise to be kind. We promise to assume the best intentions. We promise to keep no record of wrongs, to always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere. We promise to mutually put each other first.
Now that I think of it, compromise sounds pretty much like love.