Romance, Love and Intimacy

I wonder…if you took a survey of love poems, how would the demographics of the authors shake out? I’m going to guess young males. Consumers of love poems? I’m going to guess young men and women. Consumers of fairy tales? Probably mostly young ladies. Consumers of porn? Definitely young gentlemen. What do love poetry, fairy tales and pornography all have in common? They are all fantasies and they all require a suspension of reality to not laugh at their ridiculousness, yet they all inform our vision of what “romance” is.

Generalizing terribly, it seems to me that women who think of romance probably want their “prince charming” to ride into their lives on his horse and “sweep them off their feet” (maybe I shouldn’t use Pretty Woman as my source for what women want?). For men, it’s probably easier to generalize – they want to be sexually desired. When a new romance starts, rose-colored glasses come on and we see what we want to see and ignore what we don’t want to see. Our new romantic interest is “perfect.” Of course, this only lasts so long before the bridge supports crack and reality comes crashing back. Frogs do not become princes; it usually works the other way around.

In this way, romance is superficial. Hollywood spoon-feeds us this view of romantic relationships because that’s what we demand, and that’s actually the point of entertainment – to temporarily distract us from real life and to sweep us away into a fantasy. But entertainment is not art, and while true art (including movies) can also be used to show us beauty, to teach and inform our values, entertainment is wholly another thing. Unfortunately, many people are starved for true art and beauty and instead embrace the poor simulacrum churned out by Hollywood, with the result being that people begin to feel “that they are shallower than they need to be.” David Brooks, Social Animal, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011.

Real life has more to do with love and intimacy than romance. Think “Family Man” rather than “Sleepless in Seattle”. Movies and romance are both brief spells and we must always leave them to return to real life. Real life is not entertaining, so it is not the subject of media entertainment.

Real life requires boring work to earn money to buy necessities to ensure our daily survival. Daily survival is great, but it is not romantic. And thus it ever was, is and ever will be with relationships also.

While we may all think that we want the superficial excitement that romance brings with it 100% of the time, it’s just not realistic, and I don’t think we actually want never-ending superficial romance. I think what we want for the long term is deeper than that, but we won’t find it until we start looking for it.

Love and intimacy require time…lots of time…and pain…lots of pain. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote the following over twenty years after her child was abducted, “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” Gift of the Sea.

Part of the excitement that romance brings is the unknown, but that excitement must inevitably wane as the unknown becomes known. Excitement in the face of the unknown can be replaced by “understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable” in the face of being known. Knowing someone includes knowing the good and the bad. It may sometimes feel like the comforting puffery of rose-colored glasses is replaced by the brutal examination of the magnifying glass. Flaws and weaknesses are exposed, but it is only in such exposure that love and intimacy can sprout.

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Illusions

Magic and illusions. Illusions and magic. It all falls into place now.

When we are young, we believe that our parents, or even all adults, have all the answers. Hell, we even believe there are “right” answers – to every question. How do they know everything? Why, to our little minds, it’s like magic. When this illusion fails, it may sometimes be traumatic, but it is also freeing, because it gives you a voice in the cacophony of voices that previously disregarded yours.

When we grow a little older, our illusions change and mostly appear to focus on that old siren – young love. There really is something magical about this illusion. You’re too young to know anything, so the idea that you could know anything about yourself, let alone another person, is ridiculous. But that’s what makes young love so magical – It. Is. Whatever. You. Imagine. It. To. Be. You don’t love that person. You love whatever perfect illusion you’ve created and stapled to a real person’s face. Ultimately, when the illusion shatters, either by their rejection of your stapling or by your finally seeing the dissonance between the image and the reality, the breaking of the spell is typically a harsh lesson. (As an aside, some people never seem to get the memo.)

As you get even older, you think you’re getting wiser. Parents and lovers take more realistic places in your life. You become more balanced, with the perspective that comes with experience able to mellow out the drama from your youth. Yet, illusions continue. Friends, acquaintances, bosses, colleagues, kids, even culture* continue to foist their preferred images of us onto us. And, in return, we project our desired illusions onto them. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are not merely players, they are also directors, producers, cinematographers and, most importantly, special effects artists. You and your circle, walking hand in hand to whatever mirage has been jointly, subconsciously agreed to.

Did you ever stop to think how fucked up that is? The height of evolution (or God’s creation, whatever your priors) is self-awareness, and the immediate reaction of the self-aware? COVER THAT SHIT UP!! All the sturm-und-drang to get here, and we can’t get away from it fast enough. Instead of taking in the world as it is, the self-aware largely change the world to be what they want it to be by simply perceiving it the way they want it to be. It’s magic.

