I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.
I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.
For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.
I told you the language was inadequate!
Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.
Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.
I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.
Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.
Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.
Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.
When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.
This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.
I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.
I recently read an article from The Minimalists about problems and solutions. The first time I skimmed through it, I thought, “Huh?” and saved it for more concentrated exploration later. It was one of those pieces of inside-out thinking that stuck in my head, like a small rock in one’s shoe, and I puzzled over it for a few days, until I went back and read it with more attention.
I laughed when I reread, because it’s a short and simple piece, but it suggests an unaccustomed way of thinking about problems, especially to someone as goal-oriented and problem-solving as I am.
The idea is solutions, the magic bullets everyone wants, take our attention away from problems and often compound them. The solution becomes more of a problem than the problem was in the first place.
This phenomenon is familiar enough to us that we made a saying about the cure being worse than the disease. I just never thought past the context of cures and disease before now.
When it comes to solving problems, especially in a consumer culture, toxic mimics are ubiquitous. We’re also in a hurry. We don’t like discomfort. We want a quick, palatable fix, and we want it now. This means we throw solutions at problems without taking the time to understand their full extent and complexity. We feel entitled to instant gratification, and that’s what advertisers promise us.
In the last few cold, dark days of 2020, as most of us look ahead and hope for better things in 2021, it’s a good time to pause and spend time with our problems.
Seriously! They’re with us anyway. We might as well give them some real attention. If we’ve tried and tried to solve a particular problem and gotten nowhere, or made it worse, maybe it’s time to go deeper into it, putting possible solutions aside for a while and just being with the problem. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about loving and living with the questions before living into the answers.
In a lovely demonstration of synchronicity, as I work on this post I’m also reading Holistic Management by Allan Savory. It’s essentially a book about restoring the environment, based on a lifetime of study, experience and success in reversing desertification and building healthy land, but it’s also a framework for decision-making and management of any context, from a household to a community to a business organization.
Defining and understanding as much of the problem as possible is key to managing anything holistically. The metaphor Savory uses is taking aspirin to relieve a headache brought on by someone hitting us in the head with a hammer. Taking an aspirin is quick and cheap, but the real problem is not the headache, it’s the fact that someone is hitting us in the head with a hammer! Taking aspirin does not address the real problem.
This is a simple metaphor, but it’s surprising how often we respond in just this way to the symptoms of problems rather than excavating the root causes and addressing those, which often involves time, patience, learning new information and creating entirely different ways of responding and utilizing resources.
Perhaps this year we could make a different kind of New Year’s Resolution list.
If we have financial problems, instead of trying to figure out how to make more money, we could investigate our relationship with money.
If we have weight problems, instead of trying a diet, we could explore our relationship with food.
If we don’t get enough exercise, instead of buying an expensive piece of home equipment (which I hear make great laundry racks and/or clothing storage), we could take a look at our ability to keep our word to ourselves and our willingness (or not) to self-care.
If we feel disorganized and overwhelmed with our stuff, instead of buying storage space, organizing systems, or looking for a bigger house, we could simplify our lives and shed some stuff.
If we’re lonely and searching for romance, instead of spending time and money on dating platforms, we could strengthen our relationship with ourselves, learn how to meet our own needs, and take a look at our expectations of relationships.
I’ve always thought of problem-solving as a strength, with the emphasis on solving problems. I’m only now realizing the power of simply experiencing problems, patiently and fully, even affectionately, before racing to a solution and applying it as quickly as possible. Could there be more power in the problem than in the solution, at least in the beginning of problem-solving? That possibility makes me smile.
So, here’s a question. What does a happy person look like? Out in the world, how do we pick out the happy ones from the sad ones? Do we look happy to other people?
This morning my partner and I sat in the sun at the breakfast table after we finished eating. We eat in front of a big window with a southern exposure. Outside the window is our bird feeder station. I had a mug of hot tea between my palms. Our big brown tabby, Oz, was stretched out on the table in the sun within touching distance, should we care to pay homage to his gleaming coat and superior self. After a luxurious stretch, during which he lengthened by six inches, his paw was in close proximity to my water. It was a coincidence, entirely innocent. Ozzy would never dream of knocking over a drink. He was merely sunbathing.
I was warm and had a stomach full of good food. I felt peaceful and content. Happy. I sat with my eyes closed and my hand on my water glass, soaking up the sun and the silent, relaxed presence of my two companions.
In those moments I was consciously happy. I was not laughing, talking, taking a selfie, dressed up, made up, or sitting in an elegant, expensive home. One of the panes of glass in that window is broken from snow sliding off the roof. The table we eat at used to be a workshop table and is stained, scarred, and pitted.
