Sunday, June 30, 2013

Christian Comments on the Irresistible Attraction

Just in case we'd forgotten it, here's an update from last winter's news story.

Woman, age 32, has been doing good work for ten years. She’s married. Man, age 59, makes flirtatious remarks, which woman hears as jokes and answers in kind, because the idea that older people still have the same hormonal feelings and dramas that they do is not something young people usually like to think about. He’s also married. They talk about their families at work. They mention their families, and exchange a few flirty jokes, in e-mail. His wife sees the e-mail and goes into a panic spin, because who hasn’t read about a man leaving his wife for someone young enough to be their daughter, and these days people will still speak to those men, socially. He doesn’t even want to have sex with the woman, but can he give up teasing and joking about it? He tries. He can’t. His wife demands that he fire the woman “for being an irresistible attraction.”

Comments on this story show that, without knowing what the woman looks like or how she dresses, a lot of people pictured Cameron Diaz in a skimpy camisole and stretch-to-fit miniskirt.

Reality check: I’ve seen this kind of situation develop when the man was an 80-year-old patient and the woman was a 59-year-old nurse, 5’2”, 160 pounds, baggy smocks, slacks, bifocals, white shoes, white hair pinned up in a bun. Some Irresistible Attraction out there may look like Cameron Diaz for all I know, but it wouldn’t make much difference if she looked and dressed like Whoopi Sister Act.

There is something about a person who works well with you. Something about the attentiveness, the synergy, the philia love (which is actually the kind the New Testament writers told wives to cultivate toward their husbands). What people who work well together feel is love. Sometimes, usually but not always if they’re the same sex, occasionally if they find each other really repulsive, people can love each other in this way and never want to do anything but go on working together. More often..they may be able to listen to reason and say no to the physical attraction, but sooner or later they notice that a physical attraction is there.

Ms. Irresistible Attraction said, “It wasn’t even sexual harassment. I saw him as a father figure.” Oh, right. I believe that. I really do. The first year or two, she sees him as a father figure. Then one day something goes wrong between her and her husband, and she is shocked, just shocked, to realize what kind of thoughts about this father figure are coming to mind. At thirty-two, she doesn’t see this coming? Maybe in Iowa. I’m told people grow up more slowly there. My husband was older than I was; for the first year or two I saw him as a sort of uncle figure, too, before he became a friend, and then a partner. He wasn't married. Nor was I shocked.

But I’m not at all comfortable with the idea that she can lose her job, that if her husband isn’t well paid her children could suffer, merely because she has this inappropriate attraction thing going with her employer.

Because these people consulted a pastor first, before the firing and the lawsuit, let’s consider the situation in moral terms. These people are Christians. Does the Christian church have a specific policy for situations like this?

It does, although a Protestant pastor might be pardoned for not knowing what that policy is. The church that found it necessary to develop a policy for dealing with inappropriate attractions to co-workers was the Catholic Church, with its long tradition of delegating jobs to nuns and priests who are expected to work together and treat each other as relatives while both are celibate. Historically there have been a lot of inappropriate attractions between nuns and priests. And the church has a contractual obligation to both of them; if they do the right thing and confess the attraction as a sin, neither of them can be fired. What they can be is transferred to different positions so that they don’t see much of each other any more.

Since these people in Iowa are Protestants, they may have more spiritual truth, but they don’t have the massive corporate structure of the Catholic Church to rely on. Since the boss is self-employed, they don’t even have the structure of a private corporation.

And I do empathize with the wife. As a relatively young widow I’ve talked to a lot of men who weren’t even friends and working partners, who said things like “My wife is old and sick, and we don’t do things together any more.” Then if I ask more questions about the wife, “old and sick and we don’t do things together” turns out to mean “three weeks older than I am, and in better condition actually, but she didn’t feel like coming out to wherever it is that I met you.”

In the case of one co-worker, though, the wife really was over seventy, disabled, and not expected to live through the winter. And her younger husband didn't look like a father figure to me, either. If this hadn’t been one of the first few men I met as a widow, I might have been tempted to take the non-Christian position—“Stick her in a nursing home and have fun with me!” But I thought about him, unselfishly, and said, “Being widowed is bad enough without adding guilt to it. You have to do whatever you can do for her, resolve any problems you’ve had, tell her you love her every day...”

She did live through the winter. At last report she was still alive. And has she ever thanked me for not wrecking her home? Hah. Well...if  I, in my late forties, had become involved with some thirty-year-old kid, and if I had any suspicion that he was telling other bright young things about the “older woman” in his life, would I go out and thank some thirty-year-old chick for turning him down? Hah. I suspect I’d be saying, “Sensible child. Now go and find some other young man, preferably one from a different state, or better yet a different country, and stay away from my husband.” Just like the dentist's wife.

But...if an inappropriate attraction has been identified at the stage where only the man is even aware of it, Christian morality does not allow the woman to take all the punishment for it. The dentist’s wife may have feelings of wanting to slap the dental assistant’s face, but what she needs to do about the dental assistant is help her find a different job, preferably a better one.

That’s help, not dictate. The dentist’s wife, and the dentist, can’t just sit around blathering. “Since we’d like to stay in Iowa, Jennifer, why don’t you look for a job in New York, or would you prefer Seattle?” Maybe they can mention New York and Seattle in their private prayers at home, but when talking to the dental assistant they have to stick to actual, serious job offers.

Wife: “Jennifer, I know you do good work, but I’m getting paranoid about you working with my husband. Would you consider being my assistant?”

Dentist: “Jennifer, just for the sake of my wife’s peace of mind, I’ve recommended you to eighteen other business owners in the neighborhood, and Dr. Smith would like to talk to you about a position...”

If the inappropriate attraction had gone further and become a real embarrassment, I could see even fellow members of the church getting involved. I’ve seen that happen. In one small-town church I used to know, gossip started when some old hag thought two Sunday School teachers were shaking hands too enthusiastically, and because both were active senior citizens whose spouses looked and acted much “older,” the gossip really got out of hand. How to put out the flames of scandal before anyone was badly burned? Call in the next parish! “Please, can you offer either Brother Smith or Sister Jones, but not both, a more exciting opportunity to serve...” It turned out that Mrs. Jones actually lived closer to the church in the next parish, and she’s been making real contributions to that church for twenty years now.

That’s what a church is for. Kick the “irresistible” dental assistant away from the susceptible dentist, by all means, but make sure you kick her up stairs.