But you know what? There is no magic. That has been the most soul-wrenching lesson of my life. Imagine having something magical ripped from you and held in front of you, stripped of all properties that made it extraordinary – your parents, suddenly just ordinary people doing their best to keep it together amidst the stress of their own lives, completely unable to understand how their weaknesses will transmit to their children; your perfect lover, suddenly just an ordinary person that can’t hold a candle to the picture of romance or coolness or whatever-ness that you had stapled to her face; your career, suddenly full of ordinary tasks coordinated with ordinary colleagues; your friends, suddenly living an ordinary life not unlike your own notwithstanding starting something they are passionate about in an exotic location; your kids, suddenly just ordinary people, devoid of any of the cuteness of their early years that bonded you to them as if they were the most important, most interesting people in the world. A world suddenly without magic is a terrifying place.

Stripped bare, magic is just an illusion, a self-imposed mis-direction of your self-awareness. But I think I’m ready to forego the illusions.

*At a cultural scale, it’s a wonderful magic trick – controlling millions of people with nothing but an illusion. Depending on your alignment, this realization can be comforting or nauseating.

I Have Achieved Greatness, or the Importance of Doing Nothing

Don’t laugh, but I recently had a near-death experience. No, I’m serious. I woke up or shall I say that I regained consciousness from a place I had never been before.  It was like waking from sleep except that it felt like starting completely over.  Consciousness, I mean. The consciousness that awoke was not a consciousness that picked up linearly from where the prior consciousness had left off like when you awake from a night’s sleep. No, this was awakening from complete darkness, non-existence. Sure, I had my memories from a few days before, so this wasn’t amnesia, but it was more like the man in the machine left his shift and a new controller had taken over when production had resumed. This new operator had access to all of the machine’s memories and other faculties, but not to the meta-faculties of the prior operator.

The whole experience left me thinking of our place in the universe. How fragile not only we are, but even how fragile “we” are. All it takes is a little bump on the noggin and it is entirely possible that “we” can no longer be “us”.  How is that possible?

I grew up believing somewhere in my heart of hearts that I was or would be special.  That one day the world would see this incredible being or that I would accomplish something truly magical.  In other words, that I would become a statistical anomaly, which is a defining characteristic of those that become “great”. This belief was only reinforced when I became religious.  If you don’t look too closely, you might even be forgiven for believing that God created EVERYTHING for you. Like, you are the very center of creation.  Of course, not you, specifically, that would be incredibly arrogant of you to think that, but that honor is maybe reserved for a former or current leader of your particular brand of religion. Nonetheless, it is one or more humans who are the very culmination of the existence of everything else.  This notwithstanding the fact that the human race makes up a very small percentage of the biomass on earth, let alone its percentage measured against the mass of the earth, the solar system, galaxy, cluster or universe. Don’t worry, the magical thinking goes, it’s all about you.

But the biggest fucking trip of the whole thing is that we can’t even be bothered with the here and now of this fantastical universe-centered existence. We’re off preparing or becoming. For another day. It’s always for some other time. Religiously speaking, this life isn’t even special – the special part comes next, after. This life isn’t even about this life, it’s a time to prepare for the next life, whether with a god or just the next step in a cycle. Well guess what? Tomorrow never comes. From a career perspective, spend all your time studying to become a great Person-Who-Does-X-For-A-Job and what’s left at the end? It’s just a guy who does X. Why all the sturm und drang over the label, over the destination? It’s not fucking about the end, and it never was and never will be. It’s not about the prize at the end. It’s not about eternity. Eternity never comes. It’s about being, not becoming, dummy.

And here is how I know: recently, I became what I always knew I’d become: “great”, a statistical anomaly. I experienced and survived an injury that not many people experience, statistically speaking, and from which not many people survive. I AM SPECIAL! I HAVE ARRIVED! But, to where? The fact of my arrival has not changed anything. I am still here, experiencing my plain-vanilla life, as a plain-vanilla guy, no magic powers.

Put aside all the religious and ontological shit. Fact is, “you” however you want to define it, is here and now, reading this garbage. When you’re done with this, you will have time today to do more stuff. Who cares why or how this is so?  The only relevant question, given the fact of this vacuum of possibility, is what are you going to do to fill it? Questions of ultimate meaning, importance, purpose are interesting, but ultimately unanswerable and irrelevant. The fact is, you have awakened to this consciousness, to a game, the rules of which have been written long before your operator came online. You will do something. The only question is what? You can supply the why, and if not, there’s a long line of people willing to provide you a why, likely for a price.