One of my best friends, who is also a reader of this blog, remarked a couple of days ago that happy doesn’t look the same on everyone.
I’ve written about pseudo self before, our propensity to build a careful façade to display to the world. Everything about advertising and many aspects of social media set us up to believe toxic mimics for happiness are the real thing.
Even I, who don’t watch TV and am not on social media, couldn’t have defined happiness before I started reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and writing this series. I knew what happiness was supposed to look like, though. It’s bright and colorful. Attractive, animated, healthy-looking, well-groomed people smile and laugh. Every relationship is obviously loving, tender, exciting. Animals and children are adorable. Food, diamonds, cars, and clothing are gorgeous and enticing.
Except the “happiness” displayed on our screens is like the romance displayed on our screens. It’s not real. It’s a seductive, carefully created fantasy, unattainable and unrealistic. It’s for-profit entertainment and manipulation. It’s a laugh track.
The ingredients of happiness are not on a screen. Or in a mirror. Or in a closet, basement, attic, garage, store, or storage unit.
We experience different intensities of feelings, and we differ in our ability and willingness to express those feelings. Someone who feels ecstatic happiness may indeed demonstrate ecstasy, but not necessarily. Some feel deeply and intensely, but do not communicate their experience to onlookers. A person who communicates rapture may not be any happier than one who expresses harmony and relaxation.
On the other hand, and social media teaches us this, some people work very hard on a happy façade but are in truth deeply unhappy.
My own experience of happiness is frequently subtle. Peace and contentment are dove grey, not neon orange.
Are we losing our ability to see and value the subtleties in life, the understated, the quiet, the neutral colors, the silence and spaces between action, stimulation, events and possessions?
Have we forgotten happiness can be found in a few humble, unextraordinary, unrecorded minutes in the sun at a scarred table with loved ones after breakfast?
If we asked the people in our lives about their perception of happiness — their own and ours — what would they say? Is there a gap between our own experience of happiness and the way others perceive us? If so, why? Is the confusion in our expression or their perception? When we long for those we love to be happy, what do we mean?
Happiness is not one size fits all. It doesn’t look the same, sound the same or feel the same for everyone. Before we decide we ourselves or others are unhappy, it’s useful to remember that. Perhaps we’re happier than we realize, even though our lives don’t look like a movie or a popular and carefully created Facebook or Instagram account.
Here in Maine we occasionally have long days of rain mixed with snow, especially this time of year. The sky is dark and sodden, pressing all the light out of the day. It’s foggy, icy, cold and wet. I have a pair of rubber-ducky yellow boots I wear on such days. They’re ridiculously bright and cheerful. I wore them into work recently, and one of my coworkers remarked on them. I told him I love them because they make me smile.
He said they made him smile, too. And he did.
My yellow boots give me happiness, and I even get to share it.
When I started exploring happiness last week I had no idea how uncomfortable and interesting it was going to be. I told my partner I wish I had never opened this can of worms. He shook his head and said I couldn’t unsee it now. He was right, so here we are, with Halloween, the election, daylight savings and a dark, uncertain winter ahead, and I’m thinking about happy. You gotta appreciate my timing!
After my last post, I became conscious of some of my attitudes about happiness. One is I view it through the lens of scarcity, a common pattern of mine. I act as though happiness is finite; if I take some, someone else goes short. Furthermore, and I wince as I write this, I don’t think I deserve to be happy.
I’ve written about deserving and not deserving before. The concept of being undeserving has been with me since childhood, and it’s powerfully shaped my attitudes about money, love, and other pleasant things such as happiness. I’m not pleased to find myself wrestling with it again.
These underground thoughts, that happiness is finite and I don’t deserve it, are at least two reasons why I don’t seek it or think about it much. In fact, it’s hard for me to see its relevance at all, and I’m irritated when asked to define my life in terms of happiness. I’m useful. I’m creative. I’m productive. I’m kind. Isn’t that enough? What does happy have to do with anything? Life is not a fairy tale or a romance. Happily ever after is a fantasy.
As I delve more deeply into Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., I’m fascinated to learn the science of positive psychology reveals our level of happiness, as well as depression, anger, etc., has a significant genetic component. That doesn’t mean our genetics lock us into our emotional experience, but heredity does steer us to some degree.
I also learn data indicates positive emotions can have important functions in our lives, just as negative ones do. Anger, we know, is a signal our boundaries have been violated, an important piece of information for survival. Happiness and other positive emotions broaden intellectual, physical, and social resources. We are better creators, better at connection, more productive, more tolerant, more playful, and more open to new ideas when we’re in a state of peace and contentment.
