At this point in the blog series/podcast/book, most of you will be familiar with my story about spa day. I love the spa. Picture Buddy the Elf singing, “I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!”
[It’s good when you can crack yourself up. The mental image of me jumping up and down in the middle of a sauna, bubbling over with joy, feels hilarious.]
Not long ago, my wife and I took a vacation-weekend to Vegas. Between a brief stint living in the valley and all of our trips to porn conventions with XXXchurch throughout the years, we’ve got a pretty good lay of the land. Despite all of the seediness associated with the city, there’s nowhere quite like the strip when it comes to exuberance and hospitality and there’s nowhere that I can think of with quite the spa scene.
Yes. I said it. It’s ridiculous, and I don’t care.
Hotel properties, in my opinion, have the best spas, and especially in tourist-trap cities like Vegas. Jeanette and I enjoy the Aria and the Palazzo, and of course, the Cosmo was where my “official” Spa Day encounter with the Lord took place a few years back.
Spas are cheap in resort towns, too. Even if you’re not staying at the place, thirty bucks is usually enough to get you access to a whole day’s worth of relaxation if you’ve got the time for it.
Anyway, this time around, Jeanette and I decided to try out a new place. We each scheduled appointments for a massage and a facial at the resort we were already at, but when we arrived, the desk clerk informed us that they’d accidentally overbooked their beds. They had a space for Jeanette but asked me if I would be willing to take my session in our hotel room, instead.
I obliged. The next thing I know, my wife’s off in her spa-world, and I’m stripped down to nothing but a pair of boxers and a bathrobe, following an attractive young woman back across the hotel grounds to a room that isn’t mine. I felt uncomfortable and all-too-aware of myself and my surroundings, massage table ready and music playing lightly into an unfamiliar atmosphere, intruded upon by some mostly-naked guy who is most definitely giving off “the appearance of evil” (old platitudes die hard).
The woman asked me what should be her primary area of focus for the hour we had together. In the past, I’ve received massages from both men and women, but I’ve never gotten one in some random resort-room like this, and neither have I ever had an attraction to the woman working on me…
“Upper body, please.”
“No lower body?”
“No, thank you. Only upper body.”
Better to be safe than sorry.
…nothing bad happened.
She started talking to me and asked if I get massages often. I told her about my membership back home, and about how my daughter and I like to drive around Orange County, looking for fifteen-to-sixty-minute spots at all the cheap places around town. Elise loves them, and she’s down to do it all. We’ve tried Thai massages and Swedish massages. There’s a foot place she loves, too.
Most of those spots don’t have any sense of atmosphere whatsoever, but we have fun daddy/daughter dates together, and they get the job done. The other day, we visited a place that only had one room, and whoever happened to be there for an appointment was lumped into the same space together with the rest of us. Honestly, it’s fun, sitting there next to Elise. We both carry the same kind of tension in our upper bodies, and there’s a type of connection experienced in working it out together. At this point, some of the therapists even know us by name.
When I told her that Elise has also been giving (and charging our family for) massages since she was a little girl, my therapist laughed and responded that she had done the same at a young age, which then evolved into a full-time profession for the past ten years. It reminded me of the talent-show-contestant-becomes-a-professional idea, especially when I think back on my daughter’s makeshift mobile massage and foot station that she used to “service” our family and friends as a little girl.
She wondered aloud about whether or not Elise might be interested in pursuing a career in this type of work, and though I can’t answer that definitively, I realized as she spoke about her own experience that I could see my daughter excelling as a massage therapist.
Who knows? I digress.
The point of all of this is that nothing bad happened between an attractive woman and me during the massage that day. It’s almost as if one can find another human attractive and not destroy an entire life. Who knew?
And I don’t want to be a fool, here (maybe you’ve already decided it’s too late for that). Maybe there’s a better analogy for getting at what I’m getting at than that of my private (albeit accidental) hotel-room massage experience with an attractive woman.
But the whole thing got my mind racing about the overarching narratives I’ve always heard (and taught, for that matter) about what interactions are and are not appropriate between men and women. Whether it’s books like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” directions given for men to “bounce their eyes” away from the opposite sex, or–I think–even my work at XXXchurch throughout the years, I wonder if some of the foregone conclusions I and my fellow tribesmen have come to have had the potential to be less helpful than we intended. (I mean, Josh Harris straight up apologized for and discontinued his publication for the way he came to believe it instilled more fear than love in his readers).
I’m not, in any way, questioning the need for appropriate boundaries. I’m just interested in whether our attempts to err on the side of caution have, instead, instilled so much fear into others that human interaction is reduced to a question of right or wrong. Be aware of personal weaknesses, for sure, but don’t be so scared that you can’t have a conversation with another person simply because you find him or her attractive.
And also, don’t try to shift the blame away from your personal weakness by casting it onto someone else’s appearance. They are not your responsibility.
In 2017, Mike Pence was blasted for observing The Billy Graham Rule, which is some of what I’m talking about, here: this idea of (what others have criticized as) fear-based gender boundaries. Granted, not everyone observes these boundaries out of fear, and I’m not in any way suggesting that folks do away with parameters altogether, no matter what their motive. (I certainly didn’t plan on my experience that day, and I’m not setting up another appointment like it.) Brittany Shoot wrote a great article in The Washington Post that followed the media-storm Pence experienced, and I valued her thoughts on women-elevating (as opposed to women-blaming) observances such as these.
Nevertheless…it is interesting: the “fear of all who are not your spouse” mentality. As though men are only lust-hounds and women only Jezebel-temptresses.