In any event, my convalescing has brought me a great insight into the importance of a particular response to the question of what to do with our time: nothing. Stop planning, preparing – you’re already there; stop being opinionated – nobody gives a shit about your opinions anyway. Stop, look and listen. You are infinitely small – less than a speck of dust on a speck of dust measured against the vastness of visible existence in the universe. Our primeval ancestors had it right – gather with your friends and family and lounge around enjoying their company with nothing to do. Revel in the boredom. This is what we were born to do. This is greatness.

Discovery

It’s amazing how people compromise,
Not just about what to eat or what to watch or what to do,
But about themselves.

They do what other people want them to do,
What other people think they should do,
What other people manipulate them to do,
Worried about what other people will think,
Whether that be
Assholes
Advertisers
Authorities or
Acquaintances.

Learning your authentic self
Seems like it should be some easy thing.

But it’s not.
When you do find your authentic self,
You’ll notice that it speaks
Continuously,
Quietly.
Some religions call this a still, small voice.
Some the Holy Spirit.
Some a conscience.
Some a chi.
Whatever it is, when you listen to it,
It frees you.
It is the ultimate truth that will set you free
From the walls of your own prison
Made for you by you.
It frees you from attachments that never should have been made.
It frees you to love, genuinely and unconditionally, for the first time.

I used to think that love was the great healer.
That if only other people would love me unconditionally
I would be healed.
Some people do love me unconditionally
In their own ways.
And as it turns out,
It’s not enough.
It’s never enough.
I thought it their duty to love,
To accept,
To embrace.
And I came to expect it,
To need it,
To demand it.
But it wasn’t enough.
It just made me greedier for it.
More, always more,
And better, do it better.
My own version of a needy, greedy childish asshole.

I thought it would fill the hole left by my mother
Who loved me unconditionally, surely,
But whose love wasn’t enough to save me from my father.
He wasn’t terrible
But, oh, he was damaging.
Like an ignorant giant fool
Stumbling and stomping his way through a village
Crushing tiny souls and tiny dreams.
How those dreams oozed
And squished,
Splattered into oblivion.
“What? That bothers you? Don’t be such a pussy.”

But you can only chase love for so long
Before you begin to realize that it retreats
From your relentless advance.
It is a thing to be given and not taken after all.
Continuing to chase becomes
Tiring
Disheartening
Desperate
Irrational
Smothering.
I become my own ignorant bumbling fool
Crushing the souls of those
Pouring themselves into the black hole of my soul –
The taskmaster overseeing a Sisyphean demand.

Even catching unconditional love won’t heal you.
Won’t revive those broken souls and those broken dreams.
Even though it is a mother’s duty to unconditionally love her son
It is not sufficient
For happiness
For healing
For being whole.

That comes from within.
From a laughing joyous acceptance of yourself
Even when you want to hide from yourself with shame by
Eating too much
Drinking too much
Drugging too much
Working too much
Fucking too much
Gaming too much
Watching too much
Escaping too much.
Shunning the escape
Abandoning the chase
Permits those scary moments
When you meet your authentic self,
When you chat about
What it is that you really want and need
And the responsibility for your happiness
Shifts from all those others
To you.
To a very lonely, fearful you.
Embracing your authentic self
Frees you from others’ demands
And frees you from being demanding of others.
It brings you peace and love
Internally, where it is needed most
And permits you to radiate peace and love.

Your authentic self is beautiful
And worthy.
You don’t need another’s validation of these facts
By their love and acceptance of you.
It wouldn’t be enough.
It’s never enough.
Until the love and acceptance comes from you.

On dealing with assholes

One day a long time ago after reading a talk I had given that was dripping with hopeful optimism, my father remarked to me something along the lines of “You’re still young and growing.  It sounds like you’re still trying to find your way.  You’ll eventually realize that life will make you colder and harder.”  He was right.  Sort of.

Sometimes in our sanitized, modern Western life, we lose connection with just how dangerous and uncertain life is.  Infant mortality rates are an easy proxy to use for perspective.  Historical estimates are 200 deaths per 1000 in a good year and over 500 deaths per 1000 in years of severe drought, famine, disease or war.  By comparison, in 2006 in the U.S., the infant mortality rate was 6.7 per 1000 (right in between Slovakia and Chile).