Happiness, then, is power, but not power-over, as my mental model of a finite quantity suggests. Happiness is the power-with kind of power, a win-win for self and others, because it increases growth and positive development, not only for ourselves but for those around us.
So, if I’m useful now, could I be more useful? More creative? More productive? More kind? Can we actually learn to increase our happiness? Is choosing happiness a credit in the world balance rather than a debit?
Am I willing to change my frame of happiness from self-indulgence to altruism?
On an impulse, I Googled “intimacy” this week. My partner and I frequently talk about connection, and I think a great deal about relationships, past and present, trying to understand the psychological dynamics of being human.
I expected a simple definition. I found a lot more than that.
The older I get, the more disgusted I am with public education. Why don’t we teach emotional intelligence to kids? Why do we fail to provide an adequate education in biology, sexuality, complexity and holistic management? Why don’t we model and teach critical thinking skills and how to research properly? And why, oh why, are we not taught about connection, love and intimacy before we become adults? Aaargh.
Intimacy turned out to be a rabbit hole, and I started taking notes and bookmarking sites. I read an article about eight kinds of intimacy. Count ‘em. Eight! Before I even read the piece, I knew I was in new territory. The simple definition of intimacy is closeness, but I never thought of closeness as having so many different facets. Well, of course it does, we all know that, but I didn’t know there was any kind of a theoretical model which broke intimacy down.
So I clicked, and read, and made notes. I’m not going to rehash the article. You can read it for yourself. However, here are the categories of intimacy in this particular model:
It wasn’t clear to me whether these were listed in any particular order of importance. The article was written by a woman. That’s important, because males and females are very different in their language, styles, agendas and motivations.
The piece doesn’t propose whether all these forms of intimacy are equal, which I appreciate, because I suspect we each want and need an individual balance of these eight pieces, and we’d probably list them in different orders of importance.
The first thing that really strikes me is the discernment between physical and sexual intimacy. The blurring and confusion around the boundaries between the two reflect what I see as our cultural brokenness around sex and sexual expression. Rape culture is inherently distorted and unhealthy for men and women. I’ve written about touch before. Where are the lines between sexual and physical intimacy? Are there solid lines, or are they more fluid, depending on context and the people involved? How do things like trust and consent factor in? It seems terribly complicated and fraught with potential for misunderstanding, manipulation and abuse. When I read or hear the word “intimacy,” I think about sex, but this model demonstrates many other facets of close connection, including nonsexual physical touch.
As I’ve looked over this list for the last couple of days, it seems clear to me that our ability to participate in healthy intimacy is only as robust as our ability to be intimate with ourselves. Without the foundation of a loving, connected and authentic relationship with ourselves, nothing else works. If we don’t explore, accept and validate our own physical, emotional, spiritual, creative and sexual needs, we’ll never be able to share these intimate facets with anyone else.
Conflict intimacy really caught my eye. Huh? What does that even mean?
It means the ongoing experience of successfully managing tension, disagreement and conflict. It’s closely tied to experiential intimacy (the history of experience we build in relationships) and emotional intimacy (which requires trust and authenticity). I’m charmed by this one. I never would have come up with it on my own, and I wouldn’t have recognized it until the last few years with my partner, who is the first person I’ve ever been intimate with who behaves like an adult.
All my life I’ve wondered why simply getting along seems so impossible. I’m willing to listen, negotiate, try to understand, be tolerant and be authentic. Why can’t two people who are connected and have some degree of mutual history and commitment simply talk things through?
They can. If both are responsible adults who are prepared to be honest and vulnerable. It’s not hard at all. It’s interesting, stressful and brings up a lot of uncomfortable feelings to manage conflict, but it’s also a marvelous way to deepen understanding and, well, intimacy! Working out conflicts is every bit as useful and connecting as I always thought it could be. It also gives relationships stability and deep roots. I have absolute faith that my partner and I can manage any conflict or disagreement, whatever happens.
Experiential intimacy is complicated. My partner and I run into this all the time. A good example is stacking wood, which we’ve recently been doing as next season’s firewood is delivered. For him, stacking wood is a task based on a lifetime of skill and experience. He has a system in the barn where we store wood. He sorts it according to age, he stacks it just so, and the whole thing is carefully planned and managed.
Me? Stacking wood is an opportunity for connection, for us to do something that helps sustain our life together. The task is nothing but an excuse for good exercise and together time. I’m happy to take orders and let him have total control. (Stop laughing! In this case, I am!)
