First, a theological comment about the word zimzum.
Quite a few people have dinged the term zimzum. Given that the term originated from a Kabbalah teaching of Isaac Luria (Luria was a founding rabbi of the Kabbalah tradition. He died in 1572.), many have taken Bell's use of the term zimzum to be a swerve toward pop-mysticism and pop-spirituality.
Perhaps. But zimzum is a theological idea with some heft. Zimzum is the notion that in creating the world God withdrew or contracted to "make room" for Creation. Many systematic theologians have used this idea in their own scholarly work, Jürgen Moltmann for example.
And I know many theologians who appeal to zimzum when speaking about the hospitality of God, God making room for us. Zimzum is a great term to discuss God's hospitality and how God's hospitality calls upon us to continue "making room" for others. I have appealed to the idea of zimzum many times on this blog to makes these and related points.
The point being, zimzum is a word with a sophisticated theological pedigree which does some significant and important theological work.
The Bells' innovation is to use use the idea of zimzum to describe the dynamics of human love. Specifically, like God we contract ourselves to "make room" for our beloved. In love we zimzum for our beloved. And when our beloved zimzums and makes room for us what is created is a shared and overlapping space where the drama and dynamics of love unfold.
Personally, I think this is a great example of how to deploy a theological idea to innovative and practical effect.
This brings me to my second, more practical, observation about the book.
Having deployed the notion of mutual zimzum, which creates a shared space between the lovers, the Bells argue that love is attending to, responding to and caring for this space. The Bells don't give a lot of specific "how-to" marital tips. What they do is describe the various dynamics that can emerge within the shared zimzumed space between lovers and what we can do to respond to or change that dynamic. Obviously, since this is a marriage "self-help" book, a lot of attention is given to how the shared space between the lovers becomes conflicted or tempestuous or cold.
So how should we respond when the space between us becomes troubled?
If I can be so bold to summarize what I take to be the Bells' overarching recommendation, their advice is this: take the initiative to move into the space and mend it.
Basically, as the Bells describe it (and I agree) the shared space creates feedback loops. If one partner grows cold the other partner responds with coldness which exacerbates the coldness of the other. And so on. Anyone who has ever been married has experienced this feedback loop. This toxic cycle--each partner negatively feeding off the other--sits behind most of our quarrels and conflicts. And if the feedback loop intensifies it can begin to cause severe and lasting relational damage, making it that much more difficult to find your way back to each other.
So the key, according to the Bells, is promptly attending to these negative feedback loops when they emerge to get the dynamic stopped and turned back around again.
Easy enough, but here's the hard part. The only way to stop the negative feedback loop is to preemptively and vulnerably enter the troubled space with an offering of love, confession or peace. Instead of contributing more coldness, distance or snarkiness you have to stop and reverse the flow with an offering of warmth. The Bells describe these preemptive offerings as "sacrifices." You make sacrifices for each other to nurture and care for the shared space.
Let me give you an example of all this.
How to attend to the shared space when it grows troubled? Make the sacrifice in being the first to apologize. From the book:
[In dealing with conflict] you can also get really good at apologizing...Apologizing always helps. Always. You can't go wrong with apologizing. Apologizing has a mysterious way of humbling you and opening the other person up.I couldn't agree more. If you asked me to share what I think the secret to marriage is there is a good chance I'd say apologizing. Apologizing is the secret of marriage.
Which is really just another way of saying that peacemaking is the secret of marriage.
Love is the art of mending.
A few months ago Brenden and Jana, my oldest son and my wife, had some conflict. No one was being mean or anything, but misunderstandings and expectations led to some tension. Sadly, life is like that. Everyone can be trying to do the right thing and still we end up hurting each other. We always end up hurting each other.
Brenden and Jana had a long talk and they patched things up. The shared space between mother and son had been tended to and cared for and the positive flow in the zimzum between them was restored.
Driving to church the day after their conversation I said to Brenden, "You know son, we can't avoid making mistakes. We can't avoid hurting each other. Even when we are trying to do the right thing we end up hurting each other. For the rest of your life you're going to find out about how you did this, that or the other thing and how, even though your intentions were the best, you ended up hurting someone's feelings. Hurting people is inevitable. Of course, that's no excuse for hurting people. But it's inevitable.
"But what you can do is this. Mending. You can always mend. You can always apologize. You can always try to fix things. To knit and stitch what has been ripped back together. Mending is the secret of life."
I think the Bells would agree.