While our harsh environment has been somewhat tamed and we have, as a result, become more “civilized” (but compare what happens when the power goes out for an extended period, and we are perhaps not so civilized after all…), we still struggle for our existence. We fight for survival or promotion in our workplaces; we fight for the best terms in our agreements; we fight for mates; we sometimes even fight for toys for our kids for Christmas, even trampling others to death to do so.  This modern manner of survival can seem just as cold and hard emotionally as a subsistence existence can be physically.

But it does not automatically follow that it makes each person cold and hard in turn.  Depending on the coldness and hardness of one’s circumstances and one’s predilections, one certainly could become colder and harder in general.  But another way to respond is to remain warm and open in general, while growing in that wisdom that permits us to navigate rocky shoals without getting bashed against the rocks. Coldness and hardness can be situationally appropriate without condemning one’s soul to a boorish existence.

I find my greatest happiness in relationships – with my wife, my children and my closest friends. These relationships all require my genuine warmth and openness and would be impossible if I were to allow myself to grow colder and harder.  At the same time, I have spent enough time in the rough and tumble world of big cities, big money and big egos that I can detect an asshole by the faintest whiff.  Sometimes you have to deal with assholes, so you do.

You first try reason, and dealing with a reasonable asshole can be bearable if not downright pleasant.  Most assholes at least have the vision to understand that not every situation calls for the same tactic, so if they see that a party cannot be bullied and insists on reasonableness as the standard, they will meet you there. Some will push the boundaries at every turn, while others have the brains to size you up and adjust accordingly to avoid wasting energy on someone who cannot be bullied.  Do not be mistaken – they will take every inch you give, and they will push for the next inch. This is particularly important if your asshole is a repeat customer. Your first interaction will likely determine the pattern for the rest of them, and a poor first performance will consign you to misery for the rest of that relationship.

Sometimes, however, the successful assholes think their asshole-ness is the sole cause of their success, so reason will not work – they just make demands as of a right and are belligerent until they get their way or get as much as they can.  At that point, you just have to strap yourself in for a shitty ride, grit the process out and wait for the day that the asshole exits your life stage left. Sometimes you’ll win; sometimes you’ll lose, but in either case, your life will NOT be the better for it. Such is the price of dealing with unreasonable assholes.

Fortunately, unreasonable assholes are few and far between, and it pays great dividends to try to marginalize them as best you can. If your livelihood or success depends on an unreasonable asshole, my advice is to GET OUT.  Get out as fast as you can. It’s just not worth it; there is always another bus. Life is too short, and if you choose to hitch your cart to an unreasonable horse’s ass…well, you’ll get what’s coming to you – a cartload of horseshit.

And the scales fell

I can’t really say how it happened or even what exactly happened.  For the first time, I think, it was as if the scales fell.

I wanted to step back, to look at her, to look in her eyes.  I saw her, as if seeing her for the first time, yet it was vastly different from a virginal view.  My sight was enhanced – I saw her beauty, how she’d grown more beautiful since the first time I’d seen her body, notwithstanding the intervening years; I saw how she responded to me, knowing that I was responsible for the sensations she was experiencing and how she expressed them; and I saw her, all of her, all of the years, all of the growth, all of the laughs and tears, all of it, all at once.

I did not feel any self-consciousness – no desire to cover, to protect, to shield. There was no shame, no embarrassment. There was no agenda, no plan, no thought, no concern. There was nothing but me.  Although I had previously experienced wonderful connection, this time I was naked, totally naked, for the first time. 

Being there, naked, without filter, I was able to identify the change in the moment, but I was surprised when simultaneously she shielded her eyes from me and said, “I can’t look at you.  It’s too intimate.” She could tell. What I thought was just an internal release was externally observable.  It seems that scales are not one-way mirrors; in addition to preventing us from learning the truth about the external world, they also prevent the external world from learning the truth about us. 

The scales fell. Two souls, unclothed inside and out, merging.  Pure, beautiful and rare.  Cherished.

Puzzles

Pieces scattered
haphazardly
across life’s table.
Nothing fits.
Dullness.

Then you.
Pieces extricated from the pile.
Gently floated to their rightful place.
Pieces wrenched, spraying others wildly.
Picking up the pieces.
Together.

Then came you
A rock tumbler you.
Constant grinding.
Hard edges knocked.
Corners hewed.
Pieces gone missing.
Found
planted in the soil of your soul
sprouted.
I look to see you growing from my soul.
Two puzzles.
Interlocked.

Scales fall
Horizons expand
Soul swells
A puzzle,
extended.