Saturday, December 13, 2014
Yesterday I wrote a blog post on Reflections about a friend who jumped into deep water to save another man’s life. He did so without thinking, based on trust, the heart of altruism.
In this blog post I am going to talk about the man my friend tried to save, the one who was drowning, who grabbed my friend and pulled him under.
For some of us, relating to others is fraught with danger. Maybe we were abused as children, or our caregivers’ love was conditional on their own satisfaction and we were used to make them feel good. Or maybe we were just born that way: afraid of losing ourselves. Whatever the reason, some of us grew up with the feeling of a hole where our hearts are, a void that remains difficult if not impossible for us to satisfy.
Where relationships represent an answer to existential isolation- promising connection, love and fulfillment-, for those of us with a sense of void in our hearts, relating to others only deepens the wound, and increases our sense of alienation, of feeling separate and alone.
Desperate for healing yet unable to heal in relationship, we may search for palliative remedies in the form of extraordinary states, extreme feelings and heightened levels of consciousness. But none of these permanently fills the void within us, and we end up in a constant, fruitless search for that elusive fix. Like Sisyphus, we are damned to constantly push a boulder up a steep incline only to return to the bottom every time we reach the top. We may turn to drugs, meditation or other means of transcending our misery. The word depression means to dip or press down, but ours is a particular kind of depression: a dark and bottomless pit, the converse of our infinitely steep climb.
Because we are so heart-weak, we use others for an emotional transfusion to fortify us. This makes us feel good. But when we get into a conflict and stop feeling good, we have a hard time owning any thoughts, feelings, stories, and especially any errors, that remind us of that gaping inner lack. We cannot compromise. Someone else will have to do that.
Basically, since our fix must be in terms of an increase in our personal power, giving that up is simply not an option.
Altruism is a form of the word alter meaning other, l’autre, as in “ l‘enfer, c’est les autres.” Altruism is the hallmark of those stable enough to put themselves aside and show up for someone else. This is relating. For those whose constant focus is themselves, others are hell, a drain on scarce resources. There can be no relating.
What is your focus, where is your center? Do you tend to be the donor or the receiver? And perhaps more importantly: do others agree with you?
Monday, December 1, 2014
Many people come to my office confused about whether or not to stay in a relationship. They report a sad, conflict-filled marriage with neither person feeling very fulfilled and say they want to leave, but cannot because they still “love” their partner.
Here is what I say to them.
There are three legs supporting any relationship: attachment, compassion and happiness. A relationship can stand on any of them alone or on all three, but only one of them can sustain a good relationship.
Attachment is the quality of being psychologically intertwined, sometimes to a very deep level, with another person. Being attached can elicit oceanic feelings of connection or completion. But it can also cause us to panic when the person we are attached to leaves, or fly into a rage when he or she pushes our buttons. Attachment can run deep, but it doesn’t always give us the warm fuzzies.
Compassion is the selfless love of a mother for her child, the kind of love embodied by Christian love or by what the Greeks called agape. It is quite simply the unconditional love that would make you stand in front of a train or gun to save someone else. It is a beautiful heart-wrenching love that tenderizes our hearts and makes us human.
Happiness is the quality of feeling fulfilled. In a happy relationship, you get along well on a daily basis. Not only do your values fit, your routines do. The relationship works because you are happy, and vice versa. And happiness would be the leg to stand on, if you have the choice. The other two, attachment and compassion, are intense but are not necessarily fulfilling, let alone predictors of relationship success.
When you are with someone that makes you happy, you stay because you like being with him or her, not because you feel like you have to look after him or because it is too hard for you to leave her.
So, instead of asking yourself if you love him, better to ask: Are you happy with him?