Levi — the guy who is editing and helping me write some of these chapters — is married to his wife, Brandi. They both feel kind of like my kids, and they’re two of the only people I know who spend time with the opposite sex, without one another. From what I’ve experienced in the Christian world, that kind of “behavior” is highly suspect and often coupled with questions like, “Well…what if you end up having sex with that person?”
As if the next step after “being in the presence of someone who is not your spouse” is somehow “immediately committing adultery.”
But Levi trusts Brandi, and vice versa. I trust Jeanette and vice versa. That doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned all reserve. Sometimes, though, it might mean that there’s a real allowance for friendships beyond our own to be real-life possibilities!
I’ve lost too many friends to their marriages. The ones who — as soon as they’ve said, “I do” — are suddenly not allowed to maintain relationships with the people they were close to mere seconds prior. It’s frustrating, and though I don’t believe it needs to be that way, I know where it comes from.
With the mind I’ve had for so long, it’s hard to be in a situation like the one I was in that day without jumping straight to those worst-case-scenario conclusions, too. I suppose it’s fine to practice self-awareness, but at this point, some of that feels more like extra-Biblical conditioning, and I’m almost ashamed of assuming the worst of either of us.
Anyway — and, I know, this is going to be a huge point of contention for some people — I recently allowed my male friend to talk to my female wife.
Dave Tosti and I were hanging out one day, and he started to tell me about what he’d say to Jeanette if given permission. Nothing crazy, just some insight and encouragement. And I’m sitting there, thinking, “What do you mean, ‘If given permission?’”
I’m the guy who’s going to send you an email or call, or badger you with voice-messages, or show up unannounced at your doorstep. If I’ve got something to say to you, I’ll create the opportunity and ask for forgiveness over permission. I’m very rarely afraid to speak something out into the open whether it lands well or not.
Dave has been a friend of my family for twenty years. He doesn’t need permission to speak with Jeanette.
So, I called Jeanette then and there and invited her to join us for dinner. When she arrived, I told her that Dave had some thoughts he’d like to share with her.
That was a great conversation.
I, husband to Jeanette, sat listening to one of my best friends talk to her in a way so different than the way that I do. I realized that Jeanette has been listening to one guy — me — for twenty years. Here, through tears, magic happened through David that allowed for her to open up and be known in a way I hadn’t seen before. To call the evening special is an understatement at best.
A few weeks later, Dave helped Jeanette again (and, I suppose, me in the process). Jeanette’s mom had been hospitalized and — because this is the best explanation there is — a ton of crazy, God-ordained stuff kept happening in conjunction with her admittance, but I wasn’t communicating well with Jeanette that evening.
I wasn’t home, either. I was with Dave, who overheard our conversation, and asked to speak with her, himself.
I’m not going to lie: I made them talk on speakerphone, recorded the entire twelve-minute conversation on David’s phone and airdropped it to myself afterward. I didn’t do that because I didn’t trust them, but because I came to realize I trusted them so much that I wanted to learn from the experience. Dave had a different approach than I did, and he was able to get through to Jeanette when I couldn’t. While I love that, I don’t want to spend the rest of my marriage telling Jeanette to call Dave. I want to be able to learn how I can do better.
If you’ve been following along for enough time now, you know how competitive I am. This sounds stupid, but I’ll say it because it’s fine to say silly things sometimes:
After that phone call, I told Dave, “You know, I’ve heard my wife break down in tears twice now after talking to you. Imagine what it’s going to be like when she does that more often with me than with you…HASHTAG WINNING!”
[Laughing emoji whatever face.]
And we have had some of those moments since. I haven’t learned it all. I’m not beyond the “talent show” phase yet, but I’m learning and growing. I’m able to say, “You know what? My friend knows how to do that better than I do. He’s not me, but I trust him with you, and you with him. And I’m learning from him, too, because I’m not the only man that there is to learn from.”
Just like that woman from whom I was afraid to receive a massage taught me much of this.
Speaking of whom, I ended up telling that gal, “It would be fun for you to work on my daughter.”
I know that, unfortunately, people will continue to use and abuse one another. They’ll ruin relationships. They’ll take advantage of power and authority. Proximity. Anything.
I know that. I hate it.
But it’s not to say that’s the only thing that will ever happen and sometimes, I just think that we react poorly by swinging all the way in the opposite direction, using the worst of those stories to instill fear, or enact unrealistic policies — at work, at church, at home, whatever.
For example, my friend works at a church, and I had to pick her up for a meeting a while back. I’ve known her forever, and she’s practically a sister to me, but she’s not allowed to be seen getting into a vehicle with me (without a third party) thanks to worst-case scenario assumptions about motive and intent.
At best, that feels at least equally as unhealthy a position to defer to as its all-things-go opposite.
At worst, “sin seizes the opportunity afforded by the commandment,” and produces even more of a desire for the off-limits than there would have been without such a law in the first place.
I hope this makes sense. In the end, I suppose, what I’m trying to say is, “Not all things demonized are demons, and perhaps there’s even some good to be had in reconsidering the ways (or, at the very least: the whys behind the ways) we choose to interact with one another.”
Be self-aware, sure, and flee when — like Joseph in response to Potiphar’s wife — you’re self-aware enough to know that fleeing is required of you.
But perhaps the umbrella of terror that I’ve witnessed should be a bit lower on the list of motivators for why we can’t stand in the same room together — or learn from one another — without defaulting to the depraved.
For me, that meant, “Only upper body, today, thank you.”
And I learned a good deal from it.