So we have wood dumped in the driveway, and I’m all excited because we’re going to spend several hours together stacking it. After breakfast, he goes into his office to do his morning thing and I go upstairs into my aerie to do mine. I get immersed in writing, or a book, or a rabbit hole like intimacy, and lose all track of time. At some point, usually because I have to pee or want another cup of tea (could these be related?), I come back to consciousness and discover the music is on, the barn door is open, and he’s happily stacking wood without me! I drop what I’m doing, grab my gloves and go out to join him, usually just at the point he’s ready to take a break.
This has happened many times, and every time I’m pissed off and feel rejected. Every time, we talk about it, and he’s sorry. “I forgot to call you,” he says.
He forgets because to him it’s a task to be done competently. I’m hurt because to me it’s a chance to do something together, and that’s always my priority. The competency and skill involved mean nothing to me. I want the connection.
Same activity, but entirely different ways of experiencing it.
It works the other way, too. He likes to share certain movies and TV series with me. For him, that’s important connection time — experiential intimacy. It can be for me, too, but sitting through yet another Star Trek or Star Wars or superheroes spectacle is at best boring and at worst overstimulating. It’s something I do out of love, but I’d rather stack wood together.
Another aspect of intimacy highlighting the confusion between men and women is creative intimacy. At first glance, I assumed this meant sharing our creative selves in our relationships, but that’s not quite how it’s defined. Creative intimacy is showing our affection for one another creatively. At this point I checked to see the sex of the writer of this piece and found it was a woman, which I would have predicted. In my experience, things like surprises, unexpected cards and gifts and other small (or large) playful tokens of appreciation and affection are much, much more important to women than men. A special card means a great deal to me, but my partner hardly notices such a demonstration. I know this because I sent him one — once! I got tremendous fun and pleasure out of it, but he was unimpressed. Watching the latest Star Wars with him would have meant more. Sigh.
I once spent a couple of weeks planning a birthday surprise for an intimate partner. Few things have given me as much pleasure. I went to his workplace and taped a card to his steering wheel before filling the cab of his truck with balloons. I couldn’t wait for his reaction.
He was furious. He said I had humiliated him. I was beyond crushed. I never again tried to do anything like that for him or anyone else. It left a deep scar.
Intimacy is one of those tricky aspects of relationship that’s probably equally longed for and terrifying. We fear losing ourselves, being vulnerable, being authentic. We long for connection that feels safe and real, for people in our lives we can trust and rely upon. We’re terrified of spending our lives alone, yet we resent having our freedom limited. Old traumas or health issues damage our ability to participate in physical or sexual intimacy. We have no emotional intelligence. We have no spiritual life. We avoid conflict at all costs.
We’re lonely. We’re lonely. We’re lonely.
Intimacy is one of our primary needs, but it’s messy and complicated, and now I wonder if it means different things to different people. We use the word, but there’s no consistency about what, exactly, we’re talking about. Is a relationship “real” if one or more of these elements is missing? How many of these aspects must be present to keep different kinds of relationships viable, and in what combination and balance?
I experience committed relationship as one long negotiation and contest of generosity. It’s hard work. The rewards are great, and such a connection requires ongoing, consistent investment; investment in ourselves. What do we need? What do we want? What can we say about what doesn’t work for us in relationship? What are our deal breakers? How do we manage conflict and uncomfortable feelings like anger and fear? What are our priorities? What are our expectations of ourselves and the other? How do we maintain healthy interdependence? What is our strategy for obtaining resource, help and support outside the relationship? How do we repair trust, manage the peace treaty of tolerance, practice forgiveness and manage power?
What does intimacy mean to us? How are we prepared to create and participate in it? What kinds of intimacy are we unable to offer? How close is too close? How distant is too distant? How will we handle the ways all these elements of intimacy might change over time? (They will.) How does intimacy show up in all our relationships — friends, family, romantic partners and community?
When I was 20, life was so simple. Intimacy was sex, and sex was mostly enjoyable. I didn’t find out until it was too late that sex is perhaps the most one-dimensional aspect of intimacy, and certainly not the longest lasting. When I was married at 21, I could feel some mild concern and eye-rolling from my family. I heard quite a bit of the “marry in haste, repent at leisure” thing. But no one stepped forward to give me resource and education about human connection. No one talked to me about the intricacies of a longstanding, committed relationship. No one had any emotional intelligence or a clue about its importance. No one talked to me about romance or expectations or intimacy. How could they? None of them knew about any of those things. No one had taught them.
Well, better late than never. I’ve learned a lot since I was 20.