In this letter I’d like to continue exploring the definition of intimacy I’ve been sharing through the course of these letters – the idea of “knowing yourself” as fully as you can, and then sharing that “fully known self” unreservedly with another.
As I noted in my previous letter, the first step is knowing yourself. That’s a lifelong process, but fortunately, one doesn’t have to complete Step 1 before Step 2 can begin. Once you’ve made a commitment to know yourself, you can begin to share yourself.
First off, let’s be clear about what this does NOT mean. It does not mean giving yourself control over your “self” . . . your choices and preferences and decisions and actions. Instead it means offering that self to another person for support, caring, love and companionship.
A lot of folks miss this distinction. When your mom and I got married, one of the things we had at our wedding was a reading on Marc Chagall’s Painting, Three Candles. This work really captures the distinction I’m trying to draw here. The candle-lighting ceremony at many weddings involves a husband and wife taking their candles, lighting a new center candle that signifies their new life together, and then blowing out the old candles that signify their single lives prior to marriage.
To us, the Chagall painting symbolized something else: A third candle that represented our life as a family, burning concurrently with the old candles that symbolized our individual selves. A lot of married couples refer to one another as their “better half,” but your mom and I each wanted to bring our full selves into this marriage, while also sharing ourselves fully within it. To us, the notion that “two become one” does not mean the “two” disappear. Hence the three candles in Chagall’s painting.
Obviously the most profound place this delicate balancing act occurs is in a marriage, but it is also a part of every deep relationship you will ever have. Because when you enter into relationship you can approach it in different ways.
You can do so with the notion that you will jealously guard yourself from being molded or changed by it. That seems, to me, akin to the dissociation discussed in my previous letter.
Alternatively, you can unreservedly surrender your self to the other person because you feel that’s what you owe the relationship. That seems, to me, akin to fusion.
My hope for you is that you instead learn how to exist as a strong and free and independent and differentiated person while sharing that person unreservedly with others. That’s why knowing yourself comes first. Because if you don’t start there, you won’t know how to hold onto it while you share in relationship with others.
It’s important here to remember something that I said very early in these letters when I first mentioned empathy.
Empathy does not mean “agreement.” Empathy does not even mean “understanding.”
Too many people base their relationships on these things. I’ve done so too often myself. I’ve lost very important, very valuable people from my life simply because when it came right down to it our relationship had been built on mutual agreement and understanding, and as we grew and matured, and one or both of us shifted in our beliefs and worldviews, that foundation was gone and the relationship along with it.
Building your relationship there is easy . . . or at least easier . . . because it gives you lots of connections to the other person with the expenditure of a comparatively short amount of time and effort.
But it’s a trap, because even the most staid and conservative among us will change over time. And as those changes occur, connection points based on fixed things like a particular viewpoint or opinion will snap.
Instead, my hope for you is that you will share yourself based on what I noted from the beginning is the true picture of empathy: The simple kindness of “I hear you.”
Before agreement, before understanding, the simple act of hearing is what orients us toward another person in the first place. Sharing yourself at that deeper level . . . fostering connection there instead of on some sort of mutual agreement about how the world works, is infinitely harder, because we have to get past all the filters and barriers in us that don’t want to hear someone who pulls us out of our comfort zone. It’s harder because sometimes they won’t be pulled out of theirs, even when invited. It’s so hard that in many cases it’s impossible.
But please never stop inviting, even if nine out of ten times the invitation is rebuffed. Because those few, precious times when it isn’t will result in treasured friendships you’ll carry forever – friendships that don’t depend on a fixed belief or opinion, and will thus be flexible enough over time to grow as you do.
And please know this, as well: I will never stop sharing myself with you. Even when we disagree. Even when we don’t understand one another. Even when we can’t stand to be in the same room as each other. I will always, always be here to talk, share, and empathize with you. I hear you. I treasure you. I love you.